It’s been a hard day’s fortnight
ROLL off the ferry for the start of your Isle of Man experience and it comes as no great surprise that everything is laid on for you.
The racing goes off when it’s meant to (weather permitting) the evening entertainment is just the way we like it (the beer rarely runs out, the girls rarely keep their clothes on) and the party just keeps on swinging.
But maybe it should be more of a surprise that it does all go so smoothly. Suddenly a small island is inundated by 40,000 mad-for-it motorcyclists and they all want somewhere to eat, drink, sleep and be merry.
It takes a dedicated bunch of people to deliver all that – hard, long hours and passionate commitment.
Peter Kneale knows what it involves more than most. For many, he is the voice of the TT.
He’s commentated on every TT and Manx Grand Prix since 1965, when Manx Radio was founded.
Kneale, 65, retired from the special events department of the Isle of Man Tourist Board five years ago, but his passion for the TT has kept on going. He still commentates and does all the press and promotional work for the event. He was a marshal at the TT from 1950 until 1962 before becoming a timekeeper in 1963. He’s attended every TT and Manx Grand Prix since 1946. This man has forgotten more about the races than most of us will ever know. And still he thirsts for more.
He says: " I can’t wait for it to come around every year and most of the Islanders feel the same. It’s so important to them and the economy. "
For early-morning practice, he’s up at 3.30am and evening practices mean he works until 10pm – unless there are any problems or delays, in which case he’ll be working later still. That doesn’t leave a lot of time to large it round the Island’s many pubs but Kneale says he and his team make up for it on the Friday night after the last race when they all hit Douglas and let loose after two weeks of solid work.
" The friendship and camaraderie between the competitors for me is the greatest thing. They’re all so approachable – not like I’d imagine Formula One drivers to be like. "
His outstanding memories include Mike Hailwood’s 1978 winning comeback after an 11-year absence and the epic 1967 race between Hailwood and Giacomo Agostini.
He says: " I’ll never forget it when I saw Mike hammering his handlebar back on after it had come loose. He just jumped back on to ride again. "
Another favourite was seeing his good friend Tommy Robb winning the 1973 125cc race after years of trying. " I was jumping up and down in the commentary box and admitted on air ‘If you think I’m being biased you’re right – Tommy’s my mate.’ "
Kneale can’t remember making too many boo-boos on air, but he does remember his greeting to Chas Mortimer coming over the line as ‘Chas Yamaha on his Mortimer.’
Without the racers, Kneale would have nothing to do and we wouldn’t bother going. Jim Moodie - the fastest man ever around the 37.73-mile Mountain circuit – is typical.
He’s been going to the TT since 1988, when he first campaigned a Honda CBR600. He doesn’t remember where he finished that year. It wasn’t high. He progressed straight to the TT without competing in the Manx GP and now has seven wins as well as the outright lap record at 124.65mph. Moodie loves the TT, but says the best bit about it is when it’s all over and he’s on the ferry home in one piece with a fat paycheque in his pocket. " Whether you’ve had a good week or a bad week, it’s just so stressful and tiring that it’s a massive relief when it’s done. "
Even when his Honda RC45 broke down after his record lap last year, he was just quiet and tired as opposed to being furious – as those who know Moodie would expect.
He usually turns up on the Island a few days before practice starts to iron out any problems with his bikes at Jurby airfield. Then it’s a routine of getting up at 4am for practice and not hitting the sack until 11pm because of PR commitments, evening practice and work with his mechanics to get the bikes sorted for the next session. He gets about five hours sleep each night for the entire two weeks. His hectic schedule means party nights are out – until the big blowout on the Friday night after the Senior race.
Despite the hardships, Moodie says he still loves the TT and claims his proudest moment was setting that stunning lap record last year, which beat Carl Fogarty’s long-standing record from 1992.
