WHEN TAPPY MET MCGUINNESS
“Those two weeks were the best holiday I’ve ever had.”
John is summing up his trip to the Isle of Man TT Races in 2019. Not McGuinness; his two weeks were something to forget. But for novice marshal, John Mann, the TT – and the 23-time winner – made a lasting impression.
It comes as something of a surprise to me. Not the fact that John loves the TT, but that he hadn’t visited the TT before. Not far off retirement, John’s late discovery of the TT and its often-powerful hold seems to have taken the quietly spoken Scot by surprise as well. But his journey from young motorcyclist to enthusiastic TT advocate is a long one, and more complicated than I first imagined.
I first catch up with John by telephone late November. It’s cold, wet and windy on the Isle of Man and I imagine it’s the same in Scotland.
JOHN PICTURED WITH HIS FATHER, HARRY, AND THE KING OF THE MOUNTAIN
“Ah, hellooo, Pete!”
The voice that greets me on the other side sounds warm and familiar; John’s accent making me immediately place him somewhere towards the west coast. I’m close: John is based in Dunoon. He tells me has a day off and his plans only stretch as far as defrosting the fridge-freezer, so we arrange to continue our chat after lunch via a video call.
I had already put a face to John’s name, but only just put a name to John’s online alias: Tappet Gap – often shortened by his friends and followers to ‘Tappy’. Having followed his motorcycling adventures on Twitter [his social media platform of choice], I jump on our call with an illogical sense that we’re already friends – it is he who has nearly 10,000 followers, thanks to his unadulterated enthusiasm for motorcycling and two-wheeled touring. John begins by giving me a little background and quickly considers the pros-and-cons of social media.
“I don’t do politics, none of that stuff. But it’s a great way of communicating with people and I’ve met real friends through Twitter. It’s how my trip to the TT opened up – as well as the opportunity to marshal there.”
SETTING UP HOME FOR THE FORTNIGHT AT THE CAMPSITE IN ST JOHN’S
But John’s trip to the TT in 2019 was not his first trip to the island, nor his first trip to watch the road racing. His uncle, Ronnie Mann, was a contemporary of riders like Alex George, and raced in the Manx Grand Prix on-and-off for a decade, finishing 8th in 1973 and 5th in 1979. John’s dad, who worked in a garage for years, was the team mechanic, so ‘The Manx’ naturally doubled up as the family holiday.
John was soon racing motocross and, leaving school at the age of sixteen, started work as a motorcycle courier for his uncle’s new firm – the first courier business of its kind in Glasgow. It allowed him to split his time; dispatch rider in winter, travelling the world in summer. Not a bad life, but not one John was looking for. Sick of the ‘rat race’, he gave it all up in his twenties. Including the motorcycling.
As I listen carefully to John’s story, I ponder his Twitter timeline; a digital scrapbook of TT heroes, road racing culture and motorcycling memorabilia. It made little sense. But, at the same time, it did. If you cherish your sense of freedom, the ability to make your own choices in life, isn’t the TT the ultimate embodiment of this?
Perhaps that is why John returned to motorcycling in his mid-fifties, paying cash for a brand-new Triumph Tiger. The Isle of Man also beckoned once more – and this time it had to be the TT. But how?
SOAKING IN THE TT ATMOSPHERE AHEAD OF RACING
REPORTING FOR DUTY
John asked his online friends for advice and received plenty of tips as the motorcycling community swung into action; eager to help a biker in need. Soon John got chatting with Shaun Dalton, Chairman and Chief Marshal of the 1946 Marshal’s Association. Although known more widely today for his role as Circuit Manager of the Oliver’s Mount Race Circuit in Scarborough, Shaun and his crew of dedicated volunteers regularly travel over to the island to marshal on the Mountain Course, taking up positions between Ballaugh and Sulby.
It was thanks to Shaun that John and girlfriend Cherry arrived on the island as novice marshals, John figuring that signing-on as a marshal would be a rewarding experience and the ‘icing on the cake’. He wasn’t wrong.
