The Isle of Man is situated in the Irish Sea, almost equidistant distant from Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England. (They were all connected until about 10,000 years ago, when sea levels rose following the last ice age.) Since 1828, it has been a Crown Possession, which means it is self-governing in its internal affairs but under the supervision of the British government.
The island is approximately 30 miles long by ten miles wide and in the centre is the 2,000 feet Snaefell Mountain. According to legend, St Patrick banished toads and snakes from the island therefore there are none to be found. But he must have not been offended too much about cats, for the island has a very special version that does not have a tail. My theory is that along with the toads and snakes, St Patrick tried to catch all the cats but only managed to rip their tails off.
TT legends – riders, scouts, and a scoreboard
I first went to the Isle of Man in 1965 with my mate Irvin and his mate Brian to watch the senior TT (Tourist Trophy) motorcycle races. Traditionally practice and race weeks were held around the spring bank Holiday, in May or June. At that time races were run on alternate days throughout the week and the senior 500cc and the tiny 50cc races took place on Friday.
These were part of the world championships in those days therefore over the next few years all our favourite riders like Mike Hailwood, Giacomo Agustini, Phil Read, John Cooper and Bill Ivy took part at some stage during the week. The event was regarded as too dangerous and its world championship status was removed in 1976, but that hasn’t stopped intrepid riders from testing themselves over the 37.73-mile mountain course.
The senior race was over six laps with a pit stop somewhere in the middle. Traditionally boy scouts were on hand with refreshments and an oily rag with which to clean the fly screen and number plates and today 70 Manx scouts still ensure that the oldest manually operated scoreboard keeps the spectators up to date. There are also loudspeakers all around the track and a commentary on how the race is developing. Intermediate timing stations are placed in several places around the track.
The TT is regarded as the most dangerous road race in the world. If no-one gets killed during practice and races it is regarded as a good event. Between its conception in 1907 and 2023 there have been 156 fatalities. Six people died in one week as recently as 2022. This may be why so many see it as a challenge. However, riders cannot just turn up and hope for the best. They have to prove to the race committee that they and their machine are up to the task and are familiar with the 219 bends and turns.
How the TT all began
As the British mainland had refused permission to close roads to run races, the Isle of Man saw an opportunity. They ran the first race in 1907, on a shorter dirt track circuit. Four years later the race was run over the mountain on a circuit similar to the one used today. Now the road surface is all tarmac, of course. Throughout the rest of the year, when the TT and other races are not taking place, it is a normal public road with all its stone walls, houses, pavement edges, lamp and gateposts.
In the past there has been a problem of the locals forgetting that it’s a practice or race day and backing out of their driveway into the path of an oncoming rider. One year a horse was spooked by an air ambulance and jumped over the wall and onto the circuit and was in collision with a rider, killing both.
Many riders who have gone there as spectators have become over-excited with the location and atmosphere, with tragic results. Unfortunately, a few years after that first trip, the previously mentioned Brian was one. He was an ex-motorcycle racer and whilst riding down into Douglas he was in collision with a car coming the other way. Many have been sucked into the magic that is the Isle of Man TT with devastating outcomes.
No other race comes close
This race is like no other, not even close to any other. It includes undulations in the road that causes the bike to become airborne. One such is Ago’s Leap, where they are approaching speeds of 200mph. Then there’s the twisty village of Kirk Michael at 165mph, their crash helmets only inches away from clattering a corner of the post office building or garden walls. Then there are the fast-flowing open roads over the mountain. Straw bales are placed at the most dangerous parts, such as gateways, telegraph and lamp posts, but I think these are to protect the post and will do little to protect the rider.
You might well wonder why they do it. A quote from Motorcyclistonline explains it like this:
“Winning the IoM TT earns you a pittance of a purse, around £18,000. But the reward can’t be measured in money. It’s not a task for the career-oriented. It’s an obsession for dreamers and the slightly insane.”
The current lap record is held by Peter Hickman, at 136.358mph. This is an average speed through villages, over bridges and round hairpin bends. Speeds actually reach 200mph in places and when Joey Dunlop, the winner of 26 TT races, was once asked “how do you see where you are going at that speed?”, he replied, “I just aim it between the green bits”. Joey Dunlop was killed in July 2000, whilst competing in another road race in Tallinn, Estonia.
Taking it in – at the TT with friends in the 60s
This is John (Crocket) Grocott who is unfortunately no longer with us, Peter (Clyde) Norcliffe, John (Hodge) Hodgson, who featured in the ‘The Bikers of Crow Lane Youth Club’, and Paul Jackson, who never had a nickname, a fact that has troubled him ever since. We happy bunch of greasy rockers are sat on the cemetery wall just before the start and finish line on the A2, more commonly referred to as Glencrutchery Road. The year is 1967.
It is not surprising if we look slightly weary on this photo, we travelled on the midnight ferry, the SS ‘Manx Maid’ that sails from Liverpool to Douglas, run by the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company. As it was a Friday we had been working. We met up at the Crow Lane Youth Club, which was our regular haunt in those days, then hopped on our bikes to Liverpool.
The first four times I spectated at the TT, from 1965 to ’68 inclusive, we parked our vehicles in Liverpool and paid our £4. 10s (£4.50) and sailed as foot passengers. If the sea was anything more than a millpond, the toilets and many other places were awash with puke. There was little opportunity to get some rest. We arrived in Douglas at dawn and wandered around like zombies until we found a café open, then fell asleep into our full English breakfast.
A couple of hours later we might take one of the tour coaches around the course. These would allow us to disembark anywhere and then try to find a grass verge on which to catch some rest before the little 50cc bikes came screaming past nearer lunchtime. Then in the afternoon we would be rudely wakened by the senior riders howling and growling past on their 500s.
The Hailwood and Agostini classic
The start sequence for all the races were staggered every ten seconds, so once a bike passed us another would come along approximately ten seconds later. The winners were calculated by the time it took for them to complete the race.
This is Mike Hailwood’s Honda being pushed to the start line by the mechanics in 1967. Hailwood is walking in front with the number one on his back. His arch ravel on that day was the Italian Giacomo Agostini, wearing number nine. The race is regarded as the best ever. It was nip-and-tuck all the way, until the latter part of the last lap, when Ago’s chain broke. We were at the track side as he pushed his bike past us. He looked devastated.
A couple of hours after the race had started, we were on our way to the dock to get our ferry back home. Retrieving our bikes in Liverpool, staying awake long enough to arrive home in the early hours to a nice warm bed and 12 hours’ sleep – only the young are foolish enough and poor enough to attempt it.
Time for a chuckle.
There are three sorts of people in this world: those who are good at maths and those who aren’t.