Magnificent Obsession

Revisting The Long and Winding Road.

Isle of Man TT

Isle of Man TT

Twenty-five years ago, Team Cycle World put me in the saddle of a new Suzuki GSX-R750 to compete in the annual Isle of Man TT ("Tourist Trophy") races. It took a huge amount of effort on the part of many people before, during and after the races, and it cost a lot of money. I competed in both the Formula One and 750 Production TT races but didn't win either one. So a reasonable person would ask: why bother?

The short answer is obsession. The Isle of Man TT is the Mount Everest of motorcycle roadracing. You race in the TT because there is no other challenge in motorsport like it. It’s 37.73 miles per lap of narrow, winding, bumpy, jump-ridden, exotically named and potentially lethal road—not the place for short-circuit types who like to bang fairings and handlebars. Back in 1987, we launched from the start-finish line in pairs, because it was safer that way. These days, it is one bike at a time. So, it’s just you, your motorcycle and the road, the purest roadracing there is. It’s a test of will, concentration, memory and, some believe, guts, and not just because of the danger; you have to be self-confident enough to commit hard to ultrafast sections that were never intended for racing while putting yourself on view of tens of thousands of spectators and a worldwide TV audience. The totality of the TT experience is unlike anything else anywhere in the world, and always has been.

Circa 1994: After I had done a few hundred laps of the 37.73-mile Isle of Man …

Considering that the first Isle of Man Tourist Trophy in 1907 was almost …

If you visit the Motorsport …

For those to whom it calls, the TT becomes an obsession. It snared me even before I set foot on The Island in 1969, thanks to founding Cycle World publisher Joe Parkhurst's fascination for the TT. It was coverage of the Isle of Man races in CW after Joe launched the magazine in 1962 that helped convince me that the TT would be the ultimate motorcycle racing experience.

In 1966, Joe and Canadian-born editor Ivan Wagar—who had raced in the TT—put together a major effort to field a whole team of expert American roadracers in the TT. Yamaha provided five TD1-B 250cc GP bikes and plenty of spares, and racers Don Vesco, Buddy Parriott and Ron Grant were signed up as riders. Gordon Jennings was to be chief mechanic and backup rider. As Joe put it, "We designed a Team Cycle World logo, had the bikes custom painted, bought blazers and had the emblem embroidered." The goal was to capture the team prize, and Joe hoped the formidable talent he had assembled could win it. But fate dealt the effort a devastating blow when the 1966 TT was delayed until September due to a shipping strike, and conflicting schedules made it impossible for the team to participate on the new date. No subsequent effort was undertaken until I proposed picking up where Joe had left off by competing in the 1987 TT.

Racing there would represent my personal lifetime goal, allowing me to finish, hopefully, what I'd started in 1967. My career in two-wheel competition began when I was 19 and a student at Berkeley, racing a then-new Yamaha YR-1 in AFM club races in California. After finishing second to Ron Grant in my first race, I was hooked, hard, on roadracing. I'd begun with the goal of eventually getting into the GPs in Europe and especially racing on the Isle of Man; I wanted to represent the USA as Parkhurst's 1965 Team Cycle World would have.

My chance to get to The Island came when the Air Force sent me to England in 1969. At last, in 1970, I entered the Manx Grand Prix—the annual amateur race series on the Mountain Course—but my bike broke. Same story the next year. But there is no obsession like the TT obsession, and I schemed for years thereafter to get back.

Surviving brain surgery in 1985 forcefully reminded me that my time to pursue that obsession was running out. After I had healed from the surgery and radiation therapy, the pieces finally started coming together. I began discussing the notion in 1986 with CW's then-Editor-in-Chief, Paul Dean, who had worked with me at Cycle Guide before we both migrated to Parkhurst's magazine. Dean embraced the idea of Team CW competing in the TT and closing the loop opened by Joe in 1965. Most importantly, he succeeded in securing the necessary financing and threw the magazine's resources behind the effort. After mountains of paper, months of planning and buckets of money spent, Team CW arrived in the Island's chief city, Douglas.

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Although I had practiced and qualified for the 1970 and ’71 Manx Grands Prix, I had not been able to race in them because of machine failures; and despite my numerous visits to the TT as a spectator, I knew that, at age 39, I needed serious coaching. So, I recruited a longtime British friend, Terry Shepherd—himself a noted TT racer in the ’50s and my Kawasaki’s tuner in the ’60s—to be Team Manager. I began a week’s rigorous training on the course with him, walking every mile of the important parts of the circuit.

