Life and Death On The Mountain: In Conversation With John McGuinness

As one of the greatest Isle of Man TT racers of all time, John McGuinness has felt his fair share of elation and tragedy out on the course. Here, we speak to him about life, death, family and lost friends.

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19 October 2016, 12:10pm

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When an email arrives offering you an interview with one of your favourite athletes, there's usually some kind of catch involved. That's just how these things work. Having to do an hour's intensive work out with Rory McIlroy springs to mind, as does being forced to join a parade with Mo Farah up Regent Street to get a 10-minute chat. But this is the first I've had an offer which, to quote Peep Show's Super Hans, filled me with a powerful sense of dread.

The email from the guys at Dunlop Tyres detailed a full day in a large pharmaceutical company's lab. As a primer, this is strange enough. It went on to explain that we would be partnered up with an athlete and shown images that were intended to disturb, excite, and evoke a strong response. We would then perform a memory test after seeing each set of images to gauge their effect. The aim was to artificially invoke fear within each of the participants and see if the athlete's response time to the images would differ from the journalists. As expected, the athletes did miles better than us weak-minded hacks. That said, the feedback found that out of the eight or so journalists that took the challenge, my memory was the closest to the athletes. So screw you, fear.

I'd usually give something like this a miss. I get scared enough getting a night bus home, let alone going to a lab where fear is purposefully shot directly into your eyes. But the athlete that I was to be partnered up with was the Isle of Man TT legend, John McGuinness. This changed everything.

McGuinness is considered to be one of, if not the, greatest Isle of Man TT racer of all time. After debuting in 1996, he's become the second most decorated racer in TT history, with 23 wins and 46 podium finishes to his name. He's road-racing royalty, which is probably why he's known as the 'King of the Mountain'.

Since being introduced to the TT by my dad when I was in my teens, McGuinness has always been the racer that stood out. He was clearly older than his competitors, but every year he would return, and every year he would finish on the podium. His persona off the bike was always incredibly down to earth, which perfectly matched the rawness of the TT. The event is loved the world over, but due to fact that a couple of riders will almost definitely die every year, it's also shrouded in controversy.

After sitting opposite John for an hour looking at extreme images and wincing, we headed for a considerably less scary sandwich and a chat about what it's like to raise a family as a road-racer, losing friends, and if anything could ever make him quit.

VICE SPORTS: Can you remember the first time you went to the Isle of Man?

John McGuinness: It was a long time ago, mate, in 1982. I was 10 years old. My dad used to race motorcycles as well, but he wasn't a big success. He was a good rider but he was more interested in drinking, fighting and shagging. We used to go to a race meeting called the Jersey Road Race on the Isle of Man, which was on when the practice was starting for the TT. It was always that time where the summer holidays were on. When the races started I had to go back to school, and I remember kicking and screaming because I didn't want to leave. I remember, as a kid, being sat on the side of the road watching all the TT greats: Joey Dunlop, Graham Crosby, Mick Grant and all those guys, and that was the flame that ignited whatever was in my brain.

And you were hooked just like that?

Yeah, I was hooked at 10 years old. I knew I was going to be a TT racer, so I followed the race, bought all the videos, watched them on repeat.

How different was it back then compared with now?

Well, the track's not changed. Aside from some resurfacing, it's still got the lamp posts, the trees, the walls, the curves, the manholes. Everything's pretty much the same as it's been for 110 years. I mean, bikes have got better and faster, and the technology has improved. The riders are pushing every year, and lap speeds go up.

Do you think it was safer back then than now?

I would think it's safer now. A lot of accidents were down to the conditions. Parts of the course now are different. Years ago there was a descent down in the mist, because you had to get over a mountain, which was very dangerous. Now they won't race on wet roads, they won't race unless the helicopter can get to you. I think helmets are a lot better now, and we can use airbag suits. Plus, technology and safety is getting a lot better. But that doesn't make the walls and trees any softer. You have to massively respect the track. I think the riders have more of a say these days. We have more of a voice, and the organisers listen to us now. We can tell them that we don't want to race in the rain anymore, and they will agree.

