A Prologue to the 2012 Isle of Man TT

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For those who have never attended, the Isle of Man TT is truly a special race. I will concede the point that saying that the TT is merely “a special race” is a bit trite, as there is so much that encompasses the full experience one gets during the TT fortnight, that it becomes hard to explain to someone who has never attended the TT, even veteran motorcycle race journalists, what it is that makes the TT so special.

Part of this equation is the racing spectacle itself. Set on a small island in the Irish Sea, the Isle of Man’s quaint few towns serve as the venue for tens of thousands of motorsport enthusiasts, while the roads between these villages are connected by the island’s lush countryside. It is hard to travel around the Isle without the island’s beauty striking you — something that is captured extremely well with the race’s many aerial shots via helicopter, but not fully grasped until it is witnessed in person.

The fan experience is truly unique as well. Inside the paddock in Douglas, the atmosphere is campy, an almost carnival affair, and while virtually any other racing venue would sequester the teams and riders from the fans, the TT’s paddock is wide-open, with the team garages setup rows, and constructed in an open pavilion layout that encourages passersby to stop, lean on the waist-high barriers that are maybe 10 feet from the mechanics’ bike lifts, and strike up a conversation with any team member that doesn’t seem to have a task at hand.

The experience is tenfold when one of the riders is present, which they often are, and even the greats of the sport are approachable and genuinely engaged with their fan base. Try getting that same experience at the next MotoGP or WSBK event you attend, and even in the AMA paddock you would be hard-pressed to get so much access and interaction to what goes on behind the scenes.

Then there is of course the racing, which all occurs on city streets and mountain roads. In the Superbike classes, the average speeds of the top riders exceeds 130 mph, with top speeds in the fastest sections cracking past 200 mph with regularity. Again I reiterate, this is all occurring on city streets, littered full of telephone polls, houses, trees, and of course fans. Speaking of fans on the course, imagine watching a race from the side of a hedgerow, at worst only 10 feet from the action, and in some cases only a few inches away. Experiencing motorcycle racing at such propinquity will take your breath away, if not figuratively then literally.

In my short time running Asphalt & Rubber, I have had the opportunity to cover motorcycle racing on four continents, and as I travel to my second Isle of Man TT, I know the next two weeks of racing will be unlike anything I have covered before in MotoGP, World Superbike, or AMA Pro Racing.

Sitting here in the Manchester airport, waiting for my final connecting flight to the Isle, the moment is a bit surreal. For the next month, my contributions to A&R will be coming to you from across the pond, as after the TT I will be sticking around for the British GP. With such proximity in time, it is hard not to compare and contrast the two events, and what weighs on my mind right now is the fact that for the next two weeks, I will be attending a race where I know, statistically speaking, a competitor of the event will die.

We don’t think about this reality a terrible amount in professional road racing, probably because the possibility of a fatality from racing itself is such an outlier, and not the norm. While we have our reminders about the perils of motorcycle racing — the death of Marco Simoncelli in MotoGP, the paralyzation of Joan Lascorz in WSBK, and close-call of our friend Nick Hayman in the AMA — few fear that the ultimate price is about to be paid when they see a rider go down on the track.

Contrast this with the Isle of Man TT. While the apprehension often involved when we see a GP rider go down hard in a crash centers around whether something like a collarbone or hand has been broken, at the TT the immediate thought is for the rider’s life. In MotoGP, we gauge the severity of a crash on how many subsequent rounds the rider will miss because of his injuries; whereas at the TT, the crash is often measure in the amount of life lost from the incident.

Primed to expect that 99% of the time motorcycle racers stand up and dust their shoulders off after a crash, traveling now to the Isle of Man, I know I will have recalibrate my senses. Walking away from a crash is no longer the norm, it is the miracle at the TT.

