Backmarker: TT Rider James Hillier

April 17, 2014
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.'

Rising Star: James Hillier

There was an epic storyline to the 2013 Isle of Man TT. A series of dominant performances by Michael Dunlop matched with a relatively lackluster beginning of the fortnight by his chief rival, John McGuinness, had many people wondering whether McGuinness would admit that it was time to hang up his leathers. Then in the Senior TT, the man affectionately known as ‘McPint’ roared back with a win and the outright lap record for good measure.

There were powerful subplots, too. Practice week’s weather was ghastly, even by Isle of Man standards, which cut into everyone’s laps, but didn’t seem to slow British Superbikes regular Josh Brookes, as he became the fastest-ever newcomer. Yoshinari Matsushita proved that no matter how much they try, they’ll never make the TT course safe. Even spectators take their chances; a massive crash on Bray Hill sent 10 to the hospital, delaying the Senior until the ER at Nobles Hospital could be cleared and restocked.

In amongst all that, one could almost overlook James Hillier’s first TT win, in the Lightweight TT.

Over the last few years, the event organizers gradually eliminated the Ultralightweight and Lightweight classes (which used to be for 125 & 250 GP two-strokes, and 400cc four-strokes.) Those were the classes most suited to Newcomers, but in 2010 they were dropped altogether.

Many hardcore fans lamented the demise of the two-stroke “proper race bikes”, and a few were skeptical when the Lightweight class was reintroduced two years ago, for 650cc Twins—bikes that are more suited to commuting. Michael Dunlop was dismissive, and didn’t bother to enter.

That said, I was won back over last year when Hillier lapped the course in 19 minutes flat, averaging over 115 mph on a machine that still bore a strong resemblance to a Kawasaki Versys!

Hillier’s first win was a bright blip on my radar, but what really impressed me was his performance on a ZX-10 in the Senior. Hillier started first on the road, and was gradually caught up by McGuinness, who started 20 seconds behind him. The thing was, when McGuinness finally got past Hillier, he couldn’t shake him. On corrected time, it was McGuinness first, Dunlop second. Only a heroic, last-lap charge by the very experienced Bruce Anstey prevented Hillier from finishing on the Senior podium.

I wasn’t the only person in the crowded press booth who thought, “That’s the guy I’ll be watching next year.” His name’s emblazoned across the butt of his leathers, with the two ‘i’s in ‘Hillier’ replaced by lit sticks of dynamite. Yup.

I guess the 28-year-old Englishman’s a classic case of an overnight sensation, a decade in the making. He started racing on circuits, in spec series like the Virgin R6 Cup, and began his TT apprenticeship in 2008. He progressed sensibly and after placing in the top ten in all his races in 2012, was seeded #1 for all the 2013 solo classes. That made him the rabbit that all the greyhounds chased. No pressure!

The Supertwins podium included Dean Harrison and local-amazing-comeback-story Conor Cummins. The top 10 finishers were all on Kawasakis.
The “Supertwins” podium included Dean Harrison and local-amazing-comeback-story Conor Cummins. The top 10 finishers were all on Kawasakis.

This year, Hillier’s back with the same team, Quattro Plant Kawasaki. The sponsor, Quattro Plant, is a heavy-equipment leasing business. The team’s based out of a Kawasaki dealership in Bournemouth, and also runs a couple of riders in the British Superbike Championship, but the attention Hillier’s brought has increased involvement from Kawasaki Motors UK, which has declared Quattro Plant its “official” team for the NW200 and the TT. Kawasaki also taps James as a rider for TV commercials in Europe.

I caught up with him a couple of days ago, to see how his preparation for the upcoming ‘real roads’ season was coming along…

Backmarker: Do you have a day job? What is it?
James Hillier: Not right now. I’m a qualified electrician, but after the TT last year it sort of kicked off, and I’ve been able to make a living from racing. Although it’s not what people think, it’s enough to pay the bills and it beats working on building sites. I’ve also done three TV commercials with Kawasaki, and there’s talk of doing another one this year. That’s something I enjoy; getting paid to ride a motorbike is everyone’s dream.

BM: You came up through circuit racing, in production classes, right? When did you decide to switch to real roads, and why?
JH: The short circuits have become really political. I lost the enjoyment there; the TT was always something I wanted to do and to me, the roads are about the enjoyment of riding. On the short circuits, you’re just chasing times.

