The Isle of Man Tourist Trophy (TT) Race is slated to begin later this month—a two-week event that remains the most statistically dangerous sporting event in the world. Held on the British Isle of the same name between the U.K.’s mainland and Northern Ireland, 240 competitors have lost their lives during the event since its inception in 1907, and riders continue to die in pursuit of speed and glory to this day—six died in the 2011 Isle of Man, and you’d have to backtrack to the 2001 event to find a fatality-free year.
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How can an event like this exist at this day and age? That’s a fair question for any mainstream American sports fan familiar with new NFL rules that coddle pocket passers and prevent the pancaking of receivers running slant routes. Commentators even debate whether MLB should allow collisions at home plate, as rare as those plays are to the game. Well, the key word is “mainstream.” Motorcycle road racing has always remained comfortably on the fringe of the sporting world, and say what you will about riders’ choice of profession, but they’re well aware of the risks involved. These guys are hardcore.
We caught up with British racer and Bell Helmets athlete Gary Johnson, a pro since 2004 and a seasoned veteran of Isle of Man, where he was a race winner in 2011 and has enjoyed several other high-ranking finishes over the years. “The Isle of Man is really the ultimate,” he says. “It’s the one that the entire year is focused around. It’s so unique – nothing compares to it.”
Johnson says other events on the TT circuit may have some similarities, but none can quite encapsulate every challenge and nuance that Isle of Man brings to the table when it comes to the combination of speed, length (37¾ miles, with as many as six laps per race), course complexity and other factors. Competitors reach top speeds in excess of 200 miles an hour on long straightaways, but with all the hairpin turns, elevation changes, and inconsistent terrain, the top average speed is the most coveted number racers strive for—“everyone’s looking to be the first to break a 132 mph average these days,” he says.
Johnson stresses the need to be “generally fit” to prep for races, saying that he works out daily and does a lot of cycling and sprints to “keep oxygen levels high” when he’s in the midst of competition, but he also mentions that preparation comes about in different ways for everyone on the circuit. “There are younger guys who are really ripped, which gives them more control over the bike. But the older I get, the more I find that just being relaxed out there is the most important.”
He notes that some of that ability to relax comes from being able to trust in his equipment, like his newly engineered Bell helmet, which is wind-resistant and helps to stabilize him during races, but the main thing that keeps all competitors running during Isle of Man is the adrenaline—especially in such a dangerous sport that features several top competitors racing through injuries. “In 2012, I broke a finger and cracked a bone in my hand [right before Isle of Man],” he says. “It just made it unbearable hitting all those bumps. It’s only the fact that you’ve got so much adrenaline in your body that blocks it out.”
This year’s Isle of Man runs from May 24 thru June 6—be sure to check out some coverage and wish these speed-addicted lads the best of luck.