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Robert F. Jones
June 19, 1972
Away they roared, up, down and all around Manxland in the last of the real road races, led by an Italian hero who was hell-bent for leather
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June 19, 1972

Two-wheel Assault On An Island

Away they roared, up, down and all around Manxland in the last of the real road races, led by an Italian hero who was hell-bent for leather

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On the Isle of Man's escutcheon is a heraldic device known as the trie cassyn which shows three bent and armored legs joined somewhat whimsically at the top of the thighs. Beneath the three legs runs the motto Quocunque jeceris stabit, meaning, roughly, "However you throw it, it won't fall down." There were plenty of bent and armored motorcycle racers in Manxland last week who wished the coat of arms and its motto applied to them. But unfortunately that mystical stability belongs to only a few in the tilted, tipsy realm of two-wheeled racing—and those few dominated the 53rd annual Isle of Man Tourist Trophy race meeting with an authority rarely seen in any sport.

Most authoritative of all was Italy's Giacomo Agostini, TV star and 10-time world champion in the 350-and 500-cc. categories of bike racing. Mounted on a brace of impeccably prepared MV Agustas, Agostini simply blew off all the competition in both the junior (350-cc.) Tourist Trophy race and the senior (500) as well. Among those blasted in the 350 was his pickup teammate, British world champion Phil Read, who had joined the MV team for this race only, ostensibly to share his intimate knowledge of the tricky, 37�-mile Manx road course with the Italians in return for a good ride. But, ah, that fine Italian hand. All the MV folks shared with Read was a sour bike that quit shortly after one lap. Still, unflappable Phil got some of his own back by gunning down all the opposition, British, Italian or otherwise, in his specialty—the 250-cc. event—and he did it on his own little Yamaha. Sayonara, Signori.

The Manx TT is to motorcycle racing what Indianapolis or Le Mans or the N�rburgring are to automobile competition—and maybe even more. Dating back to 1907, when the fastest lap was 42.91 mph, it is today the only major international road race for bikes that is run entirely on real, live roads. And even the mini-bikes now turn laps in excess of 100 mph. Like Indy, it is both venerable and vicious: last week's racing produced the 99th fatality on the Manx circuit, compared with 50 at Indianapolis. Like Le Mans, it is grueling: each lap takes at least 20 minutes to complete and contains more than 200 bends, chicanes, bumps, jumps, dips, hills and sometimes spills. And like the N�rburgring, that most awesome of Grand Prix courses, it is both bleak and beautiful.

For those whose geography book is not handy, the Isle of Man is a green knob of rock and anachronisms set at the top of the Irish Sea, almost equidistant from England, Scotland and Ireland. Because it is an independent nation, ruled by its own ancient House of Keys and only loosely allied with the United Kingdom, Manxland has its own money, its own clotted Gaelic dialect and—most important for bike enthusiasts—both the power and the willingness to abolish speed limits on its roads during Tourist Trophy weeks. The island's climate is said to be splendid, almost Mediterranean, and indeed there are a few scraggly palm trees swaying in the raw winds of the Irish Sea, but one suspects they were mail-ordered by the Manx Chamber of Commerce. Last week, at least, it was a chill, wet island, the slimy slate ridges of its upland moors softened only a touch by the butter-yellow bloom of gorse and the purpling of heather. Its mountains are mist-shrouded and ominous—most especially Snaefell, at 2,034 feet the tallest. It is around Snaefell that the TT course winds, and when one is racketing up into its dank fogs at 100 mph on the back of a racing bike, it is easy to imagine trolls up there on the peak, picking their teeth with human shinbones.

But the Manxman, by contrast, is a jolly, homey, egalitarian sort (and so is the Manxwoman, who is not, by the way, called a Minx). Bitter ale and smoky whiskey flow steadily in the pastel pubs and boardinghouses along the waterfront of Douglas, the island's largest city, and unlike so many small towns that have become motor racing centers, Sebring and Watkins Glen for example, Douglas displays little overt resentment of the racing crowd that so noisily distorts its life-style. During the TT weeks of late May and early June the seaside Promenade of Douglas, with its horse-drawn trams and leisurely foot traffic, becomes a drag strip for the leather boys. At the south end of the Promenade, near the ancient stone quay, is Chrome Corner—showplace for nearly 6,000 motorcycles and their riders. There are the Nortons and Velocettes, Triumphs and BSAs, a steady yammering of Yamahas, Hondas, Suzukis and Kawasakis, along with the deep growl of the odd Harley Davidson. The main attraction at Chrome Corner this year was a M�nch Mammoth, the behemoth of bikedom with a 1,200-cc. engine and a voice like imminent doom. "Bloody 'ell," muttered one Manxman as the passing Mammoth shivered his pint of bitter, "a bloke could 'ang three sidecars on that bay-sickle and still have power left over."

