Tuesday, June 3, 2014

What Karl Harris' death means—and doesn't mean—for the TT


After a relatively safe Practice Week, the TT paddock was rocked by fatalities on consecutive days when Bob Price died Monday, followed by Karl Harris on Tuesday.

I mean no disrespect to Price when I write that his death is, at most, a footnote to this year's TT. He was a popular guy, I hear. He was a good rider. But he was a relative unknown.

Not so Karl Harris. 

To be fair, Harris (seen here during a late-winter visit to the Isle of Man, before he first came to race) said, "I've always wanted to do the TT just never had the opportunity so it is really something to look forward to. I've got a lot of work to do looking at on-board DVDs so it's going to be a learning process but it will be fun."I'm not saying he was lured or entrapped; he came of his own free will. That's not what this post is about.
Get your special hate-mail pen out if you will, but I’m going to tell you a story about the TT anyway. This is my opinion, I guess, based on many conversations I had on the Island, with members of government, TT volunteers, Manx-based journalists, and countless stakeholders in 2002, when I was there as rider, writer, and journalist, and in subsequent years when I returned as a journalist. It's an impression that had to be compiled, instead of something I could ever have received in an organized press briefing, because the TT organizers are not to damned transparent with journos.

My take on it is that when David Jeffries offed himself at the TT in 2003, it was nearly the end of the event. I think that the Auto-Cycle Union, which had always put the races on, told the Isle of Man, “OK, we’re done. Never again.”

The event only continued when the government of the Isle of Man stepped in to act as the organizer, promising to indemnify the ACU if it would continue to act as a sanctioning body only. The IoM took on that role because—although there are plenty of Manx voters who hate the TT—it remains popular with a majority of Manx people, and it is invaluable in promoting the Manx ‘brand’, which is essential if the Island is to keep attracting international business. 

The grassroots organizers of the TT—hundreds and hundreds of volunteers—continued, for their part, because they were desperate to see it through the centenary TT, which was then just a few years hence, in 2007. Over the years, I've put this thesis to many people with knowledge of the inside workings of the TT, off the record of course, and never had anyone tell me that I was completely off the mark. [Until now, see note below from David Cretney, a guy I genuinely like.]

2004, then, marked the beginning of a new TT era. When Greenlight/Duke Video’s media rights came up for renewal, the television coverage was transferred to a different production company that produced a far superior program. New fans were drawn in—people who didn’t miss Joey Dunlop and David Jeffries. 

The course was—to the extent possible—smoothed and made somewhat safer. Hazards that were padded only by haybales in my day were protected by airfence. The race director started canceling practices and races in heavy rain. Practice mileage was cut when morning practice was eliminated. The qualification standards were tightened, to minimize speed differentials. Those steps all did, probably, make it a little less dangerous.

And.

The organizing committee knew that if they were to attract new young fans, they needed new young riders. They began a program of actively recruiting a whole new kind of TT competitor. They looked for younger guys who had serious speed, even if they’d only raced on ‘circuits’ their entire lives. 

Promising riders were brought over to the Island for a look at the races, and if they liked what they saw, they were invited back in the off season to lap on open roads (and drive around in cars) with TT veterans like Milky Quayle. During the off season, the organizers sent out gushing press releases about the new, high-profile Newcomers that would be taking on the Mountain Course the following spring. Just between the lines was the message, "See? We're not an anachronism, or just a bunch of crazy old Irishmen. Look at this cool young guy who also dreams of the TT." They reserved a spot on the schedule for Newcomers, to go out on speed-controlled laps behind experienced riders. Most importantly, those hand-picked Newcomers were seeded in established teams, so they went out on bikes properly set up for the TT.


Paul Phillips has done a bang-up job as Motorsport Manager for the Isle of Man. As much as anyone, he deserves credit for resurrecting the TT after the dark days of 2003. When Karl Harris agreed to race on the Island, he said,  “Karl Harris is undoubtedly one of the most naturally talented riders on the British scene in the last ten years and I’m sure that with proper application he can build a great TT career for himself. He has all the attributes to make a great TT racer and I’m sure fans will look forward to seeing him on the Isle of Man this year." He wasn't wrong, exactly, but his premonition hasn't come true either. (Photo: Stolen from MCN)

If you had to pick a poster child for that new-rider program, you’d pick Karl Harris. 

In the early 2000s, he’d been a multi-time British Supersport champion. He raced successfully in British Superbike championship, too, recording 12 podium finishes before gradually souring on that series. He was a guy with close-to-world-class speed.

