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Al Jazeera Correspondent

The Isle of Man TT: A Dangerous Addiction

It is reputedly the world's most dangerous race yet each year more riders risk all to take part in the Isle of Man TT.

Last updated: 02 Nov 2012 07:46
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Filmmaker: David Niblock

The Isle of Man TT is described as the world's most dangerous race. Yet every year more and more motorcycle enthusiasts come to this tiny British island to race in the event.

It is a three-hour ferry ride from Liverpool to Douglas, the capital of the Isle of Man, which is a self-governing British Crown Dependency.

Year after year in late May more than 25,000 people make this journey to the small island about 70 kilometres off the English coast in the middle of the Irish Sea.

The TT race has claimed almost 150 lives in its 105-year history and the course itself has claimed more than 250 lives.

Most of the riders are amateurs with full-time jobs a world away from the megabucks of Grand Prix racing, and for them this is a very expensive business.

The course is more than 60 kilometres long and lined with kerbs, lamp posts, houses, trees and granite walls. The race is run over a distance of 364 kilometres, or six laps of the course, and takes about two hours to complete.

And, it is not a death wish. It is about living.

This film was shot during the 2012 Isle of Man TT, and it was only the third time in 20 years that the event passed by without a fatality.

Al Jazeera's Simon McGregor-Wood, a self-professed 'petrol head', took part in this year's events, though he did not actually race. Through him, we take a close look at the passion and dedication that drives people to risk their lives to ride in this race. We will also look at what makes this race so exceptional and what makes the Isle of Man so unique.

Correspondent's view: Living on the edge

By Simon McGregor-Wood

I have been fascinated by the Isle of Man TT for years. While living and working in the Middle East I saw a video shot from onboard one of the leading competitor's bikes. I could not believe the speed or the nature of the infamous TT course. I was determined to find out more.

The TT started in 1907. Its full title is the Tourist Trophy, and it was the dream of a group of early motorcycle enthusiasts to run a race across the Isle of Man's twisting and hilly public roads. A local by-law from 1905 gave them the legal green light.

For Guy Martin the danger of the TT race is part of the allure that keeps people coming back for more

The race has been run ever since, and in 1911 the course was extended to its present gruelling length of almost 60 kilometres.

My personal fascination with the TT grew from my love for motorcycling. For years I have devoted time and money to feeding my own dangerous addiction to speed.

And despite advancing years and the added responsibilities of family life, I still take my bike onto the racing circuits of the UK and even mainland Europe.

Long gone are the days of my amateur racing career, but there is still a profound love of the private challenges of riding at high speed on a closed track. From this I understand the extraordinary skills and risks taken by those who choose to compete at the TT.

Road racing is different. Margins for error are almost too thin to calculate. A crash at the TT means almost certain death. Riders reach speeds of up to 320 kilometres an hour through village streets, past lamp posts, bus stops and sharp-edged stone walls. If they get it wrong here, there is nowhere to go.

Why do they do it? How, in this day of obsessional health and safety, is the TT still allowed?

In its long history, the Isle of Man course has claimed almost 250 lives, of which 150 were lost during the TT race itself. On average more than two riders die each year. On my first visit to the island, three men were killed.

In our film we hoped to find some of the answers.

We chose to follow the fortunes of John Ingram, a TT novice from Wigan in the north of England. John is an amateur racer with a solid reputation, a family man in his 30s with three children and his own business. He seemed a good subject for me to understand the motivation that draws people to such a dangerous event.

As with most of the devoted army of TT fans, we set sail from Liverpool, our van crammed with camera gear and personal luggage. Our home for two weeks was to be a house just yards from the circuit in the island's capital, Douglas.

'Thrilling but terrifying'

The TT festival lasts two weeks. A week of practice and qualification, followed by a week of racing.

We met John and his team of friends in the paddock on Saturday morning, working like all the others, on his bike. His first test came that evening. His first practice session on the famous TT course. His first taste of the closed circuit. A chance to see if he had the stomach for the challenge.

  William Dunlop has lost an uncle and his father but continues to race alongside his brother, Michael

John is disarmingly honest; a quiet man not given to displays of emotion but confident in an unassuming way. He freely admitted that he did not know if the TT was for him. It was something he had wanted to try for years.

