Motorcycling / Manx men are compelled to flirt with a fatal attraction: Aficionados keen to play down the perils of competing in the Isle of Man TT Race fortnight. Mike Rowbottom reports

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The Independent Online
THE traditional structure of the Isle of Man TT Race fortnight will accommodate a small alteration tomorrow. At the end of what is known locally as Mad Sunday - when anyone can ride around the 373 4 -mile course as fast as they like - there will be a large party on the Douglas promenade to celebrate the rite. Or perhaps that should be the right.

It is the time of year when thoughts turn to the proposition that one man's irresponsibility is a Manxman's challenge. There is a defensiveness about TT supporters and riders which puts one in mind of huntsmen. And the statistic which they are uneasy talking about concerns not lap times, or even champions, but deaths.

Since the event began in 1907, the unofficial figure for the number of riders who have been killed on the course stands at 165. There is no official figure; but there is an official line of defence - namely that the TT is far less hazardous than other dangerous sports, such as mountaineering or hang gliding. Jack Wood, who rode in the event for eight years and has been clerk of the course for 20, is ideally placed to articulate the case for the defence.

'What goes on here has to be related to other high-risk sport,' he said. 'When you put the TT together with the Manx Grand Prix, there are in excess of 400,000 miles done at racing speed every year. People say we shouldn't have our race on roads. The bottom line is that motorcycling is a high-risk sport. People come here for the personal challenge. Most of them have to pay to do so. It comes down to the question: should we protect them from themselves? But we will wait until the competitors tell us that.'

Barry Sheene, the former world champion, was one of the most famous critics of a course which he was obliged to ride in 1971, when it was part of the world championship circuit. 'It is totally impossible to make the course even reasonably safe,' he said. 'Where was his worst injury?,' retorts Wood. 'Practice day at Silverstone. He wasn't even racing. You can't make a course safe. Any course.'

Other statistics provide continuing comfort for the organisers. The number of competitors taking part this year - 530 - is 70 more than last year's total, and only five short of the record set in 1991. Last year there were an estimated 30,000 spectators. This year, initial responses from travel companies and hotels have indicated a figure of 5 per cent up on that.

The buzz of conversation is likely to centre on whether Joey Dunlop - who is entered for five individual races this year, starting with today's opening event, the Formula One, and finishing with the Senior Tourist Trophy on Friday - can earn the single victory he needs to surpass the record of 14 TT victories which he shares with the late Mike Hailwood.

'There is no way anyone would have stopped me racing here,' Wood said. 'For me it was like climbing a mountain. People come here year after year. It is a very selfish pleasure, putting yourself at risk. But people love doing it. We are very conscious of accidents that can happen here - will happen - but we do what we can.

'I talk to the riders every year about the dangers of the course. We advise them that if they give a short circuit 10 tenths, they should be giving this course eight tenths.

'It is very distressing to us when riders die. But the event goes on. If we can't have young men with courage where the hell are we going to go?'