Reporting for duty at Ballacrye jump for the first qualifying session of TT 2019, John and Cherry were kitted out and fully briefed, understanding their respective roles in the event of an incident. John had looked forward to this. He felt well-prepared as he awaited the first machine to pass – the first since the Lightweight Manx Grand Prix of 1973. He wasn’t quite ready for everything, however, as he recalls.
“I was stunned! Nothing prepared me for the speed. It was unbelievable how this guy took off from the jump and how far he flew. I’m getting goosebumps now just thinking about it. What these extraordinary men and women do is incredible. Imagine trying to describe to someone who’s never been on an airplane what it’s like to fly. It’s a bit like that: it’s very difficult to explain what it’s like watching the TT until you’ve actually been.”
John admits the sheer visceral experience of that day is something he’ll never forget, but his first session marshalling was just the beginning of a two-week love affair with the island and its most famous event. Under the guidance of the more experienced marshals, he and Cherry gained a unique and privileged view of the racing – as well as an otherwise rare glimpse of the behind-the-scenes workings of the TT.
PEEL HAD EVERYTHING JOHN AND CHERRY COULD WISH FOR
ALL THE SMALL THINGS
Camping at St John’s, where marshals enjoy special rates, John and Cherry were no doubt getting a glimpse into typical Isle of Man weather too. Not that this dampened their spirits. In fact, John’s spirits never dipped, spending the days of inclement weather exploring the local area – particularly the seaside town of Peel.
“It’s a beautiful wee town with a lovely atmosphere. We’d go there for an ice cream or a fish supper and spend time on the beach or around the castle. We discovered a bookshop which was something of a treasure trove for old TT books. All the small things like that add up and make the TT special. I just loved everything about it.”
Gary Thompson, would have been forgiven if he didn’t quite share John’s outlook in 2019; the last edition of the TT proving the most difficult to date for the Clerk of the Course. Unseasonable conditions had backed the race organisers into a corner and it was time for something bold. Something never tried before. Five races in one day.
That day was Thursday. The sun was shining and conditions were perfect. Still, it was a tight schedule with no margin for error or serious incident. Gary had everything crossed, and so did the competitors. You wouldn’t want to be stranded half way around the 37¾ mile Mountain Course on this day of all days.
John and Cherry, meanwhile, were on duty at Ballaugh Bridge. They had enjoyed their time marshalling at Ballacrye, Quarry Bends and Caley’s, but Ballaugh and its famous humpback bridge promised yet more thrilling action. John had his instructions: in the case of an incident, pick up the plastic. One clear role. But John would play another role that day; one he couldn’t have foreseen or expected.
McGUINNESS RETIRING THE NORTON SUPERLIGHT
HERO TO ZERO
The sickly Norton approached Ballaugh. It wasn’t singing in top gear like the other Lightweight machines. Instead, it was making the sort of noise that would alert any bystander with an ounce of mechanical sympathy, as John remembers.
“You could hear it coming, it was making this horrible noise. It was John McGuinness on the Norton – the Supertwin. I was told not to move as he pulled in and retired the bike. He sat down on the wall and there was a slew of swear words!”
It didn’t occur to anyone at first that the 23-time winner was still in a race against time, however. The day’s super-tight schedule had meant the Lightweight would be run over just two laps, with the next race – the TT Zero – going off shortly after. TT Zero was the race for which McGuinness was joint favourite, yet here he was, stranded about as far from the paddock and the Mugen as one could get.
“It dawned on us all that McGuinness quickly needed to get back to the Grandstand. David Cretney [the former Minister responsible for the TT] was marshalling at Ballaugh and offered to take him in his car, but he was in too much of a rush for that. I could see Cherry nodding at John [McGuinness] and then at me, as if to say ‘you take him’.
THE TWO JOHNS DEVISE A PLAN @DAVE KNEEN
“Without thinking I offered him a lift back, explaining I had my bike parked just a few yards away outside the wee convenience store. Of course, there’s a sea of spectators we need to get through, seven or eight deep, who part the way for McGuinness, applauding him and wishing him well.