After discussions with his wife, Tracy, and with Gary Johnson, a friend and a TT winner, John decided this was "a box he needed to tick".

The paddock at the TT is a special place. Far from the exclusive haven of other motor sports, fans and riders mingle freely in what sometimes resembles a village fete with bikes.

At the top end of the paddock the big factory-supported teams park their huge trucks, covered with team and sponsors' livery.

At the poorer end of the paddock individual riders put up their tented awnings, often attached to the caravans or small mobile homes in which they, their friends and their family stay.

There are big teams and there are star riders but they are not closeted away behind protective screens. To get from their mobile home to their bikes, they must walk through crowds of admiring fans. I was impressed with their willingness to stop for photos and autographs. On our first day we bumped into Guy Martin, the undoubted poster-boy of the event, on his bicycle, his leathers slung across his shoulder, edging his way through throngs of admirers.

We followed John and the other riders through the first days of practice. I remember seeing him disappear down the road on his first session, and hoping that he would return in one piece. The sights and sounds of the bikes roaring in the distance was thrilling but terrifying. The thought that disaster was just a small miscalculation away created an almost permanent anxiety.

John came back but admitted it had been an enormous challenge. His average speed was respectable, nothing more. He told me his biggest problem was not knowing the circuit well enough. Experienced riders say it takes at least three years to learn your way around the TT circuit.

During one evening's session we filmed alongside a group of volunteer race marshals halfway down one high-speed straight stretch. As the roads were being closed, my anticipation grew. This was my first time on the circuit within feet of where the bikes would pass us.

I heard them before I saw them. The high-pitched whine of their engines at full throttle heralding their approach. And in a flash they were upon us. A group of four of the leading riders at over 240 kilometres an hour, just feet apart. And in a split second they were gone. I was spellbound. We looked at each other in silent amazement. The speed, the sound, the setting, it was overwhelming. How could they do it?

  A self-confessed TT devotee, David Niblock survived a high-speed crash during a parade lap one year

During our stay on the Island we managed to secure half a dozen very high-profile interviews with top riders and team owners. More than that, we persuaded all of them to move away from the security of the paddock to sit down to talk in the quiet isolation of our rented house.

I was impressed with their candid honesty. Many, including 19-times TT winner John McGuinness were practiced interviewees. But they held nothing back in interviews which lasted over two hours each.

Each man admitted that the danger of the TT was part of the attraction, an essential part of the thrill of the event. They all understood the risks involved.

All of them had lost friends riding at the TT, and yet they all said they were in love with the race despite the frequent tragedy. They passionately defended it from the critics who say it should be banned or made safer. "No one's holding a gun to our heads," they say.

'Filled with eccentricity'

One thing about the TT that became clear during our stay is that money was not part of the motivation. The cost of participating in the event is enormous. John and his personal sponsor told me that the cost of his first TT, including the bike, the spares, the fuel, as well as the feeding and accommodation for his two pit crew, was a staggering $40,000. The top prize money for winning one of the races was a modest $48,000 (£30,000), and the cash extends far down the field of finishers.

Throughout the paddock there were riders who were clearly committing vast amounts of their personal money to compete. This was a labour of love which was obviously costing many riders every spare penny they had. As one old TT hand told me: "There is no such thing as cheap motor racing. If you can't afford it, you can't do it."

This year's TT was one of the very few that was not scarred by tragedy. There were crashes and broken bones, but nothing worse. In the end, the British weather played its role. Persistent rain cancelled, for the first time in TT history, the senior or the main race category, the most prestigious of all.

I had arrived on the Isle of Man uncertain of what I thought about the TT. I could not understand why riders came back year after year to risk it all for so little tangible reward. I was concerned the danger and the death bred an unhealthy voyeurism. By the end I realised this devotion was not part of some morbid death wish - quite the opposite. It was their way of living life on the edge, and to the fullest. It involved an attractive defiance in the face of an increasingly risk-averse world.

I came to admire their no fuss approach to misfortune, their grim good humour in the face of adversity. There is no whining at the TT. If something goes wrong, even if it involves a tragedy, there is an overwhelming determination to keep things going. The TT is filled with eccentricity, a peculiarly British affair, one for which I have the greatest respect.

 


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