From a longer article:
The Isle of Man Tourist Trophy week-long series of motorcycle races are held each year on this bumpy, grassy rock in the middle of the Irish Sea.
There had already been several changes to the 2017 lineup. Rider No. 5, the twenty-three-time T.T. winner John McGuinness, had been forced to withdraw after breaking his right leg, three ribs, and four vertebrae in a bad crash, at a qualifying event in mid-May.
Also absent was rider No. 71, Davey Lambert, who had crashed nearby four days earlier. Lambert’s death was announced just before the event now in progress, a four-lap race of the Snaefell Mountain Course. The thirty-eight-mile circuit, on winding public roads, is often said to represent the Mt. Everest of motorsport—partly for its technical challenges, but mainly for its deadliness.
On the first lap, rider No. 63, Jochem van den Hoek, rocketed through Ballig on his Honda at more than a hundred and fifty miles per hour. Some twenty seconds later, turning through a tricky curve at the eleventh milestone, he came off the bike. His death was confirmed that afternoon, around the same time that No. 52, the Irishman Alan Bonner, had his own collision higher up the mountain. Bonner was also killed, bringing the historic death toll on this circuit, which has been in use since 1907, to two hundred and fifty-five, including thirty-two in the past decade. (That figure does not account for race officials and spectators hit by runaway bikes.)
For the first twenty years of the contest, parts of the course remained open to public traffic; in 1927, a racer named Archie Birkin was killed as he swerved to avoid a fish truck.
To the casual observer, the T.T. may seem like madness incarnate. “Yeah, I hear that all the time, and it winds me up a bit,” Richard (Milky) Quayle, a former racer, told me at the grandstand in Douglas, the Manx capital. “You couldn’t do this if you were mad. It takes too much focus and discipline.” Quayle had known the two men killed that day, and resented any suggestion that competitors were careless. “Every rider out there is actually living their life, not wasting it like you see so many other people doing,” he said.
One of the few native islanders ever to win a podium place in the tournament, Quayle is now a chief adviser on the T.T. circuit, talking newcomers through the treacherous geometry of the Snaefell and assessing their readiness to ride it. He knows the dangers firsthand, having clipped a stone wall with his shoulder in 2003, resulting in a spectacular crash that later made him famous on YouTube. “I smashed myself to bits,” he said. He only quit the T.T. because, soon afterward, he had a son. “I wouldn’t be able to take those total-commitment corners at Ballagarey or Quarry Bends, knowing he was waiting for me to come back,” he told me. “I still ride fast bikes almost every day. But I do miss the racing. And without it, to be honest, I struggle with life.”
The T.T. began as a development initiative. Soon after the first speed limits were imposed in the United Kingdom, the Automobile Club of Great Britain and Ireland requested special permission to race on the Isle of Man’s public roads. “The idea was to bring tourists over, who would then leave their money behind,” David Cretney, a former tourism minister and current member of Tynwald, the Manx parliament, told me.
Though the island is defined as a British crown dependency, it has been largely self-governing since that parliament was founded, circa 979, by the Vikings. Cretney himself started racing in 1976, though he admits that he was never more than an also-ran; it took him two decades to reach his modest goal of a lap averaging more than a hundred miles per hour. “In today’s world, where we feel cotton-woolled a lot of the time, there is nothing else like this,” he said. “The riders themselves are seen as heroes, like gladiators.”
Over the years, Cretney told me, the T.T. has become marginally safer. In response to specific collisions, stretches of road have been widened, surfaces reprofiled, and embankments removed. The straw bales meant to cushion impacts on tight corners have been replaced with modern Airfence barriers. Still, he said, there will never be any legislating for luck. In the team paddocks behind the grandstand, Deborah Barron, a Manx sidecar racer, could vouch for this. She and her co-racer, Alun Thomas, were working on their 600cc Ireson Kawasaki, having veered off the road at Ramsey Hairpin and narrowly missed a group of picnicking spectators. “Fortunately, we only killed some sandwiches and a thermos,” she said.
Barron told me that this would be her last T.T. Without corporate sponsorships, she couldn’t afford to keep competing. Even big names like Ben and Tom Birchall, the brothers who won the race that Barron crashed out of—and broke the sidecar lap record in the process—said that they barely made enough to cover their costs. “We’re second-class citizens compared to solo riders,” Ben said, in a strong English East Midlands accent. “This is the poor man’s end of the sport.” He and his brother hadn’t set out to break the record. “I knew it were a clean lap, and a quick lap,” he said. “Tom were good, I were good, the bike were good. But I had no idea what time we were doing. That’s the key to this place. Intense concentration, but being relaxed within it, and letting it flow.”
Birchall was not the only one to make the Snaefell Mountain Course sound like the path to enlightenment. A few tents over, Dan Kneen was playing a demo for a newly developed T.T. video game. Since he did not yet have his own avatar, he was riding as Ian Hutchinson. (The next day, Hutchinson would break his leg for the third time in seven years.) In the game, collisions were tastefully rendered as a bump and a fade to black. In real life, as Kneen knew personally, the experience was rather different.
But he preferred to dwell on the upsides of riding fast—the feeling of flight, the sense of time displacement, the potential for transcendence. “When you’re really moving smoothly around this track, and hitting all your apexes, it can seem like you’re going slow,” he said. “You’re alone, in your bubble, and you’re not thinking at all. These days, it seems like we live with so many restrictions: can’t go there, can’t do that. In this world, the T.T. is the only way I get to be free.”
Zen and the Art of the World?s Deadliest Motorcycle Race | The New Yorker