The Isle of Man TT 100th Anniversary Celebration

Story by Michelle Duff// Photos by Michelle Duff
September 1 2007
Celebrating 100 years of TT racing

The Three Legs of Man: The history of the Isle of Man logo is not completely known but one theory is: “Whichever way I am thrown, I will remain standing”

Celebrating 100 years of TT racingFor 2007, the Isle of Man, nestled in the azure waters of the Irish Sea mid-way between England and Ireland, has been a Mecca for true motorcycle road race fans since 1907. Any rider competing in the annual races holds it in such esteem to be a pinnacle of life’s achievements; it’s memories live a lifetime. For this 100th anniversary, the Manx Motor Cycle Club, in addition to running the normal programme of races, planned a gala celebration to honour those who have created and contributed to the celebrated history of the Tourist Trophy, or TT as it is known. In previous years a special event, the Lap of Honour, has been held reserved for those riders who excelled in past TT Races, or contributed in some way to it’s colourful history. In addition to the Lap of Honour to be run on Monday of Race Week, a Parade of Champions and their machines was to take place on Friday immediately following the coveted Senior TT.

Thousands of people from all over the world were expected to migrate to the Island’s fair shores. The Isle of Man is a crazy place during TT Week with scarce parking places, full restaurants, crowded footpaths, congested roads, and vantage places around the race course hard to find and even more difficult to reach. Spectator attendance for the Centenary was expected to triple, with a similar increase in motorcycle population.

For personal reasons, I had decided not to go to the Centenary, but just before Christmas, Ferry Brouwer, from The Netherlands, invited me to join his Yamaha Classic Racing Team alongside Chas Mortimer, Dieter Braun, Rodney Gould, Svend Anderson and three or four local Dutch riders. Ferry’s winning arguments came from Japan when the Yamaha factory agreed to send over two of its unique factory racing bikes from the 60’s for me to ride, two of my all-time favourite motorcycles, the 250 RD56 twin, and the 125 RA97 twin. I really enjoyed riding these bikes in the sixties and could not pass up the opportunity to renew my friendship with them.

I spent the next three months stretching, lifting, pulling and pushing this aging body to whip it into some semblance of previous form. I knew I could reach the handlebars, and I knew I could get my feet onto the foot rest, but could I do both at the same time? The 125 in particular is a tiny motorcycle.

A month before the TT, Yamaha pulled the two bikes out of its museum to prepare them for shipment to The Netherlands. Upon inspection, the RD56 was found to have cracked crankcases. After some deliberation, the factory decided to send the 250 four-cylinder RD05 instead.

the 100th annual TT race from The Isle of ManI last rode the RD05 in 1965 when I crashed one into the guardrail at Suzuka Circuit in Japan, and pushed my left leg three inches through my pelvis. I hated the bike, it was big, uncomfortable to ride, top heavy, with an almost uncontrollable power band that made it near impossible to ride with any degree of confidence. As the TT approached my apprehensions grew. It had been four years since I last rode a bike around the TT Course, three years since even seeing the Course. I was to arrive on the Island Sunday evening without a chance to do a refresher lap in a car before Monday’s Lap of Honour. The first time I’d swing a leg over the bike would be on the starting line, and the first corner would be the 235 km/h drop down Bray Hill.

I arrived on the Island with an outward air of confidence hiding inner fears. As it turned out, I found time to stop by the garage. The two bikes looked beautiful. The 125 seemed even smaller than I remembered. Can I bend far enough to even get on the thing and at least look comfortable? I wondered.

And there was the dreaded 250-4. It too oozed Yamaha’s impeccable preparation. I sat on it. It felt light, comfortable, the two upper exhaust pipes neatly tucked out of the way, unlike what I remembered. This model RD05 was the 1968 version, and had undergone extensive development since my fateful 1965 crash at Suzuka, the same model that took Bill Ivy and Phil Read to numerous world championship GP victories in the 60’s. It was a work of art, four cylinders – two cylinders horizontal, and two canted upward at about a 60-degree angle. Power estimates touched 80-horsepower with eight speeds in the gearbox to keep the engine boiling.

So many people had gathered on the starting line for the start of the Lap of Honour, we had trouble finding enough room to push start the 250. By the time we got the engine started again, I was virtually last away. I charged down Bray Hill without a care and immediately developed a rapport with this fabulous motorcycle. The race course too fell into an immediate rhythm; I relaxed and concentrated on the job at hand. On the drop from Creg-Ny-Baa to Brandish, the 250 RD05 reached 14,000 rpm in eighth gear, a speed of 244 km/h. Not bad for a 39 year old bike ridden by an aging grandmother. By the end of the 61 kilometre lap I was in total unison with both the bike and racecourse, and fuelled by enthusiasm, could easily have done another lap. Reluctantly, I pulled off the course and into the pits with a euphoria I’d not felt since winning the Belgian GP in 1964. Taichi Ito, the Yamaha engineer entrusted with the care of the unique RD05 came over and gave me an uncharacteristic hug. “Thank you, Ito-san,” I said, and in the same breath, asked if I could take it home.

My concerns now turned to the little 125. Friday’s Parade of Champions arrived all too soon, and we once again gathered on the starting line. To ride these motorcycles requires a state of schizophrenia to keep them within the narrow power-band. Fortunately, both bikes have an indestructible clutch. Revving the 125 to 14,000 revs I slipped the clutch and accelerated away towards Bray Hill. The little engine reached 14,000 in ninth gear by the bottom of Bray, and rushed along the road towards Quarter Bridge at nearly 210 km/h. I sat up, braked and began pulling back gears for the first gear corner, when suddenly the little engine seized. I coasted silently to the corner, turned off the course and parked the little Yamaha against the wall.

Disappointed by the 125’s failure, my high over the events of the 2007 TT in general left me elated. To be so entrusted with two such valuable motorcycles (each is valued at half a million US$) was an honour, and to ride them around the TT Course on such a momentous occasion as the TT’s 100th birthday, is a memory I will never forget.

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