Isle of Man TT Centenary

No circuit on the planet has claimed more lives than the Isle of Man TT, which this year celebrated Its 100th anniversary. A glorious-or vainglorious-anachronism in a safety-conscious age, how on Earth can it persist?

The Isle of Man TT circuit is 37.73 miles long-the longest and oldest in motorsport, and the most lethal. An ordinary public road lined with houses, trees and walls, it snakes its way through three towns, up a mountain and down again, with not a gravel trap to be seen. Falling off could be the last thing a competitor ever does.

"I loved it, absolutely loved it. Real nerve-wracking, yeah, but such an adrenaline rush-and what else do you ride bikes for? It was the big test. You needed a big mental commitment. And to be honest, I never had any moments when I thought I'd run out of road-just the sort of scares you get landing crossed-up off a jump at 160 mph. And that time the steering damper exploded..."

That's how former Grand Prix ace Rob McElnea summed up his experience of racing around the Mountain Course: the biggest test, the biggest buzz, but the one with the biggest risks.

This annual adrenaline binge claims on average around two lives per year. Between the TT held each June and the amateur Manx Grand Prix held each August, 226 racers have met their maker on the course. Few TT riders freely articulate the connection between danger and potential death, but it is there. Few riders, indeed, will permit themselves the luxury of even thinking of the myriad things that might go horribly wrong. Some of the time your body-or maybe your subconscious-is better informed. As the seconds tick down to the start your mouth is dry, your pulse races, your stomach is doing handsprings and the blood in your veins feels to fizz. Some riders are monosyllabic and unreachable; others seem to jabber faster than words will fit. Then the flag drops, and by the top of Bray Hill's awesome suburban plunge, the anxiety is forgotten, replaced by a rush that gives no time for introspection. As a racer, this is why you're here.

Perhaps it's miraculous, given the unforgiving nature of the Mountain Course, that more get-offs don't have tragic results. Almost everyone who's ridden it will have slid off at least once. Yet remarkably, the majority of riders survive their spills, often walking away with just a few bruises.

Mick Grant had more crashes than most TT riders, yet emerged from 17 years of Manx racing unscathed. During each TT he was as taciturn as the rest of them, but can admit now to being "always frightened daft going to the Island, and relieved to get away. But I actually enjoyed the experience. I first went because that's what you did, and anyway plenty of other GPs were on road circuits, too: Spa, Brno, Imatra."

If there's an apparent incongruity between enjoyment and being frightened daft, then Mick is no more illogical than the rest. Fifteen years ago, Steve Hislop and Carl Fogarty suggested the bikes had become too fast. Yet if you'd offered either another 50 horsepower, they'd have trampled you to get it. That's not hypocrisy; it's simply the cock-eyed mentality that makes a racer what he is.

From an outsider's viewpoint, the same mindset can often appear callous. Few top riders have not lost at least one close friend to racing, yet most pull down the emotional shutters and carry on, almost as if nothing had happened. Inside, they all feel it, but to do anything else would cripple them as racers.

Jim Redman, one of racing's true hard men, remembers the awful death toll of the '60s, during which he won a half-dozen TTs. "The statistic was six per year. Imagine now, going back five or 10 years, and ticking off 60 GP riders who are no longer around. It was no respecter of talent.

"The year 1962 was really bad. I was really knocked up when Tom Phillis was killed. We'd lived and dreamed together as part of the same Honda team. The guy who got me through it was Bob McIntyre. He said, 'If you're going to go, let it be quick like that, against the wall at Laurel Bank.' Then two months later he was dead, too, killed at Oulton Park. That was hard-really hard. That season, the 350cc championship seemed to be between Tom, Bob, Gary Hocking, Mike Hailwood and me. By the end of the year, the first three were dead and Takahashi had nearly died. What a way to win! You'd give the championship away to get the guys back if you could."

