The Classic TT: A Blast from the Past

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It’s a family affair: Chris Swallow (left) and his father, Bill, at the start of the Senior Classic TT.
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Richard Johns parks his 1928 Norton Model 18 near the grandstand after riding over the mountain.
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Eleanor McIntyre looks on as Michael Dunlop pushes off to start his lap on the 500cc 4-cylinder Gilera replica.
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Pudding basin helmets are a common sight during Classic TT week.
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A young Italian and an old Brit.
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Some of the motorcycles on display at the Isle of Man Motor Museum in Jurby.
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A sea of bikes, new and old, in the parking lot at the Festival of Jurby.
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A treasure trove at Murray’s Motorcycle Museum near Douglas.
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A white Comet and purple hair in the Jurby car park.
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Team Obsolete lead technician, Josh MacKenzie, with the Honda Six.
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Josh Brookes, Senior Classic TT winner, is flanked in the Winner’s Circle on the left by William Dunlop (third) and Jamie Coward (second).
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A tidy Vincent Black Shadow parked in front of “Sarah’s Cottage” at Jurby.

It’s about 4,800 miles from my home in Texas to the Isle of Man. Yes, it takes planning and finances to get there, but once you step ashore, smell the sea air and take a look around, you’ll realize you’ve entered moto heaven. When it’s race week on the island, you’ll see classic motorcycles and those who love them in all directions.

Birth of the Classic TT

Organized motorcycle racing on the Isle of Man started in 1907. The Tourist Trophy (TT) races are traditionally held in June and feature the world’s best professional road racers on top-dollar factory-sponsored machines. Since 1923, there has also been a somewhat lower profile event known as the Manx Grand Prix (MGP). It takes place in late August and features up-and-coming amateur riders hoping to graduate to the professional ranks.

In 2013, the race organizers sought to boost attendance at the MGP by creating a new event called the “Classic TT,” wherein the big-name TT riders would ride older classic and vintage machines on the Mountain Course. They also arranged for a few special events to add extra incentive for fans to come back to the island for the late August event.

The plan worked — the Classic TT has become a huge success, providing an opportunity for fans to see current top-tier TT racers like John McGuinness, Guy Martin, Michael Dunlop, Dean Harrison and others riding classic race machines from Norton, MV Agusta, Paton, Velocette, Vincent and more on the famous Mountain Course. The old machines sound and look great, and the racers aren’t just playing — they flog the old bikes around at average lap speeds of almost 125mph, with some bikes going through the speed traps in excess of 170mph. For comparison, the top-level bikes at TT week in June are doing laps averaging over 132mph with speeds at times over 200mph.

Ponder those numbers for a moment. The TT course looks nothing like a proper race circuit; it’s a series of country lanes on a small island in the middle of the Irish Sea. The roads are narrow, with speed limits (on any normal non-race day) between 30 and 50mph. There are no run-off areas or gravel traps. Any excursion off-course will put the rider into a hedge, a phone pole, a wall, a stone house or over a cliff. The penalty for failure is extreme. Sadly, more than 200 racers have died on the course over the years, including three riders this year (during TT week, not at the Classic TT).

In the U.S., one can see vintage motorcycle racing at a variety of road courses: Barber Motorsports Park, Mid-Ohio, Willow Springs, Road America, etc. Most of these courses are 2-3 miles in length, with perhaps 100 feet of elevation change and fewer than 20 turns. Lap times are on the order of two minutes and races are eight to 10 laps. In contrast, the Mountain Course at the Isle of Man is 37.73 miles in length, with 1,600 feet of elevation change and hundreds of corners. A good lap takes a bit under 20 minutes. Race distances for the Classic TT events are four laps (about 151 miles). With only a few practice laps at each event, it typically takes three years for a newcomer to learn the course.

Another feature that sets the TT races apart is that they are time trials. So, unlike most other road races, there’s no group start. At the TT, riders are waved off the starting line at 10-second intervals. It can be confusing, as the rider crossing the start-finish line first at the end of any lap may not actually be leading the race — it all depends on the interval gaps between riders. It sounds complicated, but there’s radio coverage around the course to follow the race, along with a quaint and ancient system at the grandstand involving scouts (boys and girls) who continually update a giant chalkboard.

Many TT fans consider road racing on the Isle of Man to be a unique kind of competition, one that demands the utmost from the participants and exacts the ultimate price for not getting it right. Hard-core TT fans don’t regard MotoGP or World Superbike riders with the same reverence reserved for pure road racers like the late Joey Dunlop (26 TT wins) or John McGuinness (currently 23 TT wins). The margin for error at the TT is infinitesimal.

For whatever reasons, top TT racers are generally from the British Isles and commonwealth countries (U.K., Ireland, Scotland, Australia, New Zealand and the occasional Yank). Their names are generally not known beyond the road racing community. Many have sponsors, but nothing on the scale of MotoGP riders — 99 percent of TT riders have 9-to-5 jobs to support their racing.