BM: Tell about learning the TT course. I wasn’t the only person who took notice of you last year, with your first win. Did you step it up last year, or was it more a case of things gradually coming together?
JH: It is more a case of things coming together. Learning the track and which direction it goes is easy, but it takes time to learn to ride it fast. Last year was my sixth year and it started clicking. We weren’t a million miles away beforehand, but it fell into place in a good way.

BM: How do you prepare for a race like the TT? Are trackdays and racing on short circuits useful?
JH: Last year I did the least riding I’ve ever done. We did, like, two short circuits prior to the TT. I did the least riding and rode the best I ever have. This year, we did a tire test in Spain, but the TT is so different, there’s nothing you can really do to prepare for it.

BM: What about other kinds of training?
JH: I row, I swim, but it’s nothing crazy; the TT is mentally hard, but it’s not really physically hard.

BM: You led off all the solo races last year. That meant that the best TT riders were right behind you, and that you’d have the advantage of riding with them on clear roads, with no backmarkers to mess you up. Was it an education?
JH: Definitely. When I was offered the #1 spot, that sort of ticked all the boxes for me. If you’re starting 10th or 12th, you can’t really get close enough to the fastest guys to learn from them.

Hillier follows Michael Dunlop  Bruce Anstey  and John McGuinness into Ramsey. By starting in first place  he gets to learn from the fastest guys as they come past. That said  theyll be coming past less frequently this year.
Hillier follows Michael Dunlop, Bruce Anstey, and John McGuinness into Ramsey. By starting in first place, he gets to learn from the fastest guys as they come past. That said, they’ll be coming past less frequently this year.

BM: I really noticed that McGuinness couldn’t seem to shake you in the Senior. What was going through your mind?
JH: I saw him coming up behind me, at the start of the second lap approaching Glen Helen. It was an area where I thought I could learn from him, so I kicked my leg out to tell him to pass, and thought, I’ll just stick with him through this section; I can make some improvements. Then, I thought, I’ll try to stay with him for one more section, and one more and one more. Before long, I’d stayed with him for an entire lap. From that point, I was on autopilot.

On the last lap, McGuinness slowed down a little. I ended up passing him, but it took me a little while because I couldn’t wrap my head around it; I mean, I was passing John McGuinness. So after an hour and 45 minutes of racing, I missed third place by 0.9 seconds. If I had passed him sooner, I would have been on the podium, but I’m not complaining with fourth place; when you look at the guys in front of me…

BM: Coming into this summer, you’re ready for regular podiums and wins in some of the world’s toughest and most dangerous races. Do you feel pressure? How do you handle it?
JH: I don’t feel any pressure. At the end of the day, I’ll ride as hard as I can, but at the TT, you can’t get out of your comfort zone. The TT’s a funny place; the harder you try, the slower you go.

BM: What’s something you’ve learned about setting bikes up for the TT?
JH: The suspension has to be softer than it would be on a short circuit, because there are so many more bumps. But it’s tricky, because you need support when it’s going to bottom out at the bottom of Bray Hill, or Barregarrow. There’s no perfect setup; you have to sacrifice in places; you just have to grit your teeth. [Those were the very words Joey Dunlop used—MG]

BM: Do you ride on the roads at home? Are you a nutter?
JH: I haven’t been; I guess I don’t trust myself! But I’m building a cafe racer, a Virago 920. It’s just to have something fun to ride, not to go fast. I hope to have it finished by the end of the summer.

BM: Do you have a favorite section? Why?
JH: I like it all equally, but I suppose my favorite section is when you’re coming down the Mountain, on the last lap of a race, and you think, OK, I’ve brought it home safe.

Just before we chatted, Hillier learned that he was subbing for one of Quattro Plant’s British Superbike Championship racers, who hurt his shoulder in testing. So, he’s going to be racing this weekend at Brands Hatch. Michael Dunlop, Ian Hutchinson and Michael Rutter will all be using the race as a TT shakedown, too. I asked him whether this opportunity, coming at the last minute, had him excited.

“Not really,” he said. “When you’ve done the TT, it takes the edge off everything else.”