If racing and risk are synonymous, then it's self-evident that the risk should be reduced to the absolute minimum. And times change. Fatalities at the rate they occurred in the '60s would be wholly unacceptable today. That is one reason racing and-above all-race circuits have changed so much. Not just the world at large, but the riders themselves cried "enough." Until 30 years ago, as Mick Grant observed, the Mountain Circuit was not significantly more dangerous than any other. But today "pure" road circuits inevitably stand out.

Equally, in the days when the TT was also the British GP, the moral balance was different from today's. Factory riders then were obliged to take part in races on a circuit that was notoriously difficult to learn, and equally unforgiving of mistakes. Most of them, in an age in which few wielded personal power anything like today's riders, were ill-equipped to resist. Only riders of the status of Giacomo Agostini had sufficient clout to say, "No, this isn't for me" and keep their jobs. The rest, particularly in the '60s, were so much fodder to corporate ambition-and, in truth, glad of the chance. Redman frankly admits the TT scared the shit out of him: "I'd have loved to have ridden there just for myself, but as a factory rider, the pressure was immense." By today's standards that was indefensible.

As safety began to become a serious issue in the early '70s, what set the TT apart was its sheer length and remoteness, the difficulty of reaching injured riders (although a rescue helicopter had been introduced in '63), and the unpredictability of conditions around the course. This discontent reached a head in '70, when no fewer than six riders were killed during practice and racing, most notably Spaniard Santiago Herrero.

Two years later, on June 9, 1972, came the TT's watershed event when, in atrocious conditions, Morbidelli rider Gilberto Parlotti was killed at the Verandah on the second lap of the Ultra-Lightweight race. In '73 Agostini and others, including Phil Read and Rod Gould, contended that the TT had simply become too dangerous. A greater number quietly kept their counsel and simply stayed away. In what looks with hindsight uncannily like a cynical attempt at bribery, the prize for a Senior win, frozen at 200 (then the equivalent of $500) for four decades until the previous year, soared to 1000 ($2500). Twelve months later, the TT's overall budget was doubled. So, ironically, by staying away the Grand Prix Riders Association, formed in '69 to improve safety and wages, had had at least part of its desired effect.

After the '76 TT, when all the top 500cc riders declined to compete, the FIM stripped the British GP of its world championship status. Instead, the TT was awarded its own world series, the Formula championship, which proved popular with the factories. This, and a continued escalation in prize money, did much to preserve the status of the racing. And yet, as the Formula series prospered and widened to include races elsewhere, the old moral dilemma re-emerged: Was it right to pressure riders to take part?

It's hard to think of a single rider killed after being enticed against his better judgment; their attendance was purely voluntary. The '78 races, largely remembered for Hailwood's glorious comeback aboard the Ducati 900, was particularly bleak. Mac Hobson and passenger Kenny Birch were killed when they lost control of their sidecar outfit over a raised manhole on Bray Hill, just yards from where Ernst Trachsel died later in the same event. Within a few days the career of Suzuki works star Pat Hennen, the first American to win a 500cc GP, ended when he was critically injured at Bishopscourt, shortly after becoming the first man to lap in under 20 minutes (113.83 mph). Although the American survived, he would be disabled for the rest of his life.

Yet despite the fact that the '06 TT was statistically the safest for many years (for racers and visitors alike), the reality is the Mountain Course is dangerous. To suggest otherwise is delusional. Rarely a year goes by without at least one death. The Mountain has claimed six riders I counted as personal friends. But all of them rode fully aware that fatalities are an inevitable fact of Manx racing life. All were equally convinced that nowhere else was so sensationally exhilarating to ride. Were it otherwise, I believe the TT would be long gone. That is its only possible defense.

The Festival
If Island racing offers something uniquely dramatic for the riders, it also guarantees TT watchers a similar treat-and never more so than at 4.30 a.m. in the hush of a predawn opening practice day. In the far, drowsy distance, a crowd of revellers clatter their unsteady way home down Douglas' Strand Street. Nearer by, one who didn't quite get that far snores gently from the discomfort of a shopping cart.

