A little island in the Irish Sea holds a magnetic lure for many Aussies. Photographer John Ford sets the scene
Back in my formative years, the Isle of Man was a mythical place and the home of GP heroes who risked all conquering its tortuous track. Although my mates and I rode early Japanese 250s, we hankered after more expensive, but proper, British bikes and we fed our passion on the belated news from English magazines that must have come via a slow boat through the Suez Canal.
And as much as we enjoyed the new British music on the record player, the most popular LP was a sound track of the Isle of Man TT, and the banshee wail of Hailwood’s Honda six pitted against the deep bark of a Tom Arter G50 Matchless was played over and over.
Like the record player, the lure of the Isle of Man faded with time only to be rekindled by the television coverage ramping up over the last few years.
Thus it was that over a few beers a plan to finally make the trip in 2012 for a group of seven mates and their partners.
In the end, five of us headed various ways to that magic Island in the Irish Sea where we had arranged a homestay with a delightful couple in the back streets of Douglas only 200m from the bottom of Bray Hill.
What a shock it was to breast the wall at St Ninian’s School during practice. Nothing, not the television, nor on-board footage nor the written reports prepared us for the reality of these mad men on mad bikes transporting themselves at warp speed through the streets of Douglas.
It was frightening. We were hooked and after the races we all agreed to return, hang the expense. Travel to the Island, half way round the world, is the biggest deterrent to getting there but our enlarged group of seven took advantage of sightseeing through different European and South African destinations to meet once again at our host’s home for a quiet O’Kells.
Finding accommodation can be a chore, with beds booked ahead year to year. (For information about Homestay see www.iomttBreaks.com). Last year, up to 60,000 descended by sea and air onto the island.
Thousands of bikes made their way by ferry and 2014 was said to be the biggest yet. The interest was fuelled by increased television coverage, introducing the likes of Guy Martin, John McGuinness and MT’s own Cam Donald to a wider audience.
There is of course more to the Isle of Man than the TT. It is steeped in history written on a backdrop of rolling hills and underlined by a spectacular coastline.
Farms and fishing villages give it a peaceful ambience that’s shattered twice a year with the running of the TT and Manx races.
Nowhere else in the world has a race with such history and, sadly, with such a legacy of serious crashes. On average there are more than two fatalities a year and while our first visit was a rare year of no deaths, the island was back to its murderous self in 2014, with two families bearing the loss of loved racers.
There is a common perception that nowhere else would we tolerate the dangers of the TT if it were proposed as a new venture. Every year there are calls for the race to be axed, and MotoGP rider Cal Crutchlow caused a stir on social media during race week when he denigrated the TT and pulled out of a demonstration lap after the death of his friend, Karl Harris.
Locals seem to tolerate the disruption of the racing as just something that has been part of their lives for more than 100 years. Because the track uses public roads, the disruption to daily life is significant but, surprisingly, many we encountered don’t have much interest in the racing.
Our host family, for example, were happy to watch the nightly reports on TV but were not bothered to walk the short distance to the track to see it up close, preferring to go about their business as best they could.
Getting around the island can be very difficult without your own transport. It’s possible to get a bus or train to various places and between Douglas and Ramsay, which would give access to a number of popular viewing points.
We also took a train to the top of Snaefell mountain for panoramic views over the island and the mountain section of the course past The Bungalow.
You could take your own bike or hire one and ferry it over and companies like Get Routed can organise transport and accommodation. Or, like us, you can pre-book a hire car at a very inflated $700 a week. Like accommodation, don’t even think about turning up without booking a long way in advance.
Having transport opens up a world of quaint villages and lively pubs with a variety of beers and local food. Don’t miss the local favorite Queen scallops or “queenies” at Castletown and, while there, step into the middle ages at Castle Rushen.
But the main event is the racing and that should be enough to fill your spectating needs for a year. There are usually two races a day, each a couple of hours long, as well as various practice sessions thrown in if the weather behaves.
And on that note, prepare for hours of nothing much happening. As soon as the weather closes in on the mountain there can be seemingly eons of time before anything happens.
This is fine if you are stationed near a pub and you are one of the designated drunks. For the more responsible members of your group, it’s a great time to catch up on that novel you were always going to read or yarning with new friends from around the world.
Despite what might seem the case through the long lens of television, spectating is not a free-for-all. It’s possible to get much closer to the action than is the case here but safety is still a big issue.
As much as anything, death or serious injury to a member of the public can spell the end of racing and marshals and fellow spectators keep a close eye on wayward behavior.
So be careful where you park, as crossing a run-off area once the track is closed might make it a long walk to get back to your vehicle if you want to leave early for a new location.
A visit to the pits is a real treat as you can get up close to the action.
It’s a pleasant surprise to be able to park close and for free and then have access to the many tents and marquees of the race teams as they go about preparing the machines.
While not all the top riders are on hand all the time, many go out of their way to oblige followers by signing autographs and posing for photos.
In 2015 it was great to see Cam Donald giving time even though he had problems with his Norton and whenever we encountered the ever-gracious Davo Johnson he was ready for a yarn.
As the main hub of entertainment of an evening, it’s a good idea to try and stay somewhere close to Douglas.
Thousands of bikes of all descriptions fill the streets and the crowds gather most nights around Bushy’s Beer tent for the entertainment and bullshit.
On various evenings we saw stunt cars and bikes, the RAF Red Arrows, beach racing and a wet T-shirt competition and, despite the free flow of amber liquid, not one altercation and nothing but respect from and to the police.
Last year was special in so many ways. Michael Dunlop nearly clean sweeping the card and sticking it up his old Honda team. Bruce Anstey’s inspired 132.298mph lap record.
Crowd favorite Guy Martin playing the bridesmaid once again with a runner-up spot in the Superbike race.
And, best of all for the strong European crowd, the success of BMW and Triumph in denying the Japanese bikes success in most major races.
For anyone with Castrol R in their system, the Island has a powerful hold.
It’s the oneness of delight among the spectators, the sound of Donald’s Norton at full noise, the drama unfolding from the PA as riders swap positions on the road.
It’s the vibe and history and the pure racing adrenalin that has soaked into every rock wall lining the track. My guess is we’ll be back.
This article appears in Motorcycle Trader 294, April 2015