The living legend
John McGuiness, Tourist Trophy, Isle of Man 2016
For two weeks in June the world's focus is on a small island in the Irish Sea. The Isle of Man TT is the most incredible race that reduces riders and on lookers to their most basic instincts. It is a race that is regularly touched by tragedy where riders die in pursuit of going faster than most believe is possible. John McGuinness has seen both sides of the coin at the TT with 23 victories offering the highpoint in contrast to the number of friends and rivals that have met their end on the roads.
Text and Photos: Steve English
Having achieved all that he has on a bike what is it that drives McGuinness to still compete at the TT at 43 years of age.
“It’s a good question and I wish someone could answer it for me because I honestly don’t know,” said McGuinness . “This island has just got a hold of me. This is my 20th year racing year and I've had 90 starts and ridden every type of bike here whether it's a two-stroke, a four-stroke, a single cylinder, a V twin, I've ridden everything.
“It’s just such a beautiful island and a special circuit. It’s the oldest track in the world and the longest track. If anyone ever wins one they’ll probably understand why you do come back. But it’s just a beautiful island that produces some spectacular stuff. I’ve had a bit of success here. I’ll keep plugging away until I stop enjoying it, I stop being competitive, and I’ll hang my boots.”
McGuinness doesn't look like being uncompetitive any time soon with a podium racked up again this year to bring his tally to 45 rostrum finishes. This year was his 20th on the island and surrounded by some of the most significant bikes of his career the lustre of road racing was clear.
“All of my bikes tell me a story straight away as soon as I look back at them. I think to myself about races and remember this or that. Obviously the first win is probably important but it was a long time ago that it’s done now. But it was a special day. I was on the TSR 250, I was leading the British Championship on that bike, and I won my first TT with a lap record.
“It was actually a bit of an anticlimax when I won it. I didn’t know how to celebrate. I could have done a nude streak or whatever because I didn’t know what to do! It was just all happening and that was it.
“When I won my first big bike race in 2004 on the Yamaha R1 that was a special day for me. I beat Dave Jefferies’ lap record in that race. The TT was in a bit of a tough time after Dave got killed and in ’04 and ’05 the TT was sort of in the doldrums a little bit. It’s picked up again and now it’s pretty big but the first 130mph lap in 2007 was really special.
“I like the electric bikes but I could talk forever about all my bikes because they’re all pretty special to me. They all play a big part in my TT career and the success that I've had over here for 20 years.”
20 years is a very fitting milestone for reminiscing and to evaluate the changes that have taken place over the course of the passage of time. “It wasn't like this in my day” is one of the most common phrases bandied about throughout your life. The TT however is just like it was “back in the day” as far as the on track riding is concerned but what about the changes that McGuinness has witnessed inside the paddock over his career?
“I love the TT and fans do too because I just think they can get closer to the riders. There’s always a die-hard fan as well who’s been coming for years and years but looking around the paddock there’s young kids and younger people here too. The word has spread round all over the world about how good this thing is.
“People just want to get here and experience it and once they get here they’re booking the boat for next year straight away! It’s amazing. I’ve raced all over the world and it’s not long before we’re talking about a TT and people tell me “I’d love to go,” or “I can’t get a boat,” or “I’ve been. I went five years ago and I loved it. It was great. I want to get back in there.”
“The organisers are definitely doing something right because there is that interest. I don’t know what it is, but they’re doing something right. The paddock like you say, the buzz around here, the atmosphere, the professionalism of the paddock. It looks proper these days. On track the actual true harshness of the roads is exactly the same. As far as getting onto the bike and riding the bikes it's exactly the same.”
The sheer bravery needed to compete at the TT hasn't changed but perceptions of the riders have changed in recent years. While the TT was a MotoGP round for decades it was stricken from the calendar after leading riders considered it too dangerous. The risk of the island races are clear for all to see and it is something that has left the best riders in the world completely in awe of the likes of McGuinness.
“We get plenty of respect from the top riders. I speak to Valentino now and again and he’s invited me to his ranch to go riding. I think they all think we’ve a little bit a screw loose but so do they! They’re riding at 220 mile an hour at Mugello or whatever, so they’re as mad!