“We reach my bike and it’s here I have second thoughts. I’m not racing back to the Grandstand on roads I don’t know with this great TT champion riding pillion! I give him the keys and I tell him to take it, agreeing that I’ll pick it up from the TT paddock. Then I tell him, ‘Don’t forget it’s one down and five up.’ What a stupid thing to say! Anyway, off he goes on my Triumph Tiger, complete with touring panniers and top box!”
Shortly after John’s intervention, McGuinness raced through Ballaugh again ¬– this time on board the Mugen, and this time without issue. Local photographer, Dave Kneen, who captured the moment McGuinness retired his Norton, was not alone in wondering how on earth he managed it!
McGUINNESS GIVES ‘TIGGER’ THE THUMBS UP
But a little slice of increasingly rare good fortune that Thursday evening meant another trip to the TT podium for the Morecambe Missile and, remarkably, Tappy was on hand to greet McGuinness and his family as he stepped down from the rostrum.
“David Cretney drove me to the Grandstand instead. We went over the hills via Druidale and Injebreck, and popped out at St Ninian’s. It was just another fantastic experience, seeing the middle of your beautiful island and having an ‘expert’ tour guide in David, who was so knowledgeable. That was typical of the sort of hospitality we experienced.
“Tigger [John’s affectionate name for his Triumph Tiger] was parked up in the TT paddock waiting for me, and next to it was McGuinness’s Dunlop cap – the cap he received on the podium for finishing second. I also got a wee kiss from Mrs. McGuinness, which was nice. Becky also sent me a thank you message on Twitter, so I had hundreds of notifications that went on for two or three days!
“Back at the campsite I was also getting a lot of attention from my fellow marshals. I wasn’t interested in playing it down, it was a big deal for me and one of the best things that’s happened in my life. It made my holiday – absolutely!”
TAKE TWO: McGUINNESS TAKES FLIGHT ON THE MUGEN @DAVE KNEEN
Still, one suspects that John would be just as enthusiastic about the island and the TT races, even without that particular story to tell. And it’s clear that his time marshalling with Cherry and the rest of the volunteers played a significant role in John’s enjoyment and ultimate satisfaction. I ask him how he views his time in orange: would he recommend it and, in particular, would he recommend it for a first-time visitor like he and Cherry both were?
“Absolutely! It’s a great introduction to the TT and gives you a real appreciation of the event. You meet so many people and the camaraderie amongst the marshals – like those staying at the campsite in St John’s – helps make it so memorable. We were so well looked after. We knew our roles and what each day would entail. I would certainly marshal again, aye.”
“But it’s an array of things, all the wee highlights that come together and make the TT so special. From the boring to the sublime, from the ridiculous to the beautiful… aye… I just loved it, loved everything about it. I’ve been lucky enough to travel the world, but those two weeks were incredible.”
A TT SOUVENIR COURTESY OF JOHN McGUINNESS
I’ve enjoyed my time chatting to John and, being the people person he is, we easily eat up 90 minutes of each-other’s time – the chance to talk about the TT a welcome distraction from less-interesting work and fridge-freezers.
I describe where I am, a few minutes stroll from the Mountain Course, which has John professing some envy. But I know his part of the world well, it is stunningly beautiful and I think he is lucky also. He concurs. It’s something he hears often from new-found friends, and no wonder. If your ‘long route’ home is a motorcycle tour around the shores of Loch Fyne, you’re bound to make a lot of people jealous. For John to be so taken with the island then is a huge compliment for the Isle of Man, and one I appreciate.
Impacted by the economic effects of the pandemic, John and Cherry will sadly give TT a miss this year, but promise they’ll return in 2023. In the meantime, our novice marshals will have to make do with the mountains and lochs of Argyll and Bute – and a TT tale that will stay with John for the rest of his life. He’s still ‘dining out’ on that one, as he freely admits – especially whenever someone stops to admire his Triumph Tiger.
“This is the bike that John McGuinness rode.”