THE WORLD'S GREATEST RACING EVENT
Updated: Oct 21, 2020
This article was originally published on June 5th, 2019.
Each year, thousands of motor-racing fans descend on to an island, just 33 miles long and 12 miles across, in the middle of the Irish Sea.
What they have come to experience is the world-famous Isle of Man Tourist Trophy, most commonly known as the TT. A two-week-long festival of motorcycling, utilizing the 37.73 miles of public roads that make up the Snaefell Mountain Course.
Racers often exceed speeds over 200mph, add in the tight cornering caused by the public roads and you have one of the most popular races for riders across the globe, but also one of the most dangerous racing events in the world.
History of the Isle of Man TT
At the start of the 1900s, Europe was beginning to see a rise in the popularity of motorcycle racing.
In 1903, the British Parliament would go on pass an act that would forbid exceeding speeds of 20mph. This would lead Sir Julian Orde, the Secretary of the Automobile Club of Great Britain and Ireland, to search for somewhere out-with the jurisdiction of the UK Government.
In his search, Orde would find the Isle of Man, a self-governing island in the middle of the Irish Sea. The island would host its first event in 1907, known as the Auto Cycle Tourist Trophy. The inaugural race was made up of 10 laps, each of which was over 15 miles in length.
In the early years, the TT consisted of only two classes, the 350cc Junior TT, and the main event the 500cc Senior TT.
The winner of the first Senior TT race was Charlie Collier, who completed the 10-lap race in a time of 4 hours, 8 minutes and 8 seconds at an average race speed of 38.21 mph. After his victory, Collier was presented a trophy featured a stylized version of Olympic God ‘Hermes’ as a silver figurine astride a winged wheel. That same trophy is still presented to the winner of the Senior TT race.
The race was an immediate success and would see the Tourist Trophy (TT) become an annual event. By 1911, race organizers decided to change the course, moving to the substantially longer 'Snaefell Course,' which at the time measured 37.40 miles (it is now 37.73 miles).
In 1922, two years after the 250cc Lightweight TT class was added, followed by the now-famous Side Car TT race the next year.
After the Second World War, in 1949, FIM Motorcycle Grand Prix World Championship, now known as MotoGP, held its first event on the Snaefell Course. At the same time making the Isle of Man TT one of its official events.
The 1959 the TT played host to the first Japanese team into an international motorcycle race. Soichiro Honda would explain that he decide to enter his team because the TT was the most difficult to win and had come to symbolize the very essence of the sport. Honda felt that declaring his ambition to win this demanding race would bring his company a great deal of interest from all over Japan.
However, the TT would end up losing its World Championship status, in 1977, after being deemed too dangerous. Despite no longer holding official status, the fame of the Snaefell Course continued to captivate riders and fans around the world.
TT fans are some of the most passionate and knowledgeable at any sporting event. For many, names such as Daytona, Monaco, Silverstone, Indianapolis, and Le Mans are irrelevances.
The Snaefell Course is also seen as a place where the greats are remembered at every bend and milestone, with names harking back to the era of 14-time winner Mike Hailwood, the great Jimmie Guthrie, or John Surtees, the only person to win a world championships in both motorcycling and Formula One.
“I always say the motorcycle at the TT is like the ball in football,” says Paul Phillips, TT Business Development Manager. “It’s just something you need to play the game. It’s very much about the man versus the other man versus the course. Invariably, the type of person to do well at this is someone who lives life in a maverick way. If they wereen’t motorcycle racers, they’d be drug dealers or jumping cars over canyons. They live like every day is their last.”
Fitting that description in recent years has been riders such as Guy Martin (@guymartinracing), who has said “Why do I keep going back? ... Because there’s nothing like that course. The first night of practice makes me think, ‘Ah, this is why I ride motorbikes.’ The course has everything, and you can’t have a favorite section, but I hold the record from Glen Helen to Ballaugh, through Cronk-y-Voddy. It’s fast. A man’s section. Out of Glen Helen, there’s a straight with fifth- and sixth-gear kinks. When the bike isn’t set up right, you’re a passenger. I’ve been up the bank there, shoulder in the hedge. If you get it wrong, you’re buggered.”
However, for most TT fans there is one man who stands taller than the rest, Joey Dunlop. The Northern Irish racer won a staggering 26 races at the TT. He was so obsessed with the event that he turned up in 1989 on crutches, determined to race until organizers forbade it.
38 Miles of Terror
The TT holds a special place in the hearts of motorsports fans, mostly due to the fact that it is a race with the flavor of a bygone era.
Modern race tracks are almost entirely purpose-built and under four miles in length with an average of 15-20. However, the Snaefell Course is home to over 200, with an elevation ranging between sea-level and 1,300ft.
Ever since the TT lost its world championship status in 1977, track safety has increased dramatically. Modern circuits are required to have hundred foot long run off areas outside of every turn. However, at the TT the use of public roads means at the side of the track you can find 100ft drops, concrete walls and garden fences.
Furthermore, the use of public roads adds its own challenges, as the asphalt is not built for the sole purpose of racing. Therefore, the surface is rough, uneven and includes various surface types. Then add the factor of “the furniture,” which consist of things like curbs, stone walls, lamp posts, trees, bridges and buildings, which line the entire TT course.
All of these factors make it important for riders to remain focused the entire time on the track. If a rider confuses turn 183 with turn 184, that may be the difference between crashing and shaving a split second off their lap time. It is this unique challenge which has made the TT legendary.
Sports Illustrated writer Franz Lidz would describe the TT as “38 Miles of Terror,” due to the lack of forgiveness offered by the Manx roads means any small slip-up can end fatally.
Since the TT started, the race has seen 258 recorded deaths of racers. If you also include bystanders and unreported fatalities, it is believed that the total number of deaths surpasses 270. The deadliest year for the race came in 1970 when six people lost their lives during the event.
While the course hasn’t changed since the race began, the technology and speeds reached have dramatically increased, meaning the margin for error is now even smaller.
Former TT winner Richard Quayle, once told the New York Times,"If Roger Federer misses a shot, he loses a point. If I miss an apex, I lose my life."
Essentially what makes the TT so dangerous is the combination of racing on public roads lined with objects no rider wants to collide with, a ridiculous number of turns, all of which must be navigated from the seat of the world’s most powerful motorcycles. That makes for some exciting viewing but real dangerous racing.
Each year around 44,000 people travel to the Isle of Man for the TT, coming from every corner of the world. Bringing in around $42million to the local economy.
Compared to other professional racing curcuits, the TT is much more intimate and community focused. In many over racing events the pit area is off-limits to fans. However, at the TT fans are able to walk around the paddock areas, offering fans the opportunity to mingle with riders and team mechanics.
Over the course of the two-week period of the TT, the island also takes on what’s been described as a “carnival-like atmosphere” with non-stop parties and performances at night and in-between the races.
Aside from the partys there is another major draw that the TT offers which differentiates it to other races around the world, "Mad Sunday."
On Mad Sunday there is no races and public traffic is not allowed on the curcuit, therefore, fans are able to take their bike onto the world famous track and test their skills. Unsurprisingly, having less skilled riders test themselves on one of the most difficult tracks in motorsports has led to a numbe of fatalities. Around 105 amateur riders have died while on the track on "Mad Sunday."
Fans who do not want to jump on to a bike also have the opportunity to feel a thrill. The circuit offers spectators hundreds of vantage points ranging from the grandstand in Douglas to sitting on a wall where you can feel the rush of air as a rider flys past.
The TT is without a doubt one of the most fascinating, exhilarating and unique races ever held and its future is sure to live on through the next generations of fans and competitors.