The world’s deadliest and most legendary motorcycle race, the Isle of Man TT, will begin this week on May 30th. This fascinating – and unbelievably dangerous – race has been held annually for over 100 years, and in 2014 claimed its 242nd life. But as insane as it is, it represents the pinnacle of motorcycle racing for many – read on to see why!
The Isle of Man looks like something right out of storybook. A tiny dot in the ocean between Great Britain and Ireland, the sovereign island nation, with a population of only 84,000 people, is covered in lush green rolling hills, centuries-old stone buildings and walls, and even castles and cathedrals. The history, scenery, and landscape of this unusual island forms the perfect backdrop for children’s tales of knights and damsels, Celtic folklore, or just peaceful retreats to a pastoral paradise, frozen in a bygone era.
What better place to hold the most dangerous motorcycle race in the world, right?
The “Road Racing Capital of the World”
As quaint and peaceful as the Isle of Man is, this tiny country is best known as the devoted home of the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy race, an annual motorcycle race that has attracted motorcycle racers the world over, and their fans, to the island for over a hundred years.
It seems like it would be a nightmare to the Isle of Man’s inhabitants a hundreds of noisy race bikes tearing through their tiny country roads, flanked by tens of thousands of tourists who crowd to the island to watch them – but the truth is quite the contrary.
The Manx people, in fact, are proud of their racing heritage, and celebrate motorcycling as an integral part of their culture. Many consider their country to be “the road racing capital of the world.”
The claim is not without merit. The Isle of Man has been hosting the TT race – a 38-mile timed run around the island’s “mountain course” – every year since 1907 (with the exception of the WWII years, from 1939-1945.) The Isle is a quiet tax haven for most of the year, but when road races are being held the entire country is turned into a celebration of racing heroics and motorcycle culture.
Motorcycle racing is more than just a national sport – it has truly become a part of the Manx identity.
The Most Dangerous Race in the World
What gives the TT race so much of its appeal, unfortunately, is the sheer danger it involves.
The Snaefell Mountain Course, as the narrow, winding route flanked by stone walls, buildings, and cliff sides is known, has taken many lives over the last century. The 2014 race alone took two lives, bringing the grand total of racers to perish on the treacherous course to an astonishing 242, and making IOM TT by far the deadliest motorsport race in the world.
What makes this course so dangerous? When the race started, the scenic course – a dream ride for most motorcycle riders – was run on old single-cylinder Matchless motorcycles at average speeds of in the range of 36-38 MPH. Now motorcycle racing has never been “safe,” but at those speeds, the course was doubtlessly easier to negotiate, and the race itself would not have been considered so unreasonable.
Over the last century, however, motorcycles have become far faster, and the competition much stronger – but the course itself has seen few changes. In today’s races, helmets fly only inches away from barbed wire fences and trees in excess of 200 MPH, and riders negotiate sharp turns bounded by ancient stone walls on either side at race speeds, catching several feet of air over jumps that, at one time, were only bumps in the road.
The faster the bikes get, the more dangerous the race becomes – and the more exciting it is to watch.
Simply Living Through It Makes You a Winner
Because of the nature of the course, and the time trial format, the IOM TT races aren’t so much a race against other racers as they are a test of man and machine against the course itself. While racers compete against each other for a spot on the podium, what they are really trying to defeat is the danger of the race; thus, it is often said that “every racer who finishes TT is a winner.” Simply making it to IOM TT, and completing the race without crashing – or dying – is an accomplishment that has brought racers to tears at the finish line.
Upon hearing about this race, and the danger and death toll involved, many people have a hard time believing it is even allowed to exist. It is indeed a sort of miracle that the race lives on – attempts to ban it have been made many times, but all of them have been unsuccessful.
The reason is mostly thanks to tradition. Even though the race gets faster and more dangerous each year, Isle of Man residents consider it a part of their heritage; the Isle of Man government itself is actually the chief sponsor of the race.
And despite the danger, there is never a shortage of racers willing to test themselves on the legendary course, or of sponsors and fans willing to support them. Being able to race TT represents the pinnacle of achievement for racers from all over the world, and even knowing the risk, they run the course anyway.
In fact, they probably run the race precisely because it is so deadly – the combination of danger, natural beauty, and tradition is what makes TT so special, and gives the race a mystique that has made it legendary among motorsport fans the world over.
How You Can Race on Isle of Man
If you-re like me, and straddling the line between death or epic achievement in a race like TT appeals to you rather than making you shake your head, then you are probably wondering what it would be like to ride this course yourself.
That’s the amazing thing about being a tiny sovereign nation that makes its own rules – they can make running a race like this within the reach of anyone who wants to try it. And they do.
If you just want to run the course, you can partake in “Mad Sunday,” a day each year during TT where spectators can run the mountain course on their own motorcycles, brought over by ferry from the English mainland. But while no speed limit is enforced on Isle of Man, Mad Sunday is still more of a motorcycle tour of the course than an actual race.
But what if you want to actually race on the Isle of Man?
It’s actually surprisingly easy to do, if you can get yourself and your bike all the way to the British Isles, of course. But not during the TT race – that’s the major league of Isle of Man racing. Amateurs can instead race in the Manx Grand Prix, a separate race held in August/September that caters to novice racers, privateers, and IOM TT hopefuls.
When you get there, you can race in the “Newcomers” class, designated especially for racers with no previous experience on the Isle’s Mountain Circuit. The only limitations are a maximum displacement of 600cc on your machine, and that you wear a red jersey designating you as a newcomer during practice sessions. Reach a qualifying time during the Newcomer’s race, and you’re immediately qualified to move up to higher race classes.
Besides the long trip over, it’s not entirely unlike doing a track day or racing at a local track. Except, of course, that its on the most legendary road course in all of motorcycle racing.
It’s already on my bucket list – what about yours?
What do you think of the Isle of Man TT race – epically exciting, or just plain crazy?