*This may not be an easy read, but I think it’s an important one.
Road racing. It’s exactly that. Racing on a road. A public road, albeit closed. On two wheels. On a motorbike. Between the stone walls, hedges and curb stones. Through the trees, mind that damp patch and try to hit that apex. Trees, barbed wire fences, lampposts line the roadsides. There are bridges, hairpins and maybe a Mountain to contest. Roundabouts and chicanes maybe. A mass start or a time trial.
This is road racing and it isn’t for everyone.
Before I moved to the Isle of Man myself and my family made the pilgrimage over to the Isle of Man TT and Manx Grand Prix almost every year. I remember kids at school asking me why was I going to an Island where there will be nothing to do? Are you sure you mean Man and not White? Is there even electricity. To answer those questions – yes I meant Man, yes there is electricity and that little journey over the Irish Sea is more than just a holiday. It’s a community flocking to a small island to witness one of the greatest ever spectacles. Standing at the bottom of the road watching these racers fly through is something I don’t think you can comprehend at 6 or 7. I can still remember how it felt though. That jumping feeling when one flew past, maybe a little step back. Okay, a rather large step back, but I was hooked. I found myself in a situation where I couldn’t help but watch. I’d run down to the bottom of my grandparent’s road ready to watch. When you’re small you don’t have to be anywhere early… people just let you push in. It was great! At that age you don’t understand the ins and outs of road racing or probably motorsport in general. My Poppa (Grandad) used to track race, he always had a motorbike. I guess it’s all kind of in my blood. The speed, the danger, the mechanics. My Mom followed BSB, WSBK and MotoGP religiously. All you really see at the age though is the race bikes in the paddock, the racers who you meet and talk to and then the races themselves. You cling onto a favourite at that age, you idolise without even realising. You’re oblivious to everything else that goes on. I suppose you think these racers are invincible and that everything will be okay; it’ll t-cut out mentality. Until one day you’re that little bit older and suddenly the world is no longer rainbows and butterflies.
I was 9 when myself and thousands of race fans lost their racing hero – David Jefferies. I cried and I cried. The whole atmosphere on this little island changed, the whole island was devastated – something we would unfortunately encounter again and again. I didn’t see it, in fact I wasn’t anywhere near where the incident happened, but even at 9 my heart sank hearing the words ‘red flag’ and the press release that followed. Flowers and items in memory were laid by Jefferies family, team-mates, friends, fans. They still are to this day. I guess at that point for me it was a realisation. Jefferies was a TT winner, in fact he won nine in the six years he contested. He knew his way round; he knew his bike. Yet in a split second – gone. The realisation for me at that age was simple. This sport is dangerous. This sport can seriously injure people, or worse fatally. This sport is not for the faint-hearted. This sport is something you need to understand before you immerse yourself in it. This sport is where you need to be prepared for every eventuality. It could be due to a mechanical issue, rider error or even a rabbit. With some fatalities we will just never know except it was a racing incident. I remember my Mom consoling me telling me ‘it’s what they do, they know the risks’. I couldn’t understand how anyone could say bye to their wife, children or parents, put a flammable tank between their legs and ride the nuts off a motorbike with the knowledge they might not make it home alive. I was 9. I was angry. I was upset. The rider I loved, the rider who made me giddy over Suzuki’s, the rider who ignited my road racing spark was gone.
