More than 400 turns and corners kink the raceway, according to Sports Illustrated, making the contest among the most difficult high-speed races on earth — and one of the most deadly. Since the event began in 1907, more than 140 racers have died in the TT. Combined with spectators killed at the event and fatalities at other races held on the same route, the island’s knotty 37.7-mile circuit has taken more than 250 lives, TheDrive reported.
“As thrilling as the racing is, at times I’ve thought it shouldn’t be legal,” racer Dave Roper told Sports Illustrated in 2003. “Looking back, I can’t believe I even survived.”
On Wednesday, as the first week of qualifying races was underway, the high whine of bike engines suddenly halted in the evening. According to the event’s organizers, all racing was stopped after 30-year-old Dan Kneen was killed in a crash during his first lap.
The 2018 race’s first death underscores the danger of the event, which has led detractors to call it the “Isle of Manslaughter.” But that daredevil gamble is also the appeal.
“We all know that we accept the risks,” past TT champion John McGuinness told the Guardian in 2007. “Maybe we’re a bunch of hard-nosed bastards.”
When the races first started last century, the island was selected because of the region’s lack of speed limits, according to the Guardian (the Isle of Man still has no speed limits).
The first champion, Charlie Collier, had an average speed of 38 mph. In 1911, when a racer topped 41 mph in one lap, observers cried the race must be shut down — that kind of speed was too dangerous, they claimed. In 1913, protesters laid broken glass across the track to disrupt the race, and organizers worked overnight to clear the raceway for the next day’s start, Sports Illustrated reported.
As in the early days, the TT today presents many different obstacles because it winds along various landscapes. The course blasts through farmlands and villages, runs past hedgerows and stone fences and lifts from sea level to 1,300 feet on the island’s Snaefell Mountain. As bike technology has improved — and gotten faster — the TT course has thrown those obstacles at racers faster, leaving less and less time to react.
“If Roger Federer misses a shot, he loses a point,” former TT champion Richard Quayle told the New York Times last year. “If I miss an apex, I lose my life.”
By 1976, the race’s body count put it out of favor with many mainstream international racing organizations. As the Times reported, many people believed the event’s 100th anniversary in 2007 would be the last race.
Instead, Paul Phillips, a former finance professional, came on as the head of the event. Upping the safety standards, enlisting better quality drivers, and marketing the TT as an X Games-like event helped resuscitate the TT.
“Before my tenure here, there was an underlying there’s-nothing-to-see-here kind of mentality, and to the wider world, to me, it felt like we came across as a group as kind of bloodthirsty and ignorant,” Phillips told the Times. “Now, all of our marketing is about: ‘This is the most dangerous race in the world. These guys are the gladiators.’ ”
But the danger continues. Last year, three racers were killed in two days at the TT, TheDrive reported.
Dan Kneen grew up amid the TT’s engine roar and death in Onchan, a village on the Isle of Man’s east coast.
He made his racing debut on the home track in 2008, at the Manx Grand Prix, another event on the TT’s route. That year he won three races, according to TT organizers. He started in the main TT race a year later, going on to start in 39 races at the annual event, the Belfast Telegraph reported. Last year he finished third in the TT’s Superstock race.
Kneen’s father, Richard, and younger brother, Ryan, were also motorcycle racers.
“Dan Kneen and his family — they’re a racing family,” a friend told Isle of Man TV this week. “Everybody knows the dangers, and nobody put a gun to Dan Kneen’s head to ride or any other rider’s head. They want to do this. The thrill of road racing is there.”
Going into this year’s TT, Kneen was riding for an Ireland-based team, Tyco BMW. During Tuesday’s trials, Kneen set his own record on the TT circuit, going 132.258 mph, according to the Telegraph. The timing put him third among the racers in the qualifying matches for next week’s official competition.
On Wednesday evening, as Kneen was starting his first lap of the course, he crashed near Churchtown, race organizers said.
Authorities told all other riders on the course to stop, quieting the island. From the silence, racers and observers knew something had happened.
“You can feel that eerie feeling coming right down over the paddock,” an observer told Isle of Man TV. “Everybody just changed their whole demeanor. It’s a sad place to be, this paddock, when something goes wrong.”
A second racer, Steve Mercer, was struck by a course car on its way to Kneen’s accident site. Mercer was taken to the hospital and is expected to recover.
Kneen died at the scene. His father released a statement on Facebook, the Telegraph reported.
“Dan lived for his racing and wild horses wouldn’t have torn him away from it. I was happy for him; he was in his element and loving it,” the father wrote. “Best wishes for all the other TT competitors. The TT show will go on.”
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