And, he lapped at something like 118 miles an hour in his first year at the TT. He was on everyone’s tip-sheet as a future TT winner.

But all that raw talent, and good coaching, and a good bike, didn’t save him when some problem occurred at “Joey’s”, a fast bend on the way up the mountain. 

I think that until Tuesday afternoon, there was a real sense among TT organizers that they’d worked out a system to identify, recruit, and nurture future TT stars. That may be the case, but there’s no safe way to lap the TT course at competitive speed. 

Where does that leave the TT? Well, the death of Karl Harris will not be the death of the TT any more than the death of Simon Andrews will be the death of the NW200. The TT will go on. But those deaths might give other fast young guys, currently racing on circuits, second thoughts about the merits of trying the Mountain Course on for size.

After DJ’s death in 2003, which was ghastly even by TT standards (a marshal once described it as a “broom-and-shovel job” to me) I said, the TT will continue until 2007, because there’s just too many people who want it to reach 100, but after that, it’s one high-profile disaster away from being shut down. 

I still believe that’s true. Even though the TT’s more popular and better-known now then it has been at any time since the 1960s, its existence is incident-to-incident. 

The event faces existential threats in the form of either a spectator disaster (the incident last year at the bottom of Bray Hill could easily have been far worse) or deaths of marshals or popular local racers, which could reduce local support (the two most successful local riders in recent memory, Milky Quayle and Conor Cummins, have both dodged death on the course.) Or, a major star like Guy Martin, Ian Hutchinson, or Michael Dunlop could take himself out in a manner that turns a significant percentage of current supporters into naysayers.

There has always been a sizable minority of the Manx population that is against the TT. Any incident that turns 10% of the event’s supporters against it will result in a majority of people who’d prefer to end the event.

A few days after this went up, I got this message from David Cretney, who negotiated the transition in event management, post-2003...

Dear Mark,
I hope you are keeping well. I have just been copied in to your piece about the TT. I have to say as the person who negotiated the deal for the Isle of Man to take over the running of the TT after 2003 your theory is completely incorrect. It was a long held ambition of many in the Motorcycling fraternity on the Island going back 20 or 30 years that we felt the Island had all the strengths to run the event completely without having to have the ACU en masse come to the Island.
My proposal was actually resisted my senior people in the ACU but my working relationship with the then Chairman enabled the proposal to succeed.
It was myself and the then CEO of Tourism who recognised the need to radically improve safety and the commercial aspects of the event.
After 2007 further impetus again took these issues forward.
Thanks for your longstanding interest it would be good to catch up again sometime.
Best wishes, 
David

11 comments:

  1. God I hope not. I would prefer to see this event go on forever. Continue to improve safety but at the end of the day the race is against the mountain. People need to able to challenge themselves, that's why people climb Everest and K2. It's why they jump off of buildings and try to fly in suits made from spandex.

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  2. Nail on head as usual Mark. I have watched this recruitment project - and the TT - with very mixed feelings. I briefly met Karl when I was supporting Ollie Bridewell in BSB, who met a tragic end in wet practice at Mallory in 2007. I found out about Karl at almost the same time that I discovered another friend - Marc Poels - had been killed riding his Ducati in France. I guess all three were doing what they loved but never thought they'd pay the price. And nor did I

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  3. Mark, I feel that given your time on the island and as a past participant of the TT you would have had more to say regarding if or how the TT should continue forward. There rarely seems to be any alternative offered outside of the black/white “stay as it is”/“ban it” viewpoint.

    So what is the way forward? Assuming you don’t advocate an immediate ban, then your point seems to be improving safety. And improving track safety seems to essentially be a discussion about money. Specifically a percentage of local taxes being invested in track improvements.

    At some point diminishing returns will mean that each future death prevented will become increasingly more expensive. So the likely future of the TT therefore will depend upon who calls time first. The residents who decide the costs vs income are no longer worth it, or society as we demand lower risk pursuits. Or perhaps the risks can be mitigated to a more acceptable level in line with circuit racing for example.

    Given your experience and knowledge, where would you prioritise spending to improve safety? e.g.
    - Limiting newcomers to 600s for first 1-2 visits
    - Introducing enforceable speed limits in certain high risk sections (akin to pit lane limiter)
    - Fitting the circuit and bikes with proximity system to help leaders lap back markers (like the sentinel system on the Dakar rally)
    - Relocating spectators away from high risk areas
    - Focused effort to declutter street furniture
    - Compulsory purchase orders on land adjoining the circuit to create greater run-off areas in high risk areas

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    1. Andy, I will write a follow-up post with my suggestion. There are just as many people who feel my proposal is utterly untenable as there are opponents of the existing TT.