Two months later I found myself back on the Isle of Man for the Manx Grand Prix. I was only 9. I can’t remember what happened in those two months, I can’t remember how I felt, but I’m pretty sure even at 9 I was questioning why I was stood at the bottom of the road once again ready to watch yet more road racing on the same course that took my hero. Yes, it was my family’s choice as to where we went on holiday, but ultimately it was my decision as to whether I watched the racing or not. I chose to. I was drawn to the racing. Not because of the chance of death, not because of the risk, but because of the elation and emotion that everyone feels when you hear ‘xxx WINS THE SENIOR TT’. You feel like you’re part of something special. Sat by your little radio with Manx Radio AM blaring out, alongside other race fans who are waving their programmes, shouting ‘GO ON FELLA!’, waving their arms around, jumping up in the air. It’s unbelievable. And all this is happening whilst you are stood at the end of a road, sat on a hedge or in a field. They are, in some places, inches away from you. Probably within touching distance. It is scary. You have to be prepared for it, you have to know that motorsport is dangerous. Not just road racing, but motorsport in general. You’re don’t usually get that type of danger at Silverstone or Brands hatch. You’re shoved behind a tall fence or in a grandstand. You don’t often get the danger of a curb stone, a brick wall or a lamppost either. You have to pay for admission, which these days can cost the world, and the majority of the time you have to be pretty important to take a walk down pit lane to the garages. There’s none of that b*llshit at a road race. The paddock is open for everyone to walk around without any charge. You can find yourself a space in a hedge, provided it’s not prohibited’ for free. Take yourself a few beers and a packed lunch and you’re set for a day’s racing! You can congregate on the start line and watch the racers set off down Bray Hill one by one. You can be right where the mass starts take off from at the Southern 100, NW200 or Ulster Grand Prix. Whether you go with friends or go alone, you’re bound to make new friends, race friends, friends who just get it. Nowadays you have to pay to sit in the main grandstand at the start/finish of the TT course and they have started to put up paid-for Grandstand at various points around the course. Some people who only know this are likely to pay, but old school race fans will just perch on a wall, in a hedge, in a field where it’s free (or a donation is payable). You begin to learn that road racing fans aren’t like ordinary race fans. You begin to learn that road racers aren’t like track racers.
There are people I work with who just don’t get it. There will be people in Tesco’s complaining that roads are closed, no food is left or that there’s simply too many motorbikes. They live here, love the Isle of Man, but just don’t understand why for almost 5 weeks of the year specific roads close for racers to jump on their motorbikes to race the roads we drive on daily. They don’t understand why people make the pilgrimage from all over the world to be on this little, not usually tropical, island. One year I noticed some motorbikes had Australian number plates. Turns out the riders had shipped their bikes over so they can ride on the famous TT course. A number of people often ride through Europe, jump on the Eurostar or ferry, cross the English Channel, ride up from Dover to Liverpool or Heysham, sail the Irish Sea just to get to the races. That’s days of travelling. That’s commitment. That’s what we do to watch and immerse ourselves in what this bizarre sport we love. I don’t expect outsiders to understand. Not many people I know would be happy to sit on a grass bank with ants and whatever else is lurking for a day’s racing. Not many find it appealing especially if you’re in the middle of a field and the only toilet you have is a bush… Personally, it doesn’t bother me. I’m 100% content sat on a grass bank, in a hedge or on a stone wall. I’m in awe of these racers. It’s a pleasure to watch these people do what they do best. Hitting those apexes, navigating through the shade of the trees, dancing on the foot pegs. I don’t expect everyone to understand, I especially don’t expect them to understand after recent events where even road race fans are questioning their love for the sport. I know I have been hence why I’m writing this today. Ask a road racing fan on a good day how they feel about road racing and before you know it you’ll be hooked yourself. Catch a road racing fan on a bad day and they’ll tell you how much they hate it. A few weeks later you’ll catch that same road racing fan back in a hedge. But why? Because it’s all we know, it’s under our skin, it’s part of us. I truly believe that a road racing fan carries the death of a racer around with them for a while regardless of whether they witnessed it or not. The turn up on a hedge the next day because it’s what that racer would want. It’s a sign of respect, it’s a show of solidarity.
Some of these racers didn’t make it home alive, but were they doing what they loved? Yes. Some have been critically injured, but were they living life to their fullest? Yes. Some may have lost finger tips, some may have lost a limb, but did they know the risks? Yes. The additional danger in road racing is quite clearly obvious and it isn’t rocket science. 1. Racing on two wheels comes with an additional risk in comparison to rallying for example. 2. The furniture. 3. No run off area, kitty litter or similar. Those of the three main differences. In a racing incident it can be difficult to distinguish a fault, a reason specifically when the mechanical factors appear to be sound after inspection. A rider error can be hard to take, but it’s a stark reminder that they’re only human.