Somewhere up the hill to the left, a racing engine barks to life, stalls into eerie silence, then chatters back into a revvy roar. The culprit, a sidecar outfit, appears at the foot of Mona Drive, slithers right as its slick tires scrabble across the tram lines, and accelerates along the deserted Promenade. As the noise ricochets off a regiment of Victorian boarding houses, a chip wrapper flutters incongruously in its wake.

Forty-five minutes later at Appledene it's light-just-but witching-hour dark under the trees. Hedgerows trill to the predawn chorus, as little feathered fellows stake territorial claims they're about to surrender. The first bike is felt rather than heard, a remote, reedy vibration in the air. The sound is momentarily muffled as its source climbs the hill out of Crosby, then bursts louder over the leap by the old Halfway House pub. The bike is in sixth gear now, still a mile away but screaming, growing on the plunge past the Highlander. As you peer expectantly through the half-light, the hairs begin to prickle on the back of your neck.

The engine cogs down twice-that'll be Greeba Castle-and quietens briefly, then emerges from the right-left bend with a howl. The rider-he's in sight now-tracks down the right-hand gutter and hurls the bike on its side over the bridge. The 'bars shake violently in protest, the gas comes back on, and the wail recedes through the leafy kinks toward Greeba Bridge. For the birds, it's going to be one of those days. For the rest of us, it's one of those glorious fortnights. Another TT has begun.

Morning practice is no more, but if Bunuel had created a race meeting, this celebration of the surreal would be it. Each June, the faded gentility of Mannan's holiday seafronts hosts a riot of leather and primary colors. Its lanes and byways, normally the preserve of blue-rinsed old biddies in antique Metros, reverberate to the brightest, fastest motorcycles in creation. The population soars by 50 percent as bikers of every hue, creed and persuasion return to their Isle of Man.

Go to any Grand Prix and you'll need a camera lens like a bazooka to capture even a distant glimpse of the action. On the Island you can practically tap the racers on the shoulder with your Instamatic as they hustle past. For gravel traps and runoff, read stone walls and trees and pretty little rose-clad cottages and lampposts and pubs and iron railings and other hard, immovable objects. For purpose-built, read precipitous cambers and curbs and bumps and grids and manhole covers of a circuit paved more with history than tarmac. For grid, read Glencrutchery Road, adjacent to the cemetery against a backdrop of suburban bungalows, just down the road from the Governor's house. For starting lights, read a funny old chap with tiny flag, stood on a wooden box. And for computerized digital scoreboard, read bloke with paintbrush, aided by the distinctly analog First Douglas Cub Scouts.

They call it The Last of the Great Road Races. Once, Europe was awash with similar events. But what the TT has, and the rest never did, is the greatest festival of motorcycling on earth, held on biking's very own island (which the locals have thoughtfully looked after since last year). Imagine Daytona at its wildest. Stretch it from a few days to two weeks. Lay on pubs, nightclubs that don't close till 4 a.m., and trials and motocross and meet your mates at Glen Maye and 20,000 other mates you never knew you had. And a quick lap at dawn and drag racing and bands and wet T-shirt contests. And bungee jumping, beach racing and Busheys Brew Pub and blow me if that isn't the tastiest special I've ever seen! And a mile of prom lined with two-wheeled tackle, idiots doing donuts and 75-mph mono-wheeling streakers and...and how the hell am I going to fit it all in?

Then there's Sunday, but not just any old Sunday. The first Sunday of race week is Mad Sunday. To the untrained eye it is little different from Mental Monday, Crazy Tuesday or Frantic Friday. But Sunday was the day when the 12-mile mountain section of the circuit from the Gooseneck to Creg-ny-Baa becomes one-way (this year it was one-way for two weeks). And it's free. Well, if you don't wreck your bike it is. Douglas is littered with mangled bikes supporting notices: "Third-party insurance only. Please give generously." Mostly, people do.