It's well known that riders die pretty much every year at the TT. Has it ever tempted you to quit?

Sometimes. I mean, during my first race in '96, I lost my best mate in practice. A lad named Micky Lofthouse.

Shit, really? Your first race?

Yeah, he was killed on the last morning of practice on the Friday. It was a tough baptism of fire for me. I wanted to go home, but I decided to do the race and see what it was like. It was a beautiful day; I finished 15th and I really enjoyed it. My hero Joey Dunlop won the race, and it felt like the beginning of a journey, you know?

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So it could have gone either way?

Definitely. The one that hit me hardest was a lad called David Jefferies. He won nine TTs and was a top rider. He was killed right in front of me, and I was like, 'Fucking hell, this isn't for me, this. I've had my go.' But racers are selfish, aren't they? You never think it's going to happen to you, so you chuck your leathers back on and away you go.

I guess the view a lot of people have is that everyone knows the risks before they ride.

Absolutely, there's no gun to my head, is there? You make your own choices. Also, this is my living. I have two kids and I've got to put food on the table. I used to be a bricklayer and I hated it. I left school at 16. I look back now and imagine if I was just happy to stay doing that. There's nothing wrong with doing that and having an honest job, but I wanted something else. It would be a boring world if we were all the same. People have got to push limits. I'd sooner have 45 great years then 60 shite years and die of cancer.

McGuinness (right) celebrates at Macau with Michael Rutter (left) and Stuart Easton in 2008 // LUSA/EPA

Has starting a family changed anything?

They're all 100% behind me. I mean, I've had the same missus for 26 years. We were childhood sweethearts and she's been to every TT I've ever done and she's seen every race I've won. If anything happens to me, they're financially secure. They're not going to have to worry about a thing. And I'll leave a bit of a legacy behind, that's what I think.

Absolutely. So you've got a boy and a girl – are they interested in getting into racing?

The lad – I call him my little lad, but he's not a little lad anymore, he's 6ft ­­– he's got no interest in bikes. He's really bizarrely not interested. He doesn't hate them; he comes to races and enjoys camping and seeing friends there. But I think he's got to an age now where he understands what can go wrong, so I think he does get a bit nervous. But Masie, who's six, isn't bothered at all. She's the one who would probably race, she's the nut job. She's the one that would stick her hand in a fire to see if it would hurt. Yeah, she's a fucking nut job.

Would you be alright with her on a bike?

I don't think I would. If she decided she was going to ride a bike, then I would be 100% behind her, but I wouldn't be happy. I wouldn't want to see her go down Bray Hill at the TT. It must be horrendous for my missus and for my mum and dad. We're out living the dream, fucking flat out at 200 miles per hour, our arses are on fire and they're sat there shitting themselves. But we'll see about her! The boy's got a quad and he likes that. He's a big Formula One fan. I pulled a few strings and got him work experience at Renault F1 where he did some cool stuff.

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Wow, the benefits of having you as his dad! Aren't you friends with Mark Webber?

Yeah, I know him quite well. He gets over to the TT most years; he came over this year for three hours! He's a proper fan of everything that goes fast and all extreme sports. We get on well because we both love Speedway. It surprises me just how many people are into the TT.

I was never interested in F1 or any kind of racing, but I started watching the TT with my dad and loved how there was nothing else quite like it. There's nothing like seeing someone go around those normal roads at those speeds. And the racers are always a unique bunch of characters.

Yeah, we don't have to mind Ps and Qs – we just get on with what we're doing. It's still not massively corporate and it's still raw and untarnished. You still get that same feeling from it.

Aside from injuries, is there anything that could make you quit racing?

Well, my fear is not being competitive, you know? A lot of people invest money and time into these bikes, and I want to perform and do well. When the time comes for me to stop, hopefully, I'll know myself. Hopefully a little dicky bird will come along and tell me, because I don't want to carry on forever. I don't want to waste people's time, and I don't want to waste petrol.

Your recent results speak for themselves, really.

Yeah, I think so. I was proud as hell at last year's TT – I finished third behind the two BMWs, and I was sat in the press conference with a bottle of Corona in my hand really happy with myself. Plus my sponsors were all really happy which is always good.

