Isle of Man Classic TT: Tales of An American Underdog

The Isle of Man Classic TT honors the island’s history. The race is brutal on bikes, using the same public roads that have been raced on for more than 100 years.

John Munns at the Isle of Man Classic TT

John Munns at the Isle of Man Classic TT.

Photo by Courtney Olive

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Using the same 37.73 miles of narrow public roads on which motorcycles have raced for more than 100 years, the Isle of Man “Classic TT” has become the world’s premiere vintage motorcycle race. The event honors the island’s history, featuring current stars, past TT winners and seriously-fast privateers, all wringing the throttles on stunning vintage machines.

It’s fast; this year saw new lap records in two of the classes. It’s brutal on bikes; cracked frames, broken spokes, engines seized so badly they’ll be hung above workbenches and talked about for years. It’s scary; crutches and casts populate the pits in increasing numbers throughout the week. As Portland, Oregon’s Jon Munns found out, “Everything they say about this place is true.”

Munns, a two-time AHRMA National Champion for 200GP, had dreamed of racing on the storied island since he began chasing checkered flags in 1996. But he’d never been there or given it serious thought. That changed last February when, after racing Australia’s Phillip Island Classic, he was extended an invite to race in the Classic TT. By August, he was on the starting line.

To say he had little time to prepare is putting it mildly. Munns’ race bike needed an engine rebuild after Phillip Island, not to mention the chassis had been “crashed so many times I’ve lost count,” as he puts it. Fortunately, Munns has about as much experience building Honda CB160s as anyone, having been one of the founding fathers of the vibrant racing scene for the little bikes that arose in Portland and Seattle around 1999.

Munns bases his race bikes off the 160’s next of kin, the sloped-cylinder CB175 built from 1967-1968. For AHRMA racing, Munns had developed a well-tested engine platform based on boring the sloper 174.1cc to 200cc, along with a host of valvetrain, piston, and connecting rod hop-ups. For the Classic TT, Munns departed from this platform and set about making a 247cc version of a 175. It was a build he’d never done, and it was untested.

The Classic TT’s smallest class is 350cc, although 250cc machines receive a special trophy within the class. Though untried, a 247cc build made sense as it would reside in the 160 chassis Munns was comfortable with and it would have the best chance of producing enough power to have a shot at qualifying.

The end result turned out nicely, though Munns is bashful about the 11th-hour fuel tank, welded without time to consider form over function. Better to make it big; it’s a long way around the Mountain Course. After a few test laps at a local kart track, the 247cc bike was crated up along with Munns’ well-worn 200cc race bike, to be used for unofficial “open roads” practice laps.

Practice Week

In keeping with the Isle of Man’s genteel ways, rookie racers are politely called “Newcomers.” For 2014 the Newcomers came in huge numbers, and every class in the Classic TT was over-subscribed with entrants. Munns and other Newcomers begin their experience by doing an instructional lap of the course in a car driven by Richard “Milky” Quayle, a former TT winner and Isle of Man native who now works as the liaison for all Newcomers. Milky has supreme knowledge of the course, and he imparts it with enthusiasm. As Munns puts it, “When he took me around the course I lost track of how many times he said ‘you’ll s### yourself in this spot!’ But he also said ‘this part’s brilliant!’ about a hundred times, too.”

Munns arrived two days before the first practice, but between the lap with Milky and setting up his paddock, there was no time to even fire up his race bike. “The first time I touched a tire to the course was on the first night’s practice. It was a led lap, so I thought they’d take it a little easy, but oh no!” he says.

Munns spends the next day on his backup bike lapping the course on open roads just to learn the route, the bike’s inoperable headlight and Oregon license plate outdone only by its constant 12-13,000rpm yowl and failing-oil-ring smokescreen.

I arrive on the island the next day to find the locals have come to recognize the bike. The 160 was not widely available in the U.K. As one fan tells me, “We’ve seen plenty of Manx Nortons, this is different!” Talking to an elderly woman whose front yard forms Ballagarey corner, I mention Munns’ bike. She recalls it instantly: “Oh, the one that sounds a bit like a bumblebee in a jam jar!”

In addition to invigorating the locals, the b-bike hot laps help Munns feel better prepared for the second practice night. Indeed, he reaches his qualifying speed that night. But, he soberly reports, “That practice was gnarly. I came to Ballaugh Bridge [a well-photographed jump where the bikes sail several feet] and there was thick smoke. I slowed down and the next thing I see are guys frantically throwing oil sweep on the course; yellow flags are waving everywhere, there’s a guy laying on the sidewalk. I get past that to the other side of Ballaugh and the course is green again. But no sooner do the guys in front of me wick it back up, then BAM! — two of them crash. I must have seen at least eight bikes on the side of the road in that practice session.”

The next few days I spend in the paddock. Munns reports on his practice sessions, “I’m running the tallest gearing I have; taller than Daytona.” He is averaging 79mph on the course, wide open nearly all the time. “It’s brutally bumpy; on Sulby Straight my contacts started floating off my eyeballs,” he says.

The rigors of the course take their toll on other vintage racers in the Team USA tent. San Francisco stalwart Wade Boyd, a multi-time TT and Manx Grand Prix participant, is here to race a slab-sided GSX-R 750 in the Formula 1 Classic TT race. But his connecting rod exits the engine during practice — at 120mph upshifting to 6th gear. It takes him nearly a half mile to get the bike stopped. The incident happens late in practice week, dashing Boyd’s chance at making the race.

