Try and guess the deadliest motorsports race in the world. Was it the German Grand Prix when it was held on the Nurburgring Nordschleife? Not even close. The Dakar Rally? You're still way off. The World Rally Championship, particularly the fatality-prone Group B series? Think again.
At most, those races had deaths that were merely in the double digits. But at the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy motorcycle race, a whopping 135 people have been killed during official competition over the past 105 years (237 if you include the amateur Manx Grand Prix).
Actually, my headline is a bit misleading. The TT does, in fact, happen today — it's held every summer in the Isle of Man, a small and autonomous island in the Irish Sea. What I mean to say is that something this dangerous and outright insane would never be allowed to happen again in today's world.
First, a bit of background: The Isle of Man is only about 220 square miles in size. Today, only about 85,000 people live there, and every summer they are subjected to dozens of motorcycles racing through the streets of their towns and around the island on the 37.7-mile Snaefell Mountain Course. Tens of thousands of fans flock to the island to watch the race every year as well.
Sometimes these riders crash into one another, sometimes they fly off cliffs, sometimes they collide with parked cars or light poles, and sometimes they kill spectators.
This has been going on since 1907. At the Isle of Man TT, death is business as usual.
According to the TT's official site two things brought the riders to this ancient place in the early part of the last century: the "spirit of competition" and speed limits. Back then, cars in the United Kingdom were limited to a now-unfathomable 20 mph, but early auto enthusiasts figured that the authorities on the Isle of Man would be a little more willing to let things slide.
Some early auto races were held there, and not long after, the motorcycles showed up as well. The first bike races were held on the island in 1907 and then on the Snaefell Mountain Course in 1911. Besides taking breaks during the two World Wars, the TT has been held continuously ever since.
Those early years were marked with several deaths, but things only got worse as time marched on and bikes got faster and faster. Now, speeds can get up to 190 mph or more. On average, more than two competitors die each year; six were killed in 2011. Nine people died in 2005.
Oh yeah – I almost forgot about "Mad Sunday." One day every year at the TT, they open up the mountain course to the public. That means anyone on a motorcycle can try his or her luck along with the professionals. Imagine, now, a NASCAR event where they let all the fans onto the track, running what they brung.
How the hell was this not shut down a long time ago?
This brings me back around to my point: A race like the TT would never get off the ground today. If a race like this happened in 2012 it would result in a shit-storm of lawsuits, protests from the neighborhood groups, ire from elected officials, and cops going without sleep until they got rid of it for good. You think Congress goes nuts investigating steroids in baseball? Just imagine what they would do with this. Everything in our modern lives is over-engineered, over-regulated and over-litigated in the name of safety and security. The only reason it keeps happening on the Isle of Man is because it is rooted in a much simpler time.
Can you imagine if a race promoter went to some small town mayor and pitched this race today? Here's how I imagine the conversation would go:
Race promoter: "So I'm here about the road course I want to set up your city!"
Mayor: "Sounds like fun! Tell me the details."
Race promoter: "What we want to do is have a ton of motorcyclists and crazy jokers on sidecars racing through public streets. Just so you know, they may crash into stuff."
Mayor: "That sounds kind of dangerous."
Race promoter: "It's extremely dangerous, actually. We're expecting anywhere from two to maybe a dozen deaths a year. It happens when you're trying to hit 190 miles an hour on a bike."
Mayor: "They're going how fast? I may have to ask the city attorney and the police chief about this…"
Race promoter: "Also, cornering is so tight that the motorcyclists will probably crash into each other, or the spectators. Good chance they'll fly off a cliff, too."
Mayor: "Do what now?"
Race promoter: "And we want to open the course up to the fans on one of the days so anyone can try it."
Mayor: "You're telling me that any asshole on a Gixxer who thinks he's Nicky Hayden can get in on this?"
Race promoter: "Yeah, doesn't it sound great?"
Mayor: "Please leave right now and do not come back."
As for why the TT has been going on this long, it comes down to two groups of people: the riders and the Isle of Man residents.
Some, including a few former competitors, have called for the race to be banned. But for the most part the riders love the TT. They know it's dangerous, but they also know it's the absolute pinnacle of motorcycle racing. It's the ultimate, and if you're good enough – and you're not afraid – then you go for it, regardless of the risks. Personal responsibility and the love of speed triumph the desire for safety here.
As record-holder John McGuinness told The Guardian in 2007, anyone seeking to ban the TT are "a bunch of do-gooders ... We all know that we accept the risks. Maybe we're a bunch of hard-nosed bastards."
As for the Manx islanders, they're generally supportive. While some understandably complain about road closures, litter, irritating spectators and the death toll, others realize the race is a part of their tradition and essential to the local economy. Plus, they enjoy the spectacle too. They've been doing it this long. Why stop now?
We now live in a world where people file lawsuits over spilled coffee and put helmets on their kids during playtime. If you ask me, it wouldn't hurt if we had more places like the Isle of Man where insanity is a tradition.