Isle of Man TT – The World’s Most Dangerous Race

July 14, 2017

As this year’s Isle of Man TT fortnight recedes into the distance, I think it would be really interesting to take a closer look at this singular and unique motorcycle race.

The Isle of Man TT, or Isle of Man Tourist Trophy

The Isle of Man Tourist Trophy, or “TT” for short, is one of the world’s oldest races, and to some people, the world’s most controversial motorsports event. How could it not be: each lap of the course is 37.75 miles, on single-track roads lined with trees, lamp-posts, garden walls, bus-stops and other such solid objects. At race speeds, bike and rider are shaken, juddered and vibrated as they ride over bumps that you would otherwise not notice at normal everyday road speeds. Indeed, it’s not uncommon for bikes to finish the race with bits missing, rattling loose or broken. More importantly, since its creation, the TT has claimed the lives of over 200 competitors, whether during the practice sessions or during race week itself.

Halliwood Creg on the Isle of Man TT

The Isle of Man TT Course

Before speaking further about this most legendary of motorcycle races, perhaps I should give some background for those who aren’t familiar with either the Tourist Trophy or with the Isle of Man. First, let’s talk about the venue and the Isle of Man TT course. The Isle of Man (also referred to simply as “Mann” by natives) is a small island situated in the middle of the Irish Sea, between North-western England to the East and Ulster to the West.

The capital of this self-governing crown dependency is Douglas, where the Isle of Man TT’s starts and ends on the straightaway of Glencrutchery Road. The TT course (called the “Mountain Course”, since it goes up and over the island’s highest peak, Snaefell) snakes northwest out of Douglas through Union Mills, Glen Vine and Crosby before heading roughly north at Ballacraine towards Kirk Michael village.

From there, the course changes bearing once again, heading northeast towards Ramsey. It is on this stretch of the course, between Kirk Michael and Ramsey that riders can push their bikes to the maximum, along the Sulby Straight. Race organisers have a speed camera established at this point, and it’s not uncommon to see top speeds flirting with – and this year exceeding – 200 mph.

Norton Governor's on Isle of Man TT

Once the riders have crossed Ramsey’s Parliament Sq., they enter the course’s Mountain Section proper by means of the Ramsey Hairpin, which is, along with Governor’s Bridge, the slowest point on the course. The fast and flowing Mountain Section comes to an end at Creg-ny-Baa (usually just known as “The Creg”), a large pub situated a few miles from Onchan. From there, competitors swoop rapidly back down to the Glencrutchery Rd. via Hillberry, Cronk-ny-Mona, Signpost Corner and the aforementioned Governor’s Bridge, which is the only part of the entire course that is not a public road, since it goes past the official residence of the Lieutenant-Governor.

Sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? Well it isn’t; the above is just an outline – those 37.72 miles of roads are full of turns, some of which are downright hair-raising at race speeds, such as Ballagarey (nicknamed Ballascarey for pretty obvious reasons), Handley’s, the fast flowing series of turns through Glen Helen, the Bottom of Barregarrow (pronounced “Begarrow”), and more. And of course there are a few points round the course where bikes actually become airborne, most notably over Ago’s Leap and Ballaugh Bridge.

May Hill on the Isle of Man TT

May Hill on the Isle of Man TT

The Isle of Man Tourist Trophy is a Time Trial

Ever since its first running in 1907, the TT has maintained its time-trial format. This means that riders leave the starting line individually every ten seconds. This format essentially means that you are not so much racing your opponents as much as racing the stopwatch. It isn’t uncommon to find that the motorcycle in front of you on the road is in fact several positions behind you on the iconic scoreboard situated at the Grandstand on Glencrutchery Road.

This is why there are no blue flags waved by Course Marshalls . If you come up behind another bike it’s up to you to find a way to get past it. The only exceptions to this time trial format were the races held on the alternative Clypse Course between 1954 and 1959, as well as the 1924 Lightweight category race and the Clubman category races in the late Forties, which were all mass start races.

