Commentary

Man vs. Isle

Get as close as you'll ever come to the world's most deadly motorcycle road race

Updated: May 5, 2011, 3:31 PM ET
By Gare Joyce | ESPN The Magazine

Stephen Davison/Pacemakerpressintl.comThere are 231 reasons the Isle of Man's mountain course is as treacherous as it is picturesque.

This story appears in the May 16, 2011, issue of ESPN The Magazine.

RAMSEY, AN OLD-FASHIONED HARBOR TOWN of 7,000 people on the northeast coast of the Isle of Man, is a quiet, slow-moving place for 50 weeks of the year. But this isn't one of those weeks. It's June 2010, and native son Conor Cummins is throttling up his Kawasaki 1,000cc, a blur at 140 mph going down May Hill, past the cheering fans he can't hear above the 140 decibels of precision-engineered whine. Cummins, a rangy 6'4", is vacuum-sealed in his turquoise-and-pink leathers, long limbs tucked in like a spooked spider's. He is running second out of 71 riders through two laps of a six-lap time trial, closing on Englishman Ian Hutchinson. If Cummins can gain two seconds, a panted breath, he will become just the fourth Manxman to win an Isle of Man Tourist Trophy race.

The event, better known as the TT, runs across the northern half of the 221-square-mile island, which sits in the middle of the Irish Sea. The race also runs right by the street where Cummins grew up and still lives. When he was a boy, morning practice would rattle his window for a wake-up call; now friends and neighbors are watching him in the Senior race, the biggest and fastest of the TT's five divisions.

Cummins, who turned 24 two weeks before the race, has ridden or driven on this course hundreds of times, and in 2009 he finished second in the Senior TT. But if those fans in Ramsey could see two minutes and 40 seconds into the future, they wouldn't cheer. They would tremble in fear that they'd never see Cummins again. In 160 seconds, his motorcycle rockets five miles and climbs 1,200 feet, past a precipice that offers a view of Ireland on one side and Scotland, England and Wales on the other. He enters the Verandah, a section of the two-lane A18 highway that runs between Ramsey and Douglas, the Isle's capital. Riders lean into a sweeping right turn in top gear as the road narrows.

On closed-circuit courses, turns are banked, with forgiving run-offs where riders can slide to a soft landing. No such luck in the TT. Its Snaefell Mountain Course, which former world champion Barry Sheene called "37 miles of stone walls and telegraph poles," is made up of public roads that are closed twice a year for races: the TT for pros in late spring and the Manx Grand Prix for amateurs in the fall. Front yards border the course in spots. A curb and 10 feet of soft shoulder separate the riders from grasslands that fall away so quickly, for nearly 1,000 feet, that sheep can't climb to graze. Thousands of fans line each turn and straightaway, most within an arm's length of bikes that can travel at upward of 175 mph. Pub patrons watching from decks must be careful not to spill their beers onto the pavement below.

Svend Lindbaek for ESPN The MagazineCummins returns to the spot on the Verandah where he and his bike went over the edge.

On a course like this, which has changed little over the years, some things can't be counted, like the number of bumps that send a bike off the ground, or the number of repairs to the walls of houses that have had close encounters with two-wheeled machines. But some things are known with certainty. Low point: sea level. High point: 1,400 feet. Bends on the course: 264. Riders killed on the course since 1907, the year the TT started: 231.

Victor Surridge was casualty No. 1. In 1911, the year the TT moved to the current Mountain Course, the 19-year-old Englishman was one of the first riders on the new route. But he didn't even make it to race day. During practice, Surridge crashed in the windy Glen Helen section and died instantly. This led the Isle of Man Examiner to question "whether this dangerous form of sport is in the future to be permitted."

"The race doesn't discriminate," says Milky Quayle, the last Manxman to win the TT, in 2002, and now a rider liaison who teaches rookies about the Mountain Course. "It can be anybody -- a first-timer or a legend like DJ."

That would be David Jefferies, a nine-time TT champion from England, who became No. 206 during a 2003 practice run, when the bike ahead of him blew an engine, sending oil over the road. Marshals couldn't get the red flags out fast enough, and Jefferies skidded, slamming into a garden wall at 29 Woodlea Villas.

A procession of 5,000 mourning riders rode the course the following day, while owners of houses in the quiet residential neighborhood picked up wreckage from their lawns. One of Jefferies' wheels landed on somebody's roof. Not that the 30-year-old rider would have been surprised by that news, if he had somehow survived to hear it. As Jefferies once said, "To succeed on the island, you have to accept that you might be going home in a box."

Paul Dobbs (No. 228) and Martin Loicht (No. 229) knew the risks. They crashed their 600cc bikes during a race last June, in the TT's Supersport division, the day before Cummins' race. Dobbs' remains were shipped back to New Zealand, Loicht's to Austria. And when Cummins woke up the morning after their deaths, he knew all too well that he could be delivered to Ramsey the same way.


SPECTATORS ARE STANDING on Snaefell, at 2,034 feet the highest point on the Isle of Man, following the TT on the radio and waiting for Cummins to reach the Verandah below them. They hear him before they see him. But something goes wrong while he's carrying speed through the third sweeping right turn. His Kawasaki hits the curb, and Cummins launches off the Verandah. Officials stop the race and rush to the edge of the slope. They can't see where Cummins landed, and it's too steep for them to walk down and look for him.

