Isle of Man: The Classic TT Experience 2014

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Photo by Courtney Olive
Bruce Ansty rounds the Quarterbridge corner in practice on a 500 Manx Norton.

The Isle of Man’s “Festival of Motorcycling” is a two-week celebration centered on the Classic TT and Manx Grand Prix races (the Manx, though a modern bike event, is well worth watching as it is the privateers’ training ground for TT stars of tomorrow). In addition to the races, there’s a dizzying array of other events: parade laps where legends like Phil Read, Carl Fogarty, and Dave Roper jump aboard their actual race-winning machines for a strafe around the Mountain; a jaw-dropping bike show of 1,000-plus machines at the short-track in Jurby, complete with stars turning hot laps; internationally-recognized trials, on vintage and modern machines; and “sprints” (drag-racing) along the seaside in Ramsey. Besides all that, the street scenes alone are staggering. Vincents and Velocettes appear on seemingly every corner. Two-stroke triples and twins outnumber their modern sport bike offspring. You can eat lunch along the course at Creg Ny Baa and enjoy the six-pipe sounds of a Benelli or CBX sailing past. In short, it’s Motorcycle Utopia.

The Classic TT races consist of four laps of the Mountain Course. That’s 150 miles, on public roads, running flat out for close to an hour and a half. The classes include a 500cc race, a 350cc race, and a Formula 1 and Formula 2 race which are run together. The 500cc race features machines primarily from the 1960s and 1970s, the likes of Manx Nortons, Honda 450 twins and 500 four-cylinders, and Italian terrors — the Paton 500 twin and MV Augusta triple. The 350cc race encompasses the same time period and similar machines, but of a smaller displacement. The F1/F2 race covers the late 1970s,1980s and up to 1992 with a broad range of machines from Suzuki GSX-Rs and XR-69s, to Honda RC30s, to Kawasaki ZXR750s, to Yamaha TZ250s, TZ350s, and even a YZR500 brought of retirement from early-90’s GP racing.

The SFRC Racing crew and I watch the 500cc race at May Hill, which is a deceptively-tight turn coming uphill from Ramsey. We’re on the outside of the turn and have a great view for about a ¼ mile down the hill. The race gets underway and, as expected, Manx Radio reports that John McGuinness has an early lead on a Paton 500.

He and other Paton riders have dominated the 500cc practice all week. Yet, in the race we never see McGuinness come past our May Hill vantage point. The radio gives the bad news that he’s retired only two-thirds through the first lap, a screw having backed-out of his brake master cylinder and spraying fluid.

The lead changes repeatedly from breakdowns: first McGuinness, then his Paton teammate Ryan Farquhar, then veteran Michael Rutter takes the number one slot on a Matchless G-50 only to break on the Mountain. On the final lap it looks as though a single cylinder might take the win because Ian Lougher, another of the favored Paton riders, incurs a 30-second penalty for speeding in the pits, which hands the lead to Dan Cooper on a Manx Norton.

But, likely livid from his “schoolboy mistake,” Lougher absolutely charges through the final lap trying to catch Cooper. In the end, Cooper can’t muster enough out of the Manx (even with its far-from-stock 4-valve head) to hang on. Lougher makes up the 30 second deficit and even gains another 34 seconds over Cooper for the win. Afterwards, we’re surprised to see McGuinness roar by on the Paton. Turns out some spectators lent tools and helped him tighten the loose bolt and re-bleed the brakes, so he brings the bike home amidst the backmarkers. That’s the charm of the Isle of Man at work.

Three days later comes the 350cc race. It is, at times, like a reenactment of the legendary Hailwood v. Agostini battle royale from the 1967 Senior TT — an all out struggle between a Honda four and an MV three. On the first lap, Honda rider William Dunlop (Joey’s nephew) smashes the lap record. Further back on the course (but in the top three by the clock), Dunlop’s teammate Alan Oversby is battling his Honda four against Lee Johnston on an MV three. The sound of the two side-by-side is intoxicating. “It’s seven-cylinder heaven!” a giddy Manx Radio commentator says before he’s drowned out as they pin-it past his booth.

By the beginning of the second lap Oversby breaks the lap record that Dunlop’s just set, and takes the lead for himself. But it’s short-lived. Johnston’s MV closes in fast. The bike has self-healed from a misfire it was experiencing on the opening lap, and Johnston is unleashing its full potential. He shatters the lap record that Oversby’s just set, by almost two miles an hour. He continues charging and takes the win for MV, with Oversby’s Honda in second. Johnston, a 25 year old up-and-coming roadracer from Northern Ireland (who, amazingly, has never raced classic bikes) says of his win: “I’m over the moon — I just had so much fun for three laps. That little bike is awesome!”

The final Classic TT race is the F1, expected to be a clash between Michael Dunlop who is the currently-unstoppable force in the modern TT (and he is Joey’s other nephew) and Bruce Anstey who earlier this year set the modern TT’s outright lap record. On paper the YZR500 that Anstey’s riding should be superior, as it has the same horsepower as Dunlop’s XR-69 but weighs a whopping 110 pounds less. And it’s a full-tilt 500 GP bike, with one of Wayne Rainey’s former mechanics tending it. But Dunlop’s XR-69 is a brand new replica while the YZR is 20+ years old. During practice week the YZR failed to complete some of its sessions; many wonder if it will last the race. But by the race’s first lap doubts are removed, as Anstey pilots the YZR to a new lap record for the F1 class — 123.89mph, the fastest two-stroke ever on the Isle of Man. Dunlop holds his own but, on the second lap, his bike falters and he has to nurse it back to the pits and retire. From there, Anstey and the YZR take control and never relinquish it. It’s a fitting win for Anstey who started his career on two-strokes, right around the time Wayne Rainey was winning the World Championship on a YZR. For 2015 dates and more information, visit Isle of Man online. MC

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