The Isle of Man TT – there really is nothing else like it in the entire world. There may be other races on closed public roads, but nothing matches the challenges around the 37¾ miles of tarmac which are not to be taken lightly. And the challenges to even get to the races are often worthy of tales all of their own.
Privateers are sometimes unjustly accused of making up the numbers at the Isle of Man TT races, but – like the established ‘factory' stars – they have their own targets and aspirations. It's that buzz that keeps them coming back for more and the dangers are just something that feeds that adrenaline. Conquering that island course – even once – is a truly incredible achievement and many have their own stories on how they got there. Here's one from an old friend of mine…
In 1998, aged 51, Peter Small decided to race at the Isle of Man on his Suzuki GSX-R750. Not unusual, but then Peter came from Idaho so just to attend would be some undertaking. Not only that, but Pete would ride his bike to the event.
He left Idaho and rode to Vancouver, Canada where the GSX-R – which was 8500 miles old at the time – was freighted to the UK. On picking the bike up at Gatwick airport Pete spent three enjoyable days touring Wales before heading to Liverpool and the Isle of Man ferry. He and the Suzuki would take part in the Formula One and Production races.
He said at the time: “Why the TT? Well my street riding in Idaho would be similar to the TT races. My son and I would do 300-500 miles a day on the wonderful roads of Idaho – the last state of the union where there were no official speed limits. Sometimes we'd ride into Canada.”
Pete arrived with his fully-loaded GSX-R looking like ‘a pregnant ant' as he described it. On a standard bike he recorded a best lap of 106mph in the Production Race, while still suffering from an incident in the Formula One race. He said: “I ran off the road at Sulby trying to out-brake someone. I went down a slip-road to a three foot drop and mashed my nuts on the tank so hard they were like melons for the rest of the week!”
After the TT that year, he toured Europe, taking in Scotland, France, Germany and Italy – where he visited the Ferrari factory: all on that stock GSX-R.
Sadly Pete died in 2010 following a motorcycle crash in Canada. He was a legend, a character and a very tidy rider. For me, he symbolised the spirit and passion of the road-racer.
We may not have racing on the Island in 2021, but we still have the stories, like Pete's and many others. Enjoy.
If the name ‘Jefferies' was borne out of Northern Ireland, it may have gone on to be as heralded as family ‘Dunlop'. In Yorkshire and in the racing paddocks young and old, the Jefferies surname speaks of Allan, Tony, David and of course Nick. They are all lauded with a great deal of respect by peers and fans alike. But for Nick Jefferies, did the name hang heavy on his shoulders?
“Yes and no,” says the now 68-year-old. “My dad was a great inspiration to me as a racer and a man. But he didn't help me much. I believe he wanted to see how much I wanted it, to be a racer!” explains Nick.
Nick started life on two wheels astride a trials bike in the 1970s. He was the first to score World Championship points for Honda. “My dad saw me do that. He died not long after, but I know he was proud of me for that. Trials is a little like golf really, you're nervous throughout… particularly if you're doing well. You just don't want to make a mistake.”
He tackled the Isle of Man TT course soon after and stood on the podium in the 1977 Senior Manx Grand Prix. But he's perhaps best remembered for winning the 1993 Formula One TT on a Castrol Honda RC30. So how did he ready himself for the off?
“I prepared my own bikes at the start of my career, so I took a vested interest in the equipment. Was the fuel right? Tyres good? Some mechanics liked that, some didn't.”
The Castrol Honda crew boasted names such as Anthony ‘Slick' Bass who could name Carl Fogarty and Terry Rymer as riders he had helped steer to glory. But it was American former Grand Prix racer Ron Grant who had the biggest impact on Nick. “Ron was not my manager in job title, but he exerted the same influence a great football manager would have on their players and their team. You couldn't pinpoint what it was necessarily, but he made me believe in myself. He got me to follow the likes of Joey Dunlop until I could convince myself I could stay with him….and then I would. Ron had such charisma!”
In the build up to a race, Nick is candid about the experience: “It was truly surreal. You would have two races in a day, be watching what you ate, what you drank. Despite that focus, the 15 minutes before the start would be when the nerves really kicked in. I could not truly get in the zone, calm down even…until Ballacraine on lap one.”
So what of the well documented dangers of the Island course? “You would say goodbye to your mechanics before the off, kiss your partner. It goes through your mind at that moment that there is a very good chance you might not come back. It's the unknown. But once you get going, it goes by so quickly.”
Nick's TT career was not without incident. A big off in the 1990 Senior left him with a broken ankle, which he aggravated with a crash at Cadwell Park just three weeks prior to TT 1991. “I had to wear these disgusting boots because I couldn't get my own on with the swelling. But in those days, I had kids to get through school and the start money, lap money was enough to drive you. I finished 5th that year!”
In 1994, Jefferies rode John Britten's stunning VR1000. “It was a relatively easy bike to ride, but we had a number of different problems with it. It would wheelie for fun and having seen me going off the start-line with the front wheel pawing the air, Bob Macmillan from Honda pulled me to one side after the race and told me ‘We have got to get you on a Honda next year'. He and certainly my wife at the time were fearful of that bike!”
So how does Nick reflect on the TT aspect of his career? “I raced with some big names and I honestly believe that I wasn't as aggressive as Carl Fogarty, as talented as Steve Hislop, definitely not as wild as Phillip Mccallen and not the master technician that Joey was. But I think I did okay!”
