The Isle of Man TT (Tourist Trophy) is frequently called the world’s last great motorsports event, a title that is beyond well deserved. Every June racers compete on closed public two-lane country roads at speeds exceeding 200mph, making it one of, if not the, most dangerous motorcycle race in the world. But how did this often-lethal event, held at the world’s oldest active motorcycle racing course, come to be so popular despite today’s safety obsessed world?
And what exactly is the TT? What makes it so unique, and how many lives has the world’s deadliest circuit claimed?
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The TT Venue
The Isle of Man is a small crown-dependent yet independent island located between England and Ireland in the Irish Sea. It is known for being a tax haven and vacation destination for 50 weeks out of the year, but for two weeks every summer its home to one of the most dramatic and daring races in history. The topography ranges from climbing seaside hills to flat meadows to dense forests, with historic castle ruins and sleepy villages speckled about the land. The roads that traverse the island go through all of these features as well as the various towns and villages with the largest being Douglas, the island’s capital.
Every summer for two weeks the island hosts the TT. Ferries from Liverpool transport the racers, their teams and equipment along with the 40,000+ race fans that flood the island annually for a fortnight. The Isle of Man Government Treasury survey 2013, says attendance is up from 30,787, way back in 2010. During this time the island comes alive, parties take place every night, and many stores, restaurants and hotels open exclusively for the TT.
With over 25 million pounds spent on the Island by teams and fans, the local residents have come to appreciate and rely on the race-event to support and sustain their small, primarily tourist based economy. For this reason those living on the island are welcoming and have a very positive relationship with the folks who attend the races, including the small (wildly outnumbered) police force that helps coordinate and oversee the event.
The History of the TT
Around the turn of the century, motorcycle racing in Europe was in its infancy but nonetheless on the rise in popularity. By 1903 the U.K. Parliament passed an act that forbid riders from exceeding 20mph, which lead Sir Julian Orde, the Secretary of the Automobile Club of Great Britain and Ireland, to venture to the Isle of Man in hopes of finding more race-friendly authorities. The island had its own Parliament which meant that it did not have to comply with the U.K. Parliament’s Act. The first ever TT was held in 1907 thanks to the 1904 Isle of Man Parliament Act that permitted road racing.
The Auto Cycle Union (ACU, formerly Auto Cycle Club) organized the inaugural race, known as the Auto Cycle Tourist Trophy, a 10-lap race of the island’s St. John’s Short Course which was still a whopping 15+ miles per lap. In 1911 The TT switched to the substantially longer 37.73 mile course (The Snaefell Course, then 37.40 miles). At this point the TT consisted of two classes, the 350cc Junior TT and the “Blue Riband Event”, the 500cc Senior TT. While the machinery has changed in the last century, the Senior TT remains as the event’s biggest race and the most coveted trophy for competitors.
There have been a handful of years where the TT has not taken place due to the first and second world wars. The first stoppage was from 1915 to 1919, during WW1. In 1922, two years after competition returned to the island, the 250cc Lightweight TT class was added, as was the scary-looking Side Car TT race the following year. From 1940 to 1945 during the heart of WW2, the mountain course again hosted no races. When racing resumed again, it expanded with the Manx Grand Prix and the Clubman’s TT races becoming part of the Isle of Man racing calendar over the next several years. In 1949 the Snaefell Mountain course officially became part of the FIM Motorcycle Grand Prix World Championship, a little racing league that today goes by the name MotoGP. For the next 27 years the TT became increasingly popular on a global scale.
Who Races and Why?
Since the first race in 1907 the TT has hosted some of the world’s most talented motorcyclists from almost every era in two-wheeled motorsport history. Legends like Giacomo Agostini, Mike Hailwood and Joey Dunlop have all competed on the island course, each earning Senior TT victories. The prize money has become far more modest since the Grand Prix’s departure from the island, but the passion competitors have for the TT, has not.
Typically the only racers who actually profit money or even break-even, are those who finish in the top three. While sponsorships help ease the cost of competing, those who come here, often do it for the love of motorcycle racing and not to line their pockets. In fact, most TT racers hold down regular day jobs for the majority of the year. Two fairly recent examples being (former) Australian TT racer Cameron Donald who works as a plumber, and current super star Guy Martin who works as a truck mechanic. So while todays GP racers enjoy hefty paychecks, those that compete in the TT do it for the fun, to be part of a tradition and hopefully win the prestigious road race of them all.