And there’s Andrew Mauk of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, riding a Honda CB450. Like Boyd, he also has a connecting rod let loose in practice — so spectacularly it batters gaping holes through the front and back of the engine. Munns, riding right behind at the time, reports getting hit in the shoulder by a piece of engine shrapnel.

Munns is not immune to the mechanicals of practice week, though his issue is mercifully minor — a slipping clutch. “I think I’ll take it easy on the drag race starts,” he decides. He’s brought a spare motor and robs a few plates from it. This helps, but after a few laps, it proves to be an incomplete cure.

The real solution shows up from an older gentleman who’s stopped by the Team USA tent to admire Munns’ bike. The pits at the Isle of Man are completely open to the public. (By now you’re thinking, I really have to go to this place. Yes, you do). The gentleman is himself the Honda 160 National Champion for the U.K. Munns mentions the clutch-slip and he promptly responds, “I’ve got some springs for you!” A quick walk to his van and stronger springs are in hand.

The next day I’m feeling well-enough acquainted with my rental bike, a mid-1990s Honda CB500 twin, to follow Munns on an open roads lap of the course. Also along is our friend Charlie Johnson, a Portland 160 racer now living in Germany; he’s ridden to the island on his BMW S1000RR. The Isle of Man has a seemingly endless array of bikes, but these three are a particularly odd trio out on the course, a bit like a matryoshka doll, each could practically be housed inside the other. Yet it is all Charlie and I can do to keep up with Munns on his tiny machine. It’s clear he’s begun to learn the course as only a racer can.

Still, every day is a healthy mix of apprehension and excitement for Munns: “Every morning I wake up with a lot of anxiety. But by the afternoon I calm down. After the first few miles of practice I think, this is awesome!”

Race Week

There are three Classic TT races, with the first, the 500cc race, on Saturday. Munns doesn’t race until Monday and his practice sessions are finally over so he can enjoy being a spectator. We depart Douglas in a rental car. “Wow, this place is beautiful,” says Munns as we drive along the coast road to Ramsey. He’s been on the island 10 days but this is his first time to actually take it in. “All I’ve seen is: hedge, house, tree, curb, hedge, house, tree, curb — AACCKK! — brake, brake, brake!” he jokes.

Sunday morning we catch a cab to the paddock. Munns is to race the next day, so he spends Sunday working on his bike with the help of Portland friends Tim Webb and Jared Kenyon of SFRC Racing. The SFRC crew finds and fixes three problems that would have kept him from finishing the race: a spoke that breaks during truing, a bad wheel bearing, and the pre-existing clutch issue. The clutch gets a complete set of fresh discs, and the wheel bearing is miraculously sourced within 30 minutes of Webb asking around the paddock, but the broken spoke is disconcerting. Munns replaces it, but he’s lost faith in the others on the wheel.

Race day arrives with cold rain and serious winds. Munns’ race is delayed, and eventually moved to the next day. It’s a fortuitous decision as the next day’s weather is worlds better.

The next morning Munns takes his bike through scrutineering (or “tech” to us) for the last time, his windscreen now dotted with a week of tech stickers bearing the three-legged emblem of Man. The bikes line up for the one-at-a-time start. They’ll set off 10 seconds apart.

Engines come alive and the symphonic volley begins. After the 350s, the unofficial 250 class begins with the screams of Suzuki X-6s and Kawasaki A1Rs. Munns approaches the line, starting as number 84 out of 90. Of the 90 entered, only 62 have made it through practice to start the race. An official stands beside and places his hand on Munns’ shoulder; he’ll release it when it’s time to go. They stare at the clock. The hand comes up — Go!

Epilogue

Munns leaves the line cleanly and on song down Bray Hill. On the small machine we know he’ll be a backmarker, but with all four of the other American entrants in the Classic TT unable to complete their races, we’re just rooting for a finish.

Soon the leaders complete lap one. In between engine notes we can hear the radio commentary. The announcers are masters of mixing decorum with excitement, the key being their vibrant vocabulary: “The boys have got the old bangers at full chat; a crackin’-good run!”

Munns makes it through his first lap. He pits, mainly to lay a hand on all the spokes and put his mind at ease. Tim Webb tops the fuel tank, and pushes him off. The race is well contested among the 350 leaders. The winner, on an MV Augusta triple, shatters the previous lap record for 350s. It is heralded as the first TT win for MV since Agostini’s in 1972, though purists may quibble as the bike is a replica made of entirely new materials.

Finally, at 20th place, the first 250 crosses the line. When all is said and done, just 45 bikes finish the race of the 90 that entered. Jon Munns crosses the line as number 43. “My goal was to qualify and to finish. I did both of those and I even passed a guy!” he says, on top of the world.

That night there’s a trophy ceremony held in the paddock, with eight-time world champion racer Phil Read handing out the awards. Munns is called to the stage, and keeping true to our American stereotypes, we cheer wildly. In the crowd, John McGuinness and Bruce Anstey give two thumbs up.

Read hands Munns his finisher’s medal and passes the microphone. Munns thanks his wife and friends, and concludes simply, “This is the culmination of an 18 year dream. I am humbled and grateful. It’s a true honor to race here, share the course with legends, and be a part of the island’s history.” Then he and Read pose for photos, with Read telling him to “say ‘sex’ for the camera!”

We retire to the beer garden with some new Isle of Man pals, talking long into the night about Munns’ best strategy for returning in 2015. MC