Motorcycle Mecca: The Isle of Man TT

Making the pilgrimage to the Isle of Man TT - why you want to go.
By Ken Richardson
January/February 2012
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The south tip of the Isle of Man (and the Calf of Man).
Photo by Ken Richardson
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Every self-respecting gearhead has a running list of places he or she wants to visit before the end of the gasoline age. When I was a kid, seeing photographs of salt-encrusted streamliners at Bonneville earned the Salt Flats a spot on my list. Images of Superbikes in the Eighties on the banks of Daytona added the raceway to my list. Seen On Any Sunday? Yup, Baja is on my list, too. And then there’s the Isle of Man TT.

Crossing one motorcycle race off the list

The thing that put the Isle of Man TT on my list was seeing a video of Dave Roper doing a lap of the TT course on the Team Obsolete factory Benelli 350 in 1993. The first time I saw it, there was no voice over, just the sound of the Benelli four-cylinder winding up and down through the gears, the camera looking from behind the bubble with the tachometer bouncing around at the bottom of the screen. Since then I’ve seen many videos and photographs of the 100-year-old TT road course, but that on-bike footage is my favorite.

Watching stone walls, trees, villages and signs blurring past while listening to the rider’s overdubbed recounting of shift points, brake points and general wisdom of the TT course makes it difficult to sit still. I find myself leaning involuntarily and gripping my armrests in an attempt to process the Star Wars-like warp speeds. Watch the footage of Guy Martin doing a lap in 2007 on a liter bike. You’ll do the same. (Go to the Wheels on Reels blog to see this and other IOM racing footage).

In the past, I made excuses why I couldn’t go. But when I heard Dave Roper was going to parade a 1911 Indian for the 2011 event, I decided this would be my year. I have gotten to know Dave over the years at USCRA (United States Classic Racing Association) Moto Giros and events at the races at Louden, N.H., so I called him to see if he had anyone taking photos of his efforts with the Indian. Dave was enthusiastic, so I rounded up a travel partner in friend and gearhead Bill Burke (aka The Minister of Transportation), who had been to the IOMTT three times and doesn’t need much convincing for such a trip.

First things first. How do I get to the Isle of Man TT?

I quickly bought a non-refundable ticket so I couldn’t change my mind. I settled on an Aer Lingus flight from Boston to Dublin, then a prop plane from Dublin to Douglas, Isle of Man, on Aer Lingus’ partner Aer Arann. I bought my tickets in late February and had many choices through the websites of the two airlines. A fellow Bostonian I ran into at the TT bought his tickets in late April using Orbitz, and despite being only about five weeks before the TT Celebration he had no problem getting flights and a place to stay.

This self-governed U.K. island is in the middle of the Irish Sea, so you can fly to Dublin, Belfast, London or any number of European cites and take a plane or ferry there. While at the races we met American Courtney Olive, who stuck out of the crowd because of his rare-in-Europe Aerostich suit. Courtney flew from Oregon to Belfast and rented a KTM 690 Duke from 11-time TT winner Phillip MacCallen’s dealership in Lisburn, Northern Ireland, and rode around Ireland before taking a ferry to the Isle of Man. He said that renting a bike was fairly easy, and once it was lined up, he got the plane and ferry tickets easily online.

Finding a place to stay on the Isle of Man while at the TT is not as hard as one might think. The Island has a number of hotels, but they can’t handle the numbers of race fans. Many Manx (what you call someone from the IOM) open their homes like a B&B or have rooms for rent. Others rent out their houses and head off on holiday for the two weeks of the TT. Homestays are very accessible through the Official Isle of Man TT website and Isle of Man Public Services. The government monitors them, so if you see it on the site, they have been checked out and get a star rating. You can get an entire house for as low as $100 U.S. per night, or a room in a house for about $30 to $50 U.S. per night. (A tip from a friend is to start at the end of the list and work backward. He also says telephoning works better than email.) Hardcore European fans ride from all over to take the ferry to the IOM and camp in one of the huge fields that officials set aside for camping. (Maps and information on camping are available at the Official Isle of Man TT website.) Although I was sometimes envious of their mobility, our homestay was near the race pit in Douglas, and we ended up walking or taking cabs to different corners for each race with ease.

Where to watch the Isle of Man TT

It’s easy to access many parts of the TT course for a $10 U.S. cab ride from the race pits. We didn’t know that people don’t generally tip cab drivers, so the extra couple pounds we gave made them very quick when we called. We watched a spectacular couple of races at Hillberry, which is a very fast straight from Creg-Ny-Baa into a breathtaking right-hander that pulls up a long hill and out of view.

The course is 37.73 miles long, and the viewing spots we went to were unfenced and, by any American race standard, uncrowded. Think Memorial Day parade in a small town, not a world-class motorsports event. No air fences or walls, just a couple of sawhorses and an orange rope between you and the racers. Every once in a while you’d be greeted by a sign stating, in a very polite and British way, that “Motor sport can be dangerous”!

