The English racer Geoff Duke at the Isle of Man T.T. races in 1955. Hundreds of competitors have died on the circuit.
Photograph by Hulton Archive / Getty
On the morning of June 7th, several spectators gathered by the side of a narrow country road in Ballig, on the Isle of Man, to witness the third full day of the Tourist Trophy—a weeklong series of motorcycle races held each year on this bumpy, grassy rock in the middle of the Irish Sea. They waited quietly, listening for engine noise amid the birdsong and the murmuring of a nearby stream. Suddenly, a high-performance bike blasted past, at such concussive velocity that it might have been a missile. First-timers winced and recoiled. “Who was that?” someone asked. More riders followed, fearsomely fast and loud, at intervals of a few seconds. Some were recognizable by their racing colors, others by their distinctive riding styles. Brian Coole, a local T.T. enthusiast, spoke familiarly about two of the year’s big rivals, Ian Hutchinson and Michael Dunlop. “Hutchy guides the bike; Dunlop wrangles it,” he said.
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 was 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 knew 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.”