It’s time for the Isle of Man TT races to get underway, it's expected to be hard fought, fast and spectacular! What can we expect from this year's season?
Is Road Racing Becoming too Popular for its own Good?
One measure of the success of any kind of sport is how accessible the top competitors are:
It’s fair to say that the world croquet champion is probably not in as much demand with journalists and TV crews as Lewis Hamilton.
The same goes for motorcycle sport:
From a motorcycle journalist’s point of view, MotoGP riders, as you’d expect, are the hardest to get hold of for quotes and interviews.
They’re followed by World Superbike stars, then British Superbike stars, in that order. As recently as five years ago, getting hold of a TT rider for a quote or two was as easy as calling your nan. They were always accessible and always ready and happy to talk about the sport they loved.
In fact, the accessibility of TT riders, even for fans, has long been one of the most appealing aspects of road racing:
The TT paddock is open to all, so kids can get posters signed, dads can have a chat with their heroes, and mums can try to get their picture taken with Guy Martin. Except, the mums will be disappointed. Guy Martin’s presence in the TT paddock is noticeable by its absence these days. He prefers to stay elsewhere to avoid the attentions of the fans.
To be fair, Martin has a far higher profile than any TT racer of recent years thanks to his TV work. So it’s quite understandable that he wants to try and concentrate on his racing instead of being hounded 24/7 by fans. But over the last few years, there’s been a very noticeable change in the accessibility of TT riders for journalists.
Bruce Anstey has never liked talking about himself, Michael Dunlop is a law unto himself and even his employers don’t seem to know where he is half the time, and John McGuinness – as the most successful living TT rider – is in such high demand that he’s notoriously difficult to get hold of.
There are several reasons for this apparent aloofness of TT riders:
Chief amongst them is the remarkable growth of the TT as an event over the last five-to-ten years. Paul Phillips and his team have done a remarkable job in making the TT relevant again, and perhaps more celebrated than ever in a world that’s becoming increasingly safety-obsessed.
The TT can rightly be seen as the daddy of all extreme sports events and it’s finally being celebrated as a last bastion of grown adults exercising their right to ride motorcycles as fast as they like under controlled conditions.
The growing success of the TT has meant more television coverage and even documentary movies that have enjoyed cinema releases. ‘TT3D: Closer to the Edge‘ was a monumental success upon its release in 2011 and last year’s Liam Neeson-narrated documentary about the Dunlop Dynasty – simply entitled ‘Road’ – was another major hit. It’s this kind of increased media attention that’s leading to so many more demands on the stars of the TT for interviews and quotes, and many of them don’t like it.
TT riders have always been a breed apart:
They have to be, given what they do. Hurtling past stone walls at 190mph isn’t exactly normal behaviour, is it?
But they refuse to see themselves as heroes and genuinely can’t seem to understand what all the fuss is about. As far as they’re concerned, they’re just ordinary blokes who happen to like riding motorcycles, albeit at rather faster speeds than the rest of us.
Joey Dunlop was the classic example:
In an astonishing career that led to more TT wins than any other rider in history (26), he never once uttered a word of bravado. Never once bigged-up what he did for a living. TT riders prefer to let their riding do the talking.
Which is fair enough – up to a point. But sponsors need to get some return for their investments. After all, they don’t pay large sums of cash just so riders can have a bit of fun on their shiny new bikes.
There is a price to pay for having the highest-spec machine on the grid and first rate mechanics tending to your every need, and that price is ensuring exposure for your sponsors.
And how do you get that exposure?
By doing interviews on TV and in newspapers and magazines.
A rider like Valentino Rossi is so inundated with requests for interviews that he’s found a way to keep things manageable. Major publications are restricted to just one exclusive interview per year with Rossi – and that’s just the favoured ones.
But it’s not a problem because the MotoGP system ensures there are numerous press conferences and interview opportunities throughout a race weekend so fans know exactly what the riders are thinking every step of the way.
This is also true of the TT to an extent:
There’s always a post-race press conference and the riders are generally accessible during the fortnight. But because the TT only happens once a year, that means the riders can all but disappear for the next 11-and-a-half months and that makes writing any kind of meaningful feature on them very difficult. And that means that you – the fans – lose out. As do the teams. As do the sponsors.
It’s one thing to keep the press at bay but at the Spring Cup meeting in Scarborough last month, we saw a worrying development on this theme. Guy Martin had his very own area in the paddock cordoned off to keep fans out of the way.
As popular as Martin is, he’s not half as famous as Barry Sheene was in his heyday when he used to race regularly at Olivers Mount in Scarborough. Yet even the great Barry Sheene didn’t have his own private paddock. Instead, he would sit patiently until well into the evening chatting to fans, signing autographs and posing for pictures. And even amongst all that distraction, he still managed to win two 500cc Grand Prix world championships.
So how long before other road racers start to demand the same courtesy? How long before the paddocks are closed off entirely to the fans? Are road racing paddocks about to become as heavily guarded as the MotoGP paddock? Will the grass roots element of the sport that has made it so appealing for so long finally be lost?
Road racing – and the TT in particular – has never been bigger and that’s surely a good thing:
But there may yet be a price to pay for this growing popularity and that price could be a growing distance between the riders and the fans that would change the face of the once grass-roots sport forever. What do you think?
Stuart Barker is a freelance motorcycle journalist and author. A former MCN reporter and features writer, he is now editor of the Official Isle of Man TT and Classic TT programmes and has contributed to most major UK motorcycling titles including MCN, Bike, Ride, Superbike, Two Wheels Only, Fast Bikes, Classic Bike and Classic Racer. His books include biographies of Barry Sheene, Steve Hislop, Niall Mackenzie, David Jefferies and Evel Knievel as well as a centennial history of the TT races.