The “Tourist Trophy” (“TT” to everybody, everywhere) is a two-week series of motorcycle road races that comes every June to the Isle of Man. In many ways it is the heartbeat of the island, pumping in world-wide publicity, civic pride, and no small amount of money for 14 days, then everything returns to the palpable quiet of a rural island for the next 50 weeks. It is also largely how the island is defined to the outside world. When you say “Isle of Man” to people, they either give you a blank look, or say, “Oh – TT!”
During “TT Fortnight”, the schools close for a week, shops that normally shutter at 5:30 receive customers until 9:00, and a few hardy ones stay open past midnight to sell official TT souvenirs. The fish and chip shops serve fried deliciousness until 4:00a, and even the Indian restaurants, bless them, deal curries until the wee hours (they’re a favorite destination for people wanting a sit-down meal to absorb an evening’s worth of alcohol).
The already surreal 10:30p twilight is enhanced by huge crowds of leathers-clad bikers crusing the Prom. Motorcycles are parked everywhere – on the sidewalk, hotel lawns, wherever they’ll fit.
The riders speak German, French, and every dialect of English known to man. The signs on the road say “Links Fahren” (technically “Turn Left”, but meaning “Stay left”) to remind the German riders they’re not on the Autobahn anymore.
In short, for 14 days, our little island becomes a beehive of virtually ’round-the-clock activity.
When I was here in 2006, I was “present” during the TT, but I basically ignored it. There was one important exception – the Red Arrows, which is the Royal Air Force’s display team. Then-24-year-old David and I stood on the balcony of our apartment and watched the fighters scream overhead, close enough that we could clearly see the pilot. David waved. “He can’t see you, David.” “I know, but I’m waving anyway.” Secretly, part of me wanted to wave too.
But with that exception, I avoided the whole thing. I mean, I care nothing about motorcycles, or racing, or motorcycle racing. And I was appalled at what can only be described as an annual carnage. Every year, one or a few professional riders die, and there are always fatalities among amateurs who are riding too fast for their ability, the conditions, or their sobriety.
I might have ended up in the same place this year, except Lisa and I felt it important to bond with the community. Becoming part of the community in the Isle of Man means understanding and communing in some way with the TT. Importantly, the first “event” we went to was a PokerStars-only showing of the documentary “TT 3D – Closer to the Edge“. Before the show, we were introduced to and chatted with Conor Cummins, a delightful young man from Ramsey, in the north of the island, who is sponsored by my employer, PokerStars and who unwittingly (and undesirably) features in the film. Toward the end of the film, you watch in horror as (viewed from a helicopter) you see him miss a turn, smash through a wooden post, over a wall, and down a steep embankment. Were it not for having met him and heard his story before the movie, we would have been sure we were watching this man’s death in slow motion (with a terrifyingly quiet and haunting soundtrack). His list of injuries escapes me, but there was both bone and organ damage; he was back to race this year.
As I walked out of the movie, I said to Lisa, “I understand so much more now.” These men who race these bikes at speeds near 200 mph do so because, in some sense, they have no choice. It is what they live for. They know that any race they go on could be their last (indeed, the movie contains an interview with the widow of a rider killed during its filming). But as far as they’re concerned, if they can’t race “motor-bikes”, they might as well be dead. So they take their chances, and nod solemnly when they lose one of their brethren. They’re sad that he died, but clear that none of them (neither they nor he) had much choice in the matter; it’s what they do, who they are.
And therein lay my epiphany.
Me, I like to eat scones and the occasional portion of chips. I enjoy scuba diving when time and funds permit, and I have been known to play online poker for sums most people would consider insane. The U.S. government has, so far, not restricted the first activity and it has largely (and inexplicably) not regulated or restricted the second. But as you are probably aware, it has done its level best to prohibit me from doing the third.
The TT is in many ways a celebration of doing something you love, even if that thing may kill you, without the government crashing down on you. In fact, the TT got started on the Isle of Man because the laws in the U.K. prohibited road speeds of greater than 30 mph (if memory serves). The bikers came over to the island where they could tear around the 37-mile road course as fast as their machines could go. That used to be 40-50 mph; now they negotiate the course at an average speed of over 130 mph.
