“There’s nowhere in the world like the Isle of Man TT.”
–2022 Winner Peter Hickman
You can’t argue with the man on that point. While time, shifting attitudes and riding technology have marched on, the Isle of Man TT is largely unchanged, at least in terms of the 37.55 mile course itself. The race is run much differently than when Giacomo Agostini famously boycotted the race in 1972 after the death of his friend Gilberto Parlotti, with the circuit eventually being dropped from the Grand Prix schedule in 1977. Professional racers no longer have to face the mountain course to keep their job. The “amatuer” status of IoM TT entrants saved the event, really. Winning the IoM TT earns you a pittance of a purse, around £18,000. But the reward can’t be measured in money. It’s not a task for the career-oriented. It’s an obsession for dreamers and the slightly insane.
By now the ink has dried on much of the post-2022 Isle of Man TT reaction. It’s worth more than a short pause to consider a sporting event that took the lives of five contestants. Maybe longer than the 20 minutes IoM TT officials took before resuming prize ceremonies after the announcement of the death of sidecar racers Roger and Bradley Stockton, whose deaths were the fourth and fifth fatalities in this year’s event, the highest death toll since 1989.
Boosters of the sport will talk of racers being clear-eyed about the risks and rewards. And that’s true, of the racers themselves. But for race organizers and the 85,000 or so residents of this self-governed 221-square mile British island, risk and reward means something different. Their “risk” is that the event won’t bring in £37M in needed revenue, as it did in 2019, the last event before Covid interrupted the event. Their “reward” is the thrill of the event itself, but more accurately, the thousands of tourists who bring the above mentioned revenue to local business and island treasury. It means financial survival.
Though they face differing equations and answers to risk and reward ratios, the responses of organizers and racers to event fatalities are the same. They pause briefly, then resume their quest. They offer the same consolations and bromides they always do, then carry on out of necessity. All the hand-wringing and pearl-clutching in the world won’t bring back the dead, and it misses the point.
Whether the race is canceled isn’t really up to most of the participants, whether they’re racers or event workers. Racers won’t stop coming to the island to race, and race organizers won’t stop organizing the race until it becomes financially unsustainable. Meditations on mortality won’t help either party. It won’t help racers successfully thread their way through Ballagerey, and it won’t help race organizers manage airlifts to mainland ER’s for the wounded. Neither can properly do their job while mourning. So they don’t, for as long as the track is live. Afterwards, it’s up to them.
If you think this is a condemnation of the Isle of Man TT, you’re wrong. The race should go on for as long as legally allowed. It’s a triumph of human skill, luck and nerves over death, at least temporarily. To end the tradition would silence a tiny part of ourselves. The world needs these small terrible freedoms. Would you have asked Marc-Andre Leclerc to stop free-climbing alpine mountains? Would banning free-climbing stop climbers from attempting the improbable? Obviously not. Nor should it.
To us, the people who watch, the riders who perish should be worth more than brief moments of awkward silence or well-worn clichés. If we choose to keep watching, we should absolutely and completely acknowledge what we might see happen. Without spectators, there is by definition no spectacle. It’s up to us whether the IoM TT goes on. But our spectacle is more than just spectacle. It’s a race like no other on Earth, one where entrants regularly die. A hunter knows how he got his meat. It’s a celebration of life that takes place next to death.
Peter Hickman won the 2022 Isle of Man TT Supersport title. He did it by averaging 129.432 mph for the race overall, and 132.274 mph on his final lap, aboard his Gas Monkey Garage by FHO Racing BMW. In addition to the Senior TT, Hickman also won the Supertwin, Superstock and Superbike classes. It was his 2nd Senior TT victory, and the four overall 2022 victories make for a total of nine victories across several classes.
His qualifying efforts foreshadowed his wins. On Thursday, the fifth day of practice, he completed the week’s first sub-17 minute lap, at 16:59.579 with an average speed of 133.22 mph aboard his Gas Monkey Garage by FHO Racing BMW M 1000 RR Superbike. To put an impressive period at the end of that sentence, his subsequent Friday practice lap of 132.874 mph came with the northern end of the island still damp in spots.
In short, Peter Hickman achieved the improbable, though he didn’t break the lap record of 16:42.778 minutes and 135.452 mph, which he set himself in 2018. And sidecar racers Roger Stockton, Bradley Stockton and Cesar Chanal were killed while competing, as were Mark Purslow and Davy Morgan.
The fact they died doing what they loved is likely cold comfort to surviving friends and family, but it was their decision to make. Their passing won’t slow the next man up and the race will go on. Unlike almost any other race on earth, their deaths will simply be accepted as part of the endeavor.