On the Isle of Man's escutcheon is a heraldic device known as the trie cassyn which shows three bent and armored legs joined somewhat whimsically at the top of the thighs. Beneath the three legs runs the motto Quocunque jeceris stabit, meaning, roughly, "However you throw it, it won't fall down." There were plenty of bent and armored motorcycle racers in Manxland last week who wished the coat of arms and its motto applied to them. But unfortunately that mystical stability belongs to only a few in the tilted, tipsy realm of two-wheeled racing—and those few dominated the 53rd annual Isle of Man Tourist Trophy race meeting with an authority rarely seen in any sport.
Most authoritative of all was Italy's Giacomo Agostini, TV star and 10-time world champion in the 350-and 500-cc. categories of bike racing. Mounted on a brace of impeccably prepared MV Agustas, Agostini simply blew off all the competition in both the junior (350-cc.) Tourist Trophy race and the senior (500) as well. Among those blasted in the 350 was his pickup teammate, British world champion Phil Read, who had joined the MV team for this race only, ostensibly to share his intimate knowledge of the tricky, 37¾-mile Manx road course with the Italians in return for a good ride. But, ah, that fine Italian hand. All the MV folks shared with Read was a sour bike that quit shortly after one lap. Still, unflappable Phil got some of his own back by gunning down all the opposition, British, Italian or otherwise, in his specialty—the 250-cc. event—and he did it on his own little Yamaha. Sayonara, Signori.
The Manx TT is to motorcycle racing what Indianapolis or Le Mans or the N√ºrburgring are to automobile competition—and maybe even more. Dating back to 1907, when the fastest lap was 42.91 mph, it is today the only major international road race for bikes that is run entirely on real, live roads. And even the mini-bikes now turn laps in excess of 100 mph. Like Indy, it is both venerable and vicious: last week's racing produced the 99th fatality on the Manx circuit, compared with 50 at Indianapolis. Like Le Mans, it is grueling: each lap takes at least 20 minutes to complete and contains more than 200 bends, chicanes, bumps, jumps, dips, hills and sometimes spills. And like the N√ºrburgring, that most awesome of Grand Prix courses, it is both bleak and beautiful.
For those whose geography book is not handy, the Isle of Man is a green knob of rock and anachronisms set at the top of the Irish Sea, almost equidistant from England, Scotland and Ireland. Because it is an independent nation, ruled by its own ancient House of Keys and only loosely allied with the United Kingdom, Manxland has its own money, its own clotted Gaelic dialect and—most important for bike enthusiasts—both the power and the willingness to abolish speed limits on its roads during Tourist Trophy weeks. The island's climate is said to be splendid, almost Mediterranean, and indeed there are a few scraggly palm trees swaying in the raw winds of the Irish Sea, but one suspects they were mail-ordered by the Manx Chamber of Commerce. Last week, at least, it was a chill, wet island, the slimy slate ridges of its upland moors softened only a touch by the butter-yellow bloom of gorse and the purpling of heather. Its mountains are mist-shrouded and ominous—most especially Snaefell, at 2,034 feet the tallest. It is around Snaefell that the TT course winds, and when one is racketing up into its dank fogs at 100 mph on the back of a racing bike, it is easy to imagine trolls up there on the peak, picking their teeth with human shinbones.
June 18, 1972
But the Manxman, by contrast, is a jolly, homey, egalitarian sort (and so is the Manxwoman, who is not, by the way, called a Minx). Bitter ale and smoky whiskey flow steadily in the pastel pubs and boardinghouses along the waterfront of Douglas, the island's largest city, and unlike so many small towns that have become motor racing centers, Sebring and Watkins Glen for example, Douglas displays little overt resentment of the racing crowd that so noisily distorts its life-style. During the TT weeks of late May and early June the seaside Promenade of Douglas, with its horse-drawn trams and leisurely foot traffic, becomes a drag strip for the leather boys. At the south end of the Promenade, near the ancient stone quay, is Chrome Corner—showplace for nearly 6,000 motorcycles and their riders. There are the Nortons and Velocettes, Triumphs and BSAs, a steady yammering of Yamahas, Hondas, Suzukis and Kawasakis, along with the deep growl of the odd Harley Davidson. The main attraction at Chrome Corner this year was a M√ºnch Mammoth, the behemoth of bikedom with a 1,200-cc. engine and a voice like imminent doom. "Bloody 'ell," muttered one Manxman as the passing Mammoth shivered his pint of bitter, "a bloke could 'ang three sidecars on that bay-sickle and still have power left over."
The main point of the exercise, of course, is not show but go. When the road course is not in use by the competitors for either practice or racing, it is open to the bike crowd for pleasure. Or whatever you call it. The only way to appreciate what the Manx TT really means is to take a turn around the circuit with an expert rider, and Tommy Robb is just such a man. At the age of 37, this diminutive Northern Irishman has been racing bikes for 22 years, and though he has never won a world championship he is a deeply respected pro. Robb is only a bit taller than a pint of ale but twice as sparkling. He was not entered in this year's TT because, as he put it, "I somehow managed to come off me machine during a race in Southern Ireland a few days ago, and the bones haven't mended yet." He was in good enough shape, however, to give a racer's-eye view of the course.