We heartily agree sir!
The top TT teams had their spaces earmarked at the back of the parc ferme, the big transporters dominating the eyeline. Privateers were pushed towards the campsites and the cut through for the boozers in Douglas. Working out of the back of a van was a given for racers of a certain era – in fact it still is today.
In contrast, Alan Chamley had his car and trailer at the back of Bray Hill, the latter chained to a lamppost. His race bikes were prepped in a local's tight-knit garage space. He would ride his TT machines to the paddock for practice and races: “You could in those days if you paid a £30 insurance!”
Alan's desire to tackle the Island road course started way back when he was a kid: “My dad took me to the Manx Grand Prix in 1979,” says Chamley from Kendal. “He stuck me at the bottom of Bray and told me to get ready for my heart to skip a beat. I'd never seen anything like it.”
Two-wheeled life began with a long bout of motocross racing. Chamley freely admits that the dirt bikes became a cheap alternative to preparing for a dream realised at that 1979 Manx. He would start his road-racing career in the Manx Grand Prix Newcomers race in 1995. But it was his debut at the TT in 1998 that is most memorable for the Cumbrian. “I had a pretty well-sorted NC30 for the Lightweight. I was starting at number 82 and it was spitting with rain when the frontrunners headed off!”
The 1998 Lightweight TT was run concurrently with 250cc competitors, with Chamley and notable others on Supersport 400cc machines. “By the time I got my bike off the start-line, the rain was really hammering it down. Indeed, the organisers cut the race from an already shortened three laps to two mid-race. I remember getting a board at Kirk Michael saying just ‘2'. I just got my head down. I think most had more sense and either pulled in or knocked it off. You couldn't see on the Mountain. I was just white-lining it!”
Chamley finished 6th in class, but was somewhat disappointed to learn that the prize money and trophies were based on the overall result. “I missed out on a bronze replica which I would have earned had the 400cc race been treated separately. I was gutted about that!”
So, what of the anxiety of being a newcomer to the TT and the Manx before it? “I was a bag of nerves before first practice, even leading up to scrutineering. I would think that they were going to find something that would stop me competing. I just felt that sense of staring straight ahead, like in customs albeit with nothing to hide. It was a bit irrational maybe, but I was so desperate to get my chance to race on the TT course.”
During practice for TT 1998, Alan went to the riders' briefing and found himself in the corridor with TT legend Joey Dunlop. “I wanted to ask for his autograph, but I was caught in two minds. I ended up starting a practice lap with him. We started in pairs in those days. I got to St Ninian's and thought: ‘where is he?' I'm guessing he had stopped for adjustments, as he flashed passed me eventually at Douglas Road Corner. I'm not sure I truly appreciated it at the time, but I'm really proud to be able to say I started a lap of the TT course with a true great!”
Not many can say they ran alongside the King of the Mountain and the TT is truly unique for having that opportunity. No one racing at Darley Moor or Castle Combe is lining up next to Valentino Rossi as they go out for practice, right?
Manxman Mike Cain can actually lay claim to being one of the few riders (or only?) to race a solo at the TT, and be both a driver and passenger in a sidecar too.
His first ever TT was as a passenger for John Bullivant in 1985. Mike was 22 years old. He says: “I was working at Crellins the Bakers and got the go ahead to disappear at 4.30am for morning practice. But only if I made the time up later.”
Perhaps his best result as the ballast in an outfit came when he partnered German Helmut Lunemann in an Ireson chassis holding onto a TZ750 motor. “Helmut could scare the shit out of me sometimes. The throttle did not work both ways with him.”
They would battle along to a 9th place in the Sidecar B TT of 1986 – none too shabby. But his German counterpart frightened him out of the chair. “I would just hang on in there. We came across a big accident at Crosby one year and I told Helmut if he didn't slow down I wasn't going to do it anymore!”
So how did Mike prepare for a TT lap, particularly with such a determined driver? “In the good old days, you could have a ‘shandy' before the race to calm your nerves. Ultimately, I just wanted to race at the TT. It was fate for a Manxman. My dad had been a marshal, my brother raced the Manx. It was inevitable I would do the same.”
Mike did brave the chair a couple more times after his split with Lunemann. He says: “In 1991 I was passenger to Harvey Garton in a 350 outfit. I remember early morning practice we were throttling out of Brandish and Harvey rolls off. I thought the worst, thinking we were about to witness another big one. Then I see a cow trotting up the road from Hillberry!” Only at the TT…
Aside from dodging the wildlife of the Island, Mike had a dabble with the solos, too. “Anything with an engine and I wanted to do it,” he says. “I had such a love and a passion for the TT.” His podium in the Lightweight Classic remains a highlight.
It seems also that the TT will never leave him: “I went back to the Island four or five years ago. I flew into Ronaldsway, picked up a hire car and then took some mates out on the course to put the frighteners on them. I went through the Alpine section and noticed they had obviously chamfered the kerb at some point. I remember thinking: ‘I can get the chair over that!'”
Despite now enjoying his retirement from racing, in Bognor Regis, it's clear that feeling of adrenaline racing around the TT course has stayed with Mike. He recalls: “The whole thing started from an advert in MCN searching for a passenger. I rang up and the following year Helmut and I were circling the track in a van desperately trying to get to know each other. Then I'm sat in the outfit and hanging on for grim death down Bray Hill!”