It is perhaps for this reason that TT racers are defined as a special breed, distinct from other motorcycle racers. TT competitors each embrace the possibility that the next lap around the Mountain Course could be their last, and it is through that possibility many of them define the actual living of their lives. Coming into the 2012 Isle of Man TT, we have already lost Mark Buckley at the North West 200, and if you believe the salacious rumors that are almost certainly untrue, Guy Martin may have even quit the Tyco Suzuki team after his near-death experience at the same race.

There surely are to be some superstitions around the paddock, charms that keep riders safe, but one tradition is grounded in pragmatics, and isn’t seen elsewhere in the sport of motorcycle racing: the riders themselves, and not a mechanic, fill, bleed, and service their own brakes before every race’s start. This is because at 200 mph there is only one person you can trust with your life.

While the death toll, both for racers and spectators (of which, most perish while riding the roads of the Mountain Course themselves, typically after having one too many) is what grabs the headlines and fuels the debate over the TT’s continuance, it is the atmosphere of the paddock and hospitality of the Manx that keeps bringing the masses back to this tiny little sovereign nation.

I cannot overstate the hospitality of the Manx people enough. Maybe it is the fact that the country knows that over the next two weeks the vast majority of the its tourism and revenue generation will occur, or maybe the Manx have some sort of genetic disposition to hosting foreigners (the joke is that all the Manx are a cousin of some degree to another), but whatever the reason may be, the fact remains that the Manx people know how to make each traveller to their nation feel welcomed.

Because the TT accounts for so much of the island nation’s tourism, there are not a plethora of hotels to host the many travelers that come to see the races. Many travelers will camp in one of the many fields provided during the fortnight, but also many residents will open their homes to motorcycle racing fans, as a sort of impromptu bed & breakfast for petrol geeks. If you have the means, I highly recommend the opportunity to stay in a Max house.

Unless you plan very carefully, a day of watching the races entails you sticking it out at the same corner the whole day. This means you will get to know your fellow onlookers very well over the course of the day as you swap stories, which only adds further to the atmosphere and congeniality of the TT. But, it also means that you experience a tiny fraction of the race as a whole.

It is not until the coming together at the dinner table, just after the roads have reopened to allow once again the flow of traffic around the island that you can trade stories with your fellow home-stayers. Did you see Guy Martin go by? How far did John McGuinness fly down the jump at Ballaugh Bridge? What about the Dunlop brothers? Etc. By the time you have finished trading accounts from each vantage point attended, the television coverage for the day is on, which pieces together all the bits missing from everyone’s personal accounts, and in case you forgot, the photography is stunning.

The only thing that can top the home-stay experience are the ones you have with the riders themselves. Like I said before, the level of interaction possible at the TT with the teams and riders is unparalleled. For instance, needing just one more interview on the closing days of last year’s TT, I found myself calling on John McGuinness at his motorhome right before the dinner hour. His camp consists of his large brown coach, with several picnic tables setup along side of it, with a bit of fencing enclosing them.

Fully expecting to be shooed away for my late media request, quite the impossible happened. “Fancy a hot dog?” the King of the Mountain asked. Now maybe it was a clever trick that McGuinness learned over the course of his 17 TT race wins, you know…put some food in the journalist’s mouth so he can’t pester you with as many questions, but you would be hard-pressed to find a racer in any other series willing to talk shop during the dinner hour, let alone cooking his own food — and offering it to passersby? No, you won’t find that anywhere else in motorcycle racing, but you will find it at the TT.

Flying right now to my second Isle of Man TT, I could probably continue listing and describing as many details as I can remember and that this space would allow, but it likely would only portray a small fraction of what the actual TT experience is like. The 2012 Isle of Man TT will surely be as special as the years that preceded it. Will Guy Martin finally get a TT race win? Will Ian Hutchinson dominate again now that he has healed? How many more races can McGuinness win before he retires? Which electric will break the 100 mph average lap speed barrier? As always, time will tell.

Photos: © 2011 Jensen Beeler / Asphalt & Rubber – Creative Commons – Attribution 3.0