Breakneck speeds. Hairpin turns. Houses only inches away. Men’s Journal checks out the insanity of the Isle of Man TT.
Breakneck speeds. Hairpin turns. Houses only inches away. Men’s Journal checks out the insanity of the Isle of Man TT.
By John O’Connor
For two weeks every June, Noble’s Hospital in Douglas, the capital of Britain’s Isle of Man, brings in three extra trauma surgeons from the mainland to cope with a sudden influx of head injuries, crushed limbs, and burned and lacerated skin. The reason for the deluge is the Tourist Trophy, an annual motorcycle race that is among the most implausible sporting events in the world. It has claimed the lives of 131 competitors over the years, including 19 in the past decade.
The TT course is a mountainous 37.73-mile Brueghelian nightmare of twisting public roads lined with what the racers call “street furniture”: houses, pubs, stone walls, lampposts, trees, hedgerows, and mailboxes. Spectators fill the open spaces like sand poured into a jar of marbles. Last year a cow wandered onto the course and had to be quickly tranquilized — a reminder that this is not, in any way, a real racetrack. There are no sand pits or soft tire walls lining the corners — only rock and cliffs and metal.
Above all, there is no margin for error. The winner of the first TT, held in 1907, piloted a single-cylinder moped that averaged 38 mph and had to be pedaled uphill. Today elite riders, astride slightly modified versions of the same sport bikes you’ll find at a dealership, navigate these hazards at upward of 190 mph.
In the intervening 102 years, the TT has grown from a single event into a series of races played out over a week, each one broken down by engine size and classes such as Superbike, Supersport, and Superstock. The main events pay out about $115,000 in prize money. But fortune isn’t what draws men (and a few women) to face their mortality on this rock 34 miles off the coast of England. For them the allure of the TT is primal — it is the most difficult motorcycle race imaginable. That’s also what drew me and 50,000 other spectators to watch from the sidewalks this past June.
Monday, June 8, 10:03 AM
Mark Miller, a former top racer in the American Motorcyclist Association series, is kicking around the paddock prior to the 1000cc Superbike event, the first of the week. He is one of the most successful U.S. riders in TT history, yet in his three tries he has never finished better than 17th. He’ll compete in three races this week. (Most riders enter multiple events.) Of the six American riders in this year’s competitions, he has the best chance of cracking a top 10, a feat the 38-year-old from Calabasas, California, says would almost be like taking first.
He thinks this year will be his last. An unmarried aspiring screenwriter, Miller is ready for a second act beyond racing. “There’s more to life. I love art and wine and opera,” he says. “I’m not willing to die for this.”
But then he says things like, “This is the single greatest challenge available to me. Sure, there’s a possibility of death, but there’s nothing like going 190 miles per hour and brushing your shoulders against ivy,” and “If you survive this race you’re walking three inches off the ground for a month. It’s the only race where I’ve ever wept after I crossed the finish line.”
Monday, June 8, 11:15 AM
At the starting line of the six-lap Superbike race, smoke and gas fumes cloud around the racers as they rev their motorcycles. Spectators lean over walls, dangle from tree limbs, and hang out of pub windows. The riders take off in timed intervals, barrel down Glencrutchery Road at 170 mph, and evaporate.
Post-race, I find Miller crouched in a sliver of sunlight behind the grandstand. He finished 11th, just a half-second out of 10th place. “Refueling problems ate a lot of seconds in the pits,” he explains. “Maybe the next race.”
An ugly green bruise is visible on his left biceps from where he was hit by a bird during the race. “It’s a fistfight out there,” he says.
Nearby, rookie U.S. rider James Vanderhaar is sprawled on the floor of his team’s garage after finishing 79th of the 80 riders. A 29-year-old amateur racer and construction manager from Louisville, Kentucky, Vanderhaar trained for the TT by playing the PlayStation 2 video game Tourist Trophy, which replicates the course to the last hedgerow. He arrived last week and threw up twice in his helmet during practice.
“It’s fucking insane,” he says. “I’ve been within three inches of the edge of the road on Snaefell Mountain. If you go past that, you’ve got a fence and wire to get wrapped in, and a cliff to fall off. Honestly, I don’t know if I’m willing to risk what it takes to make it here.”
Tuesday, June 9, 2:37 PM
Despite posting his fastest average lap speed ever, 123.9 mph, Miller finishes 12th in Superstock. His last chance to reach the top 10 will come Friday.
Vanderhaar finishes 51st out of 53 after nearly performing a 150-mph swan dive into a hedge. “There’s a lot of bikes out there plastered in trees and on sidewalks,” he says. “The race marshals were literally clearing a path in the debris so you could go through.”
Thursday, June 11, noon
With no races today, I tour the course with Richard “Milky” Quayle, rider liaison officer for the TT. Newcomers are required to do at least one practice lap with Milky, who is uniquely qualified to instruct them on the track’s perils. An eight-year veteran of the race, he is also the star of an amateur video (search his name on YouTube) that shows him crashing headfirst into a hay bale at 120 mph in the 2003 TT, an accident that hospitalized him for three weeks and marked his retirement from racing, minus his spleen.
“You do a corner here like you’d do a normal corner and it’ll bite you on the ass,” Milky says, nodding at a mangled road sign bearing the distinctive scars of a recent explosive impact. The offending motorcycle’s remains have been swept away, but skid marks still slice across the asphalt, vanishing into a hedge. “It takes some balls to go through here,” Milky continues, “and if you’re too anxious” — he slaps the steering wheel — “bam!”
