I am not a timid driver, nor an inexperienced one. But waiting to take a lap of the stunningly dangerous, 37.7-mile Snaefell Mountain Course at the Isle of Man TT had me on tilt, no fooling. I concentrated on the task in front of me, left hand working the gear pattern on the right-hand-drive Subaru BRZ I was to pilot, while kids on bikes, fat old beer-drinking men and other members of a fast-growing throng of onlookers pointed at our group of five Subarus and nine Americans. We were moments from our 'demonstration' for the motorcycle racing-hungry crowd and I was awfully glad, at that exact moment, that I'd emptied my bladder before buckling in.
While the mild dehydration wasn't helping me, it was probably the least of my worries.
Nothing had gone to plan at this point. In theory, by the time I was due up to tackle the TT, I was supposed to have had an invigorating warm up by way of a two-day drive from Belfast down to Dublin. Some weather on the Eastern Seaboard of the US kept my flight grounded however, and I had been forced to miss the whole of the Irish drive, meeting the team in Dublin just in time to fly to the Isle of Man the next day.
Upon reflection, the extra pint of O'Hara's at The Temple Bar the night before my Manx adventure was probably a mistake. Nursing a mild hangover and being scared witless do not cancel each other out, I've learned.
Of course, I'd driven Subaru's slick-handling BRZ – and its Scion twin the FR-S – four or five times and hundreds of miles already. But my experience with driving in the right seat of any car, on the right side of the road, was miniscule. Having made the trek through Ireland, most of my fellow journalists had at least had time to get familiar with this setup before being tossed to the The Mountain, but alas, not I. So, while the mild dehydration wasn't helping me, it was probably the least of my worries.
High up on that list of worries was attention from the gigantic crowd of spectators that had gathered to check out the pack of demonstrator BRZ and WRX STIs, which Subaru had brought along for the hot lap. The gaggle of fans was especially keen on the race-prepped BRZ in the mix, which was going to lead our group under the capable guidance of three-times British Rally champion and Isle of Man native, Mark Higgins. Not that I don't like crowds, but pulling out of one in a car that you're not entirely sure you can put comfortably in second gear doesn't engender massive confidence.
The "pace" in question would be a moderate one. Except that it wasn't, really. Not really at all.
Sitting in the media center before I started that stomach-flopping crawl out of the crowd, the plan of following Higgins seemed like it was going to make my lap chicken soup. Two pace cars were to lead the Subaru entourage and two sweepers to follow up, with the event organizers making it clear that the "pace" in question would be a moderate one. Except that it wasn't, really. Not really at all.
By the time we'd finally gotten the go-ahead to get on the track – hitting a gap between races – I'd settled down enough that my breathing was roughly normal, and my clutch foot had stopped the involuntary shaking that I'd been horrified to experience on the short drive over from the grandstands. Getting on track just past the start/finish line, and smack dab in the middle of the largest Manx city, Douglas, it wasn't more than a half a minute before I could see Higgins (and pace cars piloted by excitable Higgins fans, presumably) start to pull smartly out of view. Admonitions from the officials were either immediately forgotten, or else the "moderate" pace we'd been prescribed had been adjusted on the fly to the scale of a professional rally driver.
As I alluded to before, it's not like this was my first rodeo in terms of quick driving. At the risk of sounding boastful, and admitting right off that I'm no race driver, I've seen a few fast corners. I've driven VIR in the wet and Laguna Seca in the fog; I've been flat out on desert roads in Astons and snaked up and down the sides of a volcano in a Lamborghini; I've steered front-, rear-, and all-wheel-drive cars on tracks across the country. None of that made me good at keeping pace with Mark Higgins on the Isle of Man.
Higgins estimated that it might take three years to really learn the more than 200 turns on the Mountain Course.
By the time I'd reached the bottom of Bray Hill – a steep downhill section on the way out of Douglas that compresses your suspension just in time for one of the tighter right-handers of the road course – I knew full well that I was in the tall grass. Despite the exemplary balance and communicative steering of the BRZ, the road course unwound with such enigmatic changes of direction, it was all that I could do to keep the taillights in front of me just close enough that I could see their flashing away past the upcoming bend. Life moves pretty quickly at the TT.
When I asked later, Higgins estimated for me that it might take three years to really learn the more than 200 turns on the Mountain Course. Exceedingly narrow lanes compose the bulk of the track, with hedgerows, berms of earth, tree lines, houses and village buildings, low stone walls and crowds of people all working to disguise the direction and acuity of the next corner. I did my best to follow the master line presented by the car ahead of me, but it wasn't long before my slow-and-wide approach to each stone-blind corner found me navigating my own wobbly race line around the island.
