Been there, done that! The man who's raced for 40 years

Published: 18 October 2015

Mick Chatterton raced on the Mountain Course for 40 consecutive years. Now 72, he still competes on the Isle of Man. He explains his TT obsession to Mike Nicks

"At Greeba Bridge, there, where the chequers start, that’s your peeling-off point. There’s a high point in the wall on the left: that’s the apex of the corner. Then the next two little right-hand kinks at Gorse Lea, they’re flat-out: middle of the road for the first one, close in for the second one. “Up towards Ballacraine: when the big trees start on your right, sit up and start braking. Peel off at the farm gateway on your left, and go under the little flower bush on your right.”

Mick Chatterton is sitting in his home in Barnsley, Yorkshire, eyes closed. He’s mentally riding a section of the Isle of Man Mountain circuit, but he could go on like this for all 37.73 miles of the course, and plot a meticulous line around every one of its 200-plus corners.

Which is hardly surprising, for Chatterton raced on the Mountain circuit in 84 events for 40 consecutive years from 1964 to 2004 (apart from 2001, when the races were cancelled because of foot and mouth disease). Others have competed in more events – Joey Dunlop, 26 times a TT winner, achieved a total of 98 starts – but no one equals the longevity of Mick Chatterton’s island career. He also raced on British short circuits and the Continent, but the TT was always his passion.

Above: Learning the TT Mounain Course on a 350cc Manx Norton. Mick would finish sixth on a Yamaha TD1C in his debut, the 250 TT

This year, at 72 years of age, he visited the TT as the new president of the TT Riders Association charity. And he continues racing on the island – in the Southern 100 on the 4.25-mile Billown circuit. He will also contest a dozen Irish road races on his Honda RS125.

What started your interest in the TT?
A neighbour took me to see the Senior TT in 1954, when I was 13. It was a famous race because it started in terrible conditions and Geoff Duke, who was the big man at the time on the four-cylinder Gilera, had to come in to refuel after three laps when he was leading. Ray Amm, who was the top man on the works Norton (the Manx single), was going to refuel after four laps, but they stopped the race after four laps when he was leading.
I was standing in a garden just after St Ninians at the top of Bray Hill, and it was absolutely incredible the speed they were going through. The road was very slippery because it’s a crossroads, and Amm went through with his foot down, which was part of his style.
I’d been smitten by the TT before that, reading books about it. I remember the 500cc AJS Porcupine in particular (p69), with fuel tanks down the side (the dohc parallel twin won the first 500cc world championship in 1949). I used to write the names of the TT’s corners on the back of my exercise book at school. I could do an entire TT lap like that, just by names, before I’d seen the course.

When did you start racing?
I first raced a 200cc Triumph Tiger Cub at Aintree in 1960. I used to do the airfield circuits in the north-east such as Charterhall and Thornaby. Then I raced a 250cc Aermacchi (an ohv single) until 1967, when Yamahas came along.

Tell us about your first races on the Isle of Man Mountain circuit.
I was entered in the 1964 250cc Manx Grand Prix on my Aermacchi, but it was always dropping valves and breaking pistons. I was offered the works DMW: it had a Villiers Starmaker two-stroke single engine, and it probably had the only six-speed gearbox in the race.
But the DMW had a weird front suspension with a single damper on top of the forks. The brake cable got caught in the damper and was virtually cut in half. I had no front brake, and I finished 17th. But I was 12th in 1965 on the DMW, and in 1967 I finished sixth on a Yamaha TD1C in my first TT.

Did you see the legendary 1967 Senior TT battle between Mike Hailwood on the Honda four and Giacomo Agostini on the MV triple?
We were always confident that Mike could handle anything, but there were so many stories about the antics of that Honda that we were pleased he got to the finish. His throttle kept coming off the handlebar, and I don’t think he could have won if Ago’s chain hadn’t broken.

You scored your best ever TT finish in 1969.
I was fourth in the Lightweight race on the TD1C and the first privateer behind Kel Carruthers (who won on the Benelli four), Frank Perris on a Suzuki and Santiago Herrero in third place on the Ossa single. I was also sixth in the 500cc Production TT on a Triumph. I did my quickest ever TT lap at 107 point-something on a Honda RS250 in 1996.

What made you keep going at the TT for all of those 40 years?
I couldn’t stop – it was the highlight of my year. Every year before the TT I used to come downstairs frightened to death when I saw the letter from the ACU on the mat, in case I hadn’t got a ride. Then I’d relax once I’d got it.
One year in the 1980s my entry was rejected, and I just couldn’t handle it. I was on the phone to them all day, and then I got in my van and drove to the ACU office in London and made a nuisance of myself until finally they got rid of me by giving me a reserve ride.
But the TT is also the hardest two weeks’ work you ever do, especially when they had early morning practice sessions (replaced by daytime sessions in 2004). You had to be on the Glencrutchery Road at 5am, for the start at 5.45am.
On a lovely morning it was great – you could get at least three laps in on two bikes. Then it was into the coffee tent, everybody having a yarn, the sun shining. You would go back to the digs thinking that you would sleep for a few hours, but that rarely happened – you were so pumped up with adrenalin.