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  4. Mark,

    That's a really eloquent piece of writing and a strong argument. You make a valid case of 'castles built on sand'.

    Whether I agree with it or not is kind of immaterial. Last week I loved the TT. This week I despise it.

    It's always the way - same every year. I've lost a lot of friends over there and there's nothing quite like mopping up the mess that people leave behind to make you question the sanity of our selfish pleasures.

    But that's by the by.

    What really makes my blood froth, is the reaction that pieces like yours get from the TT die-hards. They call themselves things like 'fans' and 'supporters'. They mainly wear blinkers it would appear.

    Surely extolling opinion is a good thing in a peaceful democracy? We're all entitled to them.

    Or maybe not?

    The' 'fans' and 'supporters' spit back with extraordinary venom. But by doing this, their argument is diminished. Vocalised hatred (name calling and playground insults) offered through social media doesn't paint a picture of reasonable, balanced, intelligent humanity. Radicalised behaviour like this has more akin to religious extremists, not sports fans.

    Maybe my support for the TT is misplaced after all.

    Big respect to you for voicing an unpopular stance and likewise to Scott Redding.

    Give me a couple of weeks and I'll probably love the TT again

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    1. Thanks Kelli,

      Don't give me a couple of weeks to love the TT again. I love the TT right now, and always will.

      That said, I have watched the organizers bring in fast young 'circuit' guys like Karl Harris (Josh Brookes leaps to mind, but note that I'm literally touching wood as I type this) and trumpet them, as if they've got a system to produce safe 120 mph newcomers.

      They don't. They have a system to produce 120 mph newcomers. There's nothing safe about it. Pretending that it's safe doesn't serve anyone, and may actually mislead someone.

      Karl, tragically, provided a quote to the TT press office before he raced on the IoM, saying he'd been studying the course on a video game. It's not a fucking game. Neither is racing on circuits, but young racers coming up on circuits these days (any time since the 90s, anyway) have done all their racing under conditions where *most* crashes are not injurious -- and many don't even hurt. I am not sure what you'd have to do, in order to ensure that young recruits really understood the dangers involved.

      I suppose army recruiters love getting kids who've just turned 18 and have grown up playing first-person shooter games. Suddenly they're given real guns and it's *even*cooler* than Call of Duty. I'm guessing it stops being fun when the IEDs start blowing up.

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  5. One of my closest friends lost her brother, Gavin Lee, in the IOM TT. As devastating as it was for her and the family, they have taken comfort from the fact it was what he loved doing and he knew the risks. Far better that than being mown down by some anonymous drunk driver or being hit by a bus. Life is for living.

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    1. I agree. It's better to really, really live for a shorter time than merely exist ad nauseum. I suppose my point in writing this was to say, I'm not completely sure that young circuit racers are making fully informed choices. And, even if they are, there was hubris on the part of the organizers.

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  7. Stop blaming the TT for deaths!

    The TT course is an immovable physical structure; it did nothing wrong. The riders chose to ride there, to face the challenge of staying on two wheels between the stone walls – as fast as they can. They know the risks before they start and during practise. They don’t have to race, no-ones making them. If they have an accident 99.9% of the time it’s their mistake. They don’t blame anyone else so why should those that don’t have the b…s?

    I’ve been there several times as a visitor, and unbeknown to me at the time a friend timed us and retrospectively calculated that allowing for the villages we could have qualified half way up the field and we weren’t balls out just having a fast enjoyable ride. I saw the stone walls. I knew I’d be minced if I hit one. So I rode accordingly.

    I have been ‘terminated’ 3 times and it doesn’t bother me at all. I was actually in I.C.U. recovering from one of these incidents when I heard of John Newbolds death at the NW200 – I was absolutely gutted – but accepted it. No death is GOOD but it IS acceptable ‘cos we know that’s a risk every time weget on a bike.

    On my 59th birthday I can tell you I’m still riding on the limits at times and broke my leg, again, recently to prove it. I don’t care, I’m mended so what’s the problem. The only thing that’s effected my riding in 43 years is the heart op 2 years ago.

    Anyway of course safety is important but don’t alter the TT’s basic roots and soul or you might as well go short circuit racing if you want to play safe! And where did that get Joey?!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Kris Dwornik Watton + ~Kettering

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