The race that won’t stop killing

Five* racers were killed in 2016’s Isle of Man TT races. That’s a few more than average, but nothing anyone’s getting uptight about; ferry bookings to attend next year’s event have already sold out.

That people have died and will die –– lots of them –– is just the way of things. It’s an accepted truth. There will always be Tuesdays; oranges are orange; men and women will die in horrific crashes at the TT. And perhaps I’ve lived in these parts for too long that I hadn’t really considered how deadly the TT is until RideApart asked me to write a piece about it back in the summer.

By “these parts” I mean the British Isles: the archipelago that also includes the United Kingdom and Ireland. And, to a lesser extent, I mean the Isle of Man.

The Isle of Man, a tiny strip of land sitting in the Irish Sea –– only 14 miles across at its widest point –– holds the status of UK crown dependency. Which means that it can make most of its own laws but its Olympic athletes compete under the United Kingdom’s flag. It’s that element of self-governance that is at the heart of why the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy Race, to use its full name, even exists.

Back in 1907, clever local officials saw that the United Kingdom had a national speed limit of 20 mph (cars and motorcycles were newfangled contraptions and British roads ill-equipped to support them), so they scrapped their speed limit entirely in hopes of drawing wealthy thrillseekers. This year marked the 97th running of the TT, folks having taken a few years off here and there to fight each other in the world wars.

Over the TT’s history, some 146 competitors have died. That doesn’t count the spectators and race officials who have also lost their lives by being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Add those in, along with amateurs outdone by the course when it’s been opened up to the public, and the death toll climbs closer to 270 (though, I can find no reliable figure for the exact number of total deaths that have occurred during the TT period). It is, as the man in this video says, “totally out of order.”

To put it into perspective, consider the closest thing the United States has to an equivalent: the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. In its 92-year history only six competitors have actually been killed. Just three of them were motorcyclists, but that’s been enough for the PPIHC to make rules about bikes’ handlebars and even consider banning two-wheeled machines from the event.

Part of what makes the TT so incredibly dangerous is the fact it’s run through quintessential British Isles-style towns and villages, on the same streets that Isle of Man residents use throughout the year. The course consists of nothing more than public roads blocked off for a few hours each day. It’s similar to when roads in the United States are blocked off for parades. But instead of the local belly dancing club and a high school marching band, it’s a motorcycle zipping past your house.

Actually, it’s a little more like having that motorcycle scream down your driveway. When American friends visit me in the UK they’re surprised at how narrow the roads are, how close houses are to those roads, how stone walls and hedgerows seem to creep in, and how generally unforgiving of mistakes is the whole set-up.

That officials allow motorcyclists to hurtle themselves themselves through all this is, as TT organizers readily admit, madness. It’s hard to imagine a race track being allowed to operate after it’s claimed 146 lives. Heck, it’s hard to imagine a sport being allowed to carry on with so many fatalities. For example, in the history of NASCAR –– across all race series in all venues –– with its long reputation for rag-tag reckless maniacs, only 83 drivers have died.

And yet the chances of the TT being called off grow less each year. Part of it, of course, is money. The Isle of Man is somewhat difficult to get to and sits in a part of the world that is more often than not cold and wet. It has no real industry to speak of, apart from being a tax haven for the wealthy. The TT brings tourists and money. Lots of tourists and lots of money.

But greater than money is tradition. “We’ve always done it that way” is a perfectly acceptable argument in the British Isles. Outside of the progressive metropolises like London, Dublin, Edinburgh, etc., folks prefer their change to come slow, if at all. That’s why people here don’t drive cars with automatic transmissions. It’s why you can find buildings that have stood derelict for 100 years. It’s why many pubs, restaurants, and hotels (far more than you’d ever imagine) still don’t accept credit cards. It’s why calling a woman you’ve never met “love” or “darlin’” is as socially acceptable as saying “hello.”

The TT has been run for a long time. Back in 1907, when motorcycles were little more than glorified bicycles, the course probably didn’t seem all that wild or insane. It was likely more a test of endurance than anything else. By the time technology had progressed enough to make the course truly dangerous the power of tradition had already grabbed hold.

In addition to all this is the great British Isles affection for those who do stupid/not sane stuff. People of this archipelago love a poorly conceived feat of derring-do. That’s always been the way of things, but has grown especially true in the post-war, post-industrial age.

In the 1970s and 80s motorcyclists here fell in love with the likes of Barry Sheene, but also Joey and Robert Dunlop: Northern Ireland racing brothers who both ended up being killed in crashes. Robert’s sons, William and Michael, are current racers. William helped Victory earn a podium spot at this year’s TT; whereas Michael set a new TT superbike lap record.

In the 1990s, British Isles culture celebrated guys who consumed ridiculous quantities of drugs. In the 2000s, the “Top Gear” mindset of a person placing himself in a doomed-to-fail situation became all the rage, along with watching Bear Grylls drink urine from a dead camel’s bladder.

These days, bike magazines are filled with tales of guys riding clunking, 30-year-old bikes to Africa. It all has the same theme: an appreciation for those who look a bad idea squarely in the face and think, “Yeah, I’ll have a go.”

Though, TT fans prefer to think of it as bravery: a willingness to push to the very limit of human capability.

There are occasional calls to ban the TT, usually after a better-known racer is killed, but they never carry much weight. The tradition is too strong, the fans’ desire too great. And we know that many of the racers also believe it’s worth the risk. Isle of Man TT Racer Allan David Jefferies was killed at the 2003 TT. Famously, this quote from him is written on his gravestone: “Those who risk nothing, do nothing, achieve nothing, become nothing.”

The TT is dangerous. Racers have died; racers will die. It seems, though, that people here are willing to accept that. It’s just the way of things.


*NOTE: The figure of five deaths in this year’s TT period comes from a report by the BBC. However, the folks over at Asphalt & Rubber take issue with this, pointing out that the death of racer Dean Martin took place at the Pre-TT Classic, which, they point out “is a different race, run on a different race course.”

ALSO NOTE: At no point in this article do I suggest that the TT should be banned. When the article was originally published on RideApart I had kickback from a number of people who lack reading comprehension skills, getting their undies all twisted up over comments that were never made. If you’re one of those people I suggest you chill the fuck out and sit the hell down.