John McGuinness. Why does he still do it?
That is the question which must have crossed the minds of thousands of TT fans when they read that he will once again be lining up on the Glencrutchery Road.
The 2020 Superbike and Senior races will see McGuinness, one of the all time greats, astride a Quattro Plant Kawasaki. And the question is not so much can he, at the age of 48, do it but why? Hasn’t he heard the piece of advice which says “Quit while you’re ahead” or as a TT cynic might put it “While you’re still alive”...
When asked the question at Paul Bird’s Cumbrian race shop, where he was picking up two or three of his dirt bikes, his answer was simply: “I don’t really know.” And this modest Lancastrian, next to his hero Joey Dunlop is not just one of the greatest but the most popular of road racers, probably meant it.
And yet the answer is very simple. It’s not that he needs the money. It may be that he still harbours an ambition to at least equal Dunlop’s record 26 TT wins. Most likely it is that, like all great sportsmen, he cannot contemplate life without it. Nothing he can imagine will replace the rush of winning. Beating the competition. For footballers it’s scoring goals and winning cups. For cricketers getting a test century or winning the Ashes.
Sport offers very few opportunities for retired champions. A tester, television commentator, after-dinner speaker. All worth a
few bob but no great thrill. But better surely than putting your life on the line, especially when you’ve already achieved more than you ever dreamed.
But road racers are a special breed. And McGuinness is certainly one of them. His fans will love to see him lining up with Peter Hickman and Dean Harrison. But they will also be wishing he wasn’t.
McGuinness is well aware of the dangers. In his first TT in 1996 and without a place to sleep, he was invited to share with Mick Lofthouse. In the last practice before race week the man who had taken him in was killed.
In his book Built for Speed, McGuinness said: ”The guy who had told me that I’d be alright there, who’d let me sleep in his room and held my hand a bit, was gone. When I found out, I remember thinking ‘I’m not doing this.’
“I was ready to jump back in the truck and get the boat home. Then Mick’s dad, Arthur, came and told me just to get the first race done and make a decision afterwards. He said that Mick would have wanted me to race and that I should just get out there and enjoy it. My head was in bits but I decided to take his advice.”
McGuinness finished 15th and got the best newcomer award in the 250 class: ”After that race there was no way I wanted to go home. Robert Holden was killed on the same lap as Mick. It’s not that we chose to forget about them, we just carried on. You harden yourself to it and death becomes something you deal with.
You can look at all the pictures and remember all the good times, but life is short and you only get one go. As selfish as that sounds, that’s where I am on death.”
So after a couple of years recovering from a near-fatal accident while riding for the Honda team at the North West 200 in 2017 and switching to Norton, where he had an unhappy experience which has now apparently developed into a row over money, he will be on a very competitive machine from Bournemouth Kawasaki.
One thing he will never lose is a sense of humour, although that is being now tested and resulting in a Tweet which said: ”Struggling to get hold of Stuart Garner from @nortonceo. If anyone has seen him, tell him to give me a shout.”