38 Miles of Terror Every year riders roar around the Isle of Man in the Tourist Trophy, a test of nerves and speed that may be sports' most dangerous event

September 07, 2003

Performing twice nightly last spring at a strip joint on the
Isle of Man was an exotic dancer whose greatest attributes,
according to leaflets, were the BIGGEST BOOBS IN THE IRISH SEA.
¶ Which turned out to be not exactly true. From May 24 to June
6, far bigger boobs--thousands of them, sometimes five
abreast--bounced on motorcycles around the island's winding
mountain roads and through its narrow village lanes in a
treacherous road racing rite that has earned this place the
nickname Isle of Manslaughter. ¶ The Tourist Trophy (TT), as the
event is called, plays out on a tight 37 3/4-mile circuit
featuring some 400 curves and kinks, each with its own
particular hazard. In a variety of races sanctioned by the Manx
government, leather-clad pros, reaching speeds of almost 200
mph, lap the course three, four or six times, depending on the
category entered. They roar over humps and bumps and lumps and
fog-cloaked manhole covers, often within inches of trees, poles,
jutting pavements and spectators.

"There's a lot of stuff to hit on the course, and a lot of it is
immovable," says Dave Roper, who in 1984 won a race for vintage
bikes aboard a 1959 Matchless 500-cc G50. Now 54, the former
Hicksville, N.Y., welder is still the only U.S. competitor to win
a TT event. "As thrilling as the racing is, at times I've thought
it shouldn't be legal. Looking back, I can't believe I even
survived."

Since it began in 1907, the TT has claimed the lives of nearly
200 riders and onlookers. Seven died in 2000, 10 in '95 and 11 in
the darkest year of all, '93. It is not without a certain irony
that the starting line and grandstand abut a cemetery.

The grim tally of fatalities includes David Jefferies, who in
2002 became the first rider to cover the TT circuit in under 18
minutes, setting the still-standing lap record of 17 minutes, 47
seconds--an average speed of 127.29 mph. The 30-year-old
Yorkshireman was touted as this year's favorite, having won nine
TT races, three each in the past three years.

Last year Jefferies said of the event, "You have to be totally at
ease with yourself, know exactly what you are doing and accept
that you might be going home in a box." The remark was eerily
prophetic. On May 29, during a practice run, Jefferies's 1,000-cc
Suzuki spun out on an oil slick and smashed into a stone wall.
Jeffries died on impact.

His bike skittered down the road, striking a telephone pole and
bringing down wires that entangled another top rider, Jim Moodie.
One wire wrapped around Moodie's throat, nearly strangling him.
Amazingly, he was out of the hospital that evening and back on
the road the next day. "I guess my time isn't up yet," Moodie
said.

Time dawdles on in this self-governed tax haven, a possession of
the British Crown, where the Manx motto Traa dy liooar (Time
enough) is practically a constitutional tenet. In 1656 William
Blundell finished his History of the Isle of Man. Demand was so
great that the book wasn't published for another 220 years.

Today the steam locomotive that chugs the 16 miles between Port
Erin in the south and Douglas on the east coast is restricted to
25 mph, and the horse-drawn railway in Cregneash--the oldest such
conveyance in the world--clops along at an even slower pace. In
this sleepiest of sleepy Manx towns, locals call more than a
dozen vehicles on the road at one time "rush hour."

Manx Time is transformed during the TT, an event that accounts
for a considerable chunk of the island's tourist trade. This
spring 40,000 motorcycle enthusiasts descended on Man for two
weeks of racing and revelry, bringing along 15,000 cycles. Some
of the visitors were better lubed than their bikes. The
lubrication of choice was Bushy's, a local brew known as the Ale
of Man.

On the seaside promenade a carnival atmosphere prevailed. Over
one four-day weekend police made 66 arrests, at least half
booze-related. Eight people were charged with drunken driving
(or, more accurately, riding). "Most of the bikers were
well-behaved," police sergeant Ian Young said stoutly. "Frankly,
the figures reflect that."

Not long ago in Douglas a reveler was booked after carving a
predawn donut on a seafront street. Smoke issuing from his bike's
rear wheel triggered alarms in a nearby hotel, which had to be
evacuated. In his defense the donut maker claimed he was just
aping something he had seen on a TT promotional video, Bikes,
Boobs and Beer.