Side Car Racers 2013 Isle of Man TT

Side Car Racers 2013 Isle of Man TT

Isle of Man TT Schedule

The TT is spread over two weeks, one for practice laps (which are also used to define riders’ starting order) and the second for racing. Race week starts on the Saturday after practice week with the Superbike race. Until 1928, practice week took place on open roads. This only changed after a particularly nasty accident when a competitor collided with a fish cart.

In 1949, the Isle of Man TT became part of the official FIM motorcycle Grands Prix calendar, which alternated purpose-built circuits with road courses. However, as the decades went by, riders became more conscious of security issues, and the beginning of the Seventies saw the road courses disappear from the calendar. By the time the Mountain Course was in turn dropped from the roster in 1977, it was practically the only remaining road/street course on the big-time international racing scene.

a motorcycle with a side car flying through the air at the Isle of Man TT

Flying a sidecar on the Isle of Man TT

The Isle of Man TT Is  A Proving Ground For Champions

Given its nature, the TT is a place where racing legends are born. For example, out of all of Mike Hailwood’s many race victories, it is perhaps his victory in the 1978 TTF1 race aboard the Sports Motorcycles Ducati 900SS, which also marked his return to motorcycle racing after an eleven-year break during which time he was racing in the Formula One championship, that is still at the forefront of many racing enthusiasts’ minds.

The TT also helped confirm Joey Dunlop as the undisputed, all-time “King of the Mountain” and turned him into a living legend. Over 24 years of competing at the TT, the quiet, humble and very private Ulsterman from Armoy clocked up an impressive 26 victories. He scored his first TT win at the 1977 Jubilee TT race, and his last win – part of a hat-trick that year – was in 2000, when he was 48 years old. Sadly, barely a month after this epic hat-trick, he lost his life while leading a 125cc race road race at a race meeting in Tallinn (Estonia).

Senior Racers in the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy

Senior Racers in the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy

Other riders who earned their place in the history books at the TT include Scotsman Bob McIntyre, who was the first rider to “break the Ton” on a lap of the Mountain course in 1957; John McGuinness, who broke the 130 mph barrier, posting a 131 mph lap on lap two of the Senior TT race; and Ian Hutchinson, who holds the record for the most wins by a single competitor at during Race Week, when he stood on the stop step of the podium five times at the 2010 Isle of Man TT.

Once Under Threat, The Isle of Man Tourist Trophy Continues to Thrive

During the first part of the Eighties the TT lost some popularity, and at one point some bastions of the motorcycling press even called for it to be banned. But diehard road racers and road racing fans kept it going and after a while this one-of-a-kind race started recovering its past glory and popularity.

Nowadays the Isle of Man TT’s organisers have successfully turned the event into a race that attracts spectators and enthusiasts from around the world, including those who wouldn’t necessarily be interested in pure road racing, and the TT has even made its way onto the silver screen, (its first film appearance was in the 1935 comedy “No Limit”, starring British comedian and ukelele player George Formby) with documentary films such as “TT 3D: Closer to the Edge” and “Road”, the latter focusing on the “royal family” of road racing, the Dunlops and the legendary “Armoy Armada”, as well as onto video game consoles.

Peter Hickman racing on the Isle of Man

And the TT’s worldwide popularity keeps on growing, drawing an ever-larger international audience and attracting more and more riders from around the world who feel the need to measure themselves against this most demanding motorcycle race. And although the TT’s organisers take pains to highlight the event’s prolific past and heritage, they are also resolutely taking it into the future with the “TT Zero” category for electric motorcycles, ensuring that the Isle of Man will continue to host exciting motorcycle racing action for many, many years to come. As they say in Manx Gaelic, “TT aboo!”

Interested in racing vintage bikes? Check out nascent vintage motorcycle racing league! You might also be interested in the fascinating story of Burt Munro, who tinkered with a 1920 motorcycle for over 40 years before setting a land speed record on it, or the crazy history of the murder-dromes – board track racing, or the history of flat track racing.