" Getting the outright lap record was always part of my plans. Until then, my best moments had been winning races but the record was special even though it was such a disappointment to be out of the race. "
Moodie may be one of the top men of the moment on the Island, but there’s always new blood coming through - the TT depends on it. And the Manx Grand Prix amateur event is the natural stepping-stone. Once you’ve won the senior Manx GP you’re not allowed to re-enter it so that leaves just one option, and that’s the TT. Colin Breeze, from Market Harborough, Leics, blitzed the 1999 Manx on a Kawasaki ZXR750 and couldn’t wait to tackle the TT proper. He says: " The only reason I competed in the Manx was to learn the course so I could do the TT. "
For him the big attraction is the course itself. " It’s like someone saying you can ride your favourite stretch of road with no cars coming the other way. The Mountain circuit just happens to be my favourite piece of road. "
Breeze has raced a huge variety of machinery on short circuits all over the world, but rates the TT as the greatest challenge for a rider.
He first rode the Manx in 1990 on a BSA Rocket 3 before taking a break and then coming 10th on the ZXR750 in 1997, second on the same bike in 1998 and then was victorious on it in 1999. The bike was modded for this year’s TT and blew up. He ended up having to take part on a stock GSX-R750.
Unlike Moodie, who as a factory rider is paid handsomely for his TT efforts, Breeze has splashed out around £5000 of his own money just to compete in this year’s races. That goes on ferry crossings, fuel, tyres, food, spares and general expenses, never mind the cash he’s spent on building the bikes. But at least some of that cash will be going behind the Island’s bars! Breeze says: " I don’t have any PR work to worry about so I’m my own boss. I’ve got two people helping me out and we’ll definitely squeeze in a couple of well-earned beers during the fortnight. " Apart from the GSX-R750, Breeze had a Yamaha R6 for the Junior TT.
" There’s no pressure on me - I’m not in the limelight. I just do it because I want to and I ride as fast as I feel safe. "
Breeze admits that the course is so long that you could race it for 40 years and still be learning. But that’s what he likes about it.
Part of the joy of the TT is that it isn’t the preserve of superheroes. Breeze lacks a Mick Doohan six-pack. He admits most of his training has been done down his local Sugar Lump pub. A week of racing round the TT course is more exercise than most of us will get in a year so at least he should be fit by the end of the week.
At least he has the glamour of being a competitor. Some of the hardest-working men here aren’t racing, they are checking the detail. They are the scrutineers.
They have to check every bike before every practice session and every race as well as checking the bikes during the race when they make a pit stop. The 20-man crew is headed by 65-year-old Hector Gordon, who’s been scrutineering at the TT since 1977 when the TT first lost its world championship status.
Gordon, who lives in Cambridge, arrives on the Island three days before practice to get settled in then he’s up at 3am to be at the start line for the week’s three early-morning practices by 4am. Gordon says it can be a struggle to get up so early but the magic of the TT drags him from his pit to the other one.
He says: " I love all kinds of bike racing, from classics to short circuit scratching, but I love the pure road racing most of all. " The most common faults he finds are exhaust brackets breaking and footrests coming loose. He says: " The TT is such a hard and demanding course that it’s tough on bike components so things like exhausts and footrests can get shaken loose or simply snap off. "
One man who at least gets to ride the TT course rather than just watch the racing is Steve Grainger. And unless you’re Steve Hislop you’d better move over when you see him in your mirrors. He’s a Manx police motorcyclist and after the TT racers he probably knows the Mountain circuit better than anyone – which means he’s very, very fast when he needs to be. Don’t be fooled by the " touring " Pan European.
Grainger has been riding the circuit since he was 16. He owns a FireBlade for fun. And he’s a Honda MAC instructor, too.
But above all, Grainger is a diehard TT fan and looks forward to the event every year despite the tough workload he faces. He says: " We work between 12 and 20 hours every day for two weeks, but it’s a labour of love for me. The atmosphere is electric and the police don’t get any bad feelings from the bikers. "
Grainger says the Manx police have to be easy going because there’s so few of them - they have to have a good rapport with the riders to minimise any trouble. But because so many of them ride bikes, they’re all biker-friendly anyway and they’ve all been brought up with the TT.