Over the years my eyes were opened to even more road races. There isn’t just the Isle of Man TT or the Manx Grand Prix – there are many! North West 200 and Ulster Grand Prix in Northern Ireland, Skerries 100 in Southern Island. The Southern 100 down south on the Isle of Man and many more, but these are to name a few. There have been huge achievements at all of the above, but with great achievements come sadness and at each of the above road races there have been fatalities. You also find road racing in Spain and other European countries, however they’re not as well publicised here in the UK. In fact, the only time road racing gets a mention in the press is when there is are life-threatening injuries or fatalities.
You’ll find The Time, The Independent, The Huffington Post and many more only ever mention the Isle of Man TT, Southern 100, Skerries 100 if a rider has died. They might mention if Cal Crutchlow grabs a podium position in MotoGP, but they won’t mention that Peter Hickman is the world’s fastest road racer as he set a new lap record around the Isle of Man TT course. They won’t mention that Dean Harrison won the Supersport TT this year and that before Hickman smashed the outright lap record at the TT Harrison was actually the world’s fastest road racer at the Ulster Grand Prix or that John McGuinness had signed for Norton. The only recent ‘news’ the world knows about McGuinness is that his Honda spat him off at the NW200 leaving him partly broken. People on the outside are only aware of a handful of riders this year: Dan Kneen, Steve Mercer, Adam Lyon, William Dunlop, James Cowton and Ivan Lintin, People on the outside are only aware of these riders for the worst possible reason. They have either been fatally killed whilst racing or critically injured. Of course this is news, serious news, but they are also people. They’re not just racers. They have families. They might have a girlfriend or wife, possibly even children. The risks are well-known by both the rider and their families. McGuinness has said ‘we look selfish at times; we just can’t help it.’ Their wife will probably be the one holding their helmet whilst their husband zips up their leathers on the start line. Their children are probably holding their gloves whilst their daddy puts on his helmet. Their partners go into a relationship with them as racers whether that be on a road or a track. Their children are brought into this crazy world of road racing from birth and it’s all they know. Paul Shoesmith, who lost his life in June 2016, had two young boys. You’d see Shoey’s tent in the paddock and know that his two little boys wouldn’t be far away razzing round the paddock on their little balance bikes. They loved it! This racing world is all they know. It’s not just a few weeks of the year. The racing world is their life, their family. It’s in their blood regardless of whether they decide to take up racing later in life or not. I hope people can at least understand that part of this crazy world rather than criticising the life they choose.
It was Senior Race Day in 2015. Myself, my partner and his family decided we’d go up to the K Tree, but it was pretty much full! Instead we headed to the 11th milestone and set-up camp on a hedge. The buzz around the Senior TT is unreal despite having a Superbike race on the Monday, this is always the one racers want to win. The Marquis de Mouzilly St. Mars trophy is awarded to the winner. It’s prestigious. It’s special. However, that day in 2015 I witnessed my first ‘big’ crash. I heard a bang, saw a fireball and jumped down behind the hedge as I saw bike bits fly towards me. It was horrifying. The adrenaline had kicked in after a few short seconds and I was ready to deal with whatever had just happened, but I wasn’t signed-on to marshal that day. I was there to spectate. There were adequate numbers of marshals and in a situation like that too many cooks’ rings all too true. The helicopter came, although it felt like hours before it arrived, and I believe there was an off-duty nurse spectating who offered her assistance. It also felt like hours until the helicopter left, but you’re never really certain as to whether that’s a good thing or not. Steve Mercer unfortunately had to ride through the smoke and potentially the fireball that lit up the sky. He pulled into the field next to us and sat there facing away from the road. He just wanted to be alone. All of a sudden the realities of road racing were all too clear. I remember a marshal walking down the pavement after it happened asking if everyone was okay with blood over his orange jacket. He was so calm, collected. Seeing that crash was upsetting, but it never stopped me from watching road racing. The love was still there, just a little tainted. After I’d calmed down and made sure others around me were okay, I looked at Twitter. Rumours were rife. I remember seeing riders’ names strewn left, right and centre. None of which were correct might I add. None of us could even see a number on the bike and we were there, we saw it. This happens every damn time, but unfortunately we live in a world now ruled by social media. There appears to be some kind of sick trophy that people want to grab and say they were the first to announce a death.