The main point of the exercise, of course, is not show but go. When the road course is not in use by the competitors for either practice or racing, it is open to the bike crowd for pleasure. Or whatever you call it. The only way to appreciate what the Manx TT really means is to take a turn around the circuit with an expert rider, and Tommy Robb is just such a man. At the age of 37, this diminutive Northern Irishman has been racing bikes for 22 years, and though he has never won a world championship he is a deeply respected pro. Robb is only a bit taller than a pint of ale but twice as sparkling. He was not entered in this year's TT because, as he put it, "I somehow managed to come off me machine during a race in Southern Ireland a few days ago, and the bones haven't mended yet." He was in good enough shape, however, to give a racer's-eye view of the course.

From the start-finish line at the Grandstand just outside Douglas, the road almost immediately pours down the steepest incline of the race, Bray Hill, which a rider like Agostini takes at 150 mph, bumps and all. At the bottom comes a hard righthander called Quarter Bridge, followed almost immediately by another called Braddan. "There's a jump at the bottom of Braddan," says Robb, sweeping through the corner. "See that little house at the apex of the corner? I once came blowing through here and saw the marshals dragging two riders out of the house from where they'd ended up under the piano." The road sweeps in a series of left and right bends through Union Mills, Ballagarey Corner, Highlander and Greeba Castle—a narrow ribbon of tarmacadam lined with beautiful but murderous beech trees. At Ballacraine, about 7� miles from the start, the riders hang a hard right and head north into the tricky Laurel Bank section. Here the countryside is at its most pastoral: lilacs and gaudy rhododendrons line the road, sheep graze stupidly on the lush hillsides, watching the blur of passing traffic. "This stretch is the most dangerous because the banks are solid rock," says Tommy Robb. "You must let the bike drift through the corners to find the best line, and often you must brush the banks with your shoulder. If you come off down here, you'll stop within your own body length, like a bug hitting a windscreen."

From the 11th milestone at the town of Cronk-y-Voddy, one catches a view of the sea—just a blue flash between the sheep meadows. "A young Irish friend of mine was killed here not long ago," says Tommy. "I saw the body lying beside the road but I didn't recognize him, otherwise I would have been too heartsick to continue." Handley's Cottage flicks past in the midst of an S bend taken at 100 mph, then the village of Barregarrow (pronounced, oddly enough, Big Arrow), where the needle hits 120 and the sound of the engine echoing off the stucco walls nearly knocks the bike flat. Robb lines up by means of telephone poles, sewer grates (dangerous in the wet) and yard gates. "This gate up at the Kirk Michael Corner used to be green. When they painted it blue, they bloody nigh killed me first time around in practice. The important thing about this course is memory—you must know every bend by heart."

Then comes the humpbacked bridge at Ballaugh, where the bikes take to the air for distances up to 16 feet, followed by an immediate right-left chicane. "The line takes you within inches of the wall of that pub there," says Tommy. "Miscalculate and you're likely to be poured out of the tap." Across the road from the pub is a fence post on which is mounted a brass bas-relief showing a rather dish-faced motorcyclist of the prewar years. His lips are curled in an enigmatic smile. "Karl Gall, 1903-1939," reads the inscription. " Seine Freunde." One of the victims of Ballaugh Bridge.

After the jump one enters the Quarry Bends—three of them, left-right-left—taken at 100, and then comes the fastest level part of the course, the Sulby Straight. Here the road is rough and pitted, but the good riders can take it at 140. "Until this year we had to practice early in the mornings, getting up at four a.m. and onto the road before dawn. You'd zip your leathers up over your pajamas and try to stay awake while going a ton. Right here at the end of Sulby Straight the sun would suddenly ambush you—nearly blind you. I'm glad there's no more morning practice."

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