Craig Murto: Only the brave compete at Isle of Man

Craig Murto

Motor races of all sorts are dangerous, but nothing is as dangerous as the Isle of Man TT (Tourist Trophy) motorcycle race. The Isle of Man TT is considered one of the greatest motorcycle races in the world. One week of practice is followed by one week of various classes competing in a time-trial format. Competitors start one at a time, 10 seconds apart, and race for varying number of laps on the 37.73-mile Snaefell Mountain Course.This is not for the faint of heart; in fact, it’s for only bravest individuals. The course is made up of city streets, closed to the public during the races. Narrow downtown streets lined with spectators become narrow mountain roads. The safety built into modern race circuits does not exist at Isle of Man; all a competitor can hope for is a hay bale protecting him from a stone or concrete wall, or a tree or building.

From the first race in 1907 through last year’s event, 141 competitors have been killed practicing for or racing in the TT. And there have been spectator fatalities and race official fatalities over the years as well. It seems that a year doesn’t go by that somebody loses his or her life at the Isle of Man.

Last Saturday was a particularly dark day for the TT, but also one of thrills and excitement. During the first of two sidecar races of the week, rider Dwight Beare lost his life in a crash that also broke his passenger’s ankle. Later that same day, racer Paul Shoesmith crashed his motorcycle in practice for his TT and died from his injuries.

But Saturday was also a record-breaking day at the Isle of Man, as Michael Dunlop won the Superbike division’s TT, his 12th TT victory. In doing so he set the first lap ever recorded under 17 minutes, at 16:58.254, and 133.393 mph.

It used to be that all forms of motorsports were deadly. In recent decades the sport has outgrown its deadly past. Fatal accidents are generally not accepted. When Dan Wheldon was killed in an IndyCar race in Las Vegas a few years ago, the race – only a few laps old – did not resume. And not a single refund request was made by any spectators.

But the Isle of Man TT is different. The dangers are what they are; there’s really no way to avoid them. Crash at speed during one of the TT races and it may be the last thing you do; win the TT for your class and you become an instant legend.

Some legendary racers have won the TT, including Mike Hailwood. Joey Dunlop leads the list with 26 wins, followed by John McGuinness with 23 and Dave Molyneux with 17.

In a way, due to the extreme dangers, Isle of Man TT racers are a throwback to an earlier, more dangerous time in motorsports. It’s hard to imagine that many of today’s auto racers who compete with head-and-neck restraints, so-called “soft” walls, roll cages and wrap-around seats would accept the dangers the motorcyclists accept at Isle of Man. It’s even difficult to imagine most motorcycle racers who compete on modern tracks would accept the roadside hazards that await Isle of Man competitors if they get a wheel off course.

But then again, racers are racers, and racers are special. Motorsports journalist Dick Berggren raced Sprint Cars before he became a journalist and broadcaster. Last week, when interviewed by Dave Moody on NASCAR’s satellite radio network, Berggren was asked if he were on his deathbed and could ask God to relive one minute of life, what would he want to relive.

It took Berggren no time to say that he would ask to be in his Sprint Car, hooked up and passing cars on the outside. There is no feeling in life better than racing, he explained.

Steve McQueen raced cars, and actually did many of his own stunts for his classic racing movie “Le Mans.” McQueen once stated that “racing is life; everything else is just waiting.”

Since 1907, racers have risked their lives at the Isle of Man, originally on a 15-mile course and on the present course since 1911. The only times the races didn’t happen in May or June was 1915-1919 and 1940-1945 during the world wars.

You can catch coverage of the 2016 Isle of Man TT on the Velocity cable channel. Check your listings, and see for yourself why the Isle of Man TT is a race for the bravest of the brave.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.