The Isle of Man government is justifiably pleased that the number of fans making the journey to last year’s two major events, the TT and the Classic, rose by five per cent over 2016.
That they don’t appear to take any of the credit is just as well because if any organisation is capable of shooting itself in the foot it is the Manx Government and their Department for Enterprise: witness the failed attempt to find a commercial promoter.
Despite this capability, and despite losing it’s world championship status in 1976, the popularity of the TT has grown - especially recently. So somebody somewhere must be doing something right. How come?
First of all it has to be said that the TT, which claims to be the most famous race in the world, is also the most difficult to organise due to the challenge of a 37.73 mile circuit and the sheer unpredictability of the weather. Rain falls one day in every three, the average annual rainfall of 34 inches across the island rises to 71 inches on Snaefell.
Then there is the danger. Following the stripping of world championship status the only thing which was considered newsworthy by mainstream media of the day were fatalities. The government were concerned with the external publicity and the opprobrium heaped upon them for allowing the so called “carnage” to continue.
They still are as are some of the 85,000 inhabitants of the island who question government sponsored activities in which people can be killed. Many others simply dislike the inconvenience of closed roads. But the great majority love the TT and the Classic which has become the Festival of Motorcycling embracing the Manx GP. As the island’s appeal as a tourist attraction has almost totally vanished, except to the elderly, the 60,000 who visit the races and contribute millions to the economy are welcomed. It is also part of the island’s DNA.
So the question “How come?”, relating to the resurgence of the TT in times when the world seems to be more risk averse than ever, should become “What has changed?” And the two part answer is perception and modern media coverage.
The TT is still, arguably, the most dangerous race in the world but that label has now become an attraction as the appeal of extreme sports has grown. The organisers, while expressing regret at fatalities, no longer need to defend themselves by saying things like “the the throttle works both ways.”
And now that media coverage extends far beyond the UK, giving millions of people round the world the opportunity of seeing on screen this gob-smacking event, it has become an international curiosity which attracts far more people from thousands of miles away than ever.
Which is not to say that efforts to make it safer are not a top priority for Clerk of the Course Gary Thompson and, indeed, that is happening as revealed by former TT Riders Association President and multiple Silver Replica winner Mick Chatterton. In fact, today’s TT is safer than it has ever been.
Responding to criticisms in Classic Racer magazine by TT ‘enthusiasts’ Gordon Chatterton (today’s bikes too powerful - 350cc limit - today’s riders are high speed acrobats) and Roger Walker (classic racing has lost its roots) the TT veteran says:“While I agree that one death in racing is too many Gordon will find if he checks that the current fatal accident figures are substantially lower than in the 50s.
For example, in the decade 1950 to 1959 there were 44 races with, sadly, 19 deaths. In the last ten years, 2008 to 2017, there were almost twice as many races, 85, with 17 losses of which four were in the sidecar class which didn’t run on the Mountain Circuit in the 50s.
“There are a number of reasons for this, not least of which is the helicopter rescue of which I have personal experience receiving hospital treatment 20 minutes after crashing. Pre-helicopter days, depending on where the incident was, the chances of hospital before the end of the race were slim and from the mountain even less than that.
“Other major safety factors include vastly improved and increased circuit protection, long gone are the straw bales and sand bags; no racing or practice in adverse weather conditions; much stricter newcomer vetting and tremendous technical advancements in riders clothing and helmets. Looking at my old pudding basin, I can’t believe we used to race in them.
“I would agree with some of Gordon’s capacity suggestions but you can’t hold races for machines that aren’t being produced and available. The only reason that modified road bikes are now the mainstay of racing worldwide is because of the Japanese factories decision to stop producing, and selling, pure racing machines such as TZs, RGs, RSs etc.
“Roger bemoans the loss of world championship status and describes the bulk of the entries as riders of clubman ability whatever that is. Some club! In the 2017 SeniorTT 31 finishers had a race average in excess of 120+ mph. Wish I was in that club. I can assure you Roger no one with clubman ability as you describe it is allowed anywhere near the TT these days.
“In fact, today’s races are more evenly matched than in any other period - the 30th finisher in the 2017 Senior was six minutes behind the winner. In 1957 the figure was 32 minutes, in 1967 it was 34.3. The main reason for the closer racing today, of course is the availability of machinery of near equal performance, and rider ability is the main attribute to success. The day of the works rider with a 10 or 15mph speed advantage are gone.”
So for 2018, the priorities remain - media coverage and safety. The TV contract and its ability to showcase the TT round the world is still not decided. Safety still tops the list and it is likely that further restrictions will be placed on age and experience, certainly in the Classic.
But the potential of the TT - described by Murray Walker as “the greatest race in the world”- is still to be realised. Live TV, involving more cabling round the circuit, Is very much on the cards within the next five years. As a giant blanket of caution grips the world, an event where competitors do indeed take themselves “Closer to the Edge” is likely to have growing appeal.
All we need is for the Isle of Man government to get its act together and realise that potential.