Isle of Man: New World Racing, Old World Danger
The Isle of Man road course, from iomtt.com
I am terrified to write this. Not start line of the Isle of Man TT terrified, mind you, but any discussion of the relationship between motorsport and danger is fraught with peril. When a driver or rider comes out and says racing has gotten too safe, he is castigated as a lunatic, or just another headline seeker. And woe be to the journalist or fan who admits to such thoughts. I do not think racing has become too safe. When I watched Robert Kubica’s horrific crash at Montreal in 2008, I was sure there was a possibility it was fatal, or at least near-fatal. I held my breath and trembled, I stood up and paced around the room waiting for some signs of movement. It was horrible to watch. But it was a feeling I knew well after thirty-plus years as a dedicated racing fan.
In the end, he bruised his ankle. Miraculous, and all due to the incredible advances in safety throughout motorsport, but especially within Formula One.
A more recent horror came in Las Vegas, when Dan Wheldon died. I would like to take those few hours spent watching the scene and sickening replays back. But I watched. I cried and felt angry this could happen again. To my eye, it was a carbon copy of the way Jeff Krosnoff died in the Toronto race in 1996. Both were cases of the car becoming parallel to the catch fence and slamming into it cockpit-side first. In both cases, those rigid steel poles were strong enough to keep the cars in the track limits as well as batter the driver’s exposed heads.
I was not watching the MotoGP race live when Marco Simoncelli lost his life. And I do not want to go on YoTube and search for the crash, although I’m sure it’s there.
So, no, I don’t think racing has become too safe.
The very notion that something can be ‘too safe’ belies the fact that danger is an intrinsic element of its makeup. Would we say that our road cars have gotten too safe because we are belted in and surrounded by airbags and engineered crumple zones? No, for to say so would imply that death is an intrinsic part of the appeal of driving to work every day. Has the safety of air travel robbed you an adrenaline rush?
But there are those who openly mourn the lack of danger in modern motorsport. It’s easy to assume that to do so is to admit that part of the appeal as a fan or viewer is the crashes. But I don’t think it’s that simple.
When you listen to drivers from the Old Days talk today, they invariably say that modern racing can’t be compared to their eras simply because every time they went to the track they knew there was a good chance they wouldn’t come back. Think about that…twenty-plus men leaving their hotel rooms on a quiet Sunday morning thinking about who might have to come and collect their belongings if they died that day, then simply closing the door and heading to the track.
Does that make them heroes? No, they were just incredibly selfish people doing what they loved and prepared to risk everything for it. No, not a hero, but a romantic character of the highest order. When a modern top tier driver or rider leaves his hotel room on race day, his concerns are more likely to be about the endless parade of loathsome sponsor obligations he has to fulfil than the inherent safety of the track and his vehicle.
Be under no illusions, modern racing is still dangerous, and most participants know it on some level. But the work of putting those irksome thoughts to the back of their minds so that they might go on about their jobs more effectively is a lot less onerous than it used to be. For some, I’m sure it is but the work of a moment.
Most racers say that when thoughts of danger do enter the mind, it is time to hang up your helmet, for no longer will you be prepared to push up to, and over, the limit. Leaving a margin for safety is to leave the door open for a fearless competitor to slip through.
Most that lament the diminution of danger in modern motorsport are not gore mongers, watching in hopes of seeing the next great crash. Real racing fans are fascinated by the people who are willing to risk it all. Its the same reason millions watched Felix Baumgartner skydive from the edge of space. We are fascinated with the human drama on display when someone is willing to push themselves to the limit to achieve a personal ambition.
Danger exists in today’s racing world, but it tends to rear its ugly head mostly in chance circumstances – an errant spring loosed from the back of the car ahead, or indeed a randomly bouncing wheel – as the cars and circuits have been designed to mitigate as many known perils as possible. Run-off areas are now acres of abrasive tarmac that allow racers to maintain traction and some semblance of control as they spin beyond the track limits. This safety margin affects the driver’s mindset, for they know the penalty for pushing too hard is minimal. Their most aggressive instincts can be explored with less dire consequences.
Ernest Hemingway once said that motor racing, mountain climbing, and bull fighting were the only true sports, all others were mere games. Technological and social shifts would seem to have rendered his opinion anachronistic. But there is a place where anachronism is the law of the land…The Isle of Man.
The island hosts the craziest and most jaw-droppingly dangerous race in the world, The Isle of Man Tourist Trophy, or TT for short. It’s a motorcycle race on the 37 ¾ miles of closed public roads that make up the famed Mountain Course. And as you would expect of public roads, they are lined with curbs, trees, signposts, and often low stone walls. They snake through villages, past stoops and shop fronts. And the bikes and riders carry scarcely believable speed through it all.
Coming off bike will always be coming off a bike…it’s never a good thing. But the same safety advances that protect auto racers at modern circuits have also greatly reduced the risk to riders in series like MotoGP and World Superbike. Not so at the TT. A hay bale is still your best bet for a reasonably soft landing…like it has been for decades.
In its 106 year history, more than 230 people have been killed either in practice or the races. Yet the tiny island nation supports the race unconditionally. Chief Minister Allan Bell says, “We can’t live life wrapped up in cotton wool, and you don’t live life wrapped up in cotton wool on the Isle of Man.” No indeed, you do not.
For me, and countless others, it is the most fascinating and terrifying spectacle remaining in racing. I can’t watch the crashes, I look away and feel the hairs on my arms stand tall as an empathic electric shock of faux pain shoots through my body. But the stares on the faces of the riders as they inch towards the start line are riveting. And the loving and fatalistic tap on the shoulder signalling each rider that’s it’s time to go is haunting and moving.
And sadly, before I’ve even finished writing this, news has filtered in that a rider has died during the first day of practice for this year’s TT. Japanese rider, Yoshinari Matsushita, has become the 240th casualty at the event.
I don’t aim to resolve the morality of such an event. I can’t, for it is far from resolved within myself. The danger of motorsport is intrinsic. I don’t like it, but I know that it is human endeavor that should be preserved. For those that are willing to risk it all, I respect you. Pursue what you love, live fully in the moment, and stay safe.
This article originally appeared on Nicholas D’Amato’s blog, Just Add Lightness