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Isle of Man TT riders risk it all for dangerous race: "It's the best thing in the world"

Isle of Man’s dangerous TT motorcycle race
Isle of Man TT: The world’s most dangerous motorcycle race | 60 Minutes 22:21

The Isle of Man TT is known as the world's most dangerous motorsport race, and since its inception in 1907, more than 250 riders, and several spectators, have been killed on the course. Yet each year, motorcycle racers clamor for an invitation to ride. 

Richard "Milky" Quayle, a local Manx, as Isle of Man residents are called, has seen the highs and lows of the race. He won the TT in 2002 and was seriously injured in a collision on the course the following year.

"It's the best thing in the world anyone could ever want to do," Quayle said. "Why would I want to stop it just because it hurt me?"

What makes the Isle of Man TT so dangerous?

The TT, which stands for both Tourist Trophy and Time Trial, is held each year on the Isle of Man, which sits in the middle of the Irish Sea, with England to the east and Ireland to the west. With emerald fields and rugged coastlines dotted with sheep and the ruins of medieval castles, the usual pace of life on the island is slow, even sleepy. That all changes for two weeks each year, starting at the end of May.

Racers speed down public roads that are open to normal traffic until just 30 minutes before racing begins on a 37-mile course. It covers much of the island, running through villages and pastures, with riders taking more than 200 turns just inches from rock walls, buildings, residents and fans. 

British rider Peter Hickman, one of the best motorcycle racers in the world, is no stranger to racing, but appreciates something special about the Isle of Man TT. He's won 13 TT races, including this year's marquee race, the Senior TT: 225 miles over six grueling laps. 

Peter Hickman and Bill Whitaker
Peter Hickman and Bill Whitaker 60 Minutes

"You literally race through a village," Hickman said. "And it just feels like you shouldn't be doing it, but we're allowed."

About 100 motorcycle racers take to the roads over the course of the two weeks of the TT. There are five classes of races dictated by the power of the motorcycle and the number of laps. Riders are constantly braking, shifting and twisting the throttle, thousands of times every lap. Riders will reach 200 mph during laps.

Then there is the "sidecar" race. Three-wheeled contraptions scream around the course with a driver and a passenger whose job is to throw their weight around every curve, just inches off the ground. 

Richard "Milky" Quayle, who first participated in 1997 and won the race five years later, knows the dangers well. He grew up on the Isle of Man and watched the racers speed by each year. It was a small mistake that nearly killed him in 2003. He entered a corner too early and caught the rock face with his shoulder. It snagged him and he was pulled into the wall. 

"When it goes bad it, you know, it, it can hurt you," he said.

Why is such a dangerous race allowed?

It's hard to imagine such a tranquil island as the home of a wild and improbable race, but the people of the Isle of Man have always liked to do things their own way, Dr. Catriona Mackie, who teaches the history of the island to university students, told Bill Whitaker. 

Over the centuries, the blood and cultures of the English, Irish and Viking clashed and mixed to create the unique Manx identity, she said. The island was the seat of the Norse kingdom for a while and the Vikings established a governing body there called the Tynwald, which is recognized as the world's oldest continuous parliament. 

The Tynwald still makes law today, though the British monarch is head of state and has the right to veto laws. In practice, that power is almost never used and the Isle of Man fiercely guards its independence. 

Isle of Man
The Isle of Man is also home to sheep and the ruins of medieval castles. 60 Minutes

This independent streak doesn't mean isolation. The island has also worked long and hard to attract tourists, such as the 40,000 fans who make the pilgrimage each year for the Isle of Man TT, Matthew Richardson, curator at the Manx National Heritage Museum, said. 

In the early 20th Century, the United Kingdom banned road closures for racing, but the Isle of Man's allowed it, so cars and drivers headed there for racing starting in 1904, Richardson said. Motorbike drivers followed in 1907. 

"The lieutenant governor was the cousin of the chairman of the Royal Automobile Club, Sir Julian Orde," Richardson said. "The Isle of Man economy at that time was heavily dependent on tourists coming here. And he thought that having a racing event would only bring more tourists. And he was proved to be absolutely right."

What's the Isle of Man TT like today?

Today, the Isle of Man TT is a thriving two-week long celebration of motorcycle racing. Motorcycle enthusiasts pour onto the island to watch the races and to ride the public roads that make up the race course.

The race remains thrilling, and dangerous. In the past two years, seven riders have been killed. 

Organizers of the TT have taken steps to minimize the risk where they can, Paul Phillips, the man who's been in charge of the race for the last 15 years, said. 

"The only way of making this event safe is to not do it, you know? If we're going to race sports bikes through towns and villages on public roads, that inherent danger is going to be there," he said. 

To make it safer, riders are sent off at the start line at 10-second intervals to make space between them. Perhaps the most significant change has been to strictly limit the number of racers to just over 30 sidecar teams and 100 solo riders. 

There's also a strict protocol for would-be first-time riders — and "Milky" Quayle is a key part of it. He takes newcomers around the course in a car. Then, during practice week, he leads them on an actual lap to see how they perform and whether they can keep up.

Rennie Scaysbrook
Rennie Scaysbrook  60 Minutes

Rennie Scaysbrook, a full-time motorcycle journalist and part-time racer, rode behind Quayle during his initiation lap in 2022. 

"And I actually screamed in my helmet," he said. "I went, 'This is f—ing crazy."

Scaysbrook returned this year for another year of racing. 

The racers aren't there for the prize money. The winner of this year's top class TT race won just over $30,000, an amount that's minuscule compared to other professional sports. 

The riders are there for the thrill. Champion Peter Hickman says racing the TT makes him feel alive — despite, or perhaps because of, the risk of death. 

"I think you can only really appreciate life if you're putting yourself into places that risk it," he said. 

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