The Isle of Man TT needs no introduction. As one of the world’s most spectacular sporting events and arguably the world’s greatest road race, it is awesome in the truest sense of the word.
If you’re a motorcycle racing fan, you’ve probably spent some time considering what it takes to race at the Isle of Man. We often focus on the most obvious thing, which is the sheer bravery and skill of the stars of the show, the racers themselves.
But behind each racer is a team that works tirelessly to get that show on the road. For those men and women, the Isle of Man TT is a serious business, and one that is often far removed from the relaxed, festival-like atmosphere experienced by its spectators.
For elite teams like Devitt-sponsored Milwaukee BMW Motorrad, preparation for the TT begins months in advance. It’s a logistical operation of epic proportions, with several cogs that must work in harmony to power the slick operation we witness from the outside.
If you’ve ever booked a trip to the TT, you’ll know that the early bird catches the worm. For a race team with upwards of 20 members, booking travel and accommodation can start a year in advance, often as soon as the previous year’s event has finished.
Paul Lindsay, Milwaukee BMW’s PR and Business Development Manager, explains: “The first hurdle is actually getting to the Isle of Man. From Northern Ireland, it isn’t just a little hop over the Irish Sea. For us, it’s a boat over to England, then a drive, then another boat.”
The TAS Racing team know a lot about the TT, having competed there for 40 years since their first win with Norman Brown. They also spend much of their racing year competing in the British Superbike Championship, so the addition of the road racing calendar makes for a complicated jigsaw puzzle to ensure all events are covered and prepared for.
“We’re primarily a BSB team, so when it comes to the roads, we’re essentially creating two teams from one,” explains Paul. “We don’t have two race trucks, so we have to send a single truck to the Isle of Man loaded with enough equipment to go directly to Knockhill BSB.
“There’s also a test at Knockhill during that period, so bikes for that, along with enough tools and whatever else the team needs, have to be sent in another van. It’s very difficult for any team to run road racing and BSB back-to-back. It requires precision forward planning.”
The months leading up to the event also include very special preparation of the TT-specific BMW M1000RR. The 37.73-mile Isle of Man TT course is a track like no other, and as such it is one of the hardest races to be ready for.
“The island is such a unique place,” says Paul. “You’ve got settings and different bits and pieces you’re aware of, plus we have a very experienced TT rider in Hutchy, but you are still arriving to a huge amount of ‘unknown’.
“The course changes every year in terms of things like the road surface, and the bikes change every year too. They’re upgraded and all the technical knowhow needs to change, so when you arrive, you’re in the ballpark but you’re never exactly on the money.”
While the technical staff are prepping the machines, there’s a huge amount of administration work going on behind the scenes too. A 58-page regulations booklet outlines everything from entry procedures to paddock rules and it must be followed to the letter.
The team’s marketing contingent will be busy coordinating livery designs, liaising with sponsors, organising photo shoots, announcing the rider line-up and planning PR activity ahead of and during the event itself.
When the TT finally arrives and thousands of spectators descend on the island to enjoy the racing action, the team’s workload ramps up another notch. The event brings with it a level of pressure, exhaustion and emotion that is hard to articulate.
“First of all, it’s incredibly tiring for the boys in the paddock,” explains Paul. “They are there from 8.30am and are often still working at 11pm. There is no such thing as a day off because the track changes so much from day one to day 14.
“You start off with very little grip on the course, then you get a bit of heat and a bit of rubber down and there’s more. All of sudden, it rains for a couple of nights and the grip is washed away, plus you’ve got thousands of vehicles on the course during the day.”
Add the racers’ feedback on bike set-up and tyres after each session to that and the pit crew have an immense amount of pressure on their shoulders every single day. This is a race during which even the tiniest miscalculation can be a matter of life or death.
“We never want to be morbid but setting your riders off at the Isle of Man TT is different to setting them off in BSB,” says Paul. “You see the teams hug their riders, watch the riders flick their visors down and, being brutally honest, you don’t know if you’ll see them again.
“We all experience that fear and adrenalin every time we go there, but the reward for the team is in the results. Whether your rider is first, top ten or the last man over the line, a finish at the Isle of Man TT is a very, very special thing and it’s not guaranteed to anyone.
“We have been in the winning position many times in the past, and it’s fantastic, but to go there and bring everything back, including your rider, is of paramount importance. You’ve got to take your hat off to the riders, it takes a special breed of person to race at the TT.”
A side of the TT that most spectators never see is the amount off-track activity the riders do, particularly those at professional level. Media interviews, television filming, signing sessions and sponsor liaison make for a packed daily schedule, all coordinated by team personnel.
One of Paul’s jobs is ensuring that the lull in racing action is filled for the team’s VIP guests and sponsors. “There’s a lot of hanging about at the TT and that’s where I come in,” he says. “This year, I spent much of the week with the top brass from our new sponsor, Milwaukee.
“Many of them had never been to the TT before and one of my favourite things to do is show newcomers around the place. I’ve been doing it for 25 years, but I still love to see people’s reaction when they see the course for the first time.
“They often can’t believe what they’re seeing. They say ‘surely this isn’t the circuit’ as we pass the post offices and dry-stone walls. They shake their heads and puff their cheeks, but you know you’ve got them already before they’ve even seen a bike on track.”
For every single member of the Isle of Man TT’s behind-the-scenes circus, there is no feeling quite like standing on the starting grid before a race. As Paul conveys, “it’s like nothing you’ll ever experience in your life, whether you’re a team manager, a member of the pit crew, a PR person or a sponsor.
“The atmosphere is indescribable and it’s a feeling of great privilege, staring down Glencrutchery Road in anticipation of what’s to come. All the months of hard work culminate in that moment and it’s pretty special thing to be a part of.”
When the racing is over and the fans head to Bushey’s Beer Tent to celebrate, the work still doesn’t end for the Milwaukee BMW team. The pit crew set about dismantling their makeshift paddock garages, ready for home – or in this year’s case, to Knockhill.
“Every year we look forward to going, but every year we look forward to leaving the place,” concludes Paul. “You wonder whether you really do want to go back, but it’s the thrill and excitement that none of us want to leave behind. Yes, it’s hard work, but my god is it worth it.”