The place has a wonderful grassroots feel. The paddock is open and TT-heroes like McGuinness, Ian Hutchinson and others can be seen amongst the fans, signing autographs and smiling for selfies. There’s live music, food trucks and a concours bike show. You can buy tickets to an evening TT party, a VIP hospitality tent and/or the TT Heroes Dinner. The Heroes Dinner benefits the TT Riders Association, which provides financial assistance to injured riders and their families, and the event offers a great opportunity to meet TT riders past and present. I went this year, and each of the more than 30 tables had a famous rider or two. Lots of autographs were being sought that night.

Rare treats

2017 marked the 60th anniversary of the first 100mph average lap, set by Bob McIntyre on a 500cc 4-cylinder Gilera in 1957. Black Eagle Racing provided an exact replica (complete with dustbin fairing) of the bike McIntyre rode on that historic lap, and the bike was ridden on a “parade” lap by current TT racer Michael Dunlop (nephew of Joey). The Gilera was waved off the starting line by McIntyre’s daughter Eleanor (she was only a month old when her father died in 1962 in a racing accident). I’d heard 500cc Gileras in audio recordings from the TT races in the mid-1950s, and the real thing was even more spine-tingling as Dunlop bump-started the bike and tore off down Bray Hill at the start of his run. Everyone was pretty sure Michael was going to try to set his own 100mph lap, and he did, at 100.5mph, from a standing start!

Rob Iannucc’s Team Obsolete brought an ultra-rare example of a mid-1960s RC165 Honda 250cc 6-cylinder factory race bike, similar to the bike that Jim Redman rode to victory in the 1965 250cc Lightweight TT race. Redman and former Honda teammate Stuart Graham were on hand this year to be reunited with the bike. It’s an amazing one-of-a-kind piece of machinery, extremely complex and high-revving (to 18,000rpm), and it makes a shriek like nothing else. Team Obsolete Racer Dave Roper rode the bike at Jurby and journo-racer Steve Plater nearly completed his full parade lap around the TT course before his ride ended when the bike dropped a valve. Given the remarkable skill set of Team Obsolete, one can hope that the bike will be put right and brought out to future events. It’s a very special piece of racing history.

The Festival of Jurby

No racing was scheduled on the Sunday of the Classic TT race weekend, and the focus shifted to the airfield at Jurby on the other side of the island. The Festival of Jurby features vintage and classic bikes being ridden on the airfield, as well as a stunning display of machines in the paddock as well as the parking lot for the event. The variety of machines on hand boggles the mind. It only costs a fiver to attend, and there are easily a couple of thousand bikes to see. Some were daily riders, but most were rare and interesting. When was the last time you saw TWO Münch Mammoths in a parking lot?

The IoM experience

You can’t take a walk or visit a pub or restaurant without meeting motorcycle enthusiasts. The promenade in Douglas, the capital city, is lined with old and interesting machines and the feeling is that you’re at a homecoming of sorts. Only other motorcyclists understand that the love of motorcycles is some combination of incurable affliction and spiritual devotion — the sense of community during the event is rare and special.

If you’re a rider, you know what it takes to keep your machine between the lines. To see these amazingly heroic racers, tucked in behind their windscreens, risking it all at incredible speeds is awe-inspiring. The gratification and glory that accompanies their success is immediate and palpable. The penalty for failure can be savage and final. They’re living at a level of intensity the majority of us will never experience, and it’s thrilling to be so close to the action. The respect and admiration the riders deserve is off the charts.

The riders aren’t in it for the money, so what draws them to the TT? “It’s the greatest challenge in motorcycle sport,” says Malc Wheeler, a former TT racer and, until recently, the editor of Classic Racer magazine. “Nothing else comes even close! It’s dangerous, of course, but if it wasn’t, what would be the challenge or, for that matter, the point? Thankfully, around the world, a TT win, or even the fact that you faced the ultimate challenge, still counts for an awful lot. For me, and every other TT racer I know, one lap of the Mountain Course is worth a whole season of other races.”

The Classic TT presents an opportunity to be close to equipment that was, in its day, the state-of-the-art in motorcycle racing. Viewing Manx Nortons, Patons and MV Agustas at rest in a museum is interesting, but seeing them race, hearing them rev and smelling the hot oil and rubber is an exhilarating experience.

It takes some effort to get to the Classic TT, but it’s effort well spent. For motorcyclists, it’s awe-inspiring and humbling to be on the same roads where Mike Hailwood, Giacomo Agostini, John Surtees, Geoff Duke and other titans of road racing proved their greatness. It’s an emotional experience you won’t soon forget. Just ask anyone who’s made the pilgrimage. MC


Planning a Visit to the Isle of Man

Getting on and off the island can be a challenge, especially if you intend to bring your bike, in which case you need to book a ferry crossing from Ireland or the U.K. They fill up early, so arrange that sooner rather than later. You can also fly in from Ireland or the U.K. Bikes and cars can be rented on-island, but again, it’s best to make those arrangements early.

For accommodations, there’s everything from posh hotels on the Douglas Promenade to quaint bed-and-breakfasts spread around the Island. There are organizations that can help you find a place. If you stay in one of the hotels on the prom in Douglas, the grandstands and start/finish line are within walking distance. There are many great viewing locations around the circuit and everyone has their favorite. Roads are closed prior to practice and racing, so you need to get to where you want to be before that happens. Info about tickets for the various official events can be found online.

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