From the start-finish line at the Grandstand just outside Douglas, the road almost immediately pours down the steepest incline of the race, Bray Hill, which a rider like Agostini takes at 150 mph, bumps and all. At the bottom comes a hard righthander called Quarter Bridge, followed almost immediately by another called Braddan. "There's a jump at the bottom of Braddan," says Robb, sweeping through the corner. "See that little house at the apex of the corner? I once came blowing through here and saw the marshals dragging two riders out of the house from where they'd ended up under the piano." The road sweeps in a series of left and right bends through Union Mills, Ballagarey Corner, Highlander and Greeba Castle—a narrow ribbon of tarmacadam lined with beautiful but murderous beech trees. At Ballacraine, about 7½ miles from the start, the riders hang a hard right and head north into the tricky Laurel Bank section. Here the countryside is at its most pastoral: lilacs and gaudy rhododendrons line the road, sheep graze stupidly on the lush hillsides, watching the blur of passing traffic. "This stretch is the most dangerous because the banks are solid rock," says Tommy Robb. "You must let the bike drift through the corners to find the best line, and often you must brush the banks with your shoulder. If you come off down here, you'll stop within your own body length, like a bug hitting a windscreen."
From the 11th milestone at the town of Cronk-y-Voddy, one catches a view of the sea—just a blue flash between the sheep meadows. "A young Irish friend of mine was killed here not long ago," says Tommy. "I saw the body lying beside the road but I didn't recognize him, otherwise I would have been too heartsick to continue." Handley's Cottage flicks past in the midst of an S bend taken at 100 mph, then the village of Barregarrow (pronounced, oddly enough, Big Arrow), where the needle hits 120 and the sound of the engine echoing off the stucco walls nearly knocks the bike flat. Robb lines up by means of telephone poles, sewer grates (dangerous in the wet) and yard gates. "This gate up at the Kirk Michael Corner used to be green. When they painted it blue, they bloody nigh killed me first time around in practice. The important thing about this course is memory—you must know every bend by heart."
Then comes the humpbacked bridge at Ballaugh, where the bikes take to the air for distances up to 16 feet, followed by an immediate right-left chicane. "The line takes you within inches of the wall of that pub there," says Tommy. "Miscalculate and you're likely to be poured out of the tap." Across the road from the pub is a fence post on which is mounted a brass bas-relief showing a rather dish-faced motorcyclist of the prewar years. His lips are curled in an enigmatic smile. "Karl Gall, 1903-1939," reads the inscription. "Seine Freunde." One of the victims of Ballaugh Bridge.
After the jump one enters the Quarry Bends—three of them, left-right-left—taken at 100, and then comes the fastest level part of the course, the Sulby Straight. Here the road is rough and pitted, but the good riders can take it at 140. "Until this year we had to practice early in the mornings, getting up at four a.m. and onto the road before dawn. You'd zip your leathers up over your pajamas and try to stay awake while going a ton. Right here at the end of Sulby Straight the sun would suddenly ambush you—nearly blind you. I'm glad there's no more morning practice."
The bikes slow a bit as they weave through the city of Ramsey at the north end of the island, then strain through a series of switchbacks—the Hairpin, the Waterworks Corners, the Gooseneck—as they climb Mount Snaefell. "Up here the enemy is fog," says Tommy. "It can drop down unexpected like, and suddenly you find yourself in the middle of a cloud at 120, no sign of the road. See that stone post beside the road? A friend of mine lost it up here and slid hundreds of feet through the fog to hit that post. It killed him. The only immovable object in the vicinity."
The rest is all downhill, a severe test of brakes and gearboxes. "This is Windy Corner," explains Tommy as a gust blasts up, wet and wild, from the seaside town of Laxey. "I broke my neck right here in 1960; the cold wind caused my goggles to steam up. Crunch!" Past Kate's Cottage, Creg-ny-Baa, Brandish Corner, Cronk-ny-Mona, Signpost Corner and finally Governor's Bridge, then the road levels out and, in a final burst of speed, the finish line whips past. "Aye," sighs Tommy Robb with contentment, "nothing like an afternoon's ride in the country."
As challenging and exhilarating as the Manx TT course can be to a rider, it is a bit of a drag to the spectator—a point that became frustratingly clear on Monday during the first important race of the week's eight. This was the International Junior TT for 350-cc. bikes, five laps for a total of 188.65 miles. The trouble with such a long course is that the fans get to see the riders only a few times per race, and then only for a few raucous seconds per pass. Those who had chosen Ballaugh Bridge as a vantage point were graced with the sight of Agostini jumping five times—first the snarl of the MV's engine as it charged down through the approaching corners, then the sight of Agostini—a blur of white leathers on a red bike—then the incredibly balletic leap of man and machine, followed by a quick vroom and another 22-minute wait. Fortunately, there was the pub on the bridge corner, Y Feeagh (The Raven), with an endless supply of ale and race talk to while away the pauses. With Britons Phil Read, Tony Jefferies and John Cooper dropping out during the early going, Agostini had it all his own way, winning with an average speed of 102.03 mph. "I think maybe I would have had time to stop for an English pint," the Italian said later. "Sure I slowed down a bit, but there was nobody to challenge me."