If Sunday is Mad, Tuesday is just as traditionally Crazy. On Tuesday the Island moves up the coast from Douglas to Ramsey. Ramsey is the Sprints, more custom shows, Manx ice creams and beer, falling asleep in the sun, and shredding what little of your hearing various rock bands have left unscathed. Ramsey is the Vintage Club gathering, Angels in cutoffs, placid as grazing cows in the bike-rich air. Then there's the Triumph, BMW, Kawasaki, Harris and Norton get-togethers, or whatever it is this year, the Red Arrows RAF display team, a snatched fish-and-chips and...oh my God, there's still the TT Trial at Santon to squeeze in!

That's what's wrong with the TT Festival: It only lasts two weeks.

TT 2007: Centenary Edition
It was, inevitably, the biggest ever, as the Isle of Man sank several inches into the Irish Sea under the sheer weight of 60,000 visitors and bikes, as the Island's ferry company struggled to cope. Practically every sports ground had been turned into a makeshift campsite, every spare bedroom rented out. Yamaha took over Ramsey (renamed "Yamsey" for the week), Honda invaded Peel and bikers invaded pretty much everywhere, particularly if it had a bar. Thankfully the sun shone, mostly, but the beer didn't run out.

The intention was that a re-enactment of the 1907 races would take place on the original TT circuit exactly 100 years after that historic race. In the event, the Island's head honcho's car broke down, so affairs began 50 minutes late, but that didn't stop George Cohen from taking the winning 1907 Norton-Puegeot around with far less drama than Rem Fowler had encountered a century before. Not a puncture, not a plug to change, not even a fire to ride through.

On the racing front, Honda clearly planned to be top dog. In 1954, such was the prestige of the event that Soichiro Honda himself vowed to "pour all my energy and creative powers into winning" the TT, an ambition he realized seven years later. Unsurprisingly, the company remains the event's biggest supporter, with a near-monopoly of top riders for the centenary races. For the most part it went their way.

If the names of the leading riders will mean little to an American audience, their hardware will be more familiar. These days the TT is almost entirely production-based, with modified four-cylinder streetbikes dominant. John McGuinness surprised nobody by winning the opening Superbike race for Honda, lapping at 128.279 mph despite damp patches around the circuit. Second were two more Hondas ridden by the emerging Guy Martin and Ian Hutchinson.

Suzuki's Bruce Anstey upset the Honda applecart with a convincing win in the Superstock TT on a Suzuki GSX-R1000 that was identical, save for slicks, pipe and ignition module, to those you can buy at your local dealer. His quickest lap, a record 128.4 mph, was over 1 mph faster than the outright lap record set just two years earlier. It was the New Zealander's third successive win in the event, which measures real-world sports performance like no other, for roads don't get more real than the TT course. Honda took the next two places through McGuinness and Hutchinson on CBR1000RRs conspicuously-and oddly-quicker than their supposedly identical counterparts the year before.

From then on it was all Honda, as local hero Dave Molyneux took both sidecar races, giving him a record 13 TT wins in all, and Hutchinson took a CBR600RR to his maiden win in the Supersport race, narrowly ahead of McGuinness. Third-placed Martin set the fastest of a succession of new lap records, a staggering 125.161 mph. Anstey led until half-distance, but a slow pit stop dropped him to fourth.

The big question-whether we'd see the first 130-mph lap-had to wait until the final race of the week, the Senior TT. McGuinness, like Joey Dunlop and Steve Hislop before him, blistered to a record standing-start opening lap, at a tantalizing 129.883 mph-less than 1 second short of a 130-mph average. Second time around there was no mistake: 130.354 mph. With the race under control, McGuinness rode to his signals for the remaining 151 miles to tie with Molyneux at 13 TT wins, ahead of Martin and Hutchinson yet again. Only Dunlop and Hailwood have won more.

Yet even as the winner celebrated, we were hearing of tragedy. On the last lap of the final race of the week, Marc Ramsbotham became the 226th competitor to perish on the Mountain Course when he crashed at around 110 mph at the bend named after Joey Dunlop. Worse, his GSX-R1000 cartwheeled over a high bank, killing two spectators-the first in the event's history-and seriously injuring two marshals, one of whom was former competitor Hilary Musson. With the TT, it seems, it's rare to have the smooth without the rough.