'Isle of Man TT death toll has led to renewed questions over its future'

The Editor: The Isle of Man TT is part of the fabric of racing but once again faces criticism after a tragic year

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I remember once trying to set up an interview with John McGuinness for our motorcycles editor Mat Oxley.

Initially it was very straightforward – a phone call to the press officer, who in turn called John, who gave a quick answer in the affirmative.

It was all refreshingly brief and to the point. No long email chains, requests for copy approval (always declined) and guarantees of covers (likewise). Neither was there an obvious incentive such as an upcoming autobiography to promote, making it particularly in his interests to do an interview. He was just happy to talk to Mat and to our readers.

Mat suggested we do the interview at the Midland Hotel on Morecambe seafront.

We thought the grand art deco vibe would juxtapose nicely with McGuinness’s famously down-to-earth nature.

On the allotted day, however, McGuinness didn’t show up. I called his PR, who happened to be in Spain on another job. “Bloody John,” she said.

It turned out that McGuinness had completely forgotten about the arrangement and had taken his enduro bike out for a blast around the hills out of mobile phone range.

Eventually, Becky his wife managed to get hold of him and they invited Mat for afternoon tea at their house instead which turned into evening beers and resulted in a wonderful interview.

I was reminded of this when watching this year’s Isle of Man TT, the first since 2019 after a double Covid cancellation, where McGuinness marked his 100th start on the island with a fifth-place finish for Honda (he was back with the team and riding the Fireblade, a bike he has won 12 of his 23 TT victories on).

Now aged 50 it was a remarkable performance and a remarkable comeback – especially after many had feared his competitive career was over in 2017 following a crash in Superbike qualifying at the North West 200 in which he broke his leg. As it is he remains the second most successful TT rider in history behind Joey Dunlop (26 wins).

The big question that seemed to follow McGuinness around all week was whether this year’s race would be his last. Rumours of his impending retirement have been swirling for months and he has done little to dispel them. Indeed in the June issue of Motor Sport when we accompanied him on a recce mission to the road circuit alongside his young team-mate Glenn Irwin he refused to be drawn, instead telling us that he would never say it would be his last ahead of the actual race because “that’s the one that gets you”.

His answer hinted at the darker side of the TT, which has dominated the headlines this year after a series of fatal accidents.

Even for a race where rarely a year goes by without at least one or two riders not making it back, 2022 was bad.

Welsh rider Mark Purslow was killed in qualifying, while Northern Ireland’s Davy Morgan died after an accident in the Supersport race on the Monday. César Chanal, from Lyon in France, died in a crash during a sidecar race. Then, tragically, a father and son team also competing in a sidecar race crashed and were killed. Roger Stockton, 56, was driving and his son Bradley, 21, was in the passenger seat.

The death toll has led to renewed questions over the future of the Isle of Man TT, with calls in some quarters for it to be banned outright.

We can guess what McGuinness’s reaction to that would be. He made his TT debut in 1996 but his entire life has been dominated by the mountain in the middle of the Irish Sea. As a boy he dreamed of competing. His father entered the amateur alternative Manx Grand Prix, run on the full TT circuit.

In that delayed interview he told us: “As a boy, every year I’d be stood at Heysham docks watching the bikes go past on their way to the ferry and waiting to see a racing truck, a Merc 508 or something. I’d get well excited. So there’s always been that connection. As the crow flies it’s my closest track – I was looking at the island today.”

In the aftermath of this year’s tragic events at the TT, many have argued that it has no place in the modern world of motor sport, that its inherent risks and dangers not only make it too dangerous in itself but also risk damaging the public perception of racing more broadly. At a time when motor sport is more acutely aware of its image than ever this is a potentially lethal accusation.

But while the TT may be an anachronism, it is also a part of the fabric of racing. As Mat Oxley puts it: “The TT is the last stand of primal motor sport; a living, breathing version of the early days of grand prix racing, on two wheels and four. TT racers walk the line like none of today’s Formula 1 or MotoGP stars, which is why many fans see them as a breed apart, worthy of a special kind of respect.”

Whether or not we have seen the last of the great John McGuinness on the Isle of Man’s Mountain Course, I hope we haven’t seen the last TT.

Joe Dunn, editor
Follow Joe on Twitter @joedunn90

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