Deaths Are a Tradition at the Isle of Man TT. They Shouldn’t Be

There have only been two years since 1980 where no one died on the treacherous road course.

byHazel SouthwellJun 10, 2022 11:27 AM
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Photo by John Marsh
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Five riders have died during the Isle of Man TT so far in 2022, with another hospitalized in critical condition. The world-famous motorcycle race is one of the few remaining motorsport events where death is seen as an acceptable price to pay for the high-speed show bikers put on every year. Casualties are considered inevitable every year, if not expected. But should they? Surely racers know the risks when they sign up.

At 37.7 miles long, calling the Isle of Man course the Nordschliefe of motorcycle racing is a bit of an understatement. The Nordschleife's 154 corners fit into a modest 12.9 miles of road, so you could almost fit three of it into the Isle of Man TT's Mountain Course into one Green Hell. Every part of the course is compromised of public roads, with spectators and riders flocking to the British island to watch the fortnight of bike action every year. And just as often, without fail, some of those spectators will see one (or more) of those riders die.

Motorsport is risky, that's a known fact. The margins in top-level racing are extremely difficult to quantify; most of us wouldn't risk getting as close to a bollard when parking a Honda Civic as F1 drivers do to a barrier in Monaco. To do a good lap of the Nordschleife you need to be barely hanging on through all 154 corners. MotoGP riders brush the ground as they blast through apexes at over 100+ miles per hour.

TT racing, however, is nowhere nearly as glamorous as F1 or MotoGP, and it's almost totally amateur. Even the most successful riders usually have real jobs—at least some of the time. They choose racing for the love of it, not because they're being directed there by a team or the organizers or big-time sponsors. It's their own free choice.

TT competitors don't go into an event unaware of the stakes, either. Racing at triple-digit speeds on a purpose-built race track isn't risk-free—not even a little—but blasting down streets lined with century-old rock walls at average speeds of over 125 mph is on a completely different level. To do it, the competitors have to trust their skills and the skills of those around them. Like anyone who free-climbs, cave dives, or practices any dangerous sport, the life of every Isle of Man TT rider is in their own hands.

Most events where there is a near-certain risk of death in the case of an error or mechanical failure aren't organized as spectacles. There are risky sports that are watched (ski jumping, most motorsports, the Tour de France, etc) but there are no events as consistently lethal as the TT that is accepted. It's not just possible that watching it you could see someone killed or hurt, it's a near certainty. Since 1980, there have only been two years people didn't die in a racing crash during the Isle of Man TT. Since 1937, there has been one year when the course was run where there wasn't some kind of death, including of marshals and spectators.

That's reflected in the fact organizers beefed-up safety, reducing grid sizes and increasing medical capacity, this year in order to secure more broadcast audience. Paul Phillips, the head of the TT organization, said this year “If public opinion turns against the TT, it could stop it, like we almost saw back in 2003 or 2004. It wasn’t the law courts, it was people asking if it was feasible. So, being perceived as a modern, responsible, forward-thinking organization is really important in terms of the sustainability of the event over the longer term.”

People tend to frame the ability to watch the TT despite knowing the risks as something tough, something that proves your acceptance of risk but its naivety. You have to believe you are not about to see a broken body, a fireball, a disaster. That you won't sit there watching the ambulance arrive because you can't leave the area. That if you did, you somehow wouldn't be horrified by seeing someone not go home, not get airlifted. And despite the improved safety measures it hasn't been enough, so far.

Mark Purslow, a 29-year-old from Wales, was the first rider to die this year during a Supersport practice session. Then, a crash during the first sidecar race was so severe that medics struggled to identify which member of the two-person team had died, initially mistaking the deceased rider for Olivier Lavorel before correcting, days later, to say it was believed César Chanal had been killed instead. A horrific image of just how bad the crash was, as well as the worst (erroneous) phone call a grieving family could receive.

Monday, Davy Morgan was killed in the Supersport race, bringing the total to three at the event's halfway point. It's a statement of the risks of the TT and that's not a particularly stand-out figure for deaths, compared to nine on-track deaths during races in 2005.

Updated @ 2:20 p.m. ET on June 10, 2022: In the time since this story was originally published, two more riders have been killed during the second sidecar race. Roger Stockton and his 21 year old son Bradley were pronounced dead following a collision on the penultimate lap. It was Bradley’s first TT, his dad having competed in it since before he was born.

Phillips admitted that the TT organizers face a major pushback against attempts to improve safety and avoid deaths. “Of course, there’ll always be some resistance, especially around the safety and risk management stuff. You see people saying, ‘They don’t need to do any of that stuff because the riders know the risks.’"

“That culture that exists around our sport isn’t something I can sign up to," however, Phillips said. "There are avoidable risks and risks that can be managed out, and that doesn’t change the essence of what TT is and the inherent risk that is part of the attraction. What it does do, though, is mean we are a sustainable and responsible organization."

Winning a race known for its death toll doesn't have a higher value for having cost other peoples' lives. The improved measures this year show that organizers understand the problem but with accidents still proving lethal, there has to be more that can be done, including ultimately changing the course. A safety management system is a good start but it clearly isn't stopping the deaths.

People used to die a lot at the Nordschleife, too. The risks there are still higher than at almost any other circuit, especially during amateur track days, but safety changes were made to lower that risk, much like with changing the runoff at Eau Rouge in Spa. A win at the Nurburgring 24 hours is still the same, a win at Le Mans or Monaco or the Indy 500 win is still considered iconic. The Isle of Man TT trophy won't melt away if it's not soaked in blood every year.

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