For many the highlight of race week is Mad Sunday, a racing off
day. Only 400 can compete in the 10 or so sanctioned events in
the TT, yet on Mad Sunday the circuit is thrown open to all
comers. The Isle of Man has no speed limit outside town
boundaries, so you can ride your bike as fast as you want.

"Where else in the world can you do 120 miles an hour on your
Senna and get overtaken by a naked, sozzled fart on a Kawasaki
doing 140?" asks Jon Cox, a mechanic from England. "For that
matter, where else can you pass a policeman at 120 and smile?"

This year not everyone was smiling. "Snaking through a pack of
five drunks at high speed could often be quite scary," says
Steven Deman of New Zealand. "Especially if all they're wearing
is a lace bra and panties." Deman himself snaked around the
circuit in a Valhalla helmet to which he had glued bullhorns and
blond braids.

You don't have to be mad to ride on Mad Sunday, though it
certainly helps. "Nobody goes out on the course on Mad Sunday to
kill himself," allows veteran F/1 motorcycle racer Thomas
Montano. "Yet every year dozens of riders scream out onto the
streets, throw themselves like lemmings against the dry stone
walls, spill their guts and, occasionally, die."

By midafternoon stretches of the Mad Sunday track resembled the
junkyard jungle in a Mad Max movie. Here, a mashed Ducati; there,
a mangled Triumph or mutilated Motto Guzzi. More than one bore a
note that read: THIRD-PARTY INSURANCE ONLY. PLEASE GIVE
GENEROUSLY.

Darren Lucas of Nottingham blamed many of the wrecks on German
bikers. "May I say they're the most aggressive bloody drivers on
the island," he fumed. "The last thing I expect to see before I
die is the German license plate of the bike that cuts in front of
me."

The biggest problem Germans used to face on Mad Sunday was
forgetting which side of the road they were on. These days the
demanding mountain section is strictly one-way, and road signs
have been posted in various languages to remind riders to keep to
the left.

During the races and practice sessions, public roads are closed
to traffic and 1,500 marshals patrol the route for anything--from
a pebble to an oil slick--that might cause a mishap. Surface grip
can vary from mile to mile: After a rain, overhanging trees cause
some roads to dry out more slowly than others. "Certain bends
have virtually no margin for error," says Montano. "Get it wrong
and hit something, and there's a 99 percent chance you'll die."

Back in the early 1990s Montano got it right, hit something and
lived. He was vrooming along at the head of the F/1 pack when he
collided with a Manx pigeon. The bird pierced his visor and
fractured his skull. "I drove on for another 100 feet or so until
I collapsed," he recalls. "It didn't hurt, but when I tried to
blow my nose, cerebral fluid oozed out."

He was helicoptered to Noble's Hospital in Douglas, where
surgeons sliced through his leathers and found the dead bird
plastered against the back of his neck. "Bizarre spills happen
here," Montano says with a sigh. "Like the time the world champ,
John Surtees, hit a cow. His bike was totaled, but the cow got up
and walked away."

Perhaps the most bizarre accident occurred in 1986, when a rescue
chopper landed and spooked a horse in an adjacent pasture. The
animal bolted onto the course, killing another rider.

"We don't get the ones who are dead," says Jonathan Evans, chief
of surgery at Noble's. "They're taken elsewhere." The crash
victims who do show up in the ER suffer from a wide array of
high-impact fractures. "Quite extraordinary injuries you only see
in textbooks," Evans says with just a hint of sarcasm. "Wonderful
injuries of the lower femur."

A survey of TT races from 1993 to '99 lists 73 deaths (37 of them
competitors) and 539 surgical procedures for injuries ranging
from abrasions and lacerations (91) to torn tendons (12) to
broken pelvises (five) to cracked jaws (four) to ruptured spleens
(three) to amputations (four).

This year's injury totals were padded considerably by local F/1
star Richard (Milky) Quayle, whose Suzuki slammed into a cliff
face near Ballig Farm. He was treated for a collapsed lung,
cracked ribs and a broken ankle. As an added bonus, his spleen
was removed.

Plugged into a ventilator and unable to speak, Quayle scribbled
notes to his wife, Lydia. One of his first: "No more bike races.
From now on, I'm a full-time dad."

Lydia listened with that weary, seen-it-all look that spouses of
TT racers share with homicide detectives, pool sharks and White
House correspondents. "I've been there before," she later said,
"and heard it all a thousand times."

