Backmarker: Manx TT Postcard

May 30, 2013
Mark Gardiner
Mark Gardiner
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In 2001, Mark Gardiner gave up his career in advertising, and moved to the Isle of Man to live out his childhood dream of racing in the TT. After returning to the U.S., he wrote a memoir of that experience, Riding Man, which is now in development as a feature film. His column, Backmarker, looks at everything from the motorcycle industry as a whole to intensely personal 'inside stories.'

You cant get a decent kipper anywhere these days. Except here. Kipper Bap and tea; breakfast at the Crab Shack in Peel  on the west coast of The Island.
You can’t get a decent kipper anywhere these days. Except here. Kipper Bap and tea; breakfast at the Crab Shack in Peel, on the west coast of The Island.

The vagaries of Midwestern weather ensured that my trip to the Isle of Man was a hassle right from the off, in Kansas City. A late departure meant that I had to sprint through O’Hare carrying my camera case and computer, to be the last passenger on board for the flight to Manchester. On the plane, I hooked up with Tom Guttry, who is the hands-on guy, for the cabal of producers who have autobiographical TT book, Riding Man, in development as a feature film. He’s been a motorcyclist all his life, but this was to be his first trip to The Island. I knew that no matter how many videos he’d watched, he had no idea what he would experience over the next fortnight.

We had a grueling six-hour layover in Manchester, which meant that before the tiny prop plane that carried us over the Irish Sea landed at Ronaldsway, we’d been traveling what felt like an eternity. I’d slept about eight hours in the previous 80. Still, setting foot on the Isle of Man always feels like coming home.

My friend Steve Hodgson, who managed the Padgett’s motorcycle dealership here when I raced in 2002, met us at the airport. That was more than can be said for my luggage. I knew there was no way, as fast as I’d run to make my connection, that my bag would make my flight.

We had a day or two to acclimate before practice began. Last Friday afternoon, we watched the first session from the top of a stone wall at Gorse Lea, a few miles into the course. It was limited to Newcomers and Lightweights (which, nowadays, are mostly 650 Twins) but it was still pretty breathtaking.

If you want to ride on closed roads and arent a racer  you can apply to become a traveling marshal. Dont dream of it if youre not very experienced racing here  though. Wearing this vest confers serious cred amongst those who know what its about.
Putting on the TT involves a massive volunteer effort by hundreds and hundreds of marshals.

There’s no morning practice anymore; that’s one of the things they’ve changed in the last decade or so, as the TT has modernized. I guess that locals appreciate the reduced number of road closures, and racers appreciate the lie-in. Still, back in the old days, we used to get up at 4 a.m., have a quick breakfast, practice, and get back home thinking, “It’s time for lunch.” It would be, like, 8:30 a.m.

That meant that the next practice session was not due until Monday evening. I wanted Tom to watch a session from Kirk Michael, and I thought it would be good to make it an early practice, since it gets really crowded during actual races. Our host, Steve, led our little convoy of bikes out from Glen Maye – the tiny village where he lives, over on the west coast – north along the coast road, towards Kirk Michael.

The coast road is actually part of the original TT course. The ‘Crosby Course’ began at the old Tynwald Hill (Google it). From there, it ran briefly east, then competitors turned left at Ballacraine, joining the modern course on the road through Glen Helen, along the Cronk-y-Voddy straight (it means ‘hill of dogs’) and on to Kirk Michael, where competitors made a sharp left turn, returning to Peel along the coast. That was the TT course until 1911, when the race was first held on the longer ‘Mountain’ course.

When we arrived in Kirk Michael, we had a sort of quintessential Manx experience. We parked the bikes in a campground. I spotted a tea hut, selling tea and chips to the campers, and ordered a spot of tea, as much to warm my hands as anything. We started chatting with the tea man, and then his dad came over.

“Where are you going to watch from?” asked the dad.

“The bank steps,” Steve replied.

“I’ve got a better spot for you,” said the dad.

It turned out that his other son lived right the center of town. His front garden opened right onto the course – separated from the racing surface only by a low stone wall and a sidewalk about two feet wide. Dad told us to climb into the back garden over the back wall; there was no other way to get to the son’s home when the course was closed.

This is what a ticket to ride on closed roads looks like  around here.
This is what a ticket to ride on closed roads looks like, around here.

As we walked up into the town, we passed the fire station, and the siren let out a long, loud wail. That meant, practice has officially started. We had a few minutes to find the right house. They’d put a little scaffold up in the front garden, and not only welcomed us in to watch from their garden, they offered us another cuppa’.

