The World’s Deadliest Motorcycle Race
Isle of Man Tourist Trophy
The Isle of Man, off the west coast of England, holds an annual festival of speed. Motorcycles hurtle around the 38-mile road course at speeds of 200 mph on the straights. Fatalities are frequent, topping 270 since 1907.
At the start of the 20th century, motorcycle racing was becoming popular in Europe. With almost no purpose-built tracks, many of the races took place on public roads. Anxious about safety, the British parliament passed a law in 1903 restricting motorcycle riders to a maximum speed of 20 mph.
Sir Julian Orde, the Secretary of the Automobile Club of Great Britain and Ireland, thought this took all the fun out of racing, so he approached the government of the Isle of Man. The island has freedom to enact many of its own laws through its own parliament.
When the Manx politicians heard Sir Julian’s plan to hold a race on the Isle of Man they were enthusiastic. The first Tourist Trophy race was held in 1907.
The contest was over a course that was about 15 miles long and involved 10 laps. There were two races; one for single-cylinder bikes and the other for two-cylinder machines. Harry Rembrandt “Rem” Fowler won the two-cylinder race but not without incident.
On lap seven he crashed at 60 mph and was entertaining the idea of giving up. However, a spectator told him he was in the lead by about 30 minutes. Bruised and shaken, he remounted his machine and completed the race. He finished first with a time of four hours and 22 minutes at an average speed of 36.2 mph.
Evolution of the Race
The 15-mile race didn’t last long. In 1911, the organizers added mountains to the fun and the course was lengthened to 37.7 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” (RideApart, an online motorcycle news site).
In 1923, they added sidecars in which someone with nerves of Grade Nine Titanium puts his or her life in the hands of the man on the throttle. The deal is that the passenger rides in a contraption that allows him to move from hugging the driver and leaning out away from him in order to make the vehicle go faster round corners. It seems to be an occupation designed to hasten the approach of the Grim Reaper.
The course goes through villages and towns, rolling countryside and mountains. Every twist and turn—and there are more than 200 of them—has to be memorized by riders if they want to be successful or even complete the race.
And, there are competency tests. Racers have to qualify to take part in the main events, but they still die in numbers high enough to dissuade all but the bravest from taking part.
Organizers have tried to make the race a bit safer by turning it into a time trial. Instead of a mob start that would almost certainly lead to collisions, riders are released at ten-second intervals and their laps are timed.
Some of the faster riders do catch up and overtake slower ones, but it’s not as if ten people are fighting for the same patch of real estate at the same time.
Isle of Man TT Fatalities
The long course wasn’t even a year old when it claimed its first victim. Victor Surridge, 19, ran wide at a corner and smashed into an earth bank.
The grim harvest of riders coming to grief continued. At first, riders were killed only occasionally, but as the machines got more powerful, the casualties mounted.
The last year in which there were no fatalities was 2001 and before that 1982. The year 1989 was particularly gruesome with eight riders dying, but 2005 was worse with nine deaths.
The 2018 festivities were marred by two deaths. Thirty-year-old Dan Kneen was a veteran of the races, and he crashed and was killed during a practice session. A few days later, newcomer Adam Lyon, 26, sustained fatal head injuries.
The United Kingdom has supplied by far the most bodies; 202 in all.
And, it’s not just the people on the crotch rockets that die. Five officials, flag marshals and the like, and four spectators have also been killed during Isle of Man TT events.
Dealing with casualties requires marshals trained in first aid and helicopters with additional help can be at the scene of an accident in a few minutes.
However, one rider is quoted as saying “Nine times out of ten if you get it wrong around here, you’re done.”
The road course is closed to other traffic during the event and this has provided an irresistible challenge to people with motorcycles and ideas of glory swirling in their brains. It’s a chance to check the last item off the bucket list.
When the professionals are not around, the amateurs have a chance to test their mettle, often with deadly results. They call it aptly “Mad Sunday.”
It’s described as an opportunity for members of the public to tour the Snaefell Mountain Course. Some may in fact “tour” the track but plenty of others can’t resist the urge to race around it.
