Friday 21st

Sunday 23rd September: Mini and MX open. Freshly groomed. Weather forecast is good and free sausage sizzle at lunch time.

The Isle of Man

A Gladiatorial Challenge

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The coroner’s report has just been released for New Zealand TT rider Paul Dobbs who was killed while racing on the Isle of Man circuit on June 10 2010. In recording his verdict, the coroner concluded that it was “clear from evidence that Paul Dobbs lost control of his bike and crashed with fatal consequences”.  He also added that Paul “really did love the Isle of Man and the TT. He was a regular TT competitor. He even named his younger daughter, Hillberry, after a section of the course, and he was buried on the island."

The Isle of Man is notorious for its high number of fatalities so what is it exactly that draws riders to what is considered the most dangerous circuit in the world? What inspires them to keep returning?

Te Puke man, John Antrim, was the first of the now seven NZ riders who have been killed racing at the Isle of Man TT.  He had been passionate about bikes from an early age, acquired one as soon as the minimum age was reached, successfully competed in scrambles and trials events and was secretary of the Tauranga Motorcycle Club prior to his departure for England. He could supply from memory the winners of Junior and Senior TT races in the Isle of Man for years past, what machines they rode and by how much they won. His trip to the UK and the Isle of Man was a long-planned project. He had saved hard and worked long hours to make it come true. Although he had not competed a great deal in road racing, he intended to ride in road races during the summer and in the winter months to compete in trials and grass racing.

John was killed on the first official day of practice just a few days short of his 22nd birthday and within a week of achieving his life’s ambition – to race on the island TT track. His machine, a 7R AJS struck a wall while he was taking a corner.

NZ World Champion and Hamilton resident Hugh Anderson went there 7 times (1960-1966) and out of 16 starts gained 6 podium finishes, 2 wins, an average placing of 4th overall and 13 replicas.  The Isle of Man had been top of Hugh’s ambition list since the age of 10. “I was inspired by a journalist”, he says.”This journalist wrote up the 1946 races in such an exciting way that shivers went up my spine. The 500cc champ, Les Graham, had been a bomber pilot in the war as well, so, at my young age, to me he was an absolute god. Then, I didn’t think I’d ever be good enough, but I was pretty focused, I got there.”

 And what was it like?  “The challenge was unreal”, Hugh continues.”It is the most difficult circuit imaginable, 55 corners plus fast bits, road surfaces that change.  You need an ability to learn fast, to read the road fast, to adapt fast to different surfaces and grip. The Isle of Man is challenging, difficult but rewarding.”

And why did he stop at 7 times? “It all wears thin.  So many get killed.  Friends, mates, the guy who bunked down at the other end of your bed. You rethink what you really want out of life.” 

But he adds,”that’s not a reason for not going.  Life is not so precious that you shouldn’t take chances.  You should always dare to dream.”

Tauranga resident, Peter Pawson was manager of the NZ team between 1958 and 1961, also competed there and also “went off it” because of the deaths. “There is no escape at the speed you’re going”, he says. “The circuit is 60.4km long. They can’t protect all the corners, Marshalling is always a problem.  It is safer now but there are still the stone walls, fences, buildings and concrete kerbs”.

“I did, however, have some marvellous rides there” he reminisces.”I say “rides” because I had difficulty thinking of them as “races”. It is too dangerous for a mass start so riders push off at 10 second intervals. You are against the clock as well as individually on the circuit. This means you ride on your own a lot.  It’s rare to duel with another rider.  I’m one of those people who needs a bit of a kick.  I remember once I was in the lead but totally lacking in motivation so I dropped back to be with the bunch. 99% of the riders "tour" at high speed but don’t race”.

And why do riders go there? “It’s no longer on the world championship circuit but I think people go for the tradition, the status and the nostalgia and not just the bigger money that is around now. In my day, there were few other road racing alternatives. I went to smaller meetings in Europe as well, but it was quite strange, the island wasn’t well known outside of the Commonwealth.  When I mentioned the Isle of Man, I was asked "Why is it an island without women?”

The Isle of Man TT races are certainly well known in NZ. According to Charles Lamb, who has written on the subject , “the Isle of Man TT has most certainly attracted, and continues to attract, New Zealand riders who have been rising to the challenge of the TT and travelling to the Isle of Man since 1910. Although from a small, distant country, the Kiwi riders have acquitted themselves well, enjoying a relatively high level of success. One of the reasons for this was that, early on, New Zealand emulated the Isle of Man TT through the development of road racing”.

Hugh Anderson agrees. “In Britain, they weren’t allowed to close the roads so they didn’t do a lot of road racing (the Isle of Man has a separate Parliament so they made their own rules) whereas here in NZ, we grew up on it. It was rare to ride on a fully sealed circuit too.  There were usually one or more sections of gravel, like at Te Puna, to cope with.  It was certainly good road-racer training.”

The first NZ TT venue was Waiheke Island – the link to the Isle of Man is obvious  – and road racing circuits at Cust, Wanganui,Mangere, Halswell, Greymouth, Hawksberry, Nelson Port, Paeroa, Te Aroha, Tauranga, Gracefield, and Taumarunui have been very popular. Today, New Zealand is one of the few countries outside Ireland and the Isle of Man that still actively supports road racing. 

Lamb also addresses the question as to why the riders go and keep on going.  “Racing at the Isle of Man could be considered the last form of gladiatorial challenge a road racing motorcyclist can attempt", he says and quotes from Tim Hanna’s 2003 book on John Britten “In many aspects the TT resembled nothing so much as the ancient Celtic contests that had once determined the fate of every man on the island, contests where dishonour was not an option and the only possible outcomes were victory or death.”

Current Isle of Man rider Bruce Anstey is showing us the victories but unfortunately, Paul Dobbs has reminded us of the deaths.

 

For more info on the Isle of Man  TT races go to www.iomtt.com

The full article by Charles Lamb - “New Zealand and the Isle of Man TT: A History of Kiwi Involvement and Public Perceptions of an Iconic Event” published in November 2007: (Special TT Centenary Issue)  in the International Journal of Motorcycle Studies – can be read on www.ijms.nova.edu/November2007TT/IJMS_Artcl.Lamb.html

 Hanna T, (2003). John Britten. Nelson, NZ: Craig Potton Publishing.

 
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