It is indubitably not for me, but who am I to tell them not to do it, any more than I want them telling me that I can’t jump into the ripping currents at Darwin Island where you can see the hammerhead shark fins on the surface? [I have done this very activity and would do it again in a heartbeat given the chance]
Once I had absorbed that important lesson, my whole perception of the event changed. Lisa and I dived right into the mix. On Tuesday, we joined some PokerStars colleagues on the balcony of our building out on Onchan Head and watched the Red Arrows scream in low over the bay. If there is a dictionary defintion of “bad-ass”, these men (and Flight Lieutenant Kirsty Moore)  have their pictures there.
Then we drove down to the Prom and went to the Villa Marina theater, where blues/rockabilly chanteuse Imelda May was holding forth. Of course we bumped into a quartet of my colleagues there and stood five or six lines of fans from the stage, enjoying the show.
After that, we walked a block to the best Indian restaurant in town and were told that if we could wait for 10-15 minutes, they could seat us. At 10:45p; heh.
Yesterday was Senior Race Day – the main event of the whole two weeks. Of course, it’s also a bank holiday and the whole island turns out to watch the bikes. Lisa and I walked the 1.7 miles up to Sign Post Corner, a semi-secret viewing venue where the bikes make a sharp right turn on the final run back to the grandstand. Lisa had discovered the place by accident on Wednesday, choosing to follow some pedestrian bikers who had a clear (but not obvious) destination.
The house at Sign Post Corner is a bit of a local legend. The former owner of the house was Olive Bullock, who simply opened her house up to John and Mary Q. Public because it had such a great view of the race. No admission fee, but she collected donations for the Helicopter Fund. When she passed away two years ago, her son Martin purchased the house and continued the tradition. So one sits in Mrs. Bullock’s back garden watching the race. When you need refreshment, you go into the house (they have laid on extra carpet remnants to protect the rugs) and purchase home-made scones, sandwiches, and crisps. A big ceramic mug of hot tea or coffee is £1 and you leave the change for the Helicopter Fund. The guest book in the conservatory shows people from all over Europe, the States, and Australia thanking the Bullocks for their hospitality. The vibe is laid back but focused. I could see virtually no alcohol in sight – people were there for community and fast bikes. This is the scene from the opposite side of the road:
The guy sitting behind us was a 50-year-old ex-bike racer. He knew everybody in the business and every last detail of how everything worked. I heard him telling a story about a fellow racer who had killed himself with a shotgun just a few years ago. “He’d been having trouble with the marriage, you know, and, well, they’d told him he couldn’t race any more. He barricaded himself in his ex-wife’s house with this gun. They tried to get him out; in the end, he shot himself. I mean, they’d told him he couldn’t race any more, hadn’t they?” To our left and right were two car and bike mechanics. Behind us were a lovely couple who apparently live to ride (that’s her in the red tank top). She’s got four bikes and he’s got seven.
The race was supposed to start at 12:15p; we had arrived around 10:30 to see the “Parade Lap”. Due to weather up north (that never reached us), the main race was ultimately postponed a full five hours. When all was said and done, we’d been there for nine hours. With basically nothing to do waiting for a race about which neither of us cared.
We had a blast; I can’t wait for next year.
Epilogue: The race itself quickly turned into a heads-up battle between former champion John McGuinness and crowd favorite (and movie protagonist) Guy Martin. Even to our untrained eyes, it was clear that these guys were in a different league than the other riders. They negotiated the turn with a minimum of body movement and loss of speed. As Lisa said, “I don’t care what it is – it’s a joy to see the best at anything do it.” By the third of the six laps, McGuinness had opened up a six-second lead that grew as large as 15 seconds; he ultimately won by about 11 seconds (over a 1:40 hour race). The third-place finisher was 4-5 seconds behind Martin. Fourth place was 40 seconds behind third. Our hero, Conor Cumins, “retired” from the race on the third lap with mechanical difficulty – we could see him looking askance at the back of his bike just after he passed our corner. I tapped red-tank-top lady on the leg. “At least this time he’s walking away.” “Yes, I want them all to walk away…” She looked a bit wistful; “It would have done him such good to have finished well up though…” He did, however, win the “Spirit of TT” award for 2011.
Three professional riders died during the fortnight; a team (pair) of sidecar racers during practice and a 34-year-old Irish biker during one of the races. Imelda May noted that she had come over on the plane from Dublin with that rider’s family and was dedicating her concert to him. 4-5 civilians were killed; without exception, they were doing very stupid things. That’s merely explanation; not for a moment a suggestion that they deserved their fate.
 Note that in the U.K. “lieutenant” is pronounced “lef-TEN-ant”.