With 99 TT starts under his belt, John McGuinness’s next race will mark another milestone in an astonishing career. What keeps him motivated after a quarter of a century of racing?
This is the longest period of my life that I’ve not driven onto the boat in Heysham and sailed over to Douglas. I miss the place, I miss the people and I miss the TT. It gets under your skin if you let it – I don’t just mean for racers either. It’s rare that you meet a racing fan that’s only ever been once. You come over, you enjoy it and you spend the rest of your life trying to enjoy it as many times as possible. It doesn’t matter if you’re the one waiting to ride down Bray Hill, or you’re the one that’s had a few beers sat on the wall at the bottom, once this place gets under your skin it’s there for good.
My journey as a TT racer was an extension of my time as a TT race fan. A journey that started with me coming over to the Isle of Man to watch my dad road racing as a boy, which progressed to me sneaking over when I should have been in school. When I outgrew my pushbikes and started riding motorbikes, the Suzuki AP50 I was riding on the road and the RM125 I was racing motocross on both went to make way for a Yamaha TZR125, which I rode to the TT as a fan in 1989 with a few mates. Riding the roads that make up the TT Course for the first time felt like finding the Holy Grail, I went as fast as the bike could go everywhere and loved every second of it.
I’ve been driven by different things over the years and haven’t ever had just one goal.- JOHN McGUINNESS
The day I passed my full licence and was allowed to legally ride a 250 was the day before I rode straight to the ferry and the Isle of Man. Straight back to the TT Course and chasing bikes in front of me down. The point that I’m getting at here is that this place gets in your blood and it’s impossible to stop wanting to go, especially when you live five minutes from the boat to Douglas. Remember it’s quicker for me to put a bike in the van and get it to Douglas than it is to put one in the same van and get it to Brands Hatch.
I’ve been asked loads of times about chasing down Joey’s record of wins, or if there was ever a plan to get to 100 TT race starts or more and there really wasn’t. I’ve been driven by different things over the years and haven’t ever had just one goal. In 1996 when I first raced at the TT it was a natural extension of the short circuit racing I’d done up until that point, combined with the fascination I had with riding fast on the roads, along with a headful of memories of sitting on the bank watching my dad road racing. It was impossible to guess where those early laps would lead me, so I can’t stand here and say there was a plan from the outset to achieve what I’ve achieved. I took each lap and each race one at a time.
That doesn’t mean I was lacking confidence. In my second year of racing the TT, I started the 250 Lightweight Race in 26th place and finished on the podium. I stood up there next to Ian Lougher and my idol Joey Dunlop, with the fastest lap of the race in my back pocket. Results like that do things to a man and if you’re reading this wondering why I still get excited about racing at the TT after 25 years, maybe you’ll never understand. I don’t mind that and you shouldn’t either.
One thing we all understand is that the last few years haven’t been good for me and the TT. Coming off the back of the accident I had in 2017 at the North West 200, to the rocky ride I had with Norton and the way that came apart at the stitching. Signing with Bournemouth Kawasaki for the 2020 TT felt like another chance for me to get back to the success I’d had in 2015 and ’16. Then COVID came along and the job’s been knackered since.
I’ve kept myself busy and have enjoyed racing some cars and doing the Ducati Cup in the British Championship, but it’s not the same.
When me or other racers have said that the planets need to align in terms of getting sponsors onboard, being healthy and ready to ride a bike that’s fast and looked after by the right team of guys, having the weather on your side and then maybe a sprinkle of luck over everything, we really do mean it. Look at the last four years of TT racing for me, it’s been non-existent and there’s another year to wait before I’ll get the chance to race there again.
I try not to think about the success I might or might not have, I just think about how good it’ll feel to be back- JOHN McGUINNESS
I try not to think about the success I might or might not have, I just think about how good it’ll feel to be back on a competitive bike, riding at the most exciting road race circuit on the planet. That might sound selfish but part of what keeps me coming back after all these years is capturing the same sense of excitement I felt when I rode over on my TZR 125 all those years ago.
To me it doesn’t matter if you’ve got the biggest motorhome in the paddock, or if you’ve snuck in and pitched a tent near the racers, when all you’ve got is the jacket and jeans you’re stood in, a battered Arai helmet and a couple of quid in your pocket for petrol. We all go there for the same thing and it’ll take more than broken bones, a global pandemic and a few grey hairs to keep me from going back for more...