Far-flung reporter: Letter from the Isle of Man
The year 1907 marked the debut of the Isle of Man TT, one of the most epic two-wheel races that ever existed, run flat-out on public roads where a tiny mistake can be fatal. Once a part of the grand prix world championship, the Isle's danger to life and limb caused racers and teams to abandon the rollicking 37.7-mile circuit in favor of safer enclosed circuits with some measure of run-off room.
But the Isle of Man TT has continued on and has become more than a championship. It soldiered into its 100th anniversary this month, full of crazy British nutters letting it all hang out with their elbows mere millimeters away from sturdy rock walls.
Not of the crazy ones are from the UK. Canadian transplant Mark Gardiner got so caught up in his dream to race the TT that he sold all his possessions to make it happen in 2002. He didn't win the race - nor was that a goal - but he came away from it changed profoundly. The experience inspired the motojournalist to write a book called Riding Man.
Gardiner recently returned from the centenary TT races at the island in the Irish Sea, which turned out to produce an event even more epic than usual. Since he's a FoMO (friend of MO) and he'd like to sell you his book at ridingman.com, he offered to file the report below.
When I arrived on the Island in the middle of practice week, the place was already crammed with fans. There were almost as many people watching midweek practice sessions as there were watching midweek races when I was last here. There's quite a tradition of playing fast and loose with visitor estimates - there certainly weren't the 150,000 bike fans that MCN breathlessly reported - but the early crowd was much larger than normal and all the locals wondered where they'd put up the "real" crowd expected for race week.
The crowds were slightly reduced when one ferry boat's trips were summarily cancelled. 5,000 fans were told they could have their fares refunded or accept replacement travel... after June 24. They were snidely reminded to check the fine print on their tickets, where any guarantee of sailing times and dates was disclaimed.
There's another fine TT tradition of slagging the Steam Packet Company, but in this case it was guilty mainly of poor communication skills. The Steam Packet Company was itself screwed over by a boat owner who weaseled out of his contract to move bikers to the Isle of Man when some other, more profitable, opportunity presented itself. With every available boat running around the clock (ferries were unloading at 3 a.m.!) there was just no extra capacity to pick up the slack. Virtually all of those passengers had arranged for accommodation, so that freed up a few beds/campsites for the horde.
"Some things are different this year, much is the same..."
There used to be a big striped tent at the entrance to parc fermé, where riders and teams could get a cup of tea. It's no more; the upper paddock area is better organized, with more and larger transporters for the top teams. Several full-on BSB rigs were there, and there was genuine factory presence from MV Agusta, Aprilia and others. But the lower paddock still resembles a motorcycle version of Woodstock. The biggest change to the course is at Brandish Corner (between Creg-ny-Baa and Hillberry, just as you come off the Mountain.) Brandish was never too well known to the fans, because it was almost impossible to get there on foot, but it was heart-in-mouth stuff for racers. You accelerated out of the Creg, on a long, narrow, rough downhill straight. The berms were so steep on either side of the road that it was like riding in a green tunnel. From wide open in top, you knocked it back four gears for a 90-degree left with no runoff at all. Then you went back up through the gears for another long flat out run into Hillberry.
Now, Brandish is a long, fifth-gear sweeper with better visibility. That change alone will knock several seconds off lap times. It's also measurably shorter, although everyone still seems to be citing the old course length of 37.73 miles. I wonder what distance they're using to calculate the officially quoted lap speeds.
The popular consensus amongst the locals is that the Manx public works department specifically tweaked the course in order to ensure that a 130-mile-per-hour lap would be achieved on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the TT. No one was even going to utter it, but the other obvious objective was to avoid a David Jefferies-style high profile fatality.
Out on the course, I noticed a lot more and better airfence-style padding in the most obvious impact zones. As I write this (on Thursday) there's only one more race on the schedule, and unless one of the racers who's been injured takes a turn for the worse, the TT may go off without a single racer fatality.
Yes, I am literally touching wood as I type these words.
(Unfortunately, an incident in today's final race, the Senior TT, resulted in the death of a yet-unnamed rider and two spectators. Also, former TT winner Shaun Harris remains in critical condition following a crash in the Superstock TT race on Tuesday. -Ed)
But don't be fooled. There's not enough soft barriers on earth to make this course safe.
A reduction in total rider-mileage (mainly by eliminating morning practice, which was unpopular with many Manx residents) is probably the main reason it seems safer so far.
That said, there's only been one fan fatality, too (I think.). Out on the course, there are many more restrictions on where fans can sit. Triangular signs have sprouted up everywhere; they proclaim "Eingang Verboten" in big letters and "Entry Prohibited" in smaller type. The design made me wonder if Germans were particularly prone to standing in impact zones. The police have also made the Mountain Road one way (in the course direction) all week. Some sections, like the tricky Windy Corner, have cone "chicanes" put in place to slow traffic, and there's a traffic light at the Creg.
