With 2019’s Isle of Man TT underway, Bikesure, the freewheeling insurance broker, goes deep into what makes the course one of the most legendary races on the planet – and some of the people who made those legends.
Racing on the Isle of Man started in 1903 when American billionaire Gordon Bennett staged the trials for his car road race event, as it was illegal to race on public roads on the mainland UK.
The first motorcycle races took place in 1907 and has been held there 99 times since, making 2019 the 100th meeting. Charlie Collier won a cool £25 (£12,000 in today’s money) with his average speed of 38mph at that first event while wearing a three piece suit, and while things have become more professional and a lot faster since then, with much less likelihood of racers having to wait for a herd of sheep to cross the road, it still creates new motorcycling legends ever year.
The 37.73 miles of the Snaefell mountain course is one of the most challenging and feared racing tracks in the world. It’s a subject of some debate, but it has at least 264 turns, and many of the greatest racers made their mark on the course by having parts of it named after them. Others had parts of the course named after them because of the marks they made on the course.
The most successful TT entrant of all time remains Joey Dunlop. Nearly two decades after his untimely and tragic death, his record of 26 wins shows no sign of being surpassed. The island paid tribute to him after his death in 2000 by naming the 26th milestone after him, and erecting a statue of him overlooking Bungalow Bend, where there is no longer a bungalow.
The Dunlop racing dynasty has continued, despite his brother Robert dying in 2008 and Robert’s son William dying in 2018. Michael, Robert’s other son, is also a racer. So far he’s managed to notch up 18 wins, and was also the first man to lap the TT course in under seventeen minutes.
The most serious contender to Joey Dunlop’s title, John McGuinness, has 23 wins under his belt. His attempt to beat the record took a pause after an accident in 2017, but he’s aiming to be making his 100th start at the TT this year, riding the Norton SG8 Superbike, but he has previously stated that he doesn’t want to surpass Dunlop as a sign of respect. The left hand turn before Barregarrow hill at mile 13 was named after him in 2013
Local legend and sidecar racer Dave Molyneux, has 17 wins and 30 podium places. He also got a turn named after him at the same time as McGuinness, at the end of the Cronk-y-Voddy road. He’s the most successful Manx racer, having been born in Douglas. In case anyone was wondering, yes some inspired Manx have made a kind of vodka based on the name of that road. Don’t drink and drive, kids.
Other racing legends who’ve been awarded named sections include Giacomo Agostini. His section, Ago’s leap, is the rise connecting the Bray’s Hill section to Quarterbridge Road, which sets racers up to wheelie perfectly as they come off the slope. Of course Agostini’s relationship with the island wasn’t particularly great, despite his success. Following the death of his friend Gilberto Parlotti in 1972, Agostini announced he wouldn’t race on the Island again, as it was too unsafe to be part of the World Motorcycle Championship. Other riders joined his boycott, which resulted in the TT being removed from the Grand Prix schedule in 1977, as well as the introduction of a few other safety measures.
Some of the named corners are definitely ironic, with Doran’s bend commemorating when Bill Doran crashed in the same place in 1952 as he’d previously crashed at in 1950. At the time he was the only living person to have had part of the course named after him, which is impressive in many different ways.
Others are remnants of the bad old days, like Birkin’s Bend at mile 15. This commemorates the death of racer Archie Birkin in 1927, who crashed into a fish delivery van during an early morning practice session. The following year they started closing off public roads during practice sessions, which is the kind of thing that is very obvious in hindsight.
Birkin was part of a rather interesting set, a very 1920s group of upper class thrill seekers who raced Bentleys. His brother, Sir Tim Birkin, died in 1933 after he burnt his arm on an exhaust pipe while picking up a cigarette lighter, and then presumably not getting it treated resulting in the wound turning septic.
While Birkin’s crashes justified him getting his name on the track, there are some named corners that seem a little unwarranted with hindsight. While Walter Brandish did finish second in the 1922 Senior TT, getting a named corner between mile 35 and 36 for crashing there the following year does seem like a lucky accident of history rather than the just acknowledgement of accomplishments like some of the other racers so honoured. Perhaps it was a very impressive looking crash, or perhaps he was just a very well-liked racer. Either way, congratulations on the immortality, guy who wouldn’t otherwise be remembered! It’s especially baffling when people like Stanley Woods, who dominated the TT during the inter-war years, is generally consigned to the forgotten heroes’ category.
At the other end of the notability scale, Mike Hailwood was significant enough that he had not one but two sections of track named after him. Between 1958 and 1967 he won twelve races, including three races in the same week in 1961. He was the highest paid racer in the world in 1966, and after retiring from bikes moved over to cars. He returned to Man in 1978 and 1979, racking up a few more very respectable wins before retiring for good. He was tragically killed in 1981, aged 40, when a truck collided with his car. To commemorate him he gets both a rise and a height, which leads up to the highest point of the course above sea level.
Steve Hislop racked up eleven TT wins between 1984 and 1994, he doesn’t have a course part named after him but there is a statue dedicated to him in Onchan.
As the TT moves ever further into its second century of existence, records continue to get broken and re-set. The current holder of the fastest lap record is Peter Hickman, who set it at 16 minutes and 42.778 seconds, in 2018. There is a very good chance that 2019’s event will see this record broken, and riders both new and old adding their names into the unfolding story of the island races. Hopefully not by crashing, obviously.