A tiny, idyllic island in the middle of the Irish Sea seems an unlikely setting for the world’s fastest death cult. But the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy (TT) has seen more fatalities than any other motorcycle race circuit, claiming over 270 lives in its 110 years of existence. (More than the Dakkar Rally and World Rally Championship combined.) Riders reach speeds of up to 320 kilometres an hour, hurtling through narrow, twisting mountain streets, flanked by lamp posts, trees, and jagged stone walls. The margins for error are almost too thin to calculate. One flinch and you’re pushing up daisies.
To the average onlooker — or perhaps anyone with a grain of sense — this seems like insanity; a sick lust for misadventure. Who in their right mind would sign up for the most perilous race on the planet? (Imagine that waiver!) Crazier yet, who would devote their entire life to mastering its every treacherous hairpin turn?
John McGuinness. That’s who.
The Morecambe Missile, as they call him, is the Isle of Man TT’s most victorious active racer, with 23 wins and 46 podium finishes to his name. He’s spent the last 20 years taking the tournament’s merciless track, the Snaefell Mountain Course, to its ungodliest limits, notching titles in nearly every class and decimating speed record after speed record. In all-time TT wins, he sits only behind his childhood hero, motorcycling icon Joey Dunlop, who snagged his 26th title in 2000 — mere weeks before being killed in another race. Most veteran riders would’ve taken that tragedy as a cautionary tale; a warning to hit the brakes on your storied career while you’re still alive to talk about it. But not McGuinness. At 45, he’s hell-bent on gunning it even harder.
“From the outside looking in, I probably have a screw loose,” he admits, taking a breather at Circuito Monteblanco in southern Spain. “Yeah, you get a few moments that make your eyes wide, but I just put them to the back of my mind. You just have to be there; you have to see it, you have to feel it. You have to understand the history and heritage, all the champions that have raced there.”
He’s spent the day testing out his new 2017 Honda CBR1000RR Fireblade SP2, ramping it to speeds more blistering than the Mediterranean sun. It’s lighter and faster than his old Fireblade, and he’ll need every iota of extra horsepower at this June’s TT. His current fixation: recapturing his Superbike TT lap record. It was smashed last year by Michael Dunlop, Joey’s 27-year-old son, who cleared a Mountain Course lap — all 60.73 kilometres of it — in an unfathomable 16 minutes and 58 seconds.
Despite his coolheaded demeanour, McGuinness is in the midst of the most daunting, and heavily scrutinized, race of his career. A metaphorical one. He’s in a race against both the old guard and the new. As he creeps closer to breaking Joey Dunlop’s all-time record, a younger breed of speed demons are rapidly gaining ground, all too eager to squeeze him off the track. More to the point, he’s in a race against time; if he wants his place in history as the greatest TT racer ever, he’ll have to fight for it now, in middle age, a stage when most other athletes settle for 18 holes and a potbelly.
Fortunately, the old man still has gas in the tank — and nothing sparks him more than suggestions he’s no longer good enough. After a poor performance in 2015’s Superbike race, bookies gave him a lowly 18-1 shot for the grand finale Senior contest. Incensed, he went on to demolish his competition in the race, taking the Senior outright lap record. “I’ve still got hunger, still got passion, still got a belief in myself,” he says. “I look a bit different in the mirror than I did 27 years ago, but the fire is still burning, the eyesight is still good, the plan is still in gear. I’m always thinking of racing, mate. It’s all I’ve ever done in my life.”
McGuinness formed his addiction to danger, speed, and burnt rubber at a young age. His father, John Sr., raced motocross and ran his own motorcycle sales business. Growing up in the seaside town of Morecambe, he could see the Isle of Man from his house. It wasn’t long before he was having fever dreams of becoming a TT champion. He’d habitually catch the ferry to watch Joey Dunlop tear up the Mountain Course, intoxicated by it all: the enormous risk, the hair-raising rush, the unparalleled skill. Nevertheless, McGuinness’ dad — acutely aware of the hazards — forbade him from racing, ordering his son to become a bricklayer instead. But John Jr.’s appetite for adrenaline was too consuming. By 17, he’d earn enough money to purchase his first bike: a 1992 TZ250 Yamaha. After a few years of amateur racing, he’d make his TT debut in 1996.
“I remember my first [TT] race — it was dreadful,” McGuinness says. “The weather was wet, windy, and cold. Lots of things went wrong in practice: one of my best mates was killed.” In spite of that baptism by fire, he forged ahead with the contest, finishing 15th and winning the Best Newcomer award. The rest, as they say, is history. “The sun came out and it all turned around. I just loved it. I was under the radar back then. There was no real television coverage, no social media. Now there’s a lot more pressure.”
The pressure he’s referring to may be that of history — more specifically, the anxiety that comes with having power over how the rest of it will be written. As McGuinness approaches Dunlop’s age of death, will he surpass him, going down as the TT’s all-time best? Or will he be remembered for hitting a late-career plateau, tapering off as a poor-man’s version of his hero? Will he live to watch his own legacy unfold at all?
To McGuinness, that’s all noise he’d rather drown out with his motor. “It’s never on my mind,” he says. “Joey was my all-time hero, which is why he deserves to be at the top of the pile. It would be nice to match him and hang up the boots.”
And with that, he’s off to the track again, back to his life’s obsession. It’s a curious preoccupation, one that transcends personal glory, favouring time-honoured tradition and brotherhood; a thrill ritual centred on the heart-in-mouth surge one gets when they push the limits of possibility until they’re teetering on the brink of disaster. It’s a feeling that makes you all the more alive; a feeling worth dying for.