After a few miles of simply hanging on, however, I did start to feel that flowing sensation one often gets when driving a fantastic car on a challenging road – I assuredly had both. With the car's controls and point of view starting to seem more natural (and despite my co-driver telling me that I'd clipped the occasional low curb), the TT began to unfold under the wheels of the BRZ like the two were meant to be together. The guys driving the STIs undoubtedly had power and grip advantages, but the lower horsepower and tossability of the nimble BRZ suited me just fine. With really fast turn-in and easily detectible levels of rear-wheel slippage, the Subaru coupe felt more hand-in-glove than I would have dreamed of in a setting this tightly wound. What's more, the lower limits of the BRZ actually had a kind of a calming affect when my pulse started to slow down, as I realized that it would take some pretty bad helmsmanship to get in over my head.
One particular bridge at the bottom of a hill offered the best-known jump on the whole of the course.
In fact, after driving fully puckered for the first ten miles or so, I loosened up enough for the last part of my stint (we had a planned driver swap half-way through the course) to realize how much fun the whole thing was. There's good reason that hundreds of people risk life and limb to ride the TT each year, and being part of a small group that has run on the closed course, riding four wheels, is something that I'll cherish.
Still, I probably got a bit carried away in the last few minutes I had at the wheel. In our pre-race briefing, we were told that one particular bridge at the bottom of a hill offered the best-known jump on the whole of the course. The maximum speed recommended to carry over the section was right around 30 miles per hour – still enough to get the wheels off the ground, I might add. Of course, no one mentioned that every turn was blind, or that I'd drive through more than one hundred such before I came to the jump/bridge. And, also of course, I went over it at closer to 50 mph than the prescribed 30, bringing the car's nose down just a mite harder and at a more rakish angle than the Subaru vehicle wranglers would have liked. I'll nail it next time...
One of the reasons that I'm not a professional racing driver, to go along with my excessive height and too-keen moment-to-moment sense of self preservation, is that I didn't grow up on this charmed island in the Irish Sea. After our day at the races was over, we had the pleasure of driving our small pack of Subies over hill and dale, on a slightly more relaxed tour of the Isle. I jumped in the STI, despite having bonded with the bee-are-zed the day before, having a sneaking suspicion that this might be the last time I'd drive the current generation of this rally king.
It was only after my ride with Mark that I understood just how much he'd been holding back the day before.
I forded rivers squeezed by local traffic on roads barely big enough for two cars at once (sometimes just big enough for one) and drew deeply from rolling-hilly vistas presented on an exceedingly rare, blue-skied Manx day. With my teeth still sore from the grinding I gave them on the TT course, I was perfectly happy to dip sparingly into the deep reserves of turbo STI power. This, despite the apparent prevailing opinion by the local drivers that it's a good idea to go as fast as you can, whenever you can. There aren't a lot of laggard drivers in this corner of the world, despite (or perhaps because of) the labyrinthine nature of their road system.
We rounded out the day with yet another exhibition from the gifted Mr. Higgins, this time taking turns being his passenger in the rally-prepped BRZ on a stretch of coastal road that makes up a small part of the Rally Isle of Man (née Manx International Rally). It was only after my ride with Mark that I understood just how much he'd been holding back the day before.
I'd ridden with a few race drivers in my day, but Higgins was my first ralliest, and I can safely say that his breed of driver is remarkably different from the rest I've known. His smooth and deliberate manipulation of the controls seemed entirely incongruent with the rapid changes of direction the BRZ was making, as if his technique was based on magic rather than race craft. The speed Higgins wrung from the relatively low-powered Subaru was stunning, though the real treat was the way that the car danced over tarmac under his charge.
I was lucky to also get in one night of stock car racing before I had to fly back to the UK. Yep, stock car racing.
Heading back into Douglas after two wonderfully charged days on the island, I was lucky to also get in one night of stock car racing before I had to fly back to the UK. Yep, stock car racing. In much the same way that small towns and county fairs across America support grassroots motorsports of all kinds, the Manx people can't get enough racing action, even when the TT is in full swing.
We visited a local oval track, Onchan Raceway, for a dinner of take-out fish and chips and pints of Okell's Bitter, and some massively entertaining car racing. That Thursday night I saw tween and teen racers driving Mini Stox (basically classic Mini shells with wheezy engines and square-tube frame cages outside of the bodywork), a "Bangers" class of production cars in a race that mixes oval-track racing and demolition derb,y and even a field full of pocket bikes ridden by gangly kneed teenage boys. Yeah, motorsports runs pretty deep in these parts. Onchan mixed a kind of rednecky vibe with stereotypical old-country quaintness into a cocktail of fun that I was delighted to have sipped for an evening. The beer was damn good, too.
I don't think there are enough lawyers in the world to draw up the waivers to do something like this in the US.
That Subaru, TT officials and Isle of Man authorities let us drive the racecourse, with spectators hanging around every corner and insanely difficult terrain, is nothing short of a miracle. To be perfectly frank, I don't think there are enough lawyers in the world to draw up the waivers to do something like this in the US. But the point of going isn't lost on me even now, far removed in time and space from the abject terror/mind-boggling delight of driving the TT. This is a place, this iconoclastic island, where everyone seems to understand how joyful driving and riding can be. It's a playground, a dangerous one at times, and a spot on the Earth where a lover of motors and motorsport will never go lonely.