The men and women who come to compete on the mountain course not only dedicate their lives but also risk them every time they set off down Bray Hill, the circuit’s starting point. They spend countless sums of money and use their limited vacation days to take part in the TT simply for a shot at glory or simply to chase a childhood dream. These grass roots, driving forces are what contribute to shape the unique personality of the TT to this day.
The preparation involved in participating in the TT is staggering. In addition to the years it takes to memorize the 37.73 mile course, those aspiring to compete in the TT must first take part in several other races that also take place on closed public roads in Ireland, just to be cleared to compete here. Only after a handful of seasons of cutting one’s teeth on road races such as the NorthWest 200 and Ulster Grand Prix, can you gain eligibility into the TT. Just to get on the grid at the TT is a monumental feat.
Those who compete in the TT have gained a unique notoriety that often defines who they are as a person both on, and off the track. They risk everything in pursuit of two-wheeled glory and have gathered a following not only for their racing prowess, but also for being likable characters that have emerged from the TT ranks. Larger than life personalities have given birth to fan favorites like beloved maverick Guy Martin and 23-time TT winner John McGuinness who is only three races short of tying the all-time record held by IOM legend, Joey Dunlop. The torch has been passed to Joey’s nephew Michael Dunlop who is one of today’s fastest TT racers.
Race Direction Specifics
Over the years the TT organizers have had to find ways of minimizing the risk involved in participation. One way this has been achieved is through the use of a time-trial format where each rider sets off individually in ten second intervals via a “clutch-start” versus a traditional group start. This gives riders more space and lowers the amount of dangerous wheel to wheel racing in such tight quarters.
The event is held over the course of two weeks with the first seven days consisting of qualifying and practice and the second week being made up of actual racing. There are a total of seven events: The most coveted Senior TT, Super Stock TT, Superbike TT, SuperSport TT, Lightweight TT, Side Car TT and the recently added Zero TT, a race specifically for electric motorcycles.
Events vary in number of laps as well as the rules for bikes’ eligibility based on displacement and modifications allowed in each event. The Senior TT consists of six laps around the 37.73 mile circuit, a total distance longer than a trip from New York City to Boston or half the distance from San Francisco to Las Vegas, all in around an hour and forty-five minutes. In some events riders must make a pit-stop in order to refuel and swap tires. This time is included each rider’s in overall time.
What Makes the TT so Special
Aside from individual events such as the Macau Grand Prix, Ireland and Pikes Peak, the TT is about the only place in the world where public roads are closed for the purpose of flat out motorcycle racing. Try starting an event like this today anywhere else in on the globe and you’ll find it’s nearly impossible. Tradition and cultural significance are two of the only reasons that the TT is legally permitted in today’s litigious and liability obsessed world.
These days, most purpose built race tracks like those used in MotoGP are under four miles long with somewhere between 15-20 turns on average. Being familiar with a track is essential to going fast so racers spend time memorizing them by watching onboard footage, or walking or riding a bicycle or scooter before the race. While track safety and rider gear have made huge strides in the last half century, GP venues have been required to have hundred foot long run off areas outside of every turn. At the Isle of Man, you get 100 foot banks, concrete walls and fences, if you’re lucky.
Compared to those proper race tracks, the 37.73 mile TT course has over 200 turns for its competitors to memorize. The circuit’s elevation goes from sea-level to 1,300 feet. This means riders must memorize every one of the courses corners, if a rider confuses turn 183 with turn 184 - that may be the difference between crashing and shaving a split second off their lap time. Because of this most experienced riders feel it takes roughly three years to memorize the TT course. But there’s more than just the corners that the racers have to deal with.
Unlike a closed course track, these stretches of asphalt were not built for the purpose of racing. Instead, the roads that collectively make up the legendary the TT course are maintained by the public works department, they’re rough, uneven and consist of various surface types. Then you factor in “the furniture” which consist of things like curbs, stone walls, lamp posts, trees and buildings, which line the entire TT course. These things cannot be removed for the races and as a result they present a very real danger to the riders.
Add into the equation that these racers must wrestle their increasingly faster bikes around the course, blitzing past stone walls and other immovable objects at speeds most of us will never experience in our lifetime. As the bikes become faster and faster, the course becomes more and more deadly. There are unique obstacles within the course that also compromise a racers well-being, including a handful of bridges and quick elevation changes that can propel their machines becoming into the air, sometimes reaching up to three or feet off the ground when they’re at full speed.
