Tackling the World’s Deadliest Motorcycle Track… on Four Wheels
DOUGLAS, Isle of Man – The Isle of Man TT is 37.73 miles of twisting, rolling, climbing public roads that make the Nürburgring Nordschleife look like a go kart track. So sinewy and numerous are its bends that it was once famously decreed “unlearnable,” and its notoriously unforgiving nature is matched only by its prolific death toll.
From Glen Helen to Greeba Castle, the lack of runoff and nasty propensity for unplanned high-speed meetings with stone walls, lamp posts, store fronts and tree trunks makes death and dismemberment a rather binary affair on this island that’s barely a 30-minute flight across the Irish Sea from Birmingham.
But here’s something you might not know about the Isle of Man: While hundreds of racers have lost their lives in competition over the last century or so, exponentially more non-racers have met their makers during the two-week period in which rampant race culture takes over the otherwise sleepy bedroom island.
Last year alone, 34 civilian riders ended up in a body bag, many of them on “Mad Sunday,” the day when the course is open to anyone with a pulse and a willingness to push the limits of their luck. Fatality figures for regular riders often go unreported because when victims are airlifted back to the mainland, those deaths are officially reported as occurring off the Isle.
The starting grid just so happens to be conveniently flanked by a graveyard, but I’ve got cheerier things on my mind at the moment: Subaru, title sponsors of the TT, have persuaded the race organizers to allow journalists to negotiate the live course for the first time on four wheels. The powers that be must have a sense of adventure: When rally champion Mark Higgins was attempting to break the course record (which he eventually did) in a Subaru WRX STI last year, he had a monumental “moment” on Bray Hill. More specifically, Higgins started sliding sideways at 155 mph, steering and countersteering furiously before finally regaining control at about 110 mph, at which point he almost instantly accelerated back to warp speed.
We’ve just landed on the island along with four other American journalists, the sky is expectant with rain and the toll is at five civilian fatalities so far. Our van tour of the route later that day is stalled by an incident in which “human debris” awaits the usual rigmarole of accident investigation photographs, trajectory studies, and cleanup.
Testing a 200-horsepower sports car has never been so nerve-racking.
Though the subculture of motorcycle racing provides the underlying context for this trip, the official focus is the squat, curvaceous Subaru BRZ, an entry-level sports car that offers a dose of exceptionalism in this polarized age of crazy horsepower and obsessive fuel efficiency. It’s cheap (around $ 25,000), rear-wheel-drive (you know, for enthusiasts), and despite being tuned tight as a drum, offers an eminently approachable driving experience from behind those HID headlights.
So when it’s time to climb behind the wheel, this tiny 2+2 serves as a welcoming ride for the task at hand. Controls are close but intuitive, not intrusively aggressive like a bumper car’s or chintzy like a boy racer’s. Sure, there’s some gratuitous plastic on the dash and a few cheapo materials here and there, but this is, for the most part, the sort of cabin that conveys the BRZ’s driver-focused intentions with a sense of inherent honesty. The 2.0-liter boxer engine’s mild exhaust note further pushes the point that this car comes in peace: it’s here to help, not hurt, which is especially welcome on the Isle of Man.
I’m lined up at the starting grid and instructed on a multitude of items: Keep the car ahead of you in sight, but don’t stick too close; enjoy the jump, but don’t go too hard since the cars need to be preserved for the second wave of journalists; look out for decreasing radius turns, rough surfaces, general distractions, and pesky walls; on the mountain course, don’t fixate on the dizzyingly beautiful view because it’s easy to run wide and, since many of the stretches here lack guard rails, free-fall your way to the bottom. Oh, and have fun out there, guys!
The BRZ may pale when compared to “serious” sports cars pushing twice as much power to the pavement, but on these narrow, tree-lined roads it feels plenty fast. Within the first mile, hedgerows are blurring past and spectators – so close you could high-five them from the driver side window – take on a clone-stamped, videogame, hypercolor look. Interestingly, many are cheering our alien fleet of four-wheelers, while others, I hear later, were offended enough by the imposition at the motorcycle- and sidecar-exclusive event to express displeasure with outwardly stretched single digits.
runMobileCompatibilityScript(‘myExperience1742455425001′, ‘anId’); brightcove.createExperiences();
Onward through a series of 90-degree corners arrayed with more race fans and the odd pub – some of whose doors and windows have literally been torn down in the past by motorcycles and riders – my passenger, Allan Whittaker, a retired rally co-driver with over 30 years of World Rally Car experience who’s racked up plenty of accolades over the years, warns me about Ballagarey, a jump which has earned the nickname “Ballascary” due to its precipitous drop. Despite the warning, I enter the jump a little hot and feel the momentary buzz of weightlessness as the nose lifts and the front wheels slam into the tarmac, followed by the bottoming out rear wheels. (“I saw your undercarriage!” the driver behind me later relays. Oh my.)
Mile after mile of wild card corners makes me thankful to have scored an expert in the passenger seat who offers reassuringly specific instructions. When he announces, “Flat out until I tell you to slow down!” I have a moment of disbelief – perhaps because of the relative proximity of the wall, or the slight kinks that remain in the road, or due to my survival instinct, which tells me to let off the throttle so I don’t fall off the side of the damn mountain.
But I persist with the gas and the BRZ charges ahead with a linear power delivery that softens as we approach 120 mph. It’s just as well that I’m not pushing a bestial creature like a Corvette ZR-1 on this tight course, as 120 mph feels more like literally double that speed, due to the immediacy of the reference markers and catastrophic consequences to innocent bystanders should anything go south.
Once out of the towns, we finally reach the fabled mountain course, which is eerily devoid of drugstores, houses and pub facades, and lit with otherworldly sunlight that streams through the foliage and glints on the sea, which is visible past long stretches where race motorcycles routinely see blasts of speed over 200 mph. We’re nowhere near the double century, but once again, my need for speed is abated; with the lead car setting the pace and so much at stake on these foreign roads, the headiness of the drive isn’t undermined by the relatively terrestrial triple-digit velocity. And before we know it, we’re being radioed to clear the course and pit our cars because we’re holding up the start of the race.
Later, we take another lap and, appropriately enough, pause in the mountain course to scoop up a sidecar racer whose co-rider skidded off course and was airlifted away for medical attention. Our stowaway’s spirits are good (presumably, his friend was whisked away as a matter of course), and tomorrow’s forecast for light rain proves to be innocuous enough to allow us to spend more seat time in the BRZ along the island’s rally stages and secondary roads.
Lithe, responsive, and pleasingly sharp, the newest Subaru, at least under these once-in-a-lifetime circumstances, proves to be the perfect tool for the job. It may have a lower center of gravity than a Ferrari, but it’s got none of the whiley contrarianism or quirky, so-called character. Rather, it’s a nimble, stiffly sprung little sprite of a car that offers enough tactile information to make the hairiest of excursions feel like nothing more than a spirited Sunday drive.
Not to tempt fate, but I’m starting to think that perhaps the drive would have been even more epic with a turbocharger under the hood.
Photos: Greg Jarem/Subaru
Incoming search terms:
- Powered by Article Dashboard amsterdam red light district pictures