'For John McGuinness, his life has revolved around racing on the Isle of Man': Mat Oxley

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This is a big year for the Isle of Man TT’s greatest living exponent. John McGuinness turned 50 in April and will make his 100th TT start during 2022 race week. And once he’s wiped the sweat from his brow and taken the first sup of a pint following the event-ending Senior TT he may decide never to do it again.

If McGuinness makes that decision it will be a momentous one, both for him and for the TT, because his whole life has revolved around racing motorcycles on the Isle of Man and he’s won 23 TTs, which is more than anyone apart from the late, great Joey Dunlop (26 wins).

When McGuinness was a kid he used to bunk off school and stow away on the ferry to Douglas, from his hometown of Morecambe, to watch the motorcycle races. Sewing the eye of a needle on the island’s deadly Mountain course is all he’s ever really wanted to do.

Unlike many of his TT rivals the veteran Honda rider is never afraid to voice the very real fears he has of doing what he loves around the 37¾-mile circuit which has claimed 260 lives since 1911.

“People get killed. We know that, but no one’s got a gun to their head”

“It’s always a worry,” McGuinness says. “Nobody’s got the balls to say it, but we’re all very nervous out there. The superbikes we race go 200mph, they’re 220 horsepower and nobody’s been to the island for a couple of years [due to Covid cancellations for the 2020 and 2021 TTs], plus there’s a new BMW, a new Honda, a new Kawasaki. We’ve all got a bit of apprehension. I don’t care who you are, everybody’s in the same boat. All you can do is prepare the right way and what will be will be on the day.

“Yeah, people get killed. We know that, but no one’s got a gun to their head. It’s your choice – if you want to do it, do it. The TT was in the doldrums after we lost DJ [McGuinness’s great friend David Jefferies, killed during practice for the 2003 TT at the age of 30]. But DJ wouldn’t want the TT to be kicked in the shins.

“When Paul Phillips [the TT’s business development manager] got involved we tried to change the opinion of journalists. Often I’d get journos who just wanted to talk about death, so I wouldn’t answer them. I’d say, ‘I’m not going to talk about that. I want to talk about how amazing it is, what a spectacle it is and the history and the challenges and the bikes.’ I know the place has got a lot to answer for: it’s ruined lives, ruined marriages and all sorts but the other side of it is pretty special.

“When Mark Webber [former Red Bull, Williams and Jaguar Formula 1 driver] came over, he got it. And when Valentino Rossi [seven-times MotoGP champion] came over, he got it too.

“When Martin Brundle [Formula 1 driver turned television commentator] and Toto Wolff [CEO of the Mercedes F1 team] came over I was jittery because I knew the damage they could do to the TT with 20 words. It would’ve been so easy for them to say, ‘What a bunch of lunatics. They’re all on a death wish, them boys.’ But they embraced it. They said that we’re gladiators and they said the TT is emotional, which is a big word. They actually got it.”

McGuinness grew up worshipping Joey Dunlop, who raced at the TT between 1977 and 2000, before losing his life during a low-key Estonian street race a few weeks after his final island success.

“When I was 16 I was looking at Joey Dunlop, trying to work out what he was doing,” he adds. “You’ve got to respect Joey even more – he won 26 TTs, five TT Formula 1 world titles [consecutively from 1982-86], loads of Ulster GPs and he was on the podium of the first-ever World Superbike race at Donington in 1988, so he was probably a little bit better than me.

“The weird thing is I’m two years older than Joey was when he won his last TTs, when I was stood on the TT F1 podium with him, looking up at him and thinking he was like an old codger. Back then we were all thinking, ‘What’s Joey doing?’ But I know now because I’m at that stage – he was 48 and I’m 50 – where he knew he could still win and that’s how I feel now.

“I started racing to enjoy it, so I never really knew where it was all going to end up. Earning a living out of it was just a bonus. I won my first big-bike TTs in 2004 and all of a sudden I’d won £22,500. Twenty-two-and-a-half grand! I couldn’t even spell it! I got the cheque and I was like, ‘What?!’”

McGuinness has done all right out of racing the roads, from the Isle of Man TT to the Macau GP, but he’s no MotoGP multi-millionaire and he’s more than happy with that.

“I don’t need a yacht,” he explains. “I haven’t got a house in France or wherever. A day out for me is going to a speedway meeting or a motocross GP.

“The other day I was on the island with Glenn Irwin [his Honda team-mate and a 2022 TT rookie; see Man to Manx, Motor Sport, June 2022]. He was wearing a pair of trainers that cost him £580. I felt ill. It actually made my stomach churn.”

You don’t hear the phrase ‘working-class hero’ so much these days but that’s what John McGuinness is.

Mat Oxley has covered motorcycle racing for many years – and also has the distinction of being an Isle of Man TT winner
Follow Mat on Twitter @matoxley