Cultural Lessons from the World’s Most Dangerous Motorsport
by Chris Mattingly
A few years ago, when YouTube was starting a siege to their massive claim on social media, I found myself hooked on videos uploaded by random people. I generally searched for stuff on my laptop before I went to bed. I would search for things that I could relate to, or was interest interested in, before I would drift off to sleep dreaming about blissful exotic locations and freedom of movement. One night, I was watching a popular upload of base jumpers jumping off cliffs in Switzerland. As it finished, the next video automatically loaded, and it was called “The Isle of Man”. It showed men on superbikes racing full throttle across an island. I immediately sat up in bed, I had to learn more. I spent the next two hours watching YouTube clips of this seriously insane race, called the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy (IOM TT). By the time my head hit the pillow, I was already dreaming of seeing this in person.
It would take a few more years before I could see it in person. However, the wait was worth it and left no doubt as to why it is the most dangerous race in the world. I found myself departing a train station at 8p.m. local time in Belfast, Ireland. The sun was higher than I had hoped for. As I made my way down to the Russian hostel I had booked en route, I couldn’t help but notice that Northern Ireland was and is dramatically different than Southern Ireland. With the seeds of a revolution only a generation away, I could see bullet holes in buildings, or where rockets had been shot into walls, or where Molotov cocktails had ignited in the streets. I dropped my bags off at the stunning and very beautiful hostel, and decided I needed to get myself a drink, a real drink, something to lighten the mood.
As I moseyed around downtown, I took in another fact: Northern Ireland is just as proud of their couture as Texas is in the United States. Downtown Belfast is littered with random objects and murals that depict a strong native and proud culture. The murals were hand painted and took up entire sides of business buildings, something you wouldn’t see in the United States. Alleys were lit with candles or umbrella lights and cobblestone walkways made you stumble more than step. The world’s largest Celtic cross covering the entrance of the Catholic church, in which was rare that it was still standing considering the background. Another thing I did notice was the number of foreigners as well, as a blacked out Mercedes AMG with Russian license plates slowly passed me. The Russian Mafia was in town, as I had seen them at the entrance of the hotel I was staying at casually looking inconspicuous but to a trained eye you could tell, but down the street it felt like I had walked into a flea market somewhere dominated with the Muslim community. Stores with chain link barriers covered up the front doors, and the small lit signs illuminated the façade. I needed to find a bar. I turned the corner and walked down a semi lit alley.
Snuggled on a bend in the alley sat a little pub. I cannot remember its name, but do recall seeing a store adjacent to the front door. And over the front window of that store was the name “The Friend at Hand”. Puzzled by the name I pondered the ideas until I encountered a large mountain of a man, presumably the bouncer. Right off the bat I knew that I was in a rough area, because he had cuts on his hands and cauliflower ears protruding his shaven head which either resembled a rugby player or a boxer. with that in mind I sneaked passed him as he checked other patrons. I walked in to what I thought was a very small low-key bar to a an astonishing piano bar where they were singing along with a pair of guys playing guitars. Upbeat songs filled the small bar, and girls singing “brown eyed girl” with the two front men. The deep red walls with the black outlining of crown molding, caught your eyes when you found yourself looking at a handcrafted Jameson mirror. The back splash behind the bar was made of a gold tin, and it mangled itself on some hand carved shelving. The amount of detail expressing each cut, and each little figurine was breathtaking. The bar was divided into two long rows, with a marble pillar in the middle. There was little stalls where you could latterly walk into and order your drink like at a store to check out, each stall at shoulder height, deep mahogany probably imported from Scotland they limited your friends from coming up to the bar.
As I made my way up to the bar, the bartender an older man with rim glasses and heavy set, saw that I was thirsty and walked over and asked what I was drinking. I couldn’t even understand him through the heavy accent, but when I answered he knew I was from the states. I could tell they didn’t get many people from the states with the attention I was getting from the staff now, he said something and I was swarmed with two more bartenders and a cocktail waitress asking me where I was from and that is how the night started. The icebreaker wasn’t your traditional banter between two people, far from it when the older man reached over to the back of the bar table and pushed himself high up on the shelf where he could stand up. I was getting to the point where this might become a little embarrassing as I don’t like attention, and I was getting hot around the collar. The bartender reached up on the middle pillar made with custom shelves and pulled down a bottle.
“Welcome to Belfast, a friend here is a friend at hand” he said, whatever the fuck that meant I thought. Come to find out that was the saying if you were part of the IRA, then you were considered a “friend”. As he said this, he slid this top shelf bottle over to me called “A friend at hand”, some of the finest crafted Irish whiskey. Well with my reputation as a light weight, I politely declined…as he poured me a shot. The other bartender, a younger guy probably in his late twenties, with an athletic cross fitter’s build, asked me in better broken English why I was there. I told him about the Isle of Man TT, and he looked confused. The older man chimed in, “the tourist trophy.” That’s when the light went off in his head and he smiled. The shot of whiskey was more than two arms lengths away from me sitting on the bar and I could smell the sweetness and I could actually taste it through my sense of smell. I reached over and pulled it close to my mouth wanting to savor this moment of high shelf whiskey that was given to me.
