I am standing on a traffic island in the middle of a busy intersection called St. Ninian’s Crossroads in Douglas, the biggest city on the Isle of Man. I am a volunteer course marshal and my sector location is close to the start, at the end of the Grandstand Straight atop the steep drop known as Bray Hill.
TT legend John McGuinness snaps his Honda CBR1000RR into fifth gear as he comes into view for the first time. Running 160 mph, he draws a bead on my traffic island and heads straight at me. Time slows. I peer into his face shield as he floats past just inches away. I see serenity, determination and total control.
The Honda Fireblade's wind blast blows me backward into a fellow marshal. “Pretty crazy, aye?” my comrade laughs. All I can mutter is, “Jesus he was close!” Other riders follow at 10-second intervals, displaying varying levels of ability, boldness and control. Seventeen minutes later, McGuinness rips through on a flying lap. Now running at 175 mph, he carves an even tighter line toward me.
Then it hits me: I could be killed doing this!
It’s amazingly easy to become a TT course marshal. No license. No test. No CPR certificate or political connections required. You just, well, volunteer. Part of the reason is that the 37.73-mile Mountain Course requires an army of course workers. Fresh meat is always welcome. During the 2011 TT fortnight, more than 1500 individuals served as marshals, and 350 or so were first-timers just like me.
A rookie marshal is issued a bright orange vest, a handy How-To booklet and is required to watch a video describing what to do when bad things happen. Tips include: Always be aware of your own safety (a marshal was struck and killed by a racer in 2005); Drag unconscious riders off the course by the back of the collar (to avoid further spine injury); Wear your insulating gloves before touching a downed Zero Emissions (electric) bike.
One day I work a sidecar practice. The unlikely machines bounce awkwardly past, pilots and passengers fighting to keep them aimed downstream. A pair of TT veterans running outfit number 15 catch my attention. Passenger Kevin Morgan is 59 years old and driver Bill Currie is 67—these guys are my age for god's sake! There rig is one of the first out for practice and they wail past me looking like real contenders. There is hope for all of us older riders!
Ten minutes into the side car practice race control orders a course-wide red flag. There’s been an “incident” near Mile 17 at Ballacrye Bend. It’s a narrow, high-speed, left-hand sweeper with a jump in the middle: typical TT terrain. We wait for the session restart but it never comes. Practice is canceled. Rescue helicopters scramble into the air.
I soon learn the two old guys running outfit number 15 are dead. Crossed up, flipped over and crashed out on a part of the course they’d navigated successfully so many times before. The TT claims a third victim a week later when Irishman Derek Brien meets his end at a high-speed corner called Gorse Lea.
The TT takes no prisoners and teaches all comers that none of us is immortal. And that's an important lesson to remember whether racing --or marshaling-- at the Isle of Man. And something I try to keep in mind every time I throw a leg over a motorcycle.
Note: I wrote this account of my 2011 IOM experience for Motorcyclist Magazine. It appeared in the November 2011 Issue.