The next spot we went to was Signpost, a sharp right-hander that, after cresting a hill right in front of you, takes riders downhill through some new “housing estates” and toward the famed Governor’s Bridge. Another is Stella Maris, which is a blind right-hander surrounded by ivy-covered stone walls that takes the racers uphill to the Ramsey Hairpin. At Stella Maris we sat in the front yard of a house right on the circuit. The yard was higher than the road, giving us a unique look down at the lean angle of the riders flying past us, leaving black strips on the road then disappearing into a canopy of trees. We listened as they downshifted through the gearbox and headed into the hairpin just out of sight.

For part of the Senior TT we sat at the bottom of Bray Hill, a long, 190mph downhill close to the start. This was a beautiful display of speed. The starts are staggered by 30 seconds, so bikes would slowly come into earshot before streaking down the hill and past us with a blur and a FSSSK! sound as they bottomed out and flashed sparks, dragging their belly pans for a fraction of a second and leaving behind a puff of smoke and the scent of burnt plastic. Then the bikes wobbled uphill and out of sight, trying to settle the suspension, their sound disappearing until the next of the 40 racers came rocketing down the hill.

During rain delays or in between races, you can stroll around the pits and see TT stars past and present. I stood next to Phil Read as he saddled up on his R1 and headed out of the paddock and onto the streets of Douglas and became part of the flow of fans. David Hailwood, Luigi Taveri, Giacomo Agostini, Kel Carruthers, Peter Duke, Ian Hutchinson, the Dunlop brothers and John McGuinness were all famous racers I found myself standing next to at one time or another over the week. Behind the grandstands at the start/finish line is a center of race activities. Besides the souvenirs, a constant stream of bikes file through scrutineering (tech inspection), and race mechanics replace tires and even engines right in front of onlookers.

Some things to do for the vintage bike fan

Only modern bikes actually race during TT week, but connections to the past are always close by. Tony East has a vintage motorcycle museum called the A.R.E. Collection near the 15th Milestone on the TT Course in the village of Kirk Michael. This is a must see. Tony made his living selling the red scissor lifts many of you have in your workshop. He must have sold a lot of them, because his museum is a staggering display of vintage British and European machines. The main building houses a beautiful display of, among others, Manx Nortons, Vincents, an AJS 7R, a Moto Guzzi Airone and an NSU Sport Max. The two-strokes were contained in a small outbuilding (which we called the stink-wheel annex). It’s open everyday during the TT, so it’s a great place to pass a rain delay or just ogle for hours on an off day.

The town of Ramsey in the north is home of Ramsey Hairpin and Parliament Square, and plays host to the Ramsey Sprints. This drag event is on a makeshift 1/8-mile strip beautifully situated along the ocean. The event is free and anyone can race for a small entrance fee. We watched modern and vintage machines playing well together, with a 1980s moped adding cubic diversity. The event was coupled with a vintage bike show right next to the strip put on by Isle of Man VMCC that included a vintage ride around the Island if you were lucky enough to have your vintage machine with you. Have you ever seen a 1914 Calthorpe 175? How about a 1927 Coventry Victor Silent 6? Ever heard a Scott Flying Squirrel? These were all sprinkled in a field of Nortons, Triumphs, Fanny Bs (as Francis-Barnett motorcycles are called in the U.K.), Hondas and BSAs, with, strangely enough for this American, not a Harley in sight. The VMCC puts on a few rides and gatherings throughout Isle of Man TT week, so check the website for details.

Even though vintage bikes are plentiful on the roads among the modern touring and sport bikes, 2011 was a particularly good year for the vintage bike fan. Since it was the 100th anniversary of the start of racing on the Mountain Course, the organizers arranged a special Milestones of the Mountain Parade Lap. The parade put famous bikes and racers of the past and present on the course for a lap. From a 1911 Indian, celebrating Oliver Godfrey’s Senior victory (see Dave Roper’s Centenary Celebration: Riding a 1911 Indian Racer Replica in the September/October 2011 issue of Motorcycle Classics), to modern liter bikes, with about 25 bikes of importance and just about every engine configuration in between.

This year was also a milestone for Yamaha, celebrating 50 years of GP racing with a group of 11 historic machines and riders doing a lap of the course. I had the chance to stand next to a Yamaha RD05A warming up in the pits, and even with my fingers in my ears I felt like my head was about to split open. It was fun to see everyone reacting to the vintage bikes as they rolled around the high-tech pits among the giant screen TVs and people taking cell phone photos. Even though the Dainese and Monster Energy banners were never more than a couple feet away, it didn’t feel overly commercialized. I was soaking up some of the activities in the scrutineering bays before the parade and I came across Ivan Rhodes getting his 350 Velocette inspected and he asked, “I’m thirsty, do you have anything around here to drink?” One of the scrutineers replied, “There is a cooler full of Monster right next to you.” To which Ivan replied, “What the hell is that?”