This is essentially what makes the Isle of Man so dangerous. It’s a combination of racing on public roads lined with objects no rider wants to collide with, a ridiculous number of turns, all of which must be navigated from the seat of the world’s most powerful motorcycles. That makes for some exciting viewing but real dangerous racing. As the machines became faster and faster and the years went on, there have been more and more competitors who’ve lost their lives on the famous mountain course. At one point the FIM eventually made the decision to remove the TT from the Grand Prix calendar in 1977 because it was too treacherous for them to support any further racing at this location. This monumental decision would shape the TT into what it has become today.
The TT has always had official organizers and management, however the sheer number of people required to put on an event on such a massive circuit is staggering. As a result the TT employs the use of volunteer track marshals who do everything from reporting accidents to sweeping up the debris. Without the hundreds of volunteers, the TT wouldn’t be possible. This speaks volumes about the enthusiasm and passion the locals have for this event.
Another unique aspect of the TT is the general public’s paddock accessibility. Unlike MotoGP and WSBK racing where the pits are off limits to everyone other than team members and occasionally press, the TT allows fans to openly walk around the paddock area, mingling with the TT stars. This has created to a much more intimate, community oriented event in contrast to the restricted access you experience at the new FIM series. The island also takes on what’s been described as a “carnival-like atmosphere” with non-stop parties and performances at night and in-between the races.
A very interesting safety practice that developed out of necessity is the unique method employed by medical response units at the TT. Because the course covers nearly 40 miles, on narrow two lane country roads, ambulance response time is too long. Waiting for a rolling response team can waste valuable time, and helicopters’ routinely don’t have enough space to land.
The solution to this problem was simple, yet brilliant. Experienced trauma doctors such as Dr. John Hinds, the individual who pioneered this concept, will set-off a few seconds after the racers and they follow them at near racing speeds so that each class has a doctor bringing up the rear. Following the racers on their own purpose built super bikes which carrying all the necessary medical gear, has proven to be the best procedure for this particular style of racing. It keeps medical personnel within a couple minutes of any accident on the course. The rest of the medical team would then make their way to the crash site using choppers and ambulances if the need arises, if they need to further assist the medical rider on scene. Over the years these medical teams have learned more and more about the types of injuries that are common at the TT and are prepared to deal with them at every race.
Sadly Dr. John Hinds lost his life as the result of an accident at a dangerous road race in Northern Ireland, but his contribution to the TT has already saved countless lives. As you may expect, death is unfortunately a routine part of the TT.
Aside from the obvious skill exhibited by the racers and the excitement that comes with that display of skill and intestinal fortitude, the TT has another major draw for many two-wheel enthusiasts. During the fortnight of the TT the public roads that make up the circuit are closed, with small windows of opportunity that allow normal traffic to make its way through between the conclusion and the morning start to the racing program. But there’s also a special time when public traffic isn’t allowed through and the race or practice events aren’t underway, so the public is free to have a ride on the world famous route, with no speed limits. Traffic is only allowed to travel in one direction as there were many deadly head-on-collisions before this seemingly obvious rule was enacted. A lot of people who aren’t officially competing, take this opportunity to have a go at the iconic course. Unsurprisingly, this has led to an even greater number of fatalities that are attributed to the event.
Lives Lost on the Snaefell Mountain Course
The Isle of Man TT is often referred to as the ultimate proving grounds for riders and their machines but the breathtaking display of skill isn’t the only thing that has made the TT so famous. The risk involved in racing on the island is a major appeal for the event because as one racer has said, “Nine times out of ten if you get it wrong around here, you’re done.”
So it’s no surprise that pushing a motorcycle to its limits on country roads has resulted in tragedy more than a few times. Since 1907 a total of 251 lives have been lost at the TT. Of those 251 lives lost, 146 of them were official competitors. The remaining 105 were members of the public trying their luck (or lack of) on the course in between races, or spectators who were in the wrong place, at the wrong time.
1970 was the TT’s deadliest year on record, with a total of six fatalities in that year alone. While there’s no official record kept, there have been several deaths of spectators and dozens of serious injuries often as a result of a bike going into the audience at high speeds. Spectators can watch the TT from any of the hundreds of vantage points ranging from the grandstand in Douglas, to the front yard or porch of the hundreds of houses that the TT course passes by.
As you can tell, the Isle of Man TT has a rich history. 2017 marks the 110th year of racing and there will likely be 110 more because the future of the TT seems to be growing. Attendance continues to grow year after year, with no signs of slowing down. Recently it has been announced that a major Hollywood movie about the TT has begun production and video game developer Big Ben Interactive is currently working on an Isle of Man TT game that is set for release sometime later in 2017. The TT is without a doubt one of the most fascinating, exhilarating and unique races ever held and its future is sure to live on through the next generations of fans and competitors.