“Road racing is what we do and it’s the racing that we’ve brought up with. Lots of riders have been here and done a lap-Capirossi, Hayden, Lorenzo-and they’ve all been blown away by it. There’s no way they can say any different. You see Formula 1 drivers, MotoGP and WorldSBK riders and they've been peeking about this year's TT as well. It’s good and the TT is on fire right now!”
The fires of the TT burned in McGuinness long before he first raced on the island. Despite being a British 250cc champion and a points scorer on a 500cc MotoGP machine he always wanted to be an island racer. It was just a question of circumstances as to when he would make his debut and being able to dovetail a career on the roads with short circuit racing offered him the perfect balance.
“I always wanted to do race on the roads but I didn’t know how to go about it. I was a big TT fan and my hero was Joey Dunlop. I used to come across to the TT from when I was ten years old and came back year after year after year. I always wanted to do it but I also wanted to do both and that is exactly what I did for a long time. I was a good short circuit rider but the TT was always nibbling away at me! Once I got better support from teams and a new bike, the PBM 250cc bike, it was the right time to got involved.
“I didn’t want to come here and be half committed to it with rubbish bikes. I knew that you needed some good people around when you come in. Also, you need to grow up a little bit and I was 25 years old when I first come here as well so I’d served my time.
“I did some British racing, some other bits and pieces and stuff. It was the right time to come and do it because I’d matured a bit. These days Hickman is doing both BSB and the roads now. We had Josh Brooks doing both and he’s desperate to get back here but it’s just not really fitting into his diary at the moment because of WorldSBK but he’ll be back. Steve Plater did both and won TT races. I did both and all the top riders could do both but you’re just racing the calendar really and I think that you can see a change now.
“Hutchy is on fire at the moment and he was second in the British Superstock championship. You can see that in his riding now because he just hit the ground running here. Michael Dunlop’s done some BSB this year and he’s hit the ground running. I’ve been going all right. I think you need to do some riding because it’s difficult to come here. The bikes are all very powerful and you need to have the understanding of the bikes really before you just get here and start firing around here.”
While out on the bike the enjoyment of racing the TT is clearly immense for all of the leading riders the counter point of that enjoyment is the stress and strain on family and members when their rider is out on the road. For any of the top riders time away from the hustle and bustle of TT life is incredibly difficult to find throughout the fortnight. For McGuinness the PR and media commitments clearly take a toll over the course of the TT and it's something that he admits takes the enjoyment away for him but it also places a lot of strain on him when he has solitude.
“It’s a constant strain and the TT is not fun anymore at times. It’s just agro from start to finish. The only time that you get patience is when you’ve got your visor shutting and I’m going to the start. It’s just tough and now my commitments are hideous because I’m dragged from pillar to post all day long. The schedule is flat out each day and it gets on the top more as the days go along.
“You get more shorter with people, you get fed up with people. But I suppose when you’re not successful nobody will talk to you anymore! I remember 2010 Hutchy did the five and nobody wants to speak to me. It is difficult to try and balance the family thing and there's times when you've got the misses in your ear.
“She wants to go for an ice cream or something and I’m getting drug to an interview. There’s two sides of the coin always but I’ve just got to try and balance, keep all on an uneven keel. And the most important besides racing I suppose you can go for an ice cream any time but you can’t race bikes all the time. You’ve just got to treat it like a job now and get stuck into the program but it is very difficult. I enjoy the time with my kids because this is their time off and they don’t have to be here but they always want to be here.”
The fan in McGuinness still very much wants to be here too and as such he will look to get out trackside and watch some of the action. Obviously given his time commitments over the course of TT fortnight it's difficult to get out and take in some of the racing but sidecars offer a brief respite and a chance to enjoy the TT for what it is.
“I just like to get a radio and just watch and see the commitment from some of the guys. I normally try to get out and watch the second side car races and the top guys in that class they really don’t get the credit they deserve. You’ve got guys leading the world championship here. You can see how hard they’re pushing and how much they want to win it and how much it means to them and stuff. It’s pretty awesome. I’m just a fan, really. I ride a bike now and again.”
In a nutshell that sums up McGuinness. A man completely at ease with himself on a bike on the world's most incredible circuit but also a man more than happy to sit out a hedge and take in the sights and sounds of the Isle of Man TT races. //