Social media wasn’t really a thing when I watched as a child. Smartphones didn’t exist and you were lucky if you were able to send a picture message without trying 273 times. You listened to Manx Radio and if you wanted to document anything you either had a camera or a camcorder. You couldn’t upload photos or videos onto Twitter or Facebook. The latest news wasn’t in your hand. Now I’m constantly fighting with people to keep the rumours they’ve heard to themselves rather than plastering them over social media where families could potentially be given false information. Would you like to see that your boyfriend, husband, wife had died in a racing incident on Twitter? These people either call themselves race fans or their people who want it banned. It boils my blood how social media can be turned into such a negative form of communication. A lot of road racing fans use Twitter, for example, to keep up with the results, the latest updated whether that be yellow flags, red flags. Those of us who know the sport, who respect the sport know that nothing good ever comes of speculation. Twitter is full of racers, teams, team members, family and friends. I have many friends who are directly involved in road racing whether they race themselves, are family or friends of a racer or even part of a team. There’s a little network behind the scenes of Twitter both publicly and privately. When an incident happens we don’t gossip or share information over a public platform. If something needs to be said, it’s done privately. That little network is what holds this community together sometimes. This community knows nothing is official until a press release is published. This community knows the heartache. This community knows this is road racing and this is dangerous. This community is a family. We are all well informed of the risks, of the consequences. Please don’t try and tell us our sport should be no more, that we should suppress such natural born talent on a motorcycle because some people who aren’t even involved in this sport are worried about the consequences.
The past few weeks have been ones of loss, heartbreak and tears. Practice week of the 2018 Isle of Man TT brought up heartache and loss. The Isle of Man lost one of its own – Dan Kneen. This little island will take a while to heal from the loss of Dan, it won’t be quick nor easy. With the support of Dan’s family, the Tyco BMW team and the races went on as scheduled with the knowledge that this is exactly what Dan would have wanted. On the same evening Steve Mercer was also involved in an incident where he was said to be in a critical condition. As per the schedule, we continued knowing that these racers wouldn’t want the races to be stopped. During the Supersport Race Adam Lyon’s was fatally injured on the Mountain section after a competitive start to his Mountain course career. At the Skerries 100 only last weekend it was announced that we lost another of the Dunlop dynasty – William. Brother of Michael, nephew of Joey, son of Robert. Northern Ireland once again along with the entire road racing community are mourning the loss of another of the greatest road racing families in history. I still don’t really know what to say about William other than he was a gentleman both on and off the roads. He’ll be sorely missed by many. Only yesterday at the Southern 100 we lost another road racer – James Cowton. The death of a road racer regardless of whether they are a newcomer or experienced always comes as a shock. It always takes time to come to terms with a loss, and for some it will never leave us.
This is by no means a direct comparison, but for a bit of perspective in 2018 so far FIVE people have died attempting to climb Mount Everest. In 2017 there were SIX. In 2016 there were SEVEN. Now, you tell me that road racing is dangerous and that it should be banned? Ban it because people died doing what they loved, people died living their dream? Ban it because it’s not safe? It’s just not the answer and it’s not what the families of these racers need to be hearing. They will grieve, they will go through every possible emotion, but they will eventually find some comfort and may even find themselves back in the paddock involving themselves because it’s all they know. Whilst writing this my thoughts are with those who are no longer here to live their dream and especially with the families of William Dunlop and James Cowton. Ivan Lintin remains in a critical condition following yesterday’s incident and has been transferred to Liverpool for further treatment – keep fighting!
I’m not too sure how much more this sport, the families, friends and fans can take, but what I do know is we’ll get through it & help those who need it. Don’t get me wrong it’ll take time, lots of time. This season has been horrendous, one of the worst I’ve known, but we’ll get there, we’ll get through it. The truth is road racing is dangerous. Motorsport in general is dangerous. I hope that this gives an insight into this crazy world of road racing especially if you’re someone who just doesn’t get this sport. It’s difficult to understand at times, it’s difficult to love at times. It’s a sport I hate to love sometimes, but a sport I can’t help but love.
Steve Mercer posted something quite poignant today on Facebook for his first post since his incident at TT and I thought I would leave you with this little sentence – ‘We are bike racers and bike racers fight.’