The 2014 edition of the legendary Isle of Man TT races is set to begin later this month. The TT is perhaps the most awe-inspiring road race in the world, as the course is a 37.7-mile loop on public roads around a quaint island in the Irish Sea off the west coast of England. The fastest riders average lap speeds of more than 130 mph, so describing this century-old event as epic isn’t mere hyperbole.
We’re pleased to have TT-devotee Andrew Capone providing coverage from the IoM this year, with race action beginning May 24 until June 6. In the meantime, here are the stories of two privateer racers – one an American – who are inextricably drawn into the fabled TT experience and who compete despite high costs and mortal danger.
For 107 years, the Isle of Man TT has attracted the world’s finest motorcycle road racers, with modern-day gladiators like John McGuinness and Michael Dunlop riding for well-funded teams, battling for podium spots, prize money, commercial endorsements and a place in history.
But look deeper in the TT race program and you will find a field packed with scores of daring young riders of little renown and scant resources. Scrappy guys like Pennsylvania native Brandon Cretu, and Hertfordshire UK-based Graham English. Men on quixotic missions, riding second-hand machines on shoestring budgets, with skimpy support teams, taking on the most demanding road race on earth.
Brandon Cretu #47, #74
I first met Cretu, a rare American TT rider, in 2012 on my annual trip to the IoM, and quickly grasped what extraordinary logistical and financial challenges TT privateers must overcome. Modest travel allowances and meager purses, which range from around $35,000 for winning the Senior TT, down to as little as $150 for 20th place, don’t come close to covering the nut. It takes at least $15,000 to fund even a basic TT effort for one rider, race bike not included.
But Cretu wasn’t fazed by any of this. He has faced his own personal challenges, and is driven by deeper forces. “I broke my neck in a car accident in 2007, and during my recovery I had a lot of time to reflect. I put everything on the line for the next three years for a chance to race at the TT and prove I could transcend my limitations.”
Cretu regained his health and took steps towards becoming an international road racer. And he didn’t start small. His very first professional motorcycle race was the 2009 Ulster Grand Prix in Northern Ireland, known as the World’s Fastest Road Race.
“Racing on a ‘real’ road course for the first time, surrounded by legends, was unnerving. But I finished every race on a borrowed Yamaha R6, and came in 10th place in one race,” says Cretu. “I was hooked, and I took immediate aim on the TT.”
Cretu achieved his goal in 2010, the only American newcomer accepted for the TT that year and the youngest American ever, but not until after learning how to become a one-man team; rider, manager, PR specialist and salesman. “I had to solicit sponsorships, hold fundraisers, find lodging and a crew on the IoM, and get a bike to race.”
But on a misty, cool afternoon in May 2010, Brandon pulled out of the parc ferme, past the iconic Grandstand, and onto the fabled Mountain Course for the first time, the reality of his endeavor setting in. “The first practice lap was exhilarating and frightening. It truly changed me.“
Cretu finished 47th and 48th in his first two Supersport TT races, with a fastest lap of 111.12 mph, achieving a remarkable and unlikely goal for a kid from Felton, PA who didn’t even own a motorcycle.
But was this a bucket list moment, then on to the next box to check off? “No, I could not imagine not racing the TT every year. So, I’m hustling even harder to raise money, get faster and build my racing brand. I want to be part of a top-flight team.”
Brandon has experienced the typical alternating exhilaration and heartbreak that the mother of all race circuits brings. He set a new personal best lap record of 117.8 mph in 2013. And he has suffered infuriating mechanical breakdowns and crashes, without the safety net of spare bikes, motors and money enjoyed by the big names in the TT paddock.
He has also raced the Macau Grand Prix, and in 2013, he and fellow American road racer and TT veteran Mark Miller ran twin EBR 1190RSs under the banner of UK team Splitlath Redmond. The enhanced sponsorship and team structure paid off for Cretu with a top-20 finish. And another remarkable story for the MBA student and construction worker to tell his friends at the bar in Felton.
Graham English #83
From his shop north of London, England, Graham English represents an alternate take on grass-roots road racing. An engineer by trade, English has raced for a decade at the club level, in the British Superbike Championship, and for the last two years, the TT. He rides for the unheralded FIX Auto TIVA Engineering Racing Team, on second hand BMW S1000RR and Suzuki SV650 machines which cost, combined, $35,000 to buy, build and sort. He finished all four TT races he entered in 2013, setting a personal best lap time of 118.47 mph in the Senior TT.
“I fund 90% of my racing, “says English. “I fabricate components, rebuild engines, and my team is all family, friends and sponsors.”
He built and raced a lovely 1986 Harris F1 Suzuki in the 2013 Classic TT, and also competed at Macau. While of modest means, English is not a man with modest goals. He will return to the TT and Classic TT in 2014 and continue to climb the road race ranks.
“We still have a way to go. It takes five years to really know the Mountain Course,” said English. “But I’ve competed against the best in the world, and done it with scraped-together money, help from my mates, and plain hard work.”
Cretu, English and countless others have mounted against-all-odds efforts against the Isle of Man TT for over a century, with little to show in terms of money or global adulation. And they will continue to do so for as long as this remarkable event on the idyllic island in the Irish Sea is held.
But to measure their endeavors in earnings or celebrity isn’t proper. Consider what these mere mortals have accomplished on pocket change and pluck, facing immense danger, against the titans of road racing. They have accomplished what most could not even imagine, and are the true unheralded heroes of the TT.
Andrew Capone lives in New York, and became an annual TT visitor some years ago, now serving as a TT Marshal. What began as a 50th-birthday bucket-list thing now has him immersed beyond all reason.