In 1978, someone really should have called the Vatican on the phone because a miracle happened on the Isle of Man. TT motorcycle racing that year saw the return of possibly the greatest racer of them all – Mike Hailwood. Long retired from racing on two wheels to try his hand at Formula 1 on four wheels, Mike the Bike has returned to the island where he made his reputation. That reputation would either be tarnished further or tarnished by failure. There wasn’t a lot of common ground.
In the end, there was no competition. Hailwood not only won the TT’s big race of the weekend, the Formula One TT, but he set a new lap record, eclipsing a record he held previously, of course. It was one of the great comebacks in the history of the sport, comparable to Ali against Foreman, or Liverpool in stoppage time in Istanbul. For the sport of motorcycle racing, it was perhaps the most glorious moment ever.
For all the glories, there is always the reverse of the tragedy. This year at the Isle of Man TT, no less than five competitors died. One was Davy Morgan from Co Down, and at his subsequent funeral kind words were spoken about another runner, Jack Oliver from Derry, who was killed in a racing accident at Kells, Co Meath , just a few days after the TT. Two of the victims on the Isle of Man were a father and son, Roger and Bradley Stockton, who were killed while sharing a racing bike and sidecar. Of all the sports, racing motorcycles seem to extract the heaviest toll.
The inevitable calls for the prohibition, or at least the sterilization, of the sport have been launched. Should we, however? Or are we just meant to seek thrills and dangers in all their forms. It’s tempting to suggest that the racing bike is an obsession of youth, of people who have not yet learned their own mortality, their own fragility. But then how to explain the long career of John McGuinness, 50, who holds 23 victories in different categories at the TT. Even Hailwood was 38 when he made his comeback. It’s not just about the youth.
“The opportunity to challenge their skills is what draws them to the sport,” says Stephen Davison. Davison is an extremely experienced motor racing photographer, who has been covering bicycle racing for over 25 years and has written a series of acclaimed books on the subject. “The dangers of mixing high speed with ‘furniture’ – as runners refer to telegraph poles, garden walls, gate posts and buildings that line these closed public road courses – can never be completely eradicated” , says Davison.
“Perhaps the single truest comparison is that of mountaineering. Split-second decisions in an extremely hostile environment can mean the difference between life and death. As with mountaineers, the ultimate defense of a road racer is that it will never happen to them, despite the mountain of evidence to the contrary.
Road racing, where public roads are closed to allow bikes to compete with nature and infrastructure as much as each other, is unique to Ireland and the Isle of Man, and dates back to legislation introduced to allow the 1903 Gordon Bennett Motor Race to take place in Ireland. It’s also what allows closed-road car rallying to take place in Ireland, another sport that has seen more than its share of tragedies over the years.
Is it just too dangerous to run on roads that aren’t designed for it? Susan Plunkett is race director for the Skerries 100, a motorcycle race that will take place on the winding country roads that loop behind the seaside town of Co Dublin on July 2-3. While the race will take place in the shadow of the TT tragedies, Plunkett says all riders and organizers are aware of the dangers and are doing their best to mitigate them.
“We are not allowed to put a rider or a bike on the road until we get approval from the governing body that the track is fit to race. Normally for a road race, s there are new riders in the peloton who have never seen the track before, we will first send them out for untimed practice laps so they can get to know the track well. This year, because we couldn’t run the event due to Covid, we’re treating everyone as a newcomer, even experienced riders, so everyone gets those safety laps,” says Plunkett.
“I’m a bit of a mum to them, I always tell them before the start that they’re here to have fun and compete, and to be careful, they don’t have to win.”
Winning is ultimately what it’s all about and Ireland has had a lot of success in motorcycle racing. It annoys runners that success in the sport is rarely reported, but the tragedy jumps out instantly. “No one stops Irish riders at the end of the TT or at Skerries to stick a notepad or microphone under their nose,” says Andy Farrell. Farrell is a successful motorcycle racer, with podiums on the Isle of Man, and he will be helping out in the Skerries 100 this year. “They always come to call when there has been a tragedy. It’s a close-knit community, road racing. Being in the paddock is the best place in the world, and sometimes the worst place in the world. When something bad happens, it’s honestly like losing a parent. We are all so close.
Farrell speaks of a family atmosphere, where riders will always lend parts and spares to their rivals to keep them running, far from the often resentful world of Moto GP or even F1. “It’s always the ultimate test between man and machine and the feeling of getting a good lap around the TT or a course like Skerries… I almost can’t describe it. It’s incredible. The only thing I can compare him to is playing for your county all over Ireland and scoring the winning goal. People start talking about the dangers of motorcycle racing when there’s a tragedy, but who ever talked about mountaineering in the same breath? Or cliff diving? I wouldn’t go near that Red Bull cliff diving thing. I wouldn’t climb Everest either. Honestly, I don’t think I’d get the bottle.
Farrell makes a highlight. Many who speak out against the dangers of TT or any motorcycle road racing will happily book a potentially risky ski holiday. Meanwhile, Tour de France riders on those steep alpine descents are potentially even more vulnerable to serious injury than those on motorcycles, clad head-to-toe in safety gear.
Farrell recorded his own heart rate while riding the daunting mountain course on the TT and says he was pegged at 190 bpm for up to 20 minutes at a time, fueled by pure adrenaline. He is part of the Loughshinny Motorcycle Club which, through the efforts of an army of volunteers, puts on the Skerries event every year, as it has for 76 years. “It’s something you like, because if you were paid for it, you would never do it. Loughshinny has spent an additional €40,000 this year, all raised through sponsorship, to improve the safety of the Skerries course. We don’t just throw in a few hay bales, we now use high tech airbags and more to improve safety, and as a driver I know I can go around a track and if I see something wrong, the club will try to fix it.
In the end, it all depends on the choice. As Plunkett and Farrell say, runners are all well aware of the dangers and always choose to run for the pure thrill of the sport.
“I’ve had the extraordinary privilege of watching some of the best runners in the sport face incalculable risks to achieve their greatest goals. And I also endured the pain of covering too many tragedies. You never get used to this terrible feeling of loss,” Davison says. “They are the most open and generous people, especially when it comes to living life to the fullest. If you knew you could die tomorrow, wouldn’t you live every moment as if it were your last?”
The risk is, anyway, everywhere. Hailwood enjoyed the glories of that 1978 TT comeback before retiring once and for all, settling into a happy family life. In 1981, he and his daughter Michelle were killed in a car accident when a truck driver made an illegal U-turn and rammed their car. They weren’t racing in the TT back then, they were just out for the fish and chips.