"Don't lose the taillamps in front of you."
Those were the only words on my mind as our rolling convoy plowed its way over hill and dale on the Isle of Man, up Snaefell Mountain and back down again. Thing is, those taillamps were little more than faint twinkling halos shrouded in obscurity, nodding up and down obeisantly to the undulating road famously known by locals as the Mountain Course.
Those taillamps were the only sign that, up ahead, our procession of 2013 Subaru BRZ coupes was being led by one Mark Higgins, he who currently owns the four-wheeled lap record at the 37.8-mile-long loop of asphalt we're traversing. He who has taken home five British Rally Championship trophies, was born right here on the Isle of Man and is the odds-on favorite to win his home Manx Rally year after year. Put another way, we're following a seasoned professional who knows this track better than he knows the wrinkles, pores and follicles gracing the back of his own hand. And, while we're well shy of the 115 mile-per-hour average that constitutes his record-setting lap, to say we're driving gingerly is to say it takes a bit of arithmetic to land on the moon. As for us? This is the first time we've ever put rubber to the ground on the Isle.
Once more, with feeling: "Do NOT lose the taillamps in front of you!"
On our way back down the other side of the mountain – our pace slowed by the realization that the road up Snaefell is the only part of the course closed to oncoming traffic – we settle at a speed merely twice what sanity and the awful conditions would seemingly dictate. My group was initially supposed to drive the circuit while it was closed to local traffic, but that only happens when racing is moving full steam ahead as planned. On this day, the asphalt was entirely too slick to allow for sanctioned two-wheeled competition.
A wise decision, I think to myself, as I notice yet another break in the roadside hedges that reminds me of the dangers of racing at the Isle of Man. As I had been told, those openings in the foliage indicate that a competitor ran off the road at that location at a speed high enough to ensure death or dismemberment.
Such morbid thoughts are made all too real as our convoy pulls to a stop on the side of the road. A procession of locals is crossing ahead on foot, flowers and cards in hand and memories in mind, as they decorate a spot on the hedge that marks the exact location their loved one passed away earlier in the week.
We allow them a fair bit of time to safely cross the road before starting back up again. They offer a somber nod in thanks. It's impossible for us to say if the deceased was a man or woman, whether their life was lost during competition or in the days and nights before or after the road is closed for racing. It hardly seems to matter – in my head, I can't help but recite the total death count leading up to the 2012 TT events. A total of 237 deaths at the Snaefell Mountain Course have officially been recorded since it was opened in 1911 during competition up until the day we set off. The ever-growing list can be found here on Wikipedia.
Our guides tell us, however, that the real number is significantly higher. Every year, the TT festivities attract untold numbers of spectators, many of whom take to the course on motorcycles ferried across the Irish Sea from countries that include Britain, Germany and France. Suffice it to say, fatalities are not uncommon, and are oftentimes not even attributed to the Isle as the deaths are not pronounced until a helicopter has transported them to an offshore hospital.
I turn to my co-driver. "My wife would not be pleased," I say, and I get a slightly ashen-faced acknowledgement in return.
Later the same day, we're at another local track, this one much smaller and open only to those of us putting Subaru's BRZ coupes through their paces. My bright blue boxer is living up to the reputation it's earned on these pages from all who have driven one at speed: It's a true driver's car. The chassis is perfectly balanced, nimble and easy to place on track with excellent steering. Acceleration from its 197-horsepower 2.0-liter boxer engine is more than adequate once the tach needle crests the midway point, the six-speed manual gearbox shifts with precision and the brakes will happily haul the car down from speed. It even manages 30 miles per gallon on the highway. I'm smitten with the car, and, in the confines of a manicured race track, I nearly forget how harrowing the day had seemed out at Snaefell.
After entering the pits, I remove my helmet and mingle with my fellow drivers before snapping a picture on my iPhone of a sign cast aside on a lonely windowsill: "Warning! Motor Sport can be DANGEROUS. Despite the organizers taking all reasonable precautions, unavoidable accidents can happen. In respect of these, you are present at your own risk."
I chuckle faintly when I see the sign, but when I scroll through my photos later that night, I quietly reflect on how well it sums up the Isle of Man TT in one rather succinct nutshell. All forms of racing can be dangerous. Indeed, the World Health Organization will tell you that something as simple as the global morning commute is responsible for exponentially more deaths each year than the entire history of the TT. Living life, it turns out, can be deadly. And, while some activities are more dangerous than others, the competitors at the Isle of Man make the sojourn each and every year, lives and limbs on the line, with one goal in mind: to make it into the history books.
Ye olde annals are inked with the names of great Isle of Man TT winners, past and present. Joey Dunlop is perhaps the most famous TT racer of all time, having taken home a record 26 trophies from 1977 until his untimely death at a motorcycle race in the year 2000. As of 2012, John McGuinness has scored 19 total TT wins, including the Superbike and Superstock races the week we were on the Isle. Some racers are nearly as notable for not winning. Guy Martin, a man whose affable personality is overshadowed only by the speed at which he rides, has rather famously never won a TT despite earning 13 podium finishes and nearly losing his life in 2010 when he crashed at over 170 miles per hour in a massive fireball after colliding with a stone wall during that year's Senior TT. He had been in the lead that day.
"I was injured but it wasn't bad – I broke eight ribs, punctured my lungs and broke my back in a few places," Martin said in an interview with BBC Sport. "I was pushing too hard. I wanted to win and if anything got me into trouble, it was that will to win." Summing up the attitude required to take part in the spectacle that is the Isle of Man TT, Martin was quoted as saying: "If that is the reason I crashed then I'd be happy to do it again."
See you in 2013.