This racer went like blazes in the short time that she had.
If fighting with grace, intelligence, and dignity is the only way to get ahead, motorcycling pioneer Beryl Swain did just that in 1962. Despite the soul-crushing sexism and eventual outright institutional dismissal she experienced at the hands of the FIM, Swain loved motorcycles—and motorcycle racing. So, she raced until she was barred from doing so—as anyone probably would.
This love of motorcycles began in or around 1952, when a young Beryl Tolman met and married Eddie Swain, the owner of a motorcycle repair business. It wasn’t long before she also fell in love with bikes, and eventually began competing at both Brands Hatch and Snetterton in the 50cc class.
A decade later, in 1962, she became the first-ever woman to complete an Isle of Man TT event, riding her Itom 50cc Racer into 22nd place. She was hooked, and she wanted to do it again, and she wasn’t shy about saying so in a public announcement. That’s when her budding racing career went off the rails, through no fault of her own.
Now, it’s no secret that the IOMTT has been a deadly race for motorcyclists over the years. Even in 2019, the racing world just lost a very promising racer in Daley Mathison. Even as technology has changed dramatically over the years, racers have always known and accepted the risks that come with this thing that they love. It’s not a sport for the faint of heart, and racers know and accept those risks—even if the general public can’t always understand that mindset.
In 1962, the FIM seemingly concluded that a certain amount of risk was acceptable—but that it couldn’t take the negative publicity that would surely result from a woman dying on the mountain. Thus, the governing body found a way to revoke her racing license by instituting a minimum weight requirement that she had no hope of meeting.
Women didn’t compete in IOM events again until 1978, when Hilary Musson raced a Yamaha to 15th in the Formula 3 TT class. She went on to race at the Isle from 1978 to 1985, competing in eight consecutive TTs. Eventually, she also competed in the Manx GP—which didn’t allow women racers until 1989 due to fears of, you guessed it, negative publicity about the potential death or injury of a woman racer.
Despite the FIM effectively cutting down Swain’s racing career before it could get off the ground, her story—even when told in such an embarrassingly patronizing and maddeningly sexist tone as in the video above—has served as an inspiration for countless female motorcyclists in the years since.
In 2019, a gallery in Walthamstow, England—Swain’s hometown—held an exhibit honoring Swain’s achievements in a much different time than our own. Quite coincidentally, it also took until 2019 for the FIM to hold its first-ever Women in Motorsport Conference. Here’s to the Beryl Swains of the world, in all time periods: May we know them, may we be them, may we race and may we fight like them.