Steve Hislop

'Flawed genius' of British Superbike racing

Robert Steven Hislop, motorcyclist: born Hawick, Roxburghshire 11 January 1962; (two sons); died near Teviothead, Roxburghshire 30 July 2003.

Steve Hislop was the reigning British Superbike champion and one of the most natural motorcycle-riding talents of his generation. He began racing for no other reason than to do battle with the Isle of Man TT course, the pernicious strip of tarmac which preoccupied him for much of his adult life.

For all his gifts, "Hizzy", or the "Flying Haggis", as he was popularly known, was one of the enigmas of the racing scene. "Flawed genius" was the most frequent description from those with whom he worked.

"Self-made" might be at least as apt, for most of what he achieved was by his own efforts. Shortly after he began racing in 1979, his father and mentor, Sandy, died suddenly. Although his mother, Margaret, was as solid as only a mother can be, and a local bike dealer, Jim Oliver, would later help Steve considerably, he rarely enjoyed the sort of support that enhanced the careers of many of his contemporaries.

Initially, Steve's elder brother, Garry, carried the Hislop racing banner with distinction, winning the 350cc Newcomers race at the 1982 Manx Grand Prix. Six weeks later Garry was dead, after crashing at "some poxy club meeting at Silloth", as Steve later recalled.

Steve Hislop's racing ambitions might have ended there, if he hadn't taken a holiday at the 1983 TT. Spectating at the 11th milestone, he was mesmerised by the dice between Joey Dunlop and Norman Brown in the Senior Classic race. "That was it, I just had to have a go. So I went behind everyone's back, bought an old TZ350 [Yamaha] and got a racing licence."

In his first Isle of Man race, the 1983 250cc Newcomers Manx Grand Prix, Hislop placed second, beginning his TT career the following year. What would truly set him apart was successfully making the transition from being a complete TT specialist to becoming a world-class short-circuit star, a process which began almost by accident. In 1986 he decided that if he was to go any faster around the Isle of Man, he needed "more energy, more aggression and more technique" in his riding - qualities he thought short-circuit scratching could provide.

Not only did his TT performances soar - his fastest lap went up by over 11mph in two years - but he proved himself an absolute natural on short circuits as well. In 1987 he posted the first of 11 TT wins in the Formula Two TT on a private 350 Yamaha, a result which brought him to the notice of Honda's Bob McMillan. By 1989 he was a Honda Britain rider.

Armed with quality machinery for the first time, Hislop shot to public prominence by winning three TT races in one week in 1989. In 1991, the year he repeated the same treble, he set an unofficial TT lap record, 124.36mph, that wasn't eclipsed until 1999. Most memorable of all was his improbable Senior TT win for Norton 12 months later. He last contested the TT, again for Honda, when he won the Formula One and Senior races in 1984.

On short circuits Hislop won the British 250cc championship (1990) and Superbikes series (1995 and 2002), a measly reward for his abundant talent. The "nearly" list is far longer: World Formula One championship in 1989, three World Endurance championship near-misses, as well as runner-up slots in domestic racing.

"From a career point of view," he acknowledged recently,

I spent too many years concentrating on the TT. The TT was the making of my career, so obviously it means a lot to me, but I concentrated too much on it for too long.

It was also true that he was a loner who couldn't always summon the mental strength to make full use of his talents. If this fragility made him more human and personally engaging, it also contributed to his being sacked three times by teams for which he rode, the last of them only a month ago. Three years ago Rob McElnea, the man who gave him his cards most recently, spoke with admiration of the way Hislop had "such good feel for a bike . . . Carl [Fogarty], Niall [Mackenzie] . . . he's as fast as all of them, but often he's been the classic 'If only . . .' "

At around the same time, John Reynolds, Hizzy's arch rival in the British Superbike series, found himself admitting that "Steve is probably the fastest man in the world at the moment". Two years later Hislop himself emphatically made the same point, hustling a production-based Ducati around the Donington Park circuit faster than even the great Valentino Rossi had just a few weeks earlier on an exotic factory Honda developing 50 horsepower more.

That performance was all the more remarkable for having been made by a man who a couple of years earlier had broken his neck in a first corner pile-up at the Brands Hatch World Superbike round. "I could have been killed or paralysed," he grimaced later about that horrific incident in 2000:

Some people thought I was dead when I was lying unconscious. Afterwards all I knew was that my left arm was useless, but it was two or three weeks before I had a scan and learned I'd broken my neck. Both my C6 and C7 vertebrae were broken, the spinal cord had an "S" bend in it, and broken bits of bone were chafing the nerve to my arm.

Yet, whatever doubts may have existed about his mind-set on the track, arguably Hislop's biggest weakness was off it, where he didn't always made the best decisions, or get the best advice. His commercial naivety cost him tens of thousands of pounds in wages and sponsorship deals that sharper negotiators might have grabbed, and he never landed the major factory contract that his abilities warranted. Getting on and riding always interested him more than off-track politics.

Just a few weeks ago Steve Hislop spoke of retirement, and what he might do when his racing days were done. He had recently qualified as a helicopter pilot, and was excited by the prospect of flying commercially. He was killed on Wednesday in a helicopter accident near his home town of Denholm in the Scottish Borders.

I liked Steve Hislop as an individual, and nothing in racing gave me more pleasure than to watch the fluency with which he carved racing lines. Fast, precise and brave, he was simply the most exhilarating rider I have seen around the TT course, and on his day as close to perfection as any short-circuit specialist. As a racer, he could be close to genius. As a man, he will be much missed.

Mac McDiarmid

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