To make it out of Man semi-intact, Roper says riders must learn
the course's bends until they're second nature. "You need to
memorize every last detail forward and backward," he says. "You
need to know them down to the exact location of the mulberry tree
at the turn near the hill at the 22nd milestone. Or whatever."

Temporary amnesia may have caused the 1991 wipeout that fractured
Roper's left ankle and dislocated his hips. "That crash only
reinforced to me how serious the TT is," he says, "and how right
your effort has to be." The No. 1 rider on Team Obsolete decided
to quit before he became extinct: He hasn't raced on Man since.

For many top riders, the TT remains little more than a menacing
memory. After crashing in his one and only 250-cc production race
in 1971, legendary British rider Barry Sheene refused to enter
another TT. "Why bother?" he asked. "It's so much easier just to
shoot yourself and get it over with."

Declaring that the risks were too great, Sheene led a successful
campaign to have the race stripped of its Grand Prix status. The
TT hasn't been part of the world championship since 1976.

Critics have been calling for a TT ban since the very first race
in 1907, and for measures to hold down speeds since '11, when the
fastest lap was 41 mph. (British bike manufacturers were incensed
that American-made Indians took first, second and third.) Before
the start of the '13 edition, suffragettes--aghast at the
danger--scattered broken glass over the course. Road sweepers
worked until 4 a.m. to clear the pavement.

The recent death of Jefferies stoked the righteous indignation of
London's tabloids. A column in the Daily Mail headlined HOW MANY
MORE WILL HAVE TO DIE began, "Carnage came a little earlier than
usual this year on the Isle of Man...."

Defenders of the Manx races argue that participation is a
personal choice. The hostility, they claim, results from
snobbery--most of the riders are working-class lads from England,
Scotland and Ireland who save up all year to compete.

The truth is, danger and death are what draw riders to the Isle
of Man. "I intend to race on the island as long as there's a TT,"
says the 44-year-old Montano. "As much as my wife would like to
see me stay in one piece, I can't stop. I'm just another lemming
throwing myself at a wall."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY IAN WALTON/GETTY IMAGES TURN, TURN, TURN First used in 1907, the Isle of Man circuit features some 400 curves and kinks and remains as daunting to riders today as it was in 1932 (inset). B/W PHOTO: HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES [See caption above] B/W PHOTO: HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES FLIGHT PATH Forty-one years after A.J. Bell (top) took off in 1950, Nick Jefferies sailed past the same unprotected iron fence. COLOR PHOTO: GOLD AND GOOSE PHOTOGRAPHY [See caption above] B/W PHOTO: HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES GRANDSTANDIN' Throughout the race's history, Tourist Trophy spectators have found themselves on top of the action. COLOR PHOTO: GOLD AND GOOSE PHOTOGRAPHY [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: JOHN WATTERSON/ISLE OF MAN NEWSPAPERS SIDE SHOWS Among the events held during the TT are several that require some high-speed, three-wheeled teamwork. B/W PHOTO: HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: SI ROBINSON/DOUBLE RED KEYED UP On Mad Sunday the course is opened to all comers, who sound a very different note from the pros. COLOR PHOTO: GOLD AND GOOSE PHOTOGRAPHY [See caption above] B/W PHOTO: HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES EVOLUTION The course may not have changed since Oscar Godfrey won the Senior TT in 1911, but the bikes sure have. COLOR PHOTO: JAMES WRIGHT/DOUBLE RED [See caption above] B/W PHOTO: HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES SITTING PRETTY For F.W. Dixon and mate (top), as for three of this year's winners, just staying alive was reason to smile. COLOR PHOTO: JAMES WRIGHT/DOUBLE RED [See caption above]

Since it began in 1907, the Tourist Trophy HAS CLAIMED THE LIVES
OF NEARLY 200 RIDERS AND ONLOOKERS.

"There's a lot of stuff to hit, and a lot of it is immovable,"
says Roper, a TT winner. "Looking back, I CAN'T BELIEVE I
SURVIVED."

By midafternoon, stretches of the Mad Sunday mountain track
resembled THE JUNKYARD JUNGLE IN A MAD MAX MOVIE.

The world champion, John Surtees, hit a cow. His bike was
totaled, BUT THE COW GOT UP AND WALKED AWAY.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)