He hates to see accidents because he works so hard trying to prevent them. He doesn’t want to see fellow riders getting hurt when they should be having fun. He’s even been tempted to race, but because there are so few Manx police to monitor the TT his bosses weren’t keen for him to be off duty when they needed him most.
He makes up for it by taking his Blade out for a couple of quick laps early in the morning before turning up for duty. Then he does a 20-hour day. That’s devotion for you.
TT marshal Roger Hurst knows all about that kind of work ethic. He has been doing his thing for 29 years and is now chairman of the TT Marshals Association. You’ll find him each year between Ballig Bridge and Cronk-y-Voddy crossroads. And he does it in all weathers. He says: " Even when there’s long delays I just chat with the spectators and other marshals about bikes, bikes, bikes. The time soon passes. "
He’s signed on an incredible 1240 volunteer marshals this year. They all have to be trained so Hurst organises incident management courses for local volunteers and seminars for visiting marshals, too.
They have to be prepared for anything. " We’ve had our share of idiots running across the track in the middle of a race, but thankfully most spectators have respect for the course and the racers. "
If you want to give something back to the TT, you can become a marshal as long as you’re fit, healthy and have good eyesight and hearing. Details: 07624-492040.
A world away from the gritty world of marshaling on the harsh Mountain course is the glitz and glamour of the Douglas nightlife. That’s where exotic dancer (her description) Lynne Carmichael comes alive. It’s her first TT and she appears nightly at the newly-opened Venue on Douglas Prom with several other " dancers " . And the 23-year-old blonde’s loving it as much as the TT fans love to watch her expose her flesh.
" We were all really excited before we came here and we weren’t disappointed. The crowd go absolutely wild – it’s a much better response than we get anywhere else. " Booze does that to a man.
She’s not just here for the money. She’s been out watching some of the racing. " I managed to blag my way on to the start line for the Formula One race - it was great. "
And she’s taken a lap of the circuit in a car to see what the racers have to tackle. Her work commitments on the Island were the perfect excuse for her boyfriend Grant Tipman to join her – he rides a Kawasaki ZX-9R and is TT daft. Lucky or what?
Carmichael and her dance troupe stay at the Empress hotel on Douglas Prom and that’s where chambermaids Tina Shaw and Karleen Hammond work - thousands of miles from home. The pair come from New Zealand and heard all about the TT from their racing-mad mates back home so they decided to see what all the fuss was about.
They’ve been touring the world and fitted the Isle of Man into their schedule after visiting England, America and Canada. They have to be up at 5.30am but it doesn’t stop them partying. Shaw says: " We’ve sometimes been up drinking until 4am then grabbed an hour’s sleep before work. "
And work can turn up some strange stories. Hammond says: " There’s a lot of bed-hopping goes on during the week and we’ve heard some strange noises coming out of rooms as we’re about to knock on the doors, so we just leave them to it. "
But not everyone gets away undisturbed. Shaw says: " I walked in on one poor bloke as he was sitting on the toilet! I don’t know if it was more embarrassing for him or me. "
And Hammond’s Kawasaki ZX-6R-riding husband Paul didn’t want to miss out on the TT action either, so he picked up a job as barman so he could see some racing. He says: " All my mates back home are so jealous that I’m at the TT. We’ve all watched it on TV and wanted to come. I just can’t believe the sheer number of bikes that are here. "
He hadn’t counted on some of the punters – like the yodelling Irishman in the bar who had brought some drumsticks with him and insisted on drumming on every table and glass. " It was funny for 30 seconds but after four hours it got a bit annoying. "
Then there are the I’ll-show-you-mine-if-you’ll-show-me-yours moments which only seem to happen in public between consenting men and women when the sound of motorcycles are near at hand and alcohol is flowing free.
No-one ever said the TT was particularly politically correct, but for two weeks in June there’s nowhere better to let it all hang out.