Police have the unenviable task of controlling the situation. In 2011, Inspector Mark Britton said “I have already issued stark warnings this week about the dangers presented by not using the roads of the island with respect.” He went on to mention hefty fines and added ominously “But most of all, think of the family and friends you may leave behind.”
During Mad Sunday, traffic on the roads is only allowed to move in one direction. This rule came about because when two-way traffic was allowed nobody seemed to foresee the inevitability of head-on collisions.
Alex Lloyd, Editor at Large of Motoramic joined the crowds on Mad Sunday in 2014.
He wrote: “On many occasions I see ambulances stopped by cliffs. Bikers, and drivers, fly by without concern. It’s part of the game that is ‘Mad Sunday.’ Again. You knew the risks coming in. So don’t complain …
“‘Mad Sunday’ shouldn’t exist. It’s inhuman, irresponsible, and puts countless lives at risk. By all reasonable logic, it should be banned. And yet it exemplifies what makes this tiny island so special.”
Why Do They Do it?
They do it for the money; that is everybody but the riders. Those who finish in the top three might make enough to cover their expenses with a bit left over for champagne.
The Australian Cameron Donald started racing in the TT in 2005. He’s had two victories and placed in the top three four times. But, his day job is as a plumber. Guy Martin, another top rider, is a truck mechanic.
The top prize in 2018 was £18,000 for any rider who led every lap and finished first. Out of that has to come two weeks of food and accommodation for rider and mechanics, the cost of a competitive bike, fuel, tires, and transportation to the event.
For the person coming in 20th, assuming he completes all six laps, the prize was £300; the ferry alone from Liverpool to Douglas would swallow up most of that.
Most of the money in motorcycle racing has been sucked up by the Grand Prix circuit. This is where factory-supported teams race around purpose-built tracks with the absolute best in safety precautions. There are large run-off areas and gravel traps to slow bikes down before hitting crash-resistant barriers of piles of tires.
Around the TT course, there are massive trees, stone walls, lamp posts, houses, curbs, and uneven surfaces waiting to catch out the over-enthusiastic biker. An effort is made to provide cushioning – hay bales, tire barriers, etc. – around the most dangerous obstacles.
The 85,000 residents of the Isle of Man do well out of the race. They play host to 40,000 spectators, all of them looking for a place to sleep, food to eat, and booze to drink.
In 2017, the Isle of Man government noted that “This year’s event saw a 6.2% increase in visitors to over 45,000, with an estimated spend of £34.1 million, resulting in a contribution of £24.6 million to the local economy, growth of 8.9% and 9.3% respectively.”
- The number of laps varies according to the class of motorcycle. The Senior TT with the bigger bikes goes for six laps, that’s a distance a bit longer than Boston to New York, in about an hour and forty-five minutes.
- The races have been cancelled twice; between 1915 and 1919, and between 1940 and 1945. There were wars to be fought so young men could find more efficient ways of getting killed.
- Beryl Swain was the first woman to ride in the TT. That was in 1962 and the organization governing the sport promptly banned her. One reporter wrote that “Women, the weaker sex, are muscling in on man’s domain, practically no sport is sacred.” The ban was lifted in 1978.
- Another female rider is Maria Costello. She is quoted by the BBC as saying “I’ve broken about 24 bones over the years. Road racing gives you the best feeling in the world and the worst nerves, I love it.”
- “Everything You Need To Know About: The Isle of Man TT.” Tim Huber, RideApart, March 5, 2017.
- “How Many People Have Died at Isle of Man TT Over the Years? Is it the World’s Most Deadliest Race?” Geoff Sweet, The Sun, June 6, 2018.
- “Island’s Festival of Speed Leaves Trail of Deaths …” Tony Farragher, The Independent, June 11, 1993.
- “Isle of Man TT: Police Issue ‘Mad Sunday’ Warning.” BBC News, June 5, 2011.
- “Surviving ‘Mad Sunday,’ and the Deadliest Race in the World.” Alex Lloyd, Motoramic, June 3, 2014.
- “Research Shows Significant Increase in Visitors and Economic Contribution From TT Races in 2017.” Government of Isle of Man, August 8, 2017.
- “Isle of Man TT: Meet the Thrill Seeking Women Who Dare.” Kelly Foran, BBC News, June 4, 2014.
© 2018 Rupert Taylor