Celebrating Joey Dunlop’s First Isle of Man Victory

Forty years ago, Joey Dunlop won the first of his record 26 TT wins.

Joey Dunlop, IOMTT
Joey Dunlop circa 1998 with his famous yellow and black Arai.Photo: Stephen Davison

Forty years ago, Joey Dunlop, the undisputed "King of the Mountain," claimed his very first Isle of Man TT victory.

It was 1977 and the TT had been stripped of its world championship status as Grand Prix racing increasingly became a short circuit discipline. Many top racers, such as Phil Read and Giacomo Agostini, had boycotted the TT as early as 1973 following the death of Gilberto Parlotti during the Lightweight 125cc TT of the previous year. To many, the TT was a relic of the past and too dangerous to be a part of the Grand Prix calendar.

The ignominy of losing its GP status, however, did little to dampen its reputation as the world’s greatest race. As history shows, from then on motorcycle racing on asphalt would be split into two disciplines, the short-circuit world of Grand Prix racing, and the gritty, and often controversial world, of “true” road racing, of which the TT is both originator and apotheosis.

Joey Dunlop on his Castrol-sponsored Honda RC45
Joey on his Castrol-sponsored Honda RC45 at Governor’s Bridge during the 1995 Senior TT.Photo: Richard Johnson

As each discipline went its own way, they were christened with their own stars. For fans of road racing, there’s never been anyone like Joey Dunlop.

Joey arrived on the island in 1977 in his friend's fishing boat for his second appearance at the TT. The race where history would be made was the Schweppes Jubilee Classic, a one-off race in honor of the 25th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II's accession to the throne. Joey lined up on Glencrutchery road on a mongrel of a machine that used a Yamaha TZ750 engine mounted in a Suzuki chassis.

On the first lap, the “Yamazuki” was running on three cylinders until Ballacraine, 7½ miles in, when the fourth cylinder came on. Joey knew from practice that tire wear would be a big factor in the four-lap race. The mountain section’s limestone chippings were replaced with a smoother surface at the start of the decade, but the mountain asphalt remained notoriously abrasive. Even after checking the tire for wear during his pit stop at half-distance, Joey pulled off on the final lap at Parliament Square, Ramsey, to give it a final check before the climb up the mountain and the last 14 miles.

Joey brought it home for his first TT victory with a fastest lap of 110.93 mph, just a hair quicker than Phil Read’s fastest lap of 110.01 mph during that year’s Senior TT.

Joey Dunlop IOMTT
Joey Dunlop circa 1987.Photo: Paul Fryer

Joey Dunlop’s legacy is about more than just his 26 TT wins. In many ways, Joey personifies what we love most about the TT. When the GP stars left and took the glamor of that world with them, it did little to varnish the TT’s glory. Its standing in the minds and hearts of motor racing fans needs no gilding or pomp to announce its prestige. And in spite of the march of time, the TT remains humble, in its own way, because it still so closely resembles its origins.

Joey Dunlop in 2000
Seen here during his last TT appearance in 2000, Joey at 48 years old wasn’t slowing down, in spite of cautionary signage.Photo: Stephen Davison

Joey was a man of the mountain. Humble to his core, shirking the media attention and the fineries associated with world-renown and achievement, Joey remained “Yer Maun,” exemplifying the qualities laid bare by the mountain itself: drive, courage, and utter human-ness of the best kind.

For those of us who love motorcycles and road racing, there’s both an element of relating and idolizing on our part that endears a racer to his fans. His quest for speed, and the testing of his own mettle is at at once felt and determined unattainable for all of us who swing a leg over a motorcycle. There’s no one more relatable than Joey, and never a man whose feats around the island were surpassed only by his humanitarian efforts abroad.

Most of us can’t be at Joey’s Bar in his home of Ballymoney to toast the occasion, but legions of fans around the globe will no doubt be hoisting a Guinness in his honor. Here’s to Joey.