Experiencing The Isle of Man

March 22, 2020

I'm just gonna go ahead and say it, the Isle of Man TT is the most incredible motorsport event you can witness. And I do mean WITNESS, like in Mad Max Fury Road.

I have previously raved about the 24 Hours of Spa as the best motor race to see in Europe, but even that seems plain compared to the TT. Spa is a great event to see for sure, and is right on the mainland for easy travel, and is cheaper and easier to see overall, and doesn't take up 9 to 14 days of vacation by itself. But as for one event in one place, the TT Races on the Isle of Man take the cake. My nine days on the island were some of the most enjoyable and memorable of my entire life.

The TT itself is not so much a "race" as a personal man-vs-nature challenge to every participant. It is the Mount Everest of motorsports, a place where people go to insult Death's mother then see if they can outrun him on a motorcycle. (Fitting that the course takes place on & around a mountain.) Some go to see if they can win, most go simply to try to feel more alive at the finish line than they did at the start. It's surely the most authentic such thing you can witness as a normal person; the danger and challenge of it is intrinsically obvious, and they don't even charge admission.

I could gush for days about the history and legend of the TT races, linking to all sorts of YouTube videos and the like, but I'll try to limit this to my own personal experience. I'd been watching the TT on television yearly since 2008 or so, mesmerized by the speed on display in the on-board shots, not to mention the absolute focus and determination projected by each rider's eyes when the cameras would reveal them. It quickly rose to an elevated position on my bucket list of races to see, and I eventually made arrangements to see the 2018 event.

I arrived on Thursday of practice week, and after getting situated in my hotel and picking up my credentials, I walked over to St. Ninian's Crossing to see what I could get done amid my jetlag during the day's practice sessions. A reasonable walk, no need to figure out how to get around the island by bus or tram, I thought it would be a good place to start my experience and warm up.

I thought I knew what I was in for. I've been to Formula 1 races, Le Mans, Moto GP, even another Motorcycle Road Race. Heck, I've driven my own car through turn 12 at Road Atlanta at 100 mph, and on the autobahn at 150. I thought I knew what speed was. But the very first bike to come by showed me how wrong I was.

I heard the engine approaching in the distance and got my camera up & ready. My mind was not ready. There came a man on a machine moving at around 160 mph barely more than arm's reach away. Human brains do not naturally know how to process this sort of experience. I was completely, utterly dumbfounded. I lowered the camera, blinked a couple times, and slowly turned around to see where he went, eyes wide with disbelief of what I had just seen. The marshalls immediately knew this was my first TT.

It probably took just a second and a half for the bike to flash past me from when it came in sight around the bend a hundred meters away. It seemed to outrun my autofocus. Even pre-focusing with a 6fps continuous shutter was hit or miss for any given pass. Even at 1/2000 shutter speed, I had to get a good pan or the bike would be motion blurred, and anything under 1/320 was completely hopeless.

What an introduction. I felt a little out of my depth, but then again I had also been awake for 30 hours at that point. I found things a little easier as I moved on to Bray Hill, found some better sight lines, and put a little more distance between me and the bikes.

Right now you might be thinking that this is an experience you can only get with photo credentials. That is an understandable but incorrect assumption. There are many, many places around the 37 mile TT course where common spectators can sit (for free) barely three feet from very high speed sections of road.

Some less-free seats even come with food and drink service!

After that initial experience and a good night's rest, I felt more prepared for the rest of the event. What I still didn't yet know, however, is just how good the whole experience was going to be.

The thing I most appreciated, what enabled me to enjoy it so thoroughly, is how it was scheduled. Compared to most other race events which try to cram in as much as they can into a weekend, with almost constant track activities from 8 am to 6 pm for three to five days in a row, the Isle of Man TT feels downright relaxed. During practice week they have roughly 2-3 hours of running each day starting around 6 pm, and in race week it's about 4 hours of running starting around 10 am every other day.

Lots of major race events have festivals and concerts and exhibitions going on in and around them, as well as sights to see in the surrounding area, but at the Isle of Man, you actually have the time to enjoy these things without missing out on the racing or your sleep. After shooting a day's racing, I could be back at my hotel by 3:30 in the afternoon to work on photos for a couple hours before going out for a nice leisurely dinner. Then after dinner I could go out to one of the festivals in the town of Douglas, enjoy a concert, drinking and carrying on until 1:30 in the morning knowing I could sleep in to 11 the next day. And on that next day I could go see a castle, following up with a slightly quieter evening so I could wake up early enough to get to my next shooting location before the roads closed.

It was just a perfectly brilliant way to run an event.

As for the races themselves, hardly anything else compares. From the first time I went to a motorcycle race, I thought they were more fun to shoot than cars, and the Isle of Man is at another level past that. All of its unique scenes and beautiful vistas serving as a backdrop to the astoundingly daring ridership make it truly incredible to behold. And with 37 miles of race course to explore, I feel like I could attend the event every year for the rest of my life without it ever growing too familiar.

If all this has convinced you to go and see it for yourself, you best start planning now. There are many other resources you can consult for Isle of Man travel advice, but I will say that rooms fill quickly after booking opens a full year in advance.

I could go on. On about how friendly and helpful the locals can be; the joyous energy created by nearly 50,000 people being excited about the same thing in the same place for two weeks straight; the surreal feeling of photographing men and women so close to death; seeing more bikes in 9 days than the rest of my life (cumulatively!); the euphoria of my last night on the island...But I will leave it at this: Anyone who likes motorcycles, or racing, or even just traveling and new experiences, even a little bit, owes it to themself to see the Isle of Man TT Races. You will not leave as the same person who arrived.

(Visit my Isle of Man race album and travel album to view more photos and purchase prints.)

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