The bartenders twisted my arm, calling me a “Yankee from Texas” and I took the shot. It was amazing. I can’t ever remember ever taking a shot of whiskey that I enjoyed. But this. This was fucking amazing. it was so smooth and cool to the taste buds, not so strong like American whiskey. They pulled down another bottle and, as “Sweet Home Alabama” started playing, I knew I was in for a long night.
As the hours rolled by, I felt like a truck hit me in the head. The pain was excruciating, and more than I ever remembered for a hangover. I quit drinking at 430a.m., and spent that time hanging out with the bartenders and bouncer. The bouncer actually ended up being a cool dude, but I’m 100% positive he spent time in prison for murdering stupid people. As the alcohol flowed freely, I guess that’s why we got along so well. My 530a.m. alarm went off. I looked at the time and cried to myself. I got up and slammed a water, my flight was leaving at 7a.m. and I had to be at the airport at 6a.m. But I was still drunk and fighting a hangover. I managed to get myself together and to the airport where I found out that the economy ticket I bought on a small local airline called “Flybe” was exactly that. It was economy, so much so that it looked like a twin engine piper Beechcraft that had been spray painted purple and white. As I struggled to get my luggage to the cart I noticed an odd warning label hanging off the front of the wheel compartment. I plopped into my seat and threw a blanket over my head. The sun was too much. I sat in the window seat trying to fall asleep when the pilot started up the engines, and I looked out my window. I noticed that, on my side, the props had started to move and whirl in their circular direction. I then looked up and over the plush 1940s leather seat and glanced through the other window, across from me. The captain had announced there was a mechanical error they were were working through. The prop hadn’t start turning yet at the high-spin rate. I almost choked on my tobacco when I saw the same little gate agent in polo shirt and golf shorts run over to the prop and try to pull start it. What in the gyspy fuck…?
I arrived at the Isle of Man airport struggling to stay awake. Our connection through Manchester, England left me with no doubt that I would never fly the purple headed monster across the English Channel again. The country of Isle of Man is a small island between England and Ireland. The island is relatively long at about 65 miles, and widest at about 13 miles. The deep green rolling hills catch the eye and reminded me of Ireland. Yet, the rise and fall of the tides confirmed that we were in a rough part of the world’s oceans. The airport was small, with one terminal building that was for the larger aircraft protruding from another small two-story building with the air traffic control tower tucked away in the corner of the airfield. I had became acquainted with a Brit that had gotten on the plane in Manchester. He told me that this airport would normally see 2-3 flights daily, but there would be up to 20 flights daily this week for the race. He also explained that the Ferries were shuttling up to 10 loads from Dublin and another 10 loads English side. Thousands of bikers were pouring in. I do know that I watched a high-speed ferry come in from the southern side and approximately 1500- 2000 bikers were lined up getting off that boat. Everyone was decked out in their TT gear as I found the baggage claim and made my way out of the little airport to the taxi services.
Hotels there are limited to the amount of people that come in for race week. I had managed to find a little Turkish restaurant that had a brothel upstairs, which was located on the strip. The strip was about five miles long and it ran down the southern side of the island where the little fishing village, and country capital, Douglas lay. Motorcycles were everywhere. They were lined up for miles on the strip in front of stores, or restaurants. There were all types from high end Ducatii super bikes to Harley Davidsons with sidecars. Douglas was ablaze with activity and excitement. I dropped my luggage off at the Hostel and decided to walk down the strip and find myself something to eat. I was about 3 miles away from the start gates as these were the last two days of time trials and warm ups, the following next few days would be the race.
This place was abuzz with excitement and activity, I made my way up to the notorious start line called the Grand stands, I started to get that little tingly feeling under my skin. There were motorbikes everywhere, lined up in every available space. The Isle of Man TT race was formed in 1905, since the conception there has been a race every year except the years during World War II. Each June this little island turns into pure chaos as the world’s fastest and deadliest races occurs. The 37 mile course boasts some of the most technical terrain, with its infamous mountain course where riders will open full throttle on super bikes surpassing well over 200 mph on a two lane windy mountain road. The fastest lap record was recently broke in the 2018 IOM TT when Michael Dunlop averaged over 135 miles an hour on a BMW, and in less than 14 minutes made the 37 mile loop. The race itself is so dangerous that the riders are released in 10 second intervals, where as a normal race the entire heat would be released. The rookies must maintain their status as active rookies for up to three years of qualifications and must don a reflective vest during time trials to identify themselves as rookies for the seasoned riders.