What Drives the Men Who Compete in the Most Dangerous Race on Earth?
“If it was dead safe, I wouldn’t do it.”
In 1911, Victor Surridge set out for a practice lap on the Snaefell Mountain Course, a winding, hilly coastal pass that has long played host to what might be the most dangerous event in all of motorsports: the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy motorcycle race.
It was a lap he would never finish.
The British racer became the first casualty of the annual event that day, but he was far from its last: in the 105 years since, the race around the 220-square-mile British island has claimed nearly 2.4 lives per year.
Earlier this week, two riders — 27-year-old Dwight Bear and 50-year-old Paul Shoesmith — lost their lives on the same day. They were the Isle’s 249th and 250th victims.
While us mortals may never understand why one would choose to participate in such a brutal competition, it remains a misty Valhalla to those who compete. Just yesterday, hours after the course claimed the lives of Bear and Shoesmith, driver Michael Higgins and motorcyclist Michael Dunlop triumphantly smashed two of its records.
To try to understand what drives the scores of riders who peregrinate to the North Irish Sea to contest the trophy each year, we’ve compiled the wistful waxings of seven of its most famous champions.
John McGuinness, 23 TT Wins
“The Isle of Man is the oldest race, the longest race, the toughest race and probably one of the most dangerous races out there. It’s fast and takes a long time to learn but it’s probably the most exciting thing to do on two wheels. To win a few races here is incredible with the history, the festivity of it and the closeness you get to spectators on the bike; it’s a pretty special place in the middle of the Irish Sea.”
Mike Hailwood, 14 TT Wins
“The technique with the Island is to put in as many laps as possible before racing starts, learn the course, figure out where you can afford to go fast, and then race as hard as you can under the circumstances. On sections where one mistake would have you smashing into a brick wall, you roll it off a fraction. You don’t have to put your life on the line unnecessarily. Loyalty to the cause doesn’t extend beyond loyalty to one’s own life.”
Ian Hutchinson, 14 TT Wins
“We’re not mental and want to die or anything, in fact we’re the exact opposite. But the enjoyment that comes with it means I accept the consequences. It depends how you look at life itself, I suppose. If it’s what you want to do then that’s all there is to it. No one puts a gun to your head. There are all sorts of things in life that can kill you, aren’t there? So what do you do, stay at home and do nothing?”
Giacomo Agostini, 10 TT Wins
“Every year we lost three or four friends. When my friend Gilberto Parlotti died in 1972 in the 125cc at 9:30 in the morning, I was warming up. I felt it was time for me to stop. It was so hard, because the Island gives the riders so much — but a life is still a life. Despite this, I can understand why many still choose to race there. Winning at the IoM is like winning the world championships — it is so difficult.”
David Jefferies, 9 TT Wins
“Those who risk nothing, do nothing, achieve nothing, become nothing.”
Conor Cummins, 0 TT Wins
“No one is forcing anyone to do this race … There’s not one man in that paddock that signed up because they have to. It’s because they want to.”
Guy Martin, 0 TT Wins
“That moment between crashing and almost dying. That’s raised the benchmark. I want to get back to that point. Money can’t buy it. Everything’s been so sanitised with bloody PC nonsense and health and safety that there’s nothing else is there? If it was dead safe, I wouldn’t do it.”
To see what all the fuss is about, here’s the record-breaking, sub-17 minute lap of the Mountain Course 27-year-old Michael Dunlop completed to win this year’s RST Superbike race.
Images courtesy of Dave Kneen at Pacemaker Press International, Tim Keeton at Impact Images and Isle of Man TT
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