Terry was a terrific coach as well as a tuner, and by the start of practice and qualifying week, he had me ready. I qualified on the stock Suzuki on the second day and spent the rest of the week cementing what I called “The Shepherd Line” into my consciousness. At the end of the week, Terry subjected me to a grueling, hours-long verbal exam in which he required me to talk him around the entire course, identifying braking markers, peel-off points, rough road to avoid and techniques for dealing with the bike’s limitations and capabilities.

Our goal was not to win but to finish, so Terry had me run the 226-mile (6-lap) Formula One race early in race week as more training and practice. Our stock Suzuki had no chance against the F1 racebikes, but even so, the Gixxer proved itself a fine mount for the Production TT. Despite having to stop four times after a refueling error in the pits bent the fuel-cap seal and allowed fuel to wash me in high octane for two laps at speed, we finished, and not last, either.

At the time, many Europeans disdained U.S.-spec motorcycles because ours had to meet strict emissions and noise standards. So, our visit to the TT included finding out if indeed our CV-carbed bike was, as was claimed, a “dog” compared with the European bikes. Constrained by the need to finish at all costs, I had ridden the F1 race well below my and the bike’s potential, even given the fueling problem, again at Terry’s direction.

Finally, in the 750 Production race—which was just three laps but still involved more than 113 miles of flat-out racing—I was able to be more aggressive in the medium-speed corners. Our GSX-R750 ran out of steam at about 150 mph, so to lap at the leader’s pace of 110 mph, I’d have to commit hard to every corner—not what our plan called for; we all felt the need to finish, not to crash out or blow up. It was only during the last lap on a gloriously sunny and warm day that I let out the reins a bit, and it resulted in my first “ton-up” lap of 101.2 mph.

Was the payoff for all the work, money and time merely the satisfaction of me finishing what I’d started 20 years earlier—and what Joe had started in 1965? Well, we were able to publish an eight-page story (“Isle of Man TT 1987: The Long and Winding Road”) in the September, 1987, issue full of words and photos that were as unique as our experiences in the TT, since we were the sole American entry that year. But what else did we get for all that?

Since the dawn of the automotive transformation of the world in the late 19th century, motorsport has allowed humankind to explore its own limits individually and collectively in entirely new ways. We humans have always raced each other any way we could, for reasons rooted in our evolutionary past. Some of us are called to reach for ultimates in life, some are not. For those who roadrace motorcycles, despite the fame and fortune to be won on "short" circuits like Daytona, there is really only one Everest to be climbed, one challenge to everything we are and can be: the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy. We find meaning in our lives there at speed as we cannot and do not anyplace else on Earth. That, in the end, is why Joe Parkhurst and I shared an obsession and why Team Cycle World finished what he and I started all those years ago.

In the quarter-century since I wore the colors of the magazine Joe created, I've thought a lot about The Island and what it means to me and millions more around the world. In the end, it comes down to finding an experience like no other in the world, for the spectator as well as the racer. That's why, as then-Feature Editor David Edwards wrote in "Island Advice," his accompanying 1987 story about what the Isle of Man experience comprises, there is only one word of advice for the curious: "Go."

And tell 'em Team Cycle World sent you.

Magnificent Obsession: Revisiting the Isle of Man TT

Magnificent Obsession: Revisiting the Isle of Man TT

"The Island" (Map by Larry Crane)

"The Island" (Map by Larry Crane)

Thompson, accompanied by Team Manager Terry Shepherd and then-Editor Paul Dean

Thompson, accompanied by Team Manager Terry Shepherd and then-Editor Paul Dean

Navigating the 37.73-mile course's more than 200 turns

Navigating the 37.73-mile course's more than 200 turns

Thompson received intensive coaching from Shepherd, who was a highly regarded TT racer himself in the the 1950s

Thompson received intensive coaching from Shepherd, who was a highly regarded TT racer himself in the the 1950s

The stock Suzuki had no chance against the F1 racebikes, but the Gixxer proved itself a fine mount

The stock Suzuki had no chance against the F1 racebikes, but the Gixxer proved itself a fine mount

Not much tolerance for error on a motorcycle being ridden in flat-out racing mode

Not much tolerance for error on a motorcycle being ridden in flat-out racing mode