Mounting deaths no deterrent at the Isle of Man TT

Trying to understand the rationale of riding at 200mph around the island is missing the point of racing

Without meaning to be glib, sometimes getting dead just isn’t enough to move the dial. That can be mansplained. Factory settings, a works bike. Four cylinders, 1000ccs, uprated suspension, the full race exhaust system, bulletproof self-belief.

That gets the Ducati and Honda Fireblade screaming over Ballaugh Bridge and Gob-ny-Geay. That is life hurtling towards death. Wonderful, fallible engineering with a human in a leather bag on the throttle.

Really, that is it entirely. Most racers think they can tame the Isle of Man TT and every year the race is right back at them hollering fate is always in control.

But trying is the heartbeat of the sport, the adrenalin rush from taking fractions off the clock. That might be a knee grazing the kerb, a skid on a wet piece of road marking. That and an emergency airlift to Nobles Hospital. Like the Belfast doctors who can deftly pluck a bullet from a shattered kneecap, Noble’s ghoulish expertise is in “high velocity trauma”.

Isn’t that what is loved about racing in the TT, the speed? Travelling the 37.5-mile country roads clocking 17-minute laps. The sensation of white knuckle acceleration and covering over a mile in 30 seconds. The engine noise, the grab at corners.

The things you see on a country road travelling at 206mph. Years ago before I had become numbly weary of the deaths, yes numbly weary, I asked a rider what he could see going down the straight clocking two tonne.

He joked about it. They often do. They don’t overanalyse the black widow relationship. The answer was green blur, grey blur, red flash. Hedge, drystone wall, post box. No one has ever measured how many seconds of that 17-minute lap or how many yards of road the bike is not actually on the ground.

It’s the Burning Man of sport. Dedication to personal choice and self-expression with acceptance of death as part of the accord. Imagine holding an annual National Rifle Association convention where two or three patrons die each year from accidental gun discharges. Over the last 85 years on the island, the only year in which races were held but no fatalities occurred was 1982.

How easily people can accommodate loss of life and move on as if it makes sense to them. The TT, for over a century, has been people living with a kind of carnage that elsewhere is only seen on Everest. Like an annual assault on the Hilary Step there are guaranteed causalities.

This year it was three. In 2005 11 died. Three riders and one marshal were killed during the June TT races and six riders and one course bystander died during the Manx Grand Prix a couple of months later.

News of Irish rider Davy Morgan filtered through earlier in the week . . . “a true gentleman who went out of his way” . . . “a stalwart” . . . “a proper bubbly character”. Social media doing its dependable and righteous business for a loved soul in the racing world who died at the 27th milestone. The messages that came out were kind and compassionate, a man for whom there was tremendous natural affection. It is normally, almost always, men.

Davy’s Yamaha was the third fatal incident this year. Mark Purslow was killed at Ballagarey Corner and Cesar Chanal died at Agos Leap when his sidecar crashed.

Each year the drill is the same. Humanise the dead. Give them names and background. Reflect the terrible grief of the families and the extent of their loss. Measure the immeasurable despair. Get the next race going.

Irish names pepper the long history of those who have died racing between the hedges. They took choices many of us might like to take if we possessed the courage and in death they showed the life they often preferred singing along a mountain stretch.

For the fans who flock over in tens of thousands to watch the spectacle, they are given the possibility to live vicariously on the edge and to imagine that they also possess the warrior DNA and the impulse. In their heads they are by proxy permitted to exist beyond the normal guard rails, some distance from everyday lives that are safe and far from catastrophe.

I remember talking to sailor Damian Foxall some years ago. He was racing solo across the Atlantic Ocean and, unattached to a line, fell out of his boat. It was just him and God. Miraculously another boat in the race was tracking the same route and came across the floating man. Astonishing fortune is not always available.

But the attraction of casting off from the pier for weeks alone on a boat or slipping a Supersport TT bike into first gear is that it both rebukes us and reminds us that the big dreams of children can be housed in the smaller vaults of adults. Maybe with the days we have been given, we should not fall into the infatuation of making them stretch as far as possible and be as secure as possible.

The TT is more than a flirtation with the intrinsic appeal of danger. The throttle works both ways they will insincerely say. It’s about sensation and power, drama, control and risk management, their choice all taking place on consecrated racing ground.

The long list of the dead you feel fully understood those concepts without others complicating them with the question – why?

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times