What to do when the racetrack is quiet

IOM officials spread the racing out to every other day during the Isle of Man TT. They do this to have the flexibility to reschedule races in case of bad weather, which often happens. As one local Manxman told me, “The Isle of Man has four seasons, and sometimes they all happen in one day.” These off days are a good time to explore the rest of the Island. One of the coolest things we did was drive the race circuit with Dave. Since Dave has raced on the Island many times, we got good insight into what racing on the course is like. We drove over the superstitious Fairy Bridge, which racers and tourists say keeps away bad luck if you greet the fairies as you drive past, saying “G’day Fairies.” Race fans are always riding the course when races aren’t going on, and officials keep the mountain part of the course one way so fans get to do their best John McGuinness impersonation with no speed limit.

If you walked the coastline of the Island (a trail called the Raad ny Foillan), it’s only 95 miles around, so going from one end of the Island to the other by car, motorcycle, steam train, electric railway or bus is easy. The fishing village of Peel is on the central western side of the Island. Peel has a beach, a museum and a large Viking castle, with fishing boats pulled right up along picturesque streets. We went there hoping to spot the elusive Peel P-50, a three-wheeled, one seat micro-car made on the Isle of Man in the early to mid-1960s. We missed the transportation museum’s open hours, but did wander through The House of Manannan (named after a mythological sea god) for a display on the history of the TT. Like most of the small port villages on the island, Peel has a healthy crop of pubs full of TT fans during the races’ fortnight (that’s two weeks for us Yanks).

At the southern tip of the IOM is Cregneash, with winding roads leading past thatch roof buildings and a stunning view of the ocean and the Calf of Man, a small island just off the coast.

Where to eat on the Isle of Man

After sightseeing in the south we went to Port St. Mary for dinner at Sabri’s, an upscale restaurant that hit the spot after the steady diet of warm beer and baps I had been eating all week. The bap is a fantastic invention of egg with some kind of magic pork/bacon slab on a fresh roll with red sauce (ketchup) or brown sauce (barbecue). After closely watching locals order them for a few days, they became my go-to breakfast before the races. Other than baps you can find any food you like, as long as you don’t like vegetables much and love warm beer. Fish and chips, curries, and pork sandwiches are everywhere.

The Carvery serves up memorable pork sandwiches right in the paddock, with a view of the races on a huge TV screen just a few hundred feet from where race teams work out of their RVs. We had a good dinner and a couple cold Morretti’s (Yes!) in the town of Laxey at La Mona Lisa. Bushy’s is the locally brewed beer, and they run a tent on the Promenade that I didn’t visit. Seemed like the Broken Spoke of the TT. In fact, we avoided most everything going on at the Promenade. Anytime we found ourselves there at night, we would hear the amplified yelling of an American directing a brigade of back-flipping dirt bikes while riding around in a huge camouflaged Monster Energy Drink truck. It seemed out of place, but they seemed to gather a crowd. Sir Norman’s bar plays videos of vintage TTs while serving up pints, and everywhere you went played recaps of the day’s races on ITV4, so after a day of watching races live, you could eat and watch more racing for the full moto-emersion.

After the Isle of Man TT was over

We stuck around a couple days after the TT and took the steam train to the south of the Island for racing at the old Castletown/Bilown race circuit. Amazingly, I was kind of raced out by the time we got there. I had studied the programs and learned all the riders in the TT, so to watch a bunch of new riders I hadn’t read up on seemed anticlimactic.

On the other hand, seeing some of the same people that raced in the TT just a day or two before, tearing into an engine in the back of a van in a field just off the road course, shows just how much road racing is in the blood of racers in this part of the world.

This was my first trip to Europe, let alone the Isle of Man TT, so it was a great adventure. The people of the Isle of Man were extremely friendly and are very proud that their little island gets so much attention. Everyone we met from the Island, even non-motorcyclists, knew the names of TT greats and who’s won what race in recent years. It’s a part of their history, and they love sharing it. I don’t think I am going to cross the Isle of Man off my list just yet. The Manx GP is a slightly more low-key event that runs on the same course in late August/early September every year. I think I’ll check that out before I do. MC 

Isle of Man travel tips

Money: Manx pounds and British pounds are interchangeable on the Island, but the mainland doesn’t take Manx pounds so spend them before you leave.

Tipping: Bar = No; Restaurant when you order at the counter = No; Served at table = 10 percent; Cab = No

Clothes: Bring layers. It was warm and 70s to drizzling and 50s, sometimes in the same day. Bring a packable rain jacket and a hat.

Other tips: A small battery-powered radio will let you listen to the action wherever you are on the island. This is helpful to know what’s going on around the huge course while you watch.

Get an international plan for your phone or you can get a cell on the island. Sometimes your homestay will have a phone you can borrow, and you can get a SIM card for cheap to use while you are there.

Buy the official program. It has tons of info on where to watch, maps and info on all the racers and schedules.

2012: IOM TT, May 26 - June 8. Manx GP, Aug. 18-31.

Resources

The Official Isle of Man TT
Isle of Man Government Homestay Accomodation
Isle of Man Government Accommodations Search
Isle of Man Public Services
VMCC Isle of Man 


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