The History of the Isle of Man TT: Over a Century of Racing History
Almost every year for the last 125, the Isle of Man TT (Tourist Trophy)is one of the oldest, most well-respected, dangerous, and anticipated motorcycle races in the sport's history.
Though the course has changed multiple times, a couple of things remain the same, the excitement and danger that racers face keep both riders and fans coming back for more year after year, even well over a century later.
Why the Isle of Man?
Nestled in between Great Britain and Ireland in the Irish sea, the Isle of Man seemed the perfect place to house a European road race due to road constrictions in England that would not allow for any road closures for any sort of racing.
The first TT Race for bikes was held in 1907, with two distinctive classes: single-cylinder engines that got up to 90 mpg and two-cylinder engines that got up to 70 mpg.
That first race was held on a triangular course, with H. Rem Fowler winning in the twin-cylinder division. His fastest lap was 43 mph, and Charlie Callier won the single-cylinder division with his fast lap at close to 42 mph.
This “short track” race was made up of 10 laps that were just over 15 miles each. Then from ‘11 - ‘14, the track increased dramatically to over 37 miles each, going from sea level to 1,300 feet above sea level, giving it its reputation for being so dangerous. This track was known as the Snaefell Mountain Course. These rounds included a 350cc race and a 500cc.
Some Racing Hiatus
For the next few years, the race was placed on hold. From ‘15 - to ‘19, the race was stalled due to WWI. When the race returned, it was bigger and better than before. In ‘22, a lighter class 250cc race was added, and in ‘23, a sidecar race was added. By’38 the top speed for a round’s record went to Harold Daniell at a neck-breaking speed of 91 mph, which he was able to hold on to for a whopping 12 years, but that might be a bit oversold because from ‘40 - ‘46, the race was put on hold due to WWII.
Post-WWII Man of Isle TT
Daniell came back to win again the next time the race was held, but at a slower speed.
In ‘49, the Man of Isle TT became a massive part of the racing world when it became a venue for the Motorcycle World Championship. This is also when the top riders in the top divisions would win their respective races. Daniell and Freddie Frith ended their winning streaks once the 40s ended.
The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same
With the TT becoming one of the most prominent races globally, in relation to the 50s, the main consistency with the Isle of Man TT was that things were changing almost yearly. Fans concluded the ‘50s and ‘60s to be the “golden era” of the race because records were broken, additions were made, and the excitement and danger were found at every break-neck turn.
This became the time for Italian bikes and racers to come into the scene and in a big way. Makers like Mondial, Gilera, and MV Augusta hit the track, and just a few short years after Danniell set his record, it was beaten by Geoff Duke, who made 93.3 the new record for the fastest lap. From ‘52 - to ‘72, Mondial became the winningest manufacturer in the race’s history with a whopping 33 wins, and it still holds this record today.
Other changes to the race in the ‘50s and ‘60s include:
‘51 - the first 125cc race made its debut, with an Italian bike rider in the winner’s seat.
‘54 - the Clypse course, previously for bikes, set into competition for sidecar drivers, the first one held since 1925.
‘57 - Geoff Duke came crazy close to setting the first recorded lap of 100 mph at 99.97 mph, and the first woman competed on the Mountain Course, with Pat Wise as a passenger in the sidecar division.
‘58 - Bob Macintyre broke the 100 mph lap barrier. This year also welcomed the first Japanese bikes to the competition when Honda bikes joined in the races and won the team prize for the 125cc division.
‘60 - No more races would be held on the Clypse course, as all divisions transferred to the Mountain course.
‘61 - Mike Halewood had the first of many banner showings at the TT. He won races in three divisions during the week, and he would go on to win 14 titles total while racing at the Isle of Man.
‘62 - Beryl Swain made TT history as the first woman solo racer to compete.
‘65 - Giacomo Agostini raced onto the TT scene for the first time and won the first of 10 titles he would claim.
‘67 - the greatest battle between two racers at the Isle of Man occurred this year between Halewood and Agostini. By the time of the race’s completion, Hailwood had set a record that would last over a decade, finishing the fastest lap to that date at 108.77 mph.
Other Notable Isle of Man TT Quick Notes
Looking at the next half of a century, it is not a surprise that there were multiple items of note that are worth mentioning when delving into the race’s history.
Tragedy at the TT
In 1972, things took a turn for the worst for the racing world at the TT. Though the weather conditions were less than conducive for anyone, even a professional, to race around the track at treacherous speeds, the race continued. Due to that decision, participant Gilberto Parlotti lost his life.
The ironic part of the tragedy is that Parlotti was planning to protest the continuation of the race because of the danger involved, but in the end, he ultimately opted to get on his bike and give it a go.
Though Agostini went on to win the race once the weather cleared, it would be his last time around the Isle as a racer because he, too, felt that the race had become too dangerous. Though the race’s producers stood by their decisions regarding safety, Agostini was but one of the TT’s stars who opted to no longer participate in respect of their lives and those of their fellow racers.
Records Are Meant to Be Broken, Right?
In 1975, Mick Grant would go on to break Mike Hailwood’s long-standing fastest lap record of 109.77 mph by coming in at 109.82. And that record was not long for this world.
In 1976, John Williams became the first rider to break the 110 mph barrier in the TT's history. This was also the first year that Isle of Man legend Joey Dunlop made his debut in the race. The following year, he won the first of 26 championships at the TT, and his record still stands today.
In 1978, a different sort of record was broken at the Isle of Man TT. After an 11 year hiatus, Mike Hailwood returned to the TT, and his return drew in more spectators than the race had seen before or since.
1980 saw the first lap completed at over 115 mph, and Joey Dunlop finished the fastest lap to that date at 115.22. In ‘89, when Dunlop could not compete due to injury, his teammate, Steve Hislop, then beat Dunlop’s record and became the first to finish a 120+ mph lap for the course at 121.34.
In 1995, Phill McCallen was the first racer to win four races in one week during the Isle of Man TT.
In 2000, Joey Dunlop had his last showing at the TT, winning three races that week. Sadly, later that year, the racing world lost one of its greatest racers when Dunlop died in a crash at another track.
The Temporary Closures of the TT.
The new millennium has seen the TT closed three other times aside from the time when the race was not held due to WWI or WWII. All three were due to a deadly outbreak.
In 2001, the TT was not held due to an outbreak of Hoof and Mouth Disease, and 2020 and 2021 went without the TT due to the pandemic COVID-19.
Just As Good as it Ever Was: The History of the Isle of Man TT
The plans to restart the Isle of Man TT are in the works for 2022 despite the pandemic still being an issue.
Though this race had been perilous, and many lives have been lost over the years as racers worldwide attempted to make a name for themselves, it continues. Despite the tragedies surrounding the race, fans and riders alike cannot seem to tear themselves away from the excitement that the race brings.
The only things that seem to be able to slow the Isle of Man TT down are World Wars and world pandemics. Once those pesky things are out of the way, there is no doubt that business, as usual, will continue at the TT, and history will continue to be written.