Part-time kings of the road

        Alan Batson, top Aylesbury carpet-fitter but not-quite-so-top TT competitor, is irrepressible, nevertheless. "The way to do it" he says, "is to peel off over the W of the SLOW sign on the road. Then you can take it flat out." Alan and I were leaning over the fence above the right-hand kink at the end of the ultra-fast Cronk-Y-Voddy straight. Portadown's Phillip McCallen - a rider who is terrifying to watch as he rushes between the dry-stone walls, kerbs and lampposts of the 37.73 mile closed-roads TT circuit - was romping the Formula 1 race.

        The Batson Approach seemed to be paying off. "Batty", amiable holiday racer though he is, had just qualified seventh fastest for the 600cc race. For a bloke who normally finds time to wave to the race commentator as he rounds Ramey Hairpin, this was an extraordinary transformation of attitude and performance, something approaching professionalism. In previous years Alan had, I think, taken the warning on the road surface literally.

        The night before, I was lounging on the grass in front of our rented cottage with competitor Glen English. (I had stumped up a bit of sponsorship cash, in a whip-round at the pub, so that Glen could lease a bike faster than his six-year-old Honda.) With a selection of Humbrols bought in a Douglas model shop that afternoon, Glen was painting the logo of my girlfriend's Crouch End restaurant on the bike's fairing. It looked professional, and our support was amply rewarded by Glen, who, when he is not flinging himself around the island for our entertainment, makes suits of armour for the film industry. He got on the rostrum with a third place in the 125 race.

        For the 250cc event Glen eased back on the final lap and narrowly missed out on a silver replica trophy, presented to those who finish within a certain percentage of the winner's time. "I've already got half a dozen silvers", he said later, in the beer tent. "And I fancied a bronze." Glen's team, such as it is, comprises Glen, and his uncle Jim. An internationally admired designer who had a hand in the Raleigh Chopper and the Bond Bug, Jim also does a bit of freelance dentistry. Just before the 1994 TT he took out his own teeth with a pair of mole grips.

        There is something delightful about the easy-going amateurism of the TT races. We haven't really come that far, in this 91st year, from the days when competitors rode their machines to the island to dice for the Tourist Trophy. (Developments did threaten to spin out of control, though, when pedalling gear was banned in 1909). The TT's detractors, when they aren't whining about its dangers, dismiss the event as a glorified club race and its participants as part-timers. But you would agree that there is nothing wrong with that if you had seen the smile on the face of Cornishman Alan Bennalick when he finished seventh in the Formula One event last year on a 10-year-old Honda RC30 and did the whole 226-mile race on one set of Pirelli tyres. (His achievement brought him the offer of a factory Honda for the prestige Senior race.) Alan races only at the TT.

        That so many competitors don't or won't race anywhere else and that a disproportionate number of them seem to be central-heating engineers from Dalbeattie does not diminish the drama of the last truly white-knuckle event in motorsport. To watch McCallen howling through Alpine Cottage at half past five in the morning during early practice or rocketing down the main street of Kirk Michael village - past the butcher's, the church, the post office and the grocery store, Quayle's - at 170mph is no less spectacular for the knowledge that he is a reliable midfield finisher at Brands or Donington.

        McCallen may be the fastest and most flamboyant rider of the moment - he has won a record four races in the week - but the underdogs and the underfunded, the clowns and the characters are the TT's true heroes. They embody the races' quaint sprit of sportsmanship. Corporate nonsense and winning-is-all have not yet caight up with the TT. Back this year will be Barnsley's Nick Chatterton, racing on the island for a 32nd consecutive year, and looking fresher and fitter than many half his age. Sandra Barnett, a hotel conference manager from Evesham, will be one of half a dozen female competitors. (In 1996 Sandra wrestled her elderly 750cc RC30 Honda around the Mountain Circuit at 114.47mph, making her the fastest woman in TT history. The outright lap record stands at 123.48mph.) Wade Boyd,and exotic purple-haired middle-aged hippie from San Francisco, will also be there, dressed like Merlin on Ecstasy. Without a hope of winning, he will be racing in every event for which he can beg and entry - and that includes any spare rides as a sidecar passenger.

        It was at the end of last year's first sidecar race that sportsmanship and generosity of spirit were overflowing. The race had turned into a four-lap, three-wheeled, two-way lovathon between Roy Hanks and Vince Biggs. "I don't mind Roy winning" Biggs told Radio TT just moments after being beaten by Hanks by 2.2 seconds. It was Hanks' first victory in 30 years of TT racing. "Disappointed?" his interviewer persisted. "No, not really" said Biggs. "I'm not bothered".

        Absent, alas, from the first practice session on Monday morning will be the greatest TT character of them all: Northern Ireland's Joey Dunlop (MBE, OBE) who, despite a record 22 TT wins, still describes himself as a "full-time publican and part-time motorcycle racer". (He has a bar on the platform at Ballymoney railway station at which, during the war in the former Yugoslavia, he raised money for clothes, blankets and medical supplies, filled a truck and drove it himself across the battle lines of Bosnia). At 46 Joey was expected to make his final TT appearance this year. But he broke both hands and a collarbone at a race in Ireland three weeks ago, so his 250cc win in 1997 may have been his farewell. This will leave the great man plenty of time for other favourite pursuits. After his 21st victory, he told one bewildered interviewer that he was going home "to do a bit of roofing, just to keep my hand in." Now can you imagine Michael Schumacher nipping off early from Monaco to chase up a spot of plumbing or plastering?

This article first appeared in the Daily Telegraph, June 1998.   Text © Andy Kershaw 1998, reproduced with permission.
[Note: Despite his injuries, Joey Dunlop won the rain-soaked 250cc Lightweight TT in truly memorable style, and brother Robert won the 125cc Ultra-lightweight race only a month after breaking his leg. Read more about the legend of Joey on the tribute page].