This weekend saw the annual running of the biggest event in four-wheeled track racing, the 24 Hours of Le Mans. But if your preferred vehicles only have half that number of wheels, you may have been watching a different race: the Isle of Man TT.
Though it is a time trial rather than an endurance race, and doesn’t run for 24 hours, the Isle of Man TT (just “TT” to the locals) is the Le Mans of motorcycle races. Entrants of several classes must complete six laps of the 37.75 mile Snaefell Mountain Course, a track made entirely of public roads, which surrounds a sizeable portion of the Isle of Man. Snaefell, true to its name, covers a massive elevation change, and contains over 200 turns.
Though the distance is grueling, it’s the pure speed that has made the TT so famous, and so infamous. For instance, this year’s TT Superbike class winner, John McGuinness, averaged a lap speed of 127.87 mph on his Honda 1000 cc. That doesn’t sound like much if you know that the bike can do well over 200, but picture yourself cresting 100 mph down a slightly curvy, slightly hilly residential road in your home town, and you’ll begin to understand just how fast the TT is. A quaint, quiet, British-like countryside speckled with tiny, dozen-building towns connected by a narrow, two-lane ribbon of road seems an odd place for one of the fastest motorcycle races in the world, but a glance at its history will clear things up a bit.
It began with cars. In 1903, British Parliament passed the Motor Car Act, which prohibited the closing of roads in the UK for auto races. So in 1904, organizers of the Gordon Bennett Eliminating Trial took a ferry out to the Isle of Man, a self-governing island in the middle of the Irish sea, which, through a series of political shifts or forgetful officials, never became part of the UK. And though it still answers to the Crown, it has its own Parliament. (To this day, the Isle of Man has no speed limits on the highways, making it my dream vacation spot, and explaining why Jeremy Clarkson owns a house there.)
The resulting race was a success, and the following year organizers added a motorcycle class, though they had to modify the motorcycle course to avoid the steep climbs of the mountains, which were too much for the little 1905 motorcycles. By 1911, the bikes were more powerful, and the Snaefell Mountain Course, which is still used today, was introduced.
Three years later, racer Frank Walker was killed in an accident. Sadly, he wouldn’t be the last. Over the century of the TT’s running, 231 people have died. Those dozen-building towns along the course prefer to line their roads with pretty little stone sheep fences and huge old trees. Both are nice if you’re driving a horse cart or a 1961 Jaguar E-Type at reasonable speeds. At 120 mph, they might as well be pikes and land mines.
It makes the TT a very unique kind of race. Two-wheeled races are obviously more dangerous than the four-wheeled variety, but the Isle of Man TT tends to attract that special brand of lunatic, the type who only care for speed, glory, and the glory of speed. The ones who spend weeks practicing a single corner at low speeds just so they can hit it a little faster on race day. To them, skill is a matter of survival.
Let me put it this way: I want to race before I die. I want to drive and ride as fast as I can. I’d like to drive the Dakar, Le Mans, and Monaco. I’d like to top out a Bugatti Veyron or a Koenigsegg Agera R at over 260 mph. And while I don’t imagine I’ll ever have opportunities to accomplish half of this, I like to think that, with enough training, I could pull it off.
But after watching a single lap of the TT, I was convinced that I would never try it. I don’t think a lifetime of sport bike experience could ever prepare me. I don’t even want to find out if I have what it takes. It’s one of the few races I’m content not to ever try. But that won’t stop me from watching, because it’s those fearless pilots, constantly pushing the limits and trying to stay a tenth ahead of death itself, who make racing such an adventure, and to me, every one of them is a hero.