Our excursion quickly devolves into a historical tour of personal tragedy, turning particularly grim just before the town of Crosby, as the road dips and narrows and becomes a labyrinth of blind entries and hairpin turns. “This is where my friend Mike Casey was killed in 1998,” Milky says, pointing to a narrow two-story cottage. “His motorcycle went through the roof.” Then: “Alistair Howarth lost his leg at this turn in 2000,” “David Jefferies died here in 2003,” “I’ve been through that hedge over there.” And so on.
From Crosby, the course sweeps west and then north toward the harbor town of Ramsey, bending south as it enters Snaefell Mountain, a 2,036-foot peak on which the road becomes particularly sinuous and the wind typhoon-grade. The right-hand curb on Snaefell is essentially a cliff, while the left-hand is a sloping meadow. There is no speed limit on the island, except in towns, and Milky pushes his silver Honda Civic to 130 mph as we chicane past dozens of cars, his fingers playing on the steering wheel as if he were working the clutch and brake of a motorcycle. Finally, we spin past Hillberry Corner, a dizzying jackknife curve where a half-dozen racers have perished over the years, and safely descend into Douglas.
“I struggle a little bit with life now,” Milky admits back at the grandstand, which sits across the street from a cemetery with a memorial commemorating fallen riders. “This race is better than anything, better than drugs, better than sex. People say to me, ‘It’s so amazing seeing your child being born.’ And I think, Yeah, right.”
Friday, June 12, 11 AM
A rain delay to the Senior race, the final and premier event of the week, sets riders on edge. Vanderhaar considers dropping out — “I’m not dying on this island in the rain,” he says — but changes his mind. Even veteran Miller stresses his survival ambitions at the sake of a top 10 finish. “Honestly, if I go home safe, I’ll be completely happy.”
The rain stops and a golden, liquid light envelops Douglas. The bikes tear out of the gates, unleashing a hellish buzzing. By the start of the second lap, Miller has smashed his previous personal record with a 125.5-mph average lap speed.
Vanderhaar manages only one lap before his clutch fails. His race is over.
Miller enters the pit at the end of his fourth lap. With two more to go, he is in 10th place, a tenuous three and a half seconds ahead of 11th. His pit stop goes smoothly, with none of the refueling issues that plagued him previously, but his rear tire is nearly bald.
Miller exits the pit lane and opens the throttle wide down Bray Hill. The slope is framed by stone walls, giant maples, and multistory homes, all strung together by rabid fans, in some places just 10 feet away. The bikes howl by us, carrying with them a sudden blast of heat, materializing for a second or two before dissolving into the distance. Riders burn through this stretch at 170 mph, hitting a big dip at the bottom that causes a nauseating shudder in the backs of their motorcycles, then swing up around the bend. Four riders have died here, the last in 2002.
At the top of the next rise, beyond a sharp incline called Ago’s Leap, is an almost imperceptible bump in the asphalt — just a wrinkle that at normal speeds would barely register. But at 130 mph and with bald tires, it’s enough to trigger a cataclysm. The front wheel of Miller’s Suzuki GSX-R1000 slips, causing what riders call a “tank slapper” — a violent side-to-side thrashing of the handlebars that can quickly metastasize into full-blown unrecoverable destruction. Miller’s back wheel slices out from under him, ripping the bars from his hands and snapping the bike 90 degrees. He is pitched headlong over the chassis. Later he remembers thinking, “Okay, pay attention. This is what it’s going to feel like to die.”
Miller performs an aerial pirouette, tumbling free of the bike. There is an awful momentary silence as his chest separates from the throbbing engine it has spent the last hour glued to. As the bike scrapes downhill on its side, Miller crashes down onto the gas tank, then spins free and onto his back, bouncing along as tree limbs and sky and exploded bits of motorcycle flash through his vision. He grunts as he bounces, the bike accelerating past him with a terrible clatter, trailing oil along the cement like black blood. Miller comes to a rest at a wooden barrier 70 yards from the bump. His bike slams into a nearby telephone pole and ignites.
He glances over at his bike, parts of which lie like shrapnel across the road. The gas tank, forks, and exhaust are smashed, and the rear tire has torn loose from its rim. Miller squats on his helmet and drops his head into his hands. Dazed, he sits up and looks himself over, shaking his limbs. His racing leathers are ripped, his helmet is dinged, but his only injury is a sore thumb. He stands and retrieves his helmet. Several spectators reach over the railing to hug him and say, Yes, you are alive.
Brit Steve Plater wins the race, his first TT victory. Only 29 of 81 starters finish.
An hour after the race ends, the TT press office reveals that a rider has died on Snaefell. John Crellin, a 55-year-old Manxman and TT veteran who had just returned from his third expedition to Mount Everest, clipped a wall, lost control of his bike, and plunged over the side of the mountain. Aside from a brief press release, no announcement is made to fans, nor is Crellin’s death mentioned during the awards ceremony.
Saturday, June 13, 2 AM
Riders and crew lament Crellin’s death at a bar-cum-disco grief-hole in Douglas. They speak of it sadly but with a measure of resignation, implying that Crellin knew the risks and died doing what he loved. Miller is especially shaken by it. “A guy died on the same lap as my crash,” he keeps repeating. “Nobody crashes on the Isle of Man and walks away from it. And here I am without a scratch.” All evening, people congratulate him on his luck and ask if he’ll be back next year. He’s not sure. Copious hugs are exchanged. Oddly colored drinks are shoved into his hands. At one point Miller turns and says, “I felt really good out there. I was in 10th place. I was going the fastest I ever have. Why does it have to end like this?”
This article originally appeared in the November 2009 issue of Men’s Journal.