What has the TT done for your life?
It’s given me something that 99 per cent of people can never experience. It’s the sheer thrill of doing it, and the risks that you’re taking, even though you don’t consider you’re taking much of a risk yourself.
If you have a good practice week and you get to the Wednesday or Thursday, you still find yourself making some excuse to go out for another lap. That’s why there’s 300-odd people racing in the Manx Grand Prix every year – that wouldn’t happen for any other circuit.

Above: Mick at the 1978 TT

And has there been a cost?
I suppose it’s taken away what most people consider is a normal life, but I didn’t want that anyway. I’ve never had a wife or a family – or money. I had relationships, but there was only one live-in relationship. The racing was the reason that it didn’t work – no woman would put up with it. You could put it down in one word – selfish, but I would only spend money on racing. The thought of buying a new carpet, a holiday in Spain, a washing machine, the things that a woman needs – I was seeing clutch plates and parts for the bikes.

You must have had crashes on the TT circuit.
The biggest one was in 1990 on a 250 EMC, at the 26th milestone – Joey’s, they call it now. It’s a right-hander after the Gooseneck, and I was going through there flat in fourth at 100 to 110mph. There was a slight rise in the road, and the wheels would come off the ground a couple of inches. The bike just lay down on its side – we know now that a gust of wind caught the slab-sided fairing and blew the bike from under me.
I broke both legs, one of them fairly badly, and the left upper arm. Noble’s Hospital in Douglas warned me that I might lose a leg, but they did a fantastic job of rebuilding it.

Did you ever think of quitting?
Possibly when I was lying at the side of the road, waiting for the helicopter. But once you start improving, and you begin to realise that you are going to be fit again, you start aiming to get back. The first thing I did when I got home was to push my TZ350 Yamaha up and down the path to get it running. That was in the November or December of that year. It was just an obsession.

Above: With full-face helmet and a TZ Yamaha, Mick heads a pack through Ramsey on the Mountain Course

You must have had other accidents.
Yes, just the usual things. In 2003 or 2004 in Ireland I broke my sternum at Skerries. Then I cracked a pelvis. The main one before that was in 1999 at the Ulster Grand Prix, when I had a seizure on the last lap and I broke the ball off the top of my left femur. So that was another six months off work. And the normal collarbone breakages, two of those, and ribs: it’s par for the course.

You must have lost friends at the TT...
I certainly have, but probably more in Irish racing than at the TT. At the TT there’s been Mick Lofthouse, Phil Gurner, Peter McKinley, Ray Hanna, Wayne Hamilton last year in the Manx, Robert Holden. I’m sure a load will flood back to me before you go...

Has the circuit changed a lot over the years?
Brandish was a second-gear left-hander, and an accident blackspot. Now it’s almost flat in top. Windy Corner and the Mountain section has been speeded massively. If they hadn’t been changed the lap record would not be over 130mph. The road surface has seen big improvements. Numerous people fell off down Sulby Straight simply because they lost control on the bumps.

Can you compare TT riders of different eras?
You can’t. In 1938 Harold Daniell lapped at 91mph on a four-speed Manx Norton capable of 118 or 120mph. Telescopic forks, but no damping, and just plunger rear suspension. And he did that speed on the seventh lap, his last lap, of the Senior on a circuit where Hillberry was then a second-gear right-hander. I find that just as incredible as John McGuinness’ 130mph laps. (Ed: all the more incredible given Daniell had such appalling eyesight he was turned down for military service when WW2 broke out.)

You stopped racing at the TT in 2004, when you were 64. Why was that?
They stopped the 125cc and 250cc racing classes then, and I didn’t want to ride production bikes. But I can still run them on the Irish road circuits, so I’m doing about 12 meetings there this year. I’m still racing in the Isle of Man, because they have classes for the 125s and 250s at the Southern 100. I’ve got my own Honda RS125, and I might ride Davey Hamilton’s RS250 later in the season, but it’s getting hard to find parts for it now.
My aim used to be to get into the top six, but now it’s the top ten. I got a decent seventh place at my first meeting this year, the Tandragee. If I thought I was getting in the way I wouldn’t be there. Now that I don’t have to go to work on Monday mornings, I stay in Ireland from June until August.

Above: Mick (50) on a Honda RS125 and Derek Costello on a 400 Honda at Kells.

Have you ever suffered from nerves?
Maybe when you’re lying in bed at night, thinking about it, but all that disappears when you get to the circuit. I used to get nervous about failing my medical test – that got my blood pressure up. So I got a home blood-pressure checker. Once I checked it 20 minutes before I went out for a race, and it was the lowest I had ever seen it. I don’t know what that was – contentment, maybe.

What’s the secret to your longevity as a racer?
I never stopped. If I’d stopped for a while, I might not have been able to come back.

You’ve raced every year from the age of 20 to 72. What will you do when you stop?
I’ll be able go to more speedway and live music, and have a little more money. But nothing can replace racing. I’m a little bit worried about what to fill the time with. I get quite down in the winter time; I find myself on the phone all the time, talking to people from racing. I’ve been doing it too long. That’s the reason I’m going to find it very difficult. Maybe if I’d stopped a lot earlier and found other interests...

But you look ten years younger than your age
I always put it down to never being married. I think that ages people a lot, especially with children. It would have aged me. Complete personal freedom, in my opinion, is the most important thing in life.