It was the best vantage point I can remember. We looked up the course to the sweeping right past The Mitre, and down through Kirk Michael. It’s nominally a ‘straight’, but in typical TT fashion, it’s highly technical at 170 miles an hour. As we stood on the scaffold, looking up and down the road, it started to come back to me. The fast line here involves holding a tight line on the exit of an extremely fast increasing radius right, to avoid a bit of curbing that sticks out on the left side a block or so further on. The way I remembered this was, there’s a little grocery store on the right side. As I passed The Mitre, I used to tell myself, “Don’t forget to nip into the shop.”

Before that session, competitors had been reminded that it was untimed. The idea is that the first session begins with a speed-controlled lap for Newcomers, and the second session’s untimed; it breaks the competitors into the circuit at the beginning of the fortnight gradually. The hope is that riders will keep a little in hand. Nonetheless, Yoshinari Matsushita, an experienced 43-year-old Japanese rider, was killed when he crashed at Ballacrye. Last year was the first year in ages without a single competitor fatality. It was as if God sent an early message this year: Don’t get cocky.

Monkey business: the unique relationship between sidecar passengers and drivers 

Driver: Julie Hanks  Passenger: Michael Lines
Driver: Julie Hanks, Passenger: Michael Lines

When I raced here in 2002, I met a couple of sidecar racers who struck me as real characters. They finished each other’s sentences, and shared a sort of gallows humor.

‘Passenger’ is not a perfect word to describe the sidehack passenger’s actual role. You already know that they balance the outfit through the turns, by shifting their weight from side to side. They also move their bodies fore and aft, to weight the front wheel if the outfit’s understeering, for example, and back for traction.

I asked a few teams whether, hypothetically, if the driver lost his passenger without realizing it, he’d crash at the next corner. The consensus was that while an outfit might make it through the next bend if it was a left, it would flip right away if it was to the right.

Losing a passenger is, in fact, a real possibility. Mike Lines, who is Julie Hanks’ passenger, told me that arm pump was a real problem for passengers. “I have to look at my hands on the handholds,” he told me, “because I sometimes can’t feel them at all.” He said that the course is so bumpy it tends to shake passengers right off the back of the platform.

I hate it when that happens.

Driver: Deb Barron  Passenger: Karl Schofield
Driver: Deb Barron, Passenger: Karl Schofield

The passenger spends much of the race lying flat on his belly, trying to stay out of the wind. They know where they are on the course by feel and engine sound, and by twisting their heads around to look backwards; most of the time their only view of the course is out the back.

Deborah Barron is a Manx woman who drives the Team Oscar outfit. When she races on circuits, her partner is, er, her life partner. He’s her mechanic when she races here at the TT, however. “He doesn’t feel he’s ready for this course,” she told me. So, she recruited Karl Schofield, from over in England.

You don’t, obviously, just take a new passenger on and tackle the Mountain Course straight away. All of the driver-passenger pairings I spoke to tested on a regular race track first, and they all said that they knew almost instantly when they met a partner they’d gel with.

An exception might have been Alun Thomas, who is the passenger in a Welsh outfit owned by Keith Walters. Thomas showed up at some short circuit trackday and hopped into the ‘chair’ beside Walters. After a few laps, Walters felt Thomas tap him. When he pulled in, Thomas just managed to get his helmet off before puking.

Owner: Keith Walters  Driver: Andy Williams  Passenger: Alun Thomas. Not shown  Thomas crutches. He broke his heel in a short circuit race earlier this spring. He had the cast removed last week  and boarded the ferry the next day.
Owner: Keith Walters, Driver: Andy Williams, Passenger: Alun Thomas. Not shown, Thomas’ crutches. He broke his heel in a short circuit race earlier this spring. He had the cast removed last week, and boarded the ferry the next day.

“I thought, ‘Well that’s a weekend shot’,” Walters laughed. “But he said, ‘No, I can’t wait to get out in the next session’!” When Walters retired from driving, Andy Williams took over the outfit and now Thomas is his passenger, too.

Although most driver-passenger combinations aren’t prone to New-Agey, greeting-card descriptions of their close relationships, they’re definitely aware of the way that, unlike solo riders, they share all their experiences on the track.

The youngest pairing I spoke to were Karl Bennett (driver) and Lee Cain (passenger) who both live nearly in the shadow of the Grandstand. Their dads were sidecar racers, and they’ve grown up together.

“We’ve shared so much laughter, and so many ups and downs,” they told me. “Sure, we have our emotional moments, but we can be screaming at each other and, five minutes later we’re best mates again. If you did that with someone else you might not talk to them for weeks.”

“We can be going to overtake someone,” Karl said, “and Lee will know what I’m going to do before I know it.”

Lee and Karl told me that they spend more time together than they do with their kids. “It’s a second marriage,” one said. “And the TT’s not something you do for two weeks. Wednesday, after our race, we go straight into preparation for next year.”

The view from our new friend David’s front garden in Kirk Michael. The guy looking up the course, at left in frame, is Jon Huss, from California. College football trivia buffs will remember the name; he was Jim Plunkett’s fullback at Stanford.

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