Throughout my career I have raced on what, until very recently, I had considered some of the most batshit crazy public roads in the world: Mt Panorama. Macau. The Nürburgring.
All of them have their own unique characteristics that put them on that list. The first is terrifyingly steep. The second is insanely narrow. The last is both steep and narrow and it also faces you with rapidly changing unpredictable weather conditions.
What these tracks have in common is that they’re unforgiving. You make a mistake and you pay for it.
Now, my definition of unforgiving has irrevocably been changed. The Isle of Man is my new standard of Batshit Crazy.
(Full disclosure: Subaru wanted me to come out to the Isle of Man so badly that they flew me half way around the world then promptly strapped me into the passenger seat of a 300 horsepower Subaru with a lunatic for a driver and set me hurling down the Snaefell Mountain Course’s narrow roads, through small villages and up along cliffs with 200 foot drop-offs. All confirmed that I am indeed a terrible passenger.)
On most circuits an error means you lose a few tenths in lap time. At Mt. Panorama or Macau or the ‘Ring, a mistake usually means that your car comes back on the wrecker.
At the Isle of Man, making a mistake means something very different. It means that you most likely won’t be coming back.
To drive home this point, two riders had already be killed this year by the time I made it out to the Isle, and that total was to double by the end of the week. It’s a brutal toll even for this race, a race that counts fatalities deep in to the triple digits over the length of its history.
So what happened to make me redefine Batshit Crazy? Factory Subaru driver and all around madman Mark Higgins broke my Isle of Man duck.
Not more then a few hours after getting off an intercontinental flight to the Isle of Man, the PR folks over at Subaru asked me if I wanted to jump in the car with Mark for a quick lap around the TT circuit. Now normally I’d pass, as I am not a big fan of getting into the passenger seat of a car being driven anywhere close to its limit. I’m a bit of a control freak that way. Most pro drivers are the same.
But there were two things that had me pushing my boundaries. The first was that I’d be entrusting my life to Mark Higgins. He’s one of the UK’s top rally drivers, and he spent 23 years growing up on these Manx roads. I wasn’t too worried about him running out of talent at an inopportune moment.
That other thing pushing my boundaries? I desperately wanted to see the circuit.
The way the course comes at you, there is zero time to get your bearings. I knew that it’s fast (130+ mph average for the bikes), but until I saw it with own eyes I couldn’t internalize what that means. You are carrying massive speed everywhere. Not third- or fourth-gear speed, but fifth- and sixth-gear wide open throttle speed.
There was only one spot where we dropped down into second. My guess is that Mark could of done it in third if he wasn’t lugging around several hundred pounds of journalists.
Like the Nürburgring, most of the corners a blind. Unlike the Nürburgring where the surrounding forest fills your line of sight, on the Snaefell Mountain Course the thing blocking your view of the road is someone’s living room.
I can’t tell you how disconcerting it is to come around a blind corner, flat out in fifth gear at 120+ mph, only to find yourself inches away from a banner on the side of McGuinty’s Pub offering two-for-one specials on pints of Guinness.
Yeah, I was waaaaaay outta my comfort zone there.
Much of the 37.7-mile lap passed in a total blur. There was some jumping, some sliding, and some screaming. (To the passengers in my car: you people know who you are.) We hit a long straight section of road where the bikes see over 200 mph. Spectators were just feet away. Mark got on the brakes hard from a long way out and I recognized the turn that took us out of the village roads and on the mountain road that makes up the last several miles of the circuit.
It’s not that the roads up the mountain offer a respite from the dangers of the rest of the course. No, they offer an entirely new type of danger. Through the villages the danger is that there’s no runoff, just solid walls inches from your face. On the mountain there’s plenty of runoff; it’s just all vertical. If you make a mistake here, you’ll have plenty of time to make your peace before you hit bottom.
Coming off the mountain, you hit one last hairpin before coming across the start/finish line. Once out of the car (and after thanking Mark for not killing me and the boys) you get very reflective about what you’ve just done.
I originally thought to call this circuit a throwback to the old days of racing. Speed was the only thing that mattered. Death was a constant. Safety was foreign word. After some soul searching, however, I realized that calling this circuit a throwback is an insult.
It isn’t a throwback. It’s the original.
While the rest of the world became a bunch of coddling, litigious enablers, the Isle of Man TT refused to change. Maybe it’s their relative isolation, maybe it’s the fact they live in the middle of the North Atlantic, one of the harsher places in the world. I don’t know. But what I do know is that the TT is a big middle finger to all of that. Everyone at the race—riders, spectators, and residents—they’re all acutely aware of the dangers of this event. And yet they continue to do it year after year.
Walking through the paddock before the Senior TT main event, I watched rider after rider saying goodbye to their family and friends. This wasn’t like the goodbye kiss I give my girlfriend when I get in my racecar. That goodbye is more like “See ya in a bit. Try not to be too bored for few hours and then lets go out for sushi when I’m done.”
The goodbye in the TT paddock is so very much more. There is so much deep emotion wrapped up into it that I would do it grave injustice trying to explain it. There are no words.
Prior to the Senior TT, one sidecar driver was killed when they were struck from behind. It was a father son pairing. The father died.
On the last lap of the Senior TT, another rider crashed and debris from his wreck caused the following rider to fall. That rider was killed. He was on a black bike with black leathers, a badass look in this era of bright and sponsored bikes. I had been taking pictures of him all day.
People will say that racing like this is too dangerous and should be stopped. I couldn’t disagree more. It is races like these that allow us to remember who we are and where we came from. If you don’t like the danger, then don’t race or spectate there. But don’t tell those of us that have come to grips with our own mortality that we can’t.
The world is safer now than it has ever been. Safety equipment on cars allow us to drive faster and walk away from more mistakes than ever. Modern medicine allows us to eat and drink whatever we want all the while increasing our life expectancy. The TT puts all that in stark relief.
Rest in peace, Andrew Soar and Ian Bell. Godspeed to all the riders, organizers and residents of the Isle of Man who make the TT what it is: the most batshit crazy race in the world.
Robb Holland races in the British Touring Car Championship for Rotek Racing. He’s a Jalopnik contributor who basically lives at the Nürburgring most of the year and is also the tallest man in Germany.