The afternoon's sidecar race went, as expected, to the West Germans, who have dominated three-wheeled bike racing for nearly two decades. Still, for the predominantly British fans, it was just one more ho-hum case of Deutschland √ºber alles on three wheels. Not in the least the real thing.
A day of rest and a day of drenching rain delayed the first taste of the real thing until Thursday. While many of the bored fans watched the Epsom Derby on the telly, others bided their time at Summerland, a huge new indoor amusement park at the north end of the Douglas Promenade, playing such things as Super Sniper, Louisiana Stakes, New Pussy Shooter (a gun game in which the object is to shoot plastic cats off a plastic fence) or riding the Moonbug for 10 pence a throw. By Thursday the weather had cleared enough for racing (though four previously scheduled cremations at the Douglas cemetery had to be postponed so that the riders would not get smoke in their eyes). Phil Read jumped off to nearly a minute's lead on the first lap, riding the fastest of what the announcer called "the ubiquitous Yamahas" in the four-lap, 250-cc. International Lightweight TT. He was never fronted, winning with an average speed of 99.38 mph—well below the standard of 103.07 set in 1967 by Mike Hailwood on a Honda.
The big race of the day, however, was the highly touted Formula 750 International, a five-lapper for the biggest racing bikes in the world. Since the Formula 750 has not yet been sanctioned for world championship points by the FIM, Agostini was not riding (he maintained, however, that MV Agusta will have a 750-cc. bike for him next season). Here the interest revolved around the return of Team Norton to active competition for the first time since 1956. With Read, Cooper and the promising young engineer-cwm-rider Peter Williams up on the three new Norton Commandoes, it seemed that the grand old English marque might raise a serious challenge to Triumph, the current king of the 750 road. But it was not to be—not this year, at least. By the end of the first lap both Read and Cooper were out of the race, Read with a seized gearbox and Cooper..."Bloody hell, the gear lever fell off." Williams made it partway into the second lap before his own gearbox failed. So much for Norton. The race went handily to Ray Pickreil of Triumph, who set the first new record of the week: 104.23 mph for the distance, with a single record fast lap of 105.68, more than two miles an hour better than the old mark. It was the second victory of the week for Pickreil, who had won the kickoff event, a 750-cc. production race, also on a Triumph.
On Friday, the last day of the meet, the rains descended once again out of the northwest in cold sheets that stung like hail. This time the weather would prove fatal. The first race of the day was a three-lap International Ultra Lightweight TT for 125-cc. bikes. The season's point leader, Italy's Gilberto Parlotti, ripped into the lead right from the start on his Morbidelli, with last year's race winner, Charlie Mortimer, in close pursuit on a Yamaha. Then, halfway through the second lap, the mists of Snaefell did their dirty number on the upper reaches of the mountain road. At a bleak spot called The Verandah, Parlotti lost control in the fog, came off his bike and slammed into the same concrete post that had killed Tommy Robb's friend. Parlotti had put in 60 practice laps—nearly 2,300 miles of riding—in preparation for this, his first and last Manx TT. He was dead on arrival by helicopter at Douglas's Noble Hospital. Mortimer, an ex-public school boy known to his fans as The Toff and a close friend of Parlotti despite their competitive differences, won the race at an average speed of 87.49 mph. "The conditions were terrible," he said at the finish line, shivering around a cup of tea. "I've never been so glad to get off a bike."
Because of his countryman's death, Giacomo Agostini very nearly did not get on a bike that afternoon. Agostini is as safety-conscious as his four-wheeled counterpart, Jackie Stewart, and has long been an outspoken critic of the Manx course dangers. "Because of Parlotti's death and the appalling conditions," he said later, "we tried to ring Agusta in Italy and ask for permission not to race in the senior 500-cc. event. But the lines were constantly engaged and we could not reach him." Had the rain continued, Agostini would not have raced regardless of what the factory said, but by four p.m. the skies had cleared and the track was dry. Out he went, one more time, on the loud red MV.
And one more time it was no contest. Though he started in the third row, a full 20 seconds behind the first bikes off the block, Agostini took the lead on the road by the time he reached Ballacraine Corner and kept it for the entire six-lap, 226.38-mile distance. His winning margin over the runner-up, his teammate Alberto Pagani on another MV Agusta 500, was nearly eight minutes, but his winning average speed of 104.02 was short of Mike Hailwood's record 105.62. Nonetheless, considering the stresses of both weather and personal loss (Parlotti was a close friend), it was an impressive victory, and one that carried Agostini a long way closer to clinching his 11th world championship. "You know my views about how dangerous this course is," Agostini said later. He was standing under the flapping, three-legged Manx flag at the Grandstand. "I have won another TT, but I had some really frightening moments doing it."
That, of course, is what the Isle of Man is all about. Only after conquering the fear can one say sincerely: "Quocunque jeceris stabit."