They used to do this only on Mad Sunday. Again, I'm not sure that the planned safety changes are having as much impact as some unplanned ones; the low toll of fans is more down to the fact that traffic has been so heavy it's hard for even hooligans to speed. A cold rain put a damper on Mad Sunday, too.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. At the beginning of practice, the course was often wet -or worse, especially here, half-wet. I spoke to American racer Mark Miller on Thursday and he was circumspect. His Aprilia had factory support but didn't look as if it had nearly enough legs to run with the Fours in the Superbike class. (How strange to see it called that, instead of TT F-1, even though it's been "Superbike" in everything but name for years!) It was Friday before there was fully dry and sunny session, and there were quite a few riders who didn't qualify until then.
Saturday's races were canceled. Officially, the reason was that there was mist on the mountain, making it impossible to fly the rescue helicopter.
Rather than postpone the races to Sunday (which was also forecast to be wet), they moved the schedule two days to Monday, when the weather was expected to be fine. I got the feeling that the organizers didn't want to run at all in the wet. This could have been due to them wishing that both the Superbike and the Senior race could run on dry roads, doubling the chances of that 130-mph lap, or due to them thinking that running in the dry is safer. (I'm not sure it is, since rain seems to be the only thing that reminds TT riders of their mortality, but I don't have the stats to prove it one way or the other.)
Conspiracy theorists also had opinions. An obscure TT rule prevents the use of hand-cut slicks.Or more precisely, prohibits slicks being cut by teams or even by manufacturer techs in the paddock. All the Pirelli riders mounted true "inters," which either had molded-in tread or sipes cut by Pirelli techs at the factory. The Dunlop riders didn't have that option from the Dunlop catalog and were shocked to learn that they couldn't cut their own. Rumors flew that some top teams would withdraw their riders, or (in order to collect start money) simply slow down and turn left at the bottom of Bray Hill, and return to the paddock. According to more rumors, the two-day delay was chosen to give Dunlop time to hand cut slicks at the factory and ship them to the Island.
One thing that never changes, it seems, is that the TT organization is notoriously uncommunicative, so we'll never really know what the real reason for the delay was. This much is certain: That change to the schedule meant that numerous fans who came on Friday night, planning to return on Sunday night didn't see any racing at all.
The cancellation was actually good for me because I was signing copies of Riding Man in a bookstore in Ramsey, and when the races were cancelled, loads of fans drifted away from the course and into town, so I sold out.
All's well that ends well on the course, too. After another couple of hours of delay, the Superbike race finally went ahead Monday afternoon on almost fully dry roads, and in fine weather. I watched it from the kink at the end of Cronk-y-Voddy straight, which is one of the (many) spots on the course where only the hardest men dare to keep it really pinned. There's a jump after the kink and most of the guys were just landing it as they crossed a double painted line. Most of the bikes wobbled horrifically on the landing, and there were more than a few times that I thought riders had succumbed to the road's camber and were about to be sucked into the ditch at 150+. It was the first race I'd watched, as a spectator, since I saw David Jefferies win the Senior in 2000. It really is scary.
McGuinness won, going away. Despite nearly ideal conditions at the end of the race, he didn't put in that much talked about 130-mph lap. In fact, when he had about a 30-second lead after the second pit stop, he rolled off a little. Watching him ride reminds me of Joey Dunlop; he's consistent, smooth, and faster than he looks without hanging off too much. He's also racing the British 600 Supersport series with Padgett's Honda this year- I hope that riding on the short circuits doesn't pollute his minimalist, pure roads style. By contrast, the popular up and comer Guy Martin reminds me of DJ. He's a genuinely nice guy with a deep love of his road career, but he's emotionally better suited to tracks, and I worry about him.
(McGuinness blasted through the course on Friday to take the win in the Senior TT, not only becoming the third-most successful rider at the IoM but also smashing the lap record by 51 seconds to claim the TT's first 130-plus-mph lap, at an average speed of 130.354 mph. -Ed)
It was interesting to watch the fast boys on that new bit of Brandish, though. Most of them have only seen it 30 or 40 times so far - a short-circuit racer could almost see a corner that many times in a single practice. As a consequence, they went through there carrying about 10 degrees less lean than they might have. Most had their knees several inches off the pavement. The Island is no place to take big steps.
Anyway, this letter needs not report race results. You can check out the excellent iomtt.com site for that. Suffice to say that it's been, perhaps, a slightly disappointing TT for the American contingent (so far; I'm writing this before the Senior race on Friday has taken place). Miller's Aprilias weren't really competitive, and I heard he'd gone as far as to broach the subject of running his Padgett's 600 in the final race. Jimmy Moore didn't really figure in practice and finished well down the order in his first race, but caught his stride in 600 Supersport, finishing a very creditable 15th. Jeremy Toye had a brilliant Newcomer's year last year but didn't even secure a ride, which was a shame.
Oh well. There's a great sense of optimism on the Island this year, and the Centenary TT has lived up to - maybe even exceeded - expectations. So I'm able to say something no one's been completely sure of since about 2000... There's always next year.