A helicopter hovers above. A cameraman on board saw the crash play out in his viewfinder: Cummins and his bike going airborne, the rider flying off his machine and spinning like a turquoise-and-pink Frisbee over the banks of the Snaefell, then hitting and bouncing off the ground, clearing a five-foot stone fence and finally coming to rest more than 900 feet from where he went off the Verandah. The pilot brings the helicopter down. It's going to be difficult to reach Cummins, let alone save him if he's still alive. When family, friends and racers later talk about that day, they will all say the same thing: "He fell off the edge of the world."

Ten miles down the course, his parents sit in the grandstand at the finish line. They listen for his time at the next checkpoint. His name isn't called. They know his race is over. It's what they don't know that makes this moment so excruciating. Conor's dad, Billy, a devout Catholic, kneels beside his bed each night and prays for friends who've died on the Mountain Course. Tonight he'll pray that he won't have to add his son to the list.


IN THAT LAST thousandth of a second before Conor Cummins went airborne, he passed two small crosses the colors of the Italian flag. They mark the spot where Gilberto Parlotti (No. 99) lost his life on his 125cc Morbidelli, in June 1972, back when the Mountain Course was home to the British Grand Prix. Parlotti was a top racer at the time, and his death created a backlash among the sport's biggest names.

The International Motorcycling Federation stripped the Mountain Course of its Grand Prix status and moved the British GP to its current Silverstone track. Other historic GPs were also moved from road or street courses to tracks designed and maintained strictly for racing. For Manxmen, this was like golf officials' moving the Masters from Augusta to public links. They kept staging the TT, and they laughed at comparisons between the Mountain Course and Germany's Nürburgring North Loop, the "Green Hell," all of 154 turns and just 14.2 miles -- the difference between the high wire and the high wire with a net.

England's Phil Read, winner of eight world titles in the 1960s and '70s, gave up the TT not long after Parlotti's death, saying the race had become too dangerous. He believes it's even more so today. "The biggest bikes I raced on were 750cc's, the lap record was 112 mph, and it was too dangerous, I thought," Read says. "Today they're racing 1,000cc's, and bikes are capable of 190 mph or more. That's on the very same course. The boys go right to the edge now. They have to."


TWO MONTHS AFTER Cummins' crash, his mother, Carole, pulls her car over on the drive from Ramsey to Douglas, where she works in a bank. Her commute requires her to pass the Verandah daily, but now it's time to see the spot where her son nearly died. She gets out of the car. The black streak of rubber from Conor's bike hasn't yet washed off the road, and the reflective curb marker is cracked and chipped from where the cycle hit.

Carole wept when Conor was rushed into surgery. Today her eyes are dry. She's not just a mother, but also a racer's mother and a racer's wife. She met Billy during race week. Conor was born during race week and named after Conor McGinn, an Irish rider who ended up in a wheelchair with a spinal injury.

The back door of the car opens. Conor unfolds himself, all casts and braces, and slowly inches toward the ledge. It's his first time back to the scene of the crash. Doctors are keeping him in the hospital at night, but they think it will improve his spirits to get out during the day, a break from endless rehab. He has made it through the worst part: four surgeries, one lasting about 10 hours, which could have left him paralyzed or dead. His injuries included five broken bones in his back, fractures of his pelvis, fractures and nerve damage to his left arm, shredded knee tendons, and shoulders out of joint. He was on a morphine drip for weeks.

"Life goes on," Carole says. Conor says nothing.


THE 2011 TT RACES are just a few weeks away, and Cummins is at the Verandah again, but this time in his leathers, back home after testing bikes in England. Before his crash last year, he was fifth in the standings for the British superstock championship. And as much as he'd prefer to look ahead -- the Senior TT is just weeks away, and in his first race back, on April 25, he finished 18th -- he knows he can't avoid talking about that day on the Verandah.

"It's like that nightmare where you're falling and you wake up," Cummins says. "Except with me, it went to black. When I came to, I was counting fairies." He's referring to the Isle's Fairy Bridge, near Douglas. Superstitious Manxmen passing over it say hello and good-bye to the fairies, to stay on their good side.

He says he's physically 80 percent now. He'd be 81 percent if he weren't still limping, 82 percent if he could straighten his left arm. "Me 80's better than a lot of boys' 100," he says. "Last year can make me a better rider. I bawled like a baby when I thought I wasn't going to be able to race again. It's all I ever wanted to do. Winning here means a lot to any rider, but it means more to Manxmen. The crash just makes me want it more."

Cummins looks at the curve he missed, the third of four on the Verandah. There's no public speed limit on this part of the A18, and young riders are rocketing by. "Makes me want to get on me bike and give it a burn," he says, following the bikes with his eyes.

Later that day, he sits in a theater in Douglas for the debut of Closer to the Edge, a film of the 2010 TT races. The footage from his crash is up on the screen. Cummins bows his head. Sitting on one side of him is Hutchinson, the racer he was chasing that fateful day, and winner of all five major TT events last year. Hutchinson's leg is in a wire cage; it almost had to be amputated after an accident at a track in England last fall. On the other side of Cummins is Guy Martin, another Englishman, who almost didn't escape a fiery crash that red-flagged Cummins' race a lap before his own crash. Martin and Cummins were neighbors in the hospital, though neither could talk at the time.

Now the footage tells Cummins' story, every painful detail in slow motion. He still doesn't look up. "I have no interest in seeing it," he says. "I consider myself lucky to be alive and still standing. And if I can stand, I'm racing. You just never know when your number's up."

Gare Joyce is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine.

Gare Joyce is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine.