Why do they do it? The factors that drive men to risk life and limb around the world's most hazardous racetrack


That Near Death Thing - Inside the TT: the World's Most Dangerous Race, by Rick Broadbent (Orion)

The Isle of Man Tourist Trophy used to be the most prestigious motorcycle race in the world, the British leg of the Grand Prix world championship, contested by the biggest names on the circuit, iconic figures such as Giacomo Agostini, Mike Hailwood and Phil Read.

But it was always the most dangerous, too.  It is an extraordinary spectacle, the sight of expensive, super-powered racing machines weaving through village streets lined by cottages, pubs and corner shops. Likewise as they accelerate to speeds of up to 200 mph with nothing between them and the telegraph poles and dry stone walls of the island's mountainous country roads. Yet it has come with a heavy price.  Since the first fatality in 1911, 239 riders have been killed.

The perennial debate over safety concerns came to a head in 1972, when the death of the 31-year-old Italian rider Gilberto Parlotti prompted Agostini, his close friend, to vow never to contest the TT again.  Others followed suit, the number of title contenders willing to take part dwindled year by year and by 1976 the event had been stripped of its world championship status.

Some 36 years on, the racing continues and is no less thrilling, no less dramatic.  What has changed is that for all but a few riders the financial rewards, at least compared with the glamorous world of Superbikes and MotoGP, are modest and their fame is largely confined to their own arena.  The riders take part, then, not for money, nor to see their names in lights, but just for the sake of competing - against the course, against the other riders, against themselves.  In a way, it has become sport in its purest form.

It was this concept that caught the imagination of Rick Broadbent, a sports writer whose day job is covering athletics for The Times but whose fascination with speed on two wheels had already led him write Ring of Fire, a gripping insight into MotoGP and the lives of seven-times world champion Valentino Rossi and the superstar of another era, the brilliant Mike Hailwood.  Ring of Fire made the William Hill shortlist in 2009.

"No one has succeeded in capturing the spirit of what I regard as the greatest motorsport event in the world with a fraction of the success that you have." - Murray Walker

Broadbent wanted to know what it was that persuaded TT riders to climb into the saddle year after year, often after suffering serious injury, despite the enormity of the risks they faced.   In pursuit of the answers, he spent two years following the careers of four competitors, interviewing them at points along the way. The four are:

  • John McGuinness, the 40-year-old cocklefisher from Morecambe in Lancashire whose record of 19 wins is bettered only by the 26 of Joey Dunlop, the Northern Irishman who died in 2000 while racing in Estonia
  • Joey's nephew Michael, 24, whose father Robert was also killed on his bike
  • Conor Cummins, born and raised on the Isle of Man and who suffered multiple injuries, including five broken bones in his back, in a crash in 2010
  • Guy Martin, a truck mechanic whose popularity has been broadened by his appearance in a number of documentary television shows but who has yet to find success in the race

Their stories make fascinating reading not only for fans of the TT but for the less committed too as Broadbent gets under the skin of his four principle characters and paints vivid, compelling pictures of their wide supporting cast.  He has an eye for detail and a grasp of human nature that enables him to present his subjects as multi-dimensional people, which is a skill not all writers possess.

Cummins commented that he "managed to tell my story better than I could myself” and Murray Walker, the veteran television commentator widely respected for his authoritative knowledge of motorsport and of the many words written about it, paid Broadbent a wonderful tribute when he said that "no one has succeeded in capturing the spirit of what I regard as the greatest motorsport event in the world with a fraction of the success that you have."

The answers Broadbent sought were eloquently if chillingly expressed by Guy Martin, who had a miraculous escape from a crash at the notoriously dangerous Ballagarey Corner in 2010, when he was engulfed in a 170mph fireball as a fellow rider's petrol tank exploded yet emerged merely with a back broken in three places, six broken ribs and a doubly punctured lung.

He knew how close he had been. “If I’d jumped off as soon as I lost the front end then I would have gone into the wall at 90 degrees and it would have been game over.” Martin says. “But because I was a little bit further round I glanced off the wall and went into the next one.

"I look back on my crash and yeah, it did hurt. I had to dig my teeth out of my nose. My chest was caving in and they put this drain in, threaded it through so you could feel it moving around your innards. Hey, hey. That’s life."

Yet even with the knowledge of how lucky he had been, he could not wait to go again.  "The buzz from that (crash) was just unbeatable,” he says. “It's that near-death thing, that moment between crashing and almost dying. That’s raised the benchmark. I want to get back to that point. Money can’t buy it.”

That Near-Death Thing - Inside the TT: the World's Most Dangerous Race, by Rick Broadbent, is published by Orion.  For more information and to buy visit amazon.co.uk or go to the William Hill 2012 page at The Sports Bookshelf Shop.

The full shortlist for the 2012 award is:

  • Running With the Kenyans - Discovering the Secrets of the Fastest People on Earth, by Adharanand Finn (Faber & Faber)
  • That Near-Death Thing – Inside the TT: The World’s Most Dangerous Race, by Rick Broadbent (Orion)
  • The Secret Race – Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Doping, Cover-ups, and Winning at All Costs, by Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle (Bantam Press)
  • Be Careful What You Wish For, by Simon Jordan (Yellow Jersey)
  • Fibber in the Heat, by Miles Jupp (Ebury Press)
  • A Life Without Limits – A World Champion’s Journey, by Chrissie Wellington with Michael Aylwin (Constable & Robinson)
  • Shot and a Ghost: A Year in the Brutal World of Professional Squash, by James Willstrop with Rod Gilmour (James Willstrop / Rod Gilmour)

The William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award is the world's longest established and, with a top prize of £24,000, the  most valuable literary prize for sports writing.  The 2012 winner will be announced at a lunchtime reception at Waterstones Piccadilly (London), Europe’s largest bookstore, next Monday, November 26.

This year's judging panel comprises broadcaster and writer John Inverdale; footballer and chairman of the Professional Footballers’ Association, Clarke Carlisle; broadcaster Danny Kelly; award-winning journalist Hugh McIlvanney; and columnist and author, Alyson Rudd. Chairman of the judging panel is John Gaustad, co-creator of the award and founder of the Sportspages bookshop.

More reading

One man's quest to uncover the secrets of the Kenyans
Armstrong scandal boosts The Secret Race
James Willstrop -- Hidden star of the sport the Olympics left behind
Why Bobby Charlton's handshake meant so much to author Duncan Hamilton
Tyler Hamilton reveals all
Hamilton and McRae go head to head for 'bookie prize'



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