So you're still getting the same buzz as you always have done?

Yeah, I really enjoyed last year. I had a bit of a ding-dong with those two boys on the road: it was three of us going around the track at a lap record-breaking pace. It must have looked brilliant from the outside.

Do you still get nervous before races?

You can't not be nervous, really. We all are, because look what can happen. There's a lot of pressure. 50,000 people are there, and it's getting beamed around the world. You're riding for a big manufacturer and you want to do well, and you have got to deliver sometimes. And it does get a bit nerve-racking. Pulling up on that start line, the TV helicopter above you, you're looking down the road, you're number one, you're just like: "Fucking hell!"

But you get a real buzz as well?

Oh yeah, it's a real thrill. There's no going back.

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What goes through your mind when you're flying around the track?

You think about weird shit, like if you brushed your teeth last night, or you'll fly past a pub and notice them all there with pints, or you'll pick someone out in the crowd. You focus on these things, but it's always just for a millisecond, and then you're back to the race. It's all done subconsciously.

Do you think much before each race?

No, not really, I already know what to do and where to do it. Obviously there's a few sections of the track that I need to sharpen up on. I can be pretty poor around Ramsey Hairpin or Parliament.

You've seen a lot of riders come and go. Who are you most impressed with at the moment?

It's really hard to pick one out for any reason. Michael Dunlop is stunning. He's fast, aggressive, naturally talented, raw, and arrogant at times. You've got Hutch who's quite quiet, and works hard in other areas like fitness, and his bike set up. He's probably not quite as naturally talented, but he's still delivering it and is the ultimate professional, unlike Dunlop, who can be a bit rough around the edges. Not that there's anything wrong with that. That's what makes the difference. Look at Guy Martin, he was a character. We're all different; we're not all tuned into the same station. Hutch is especially impressive because his leg was completely smashed to pieces. He had 29 operations, and now he's winning races again.

Are there any young guys coming though that you're particularly impressed by?

Well, Lee Johnson is becoming really good, and Dean Harrison is doing really well. Dean's served his time now – he's done his three or four years learning and now he's ready to win. I find it difficult with the youngsters. That young guy Malachi Mitchell-Thomas died at the North West 200, and he was just too young. He died at 20 years old. I don't think you should road race until you're 21. People will probably hate me for saying that, but it's just not old enough. He hadn't lived yet.

I guess they can be great on a bike, but might not be incredibly experienced.

The talent and experience has to amalgamate together. I try not to encourage the young guys. They have to learn and serve their time. They shouldn't have pressure on them.

You've been riding for long enough to see a lot of friends and fellow racers die, how much does that affect you?

Sometimes I don't know how we do it. We just sweep it under the carpet, don't we? We're selfish and never think it could happen to us. I get a bit of comfort out of the fact that they died doing what they love, and they knew the risks. I just try to remember the good times, and the times we had together. It's a real shame, but you go to a hospital and see kids dying of cancer, and it's like... fucking hell, you only get one go at life, don't you? You've got to live for the day.

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Absolutely. So you mentioned Joey Dunlop earlier. What are some of your favourite memories of him?

We could sit here for hours talking about Joey. He was my all time hero, and I was his last ever teammate. I was Joey's teammate at his last ever TT in 2000 when he was killed. It was just really special; to be young and look up to him, and ask for his autograph and tell him that one day I'd race with him, then become his teammate and stand on the podium with him. He was a shy bloke, but we had some great conversations. To win three TTs at 48, one was on a 125, one was on a superbike and one was on a 250. I couldn't win on a 125, I'm too fat, and it would disappear up my arse crack! For him to win on a 125 and a superbike in dodgy conditions, fair play to him. He died doing what he loved, didn't he? He was never going to stop. Like Robert Dunlop, he died doing what he loved. These people were never going to stop.

You've had some injuries, but you've never really had a huge crash, have you?

I've had a few bumps and scrapes, and a couple of big tumbles, but not really. I've broken both of my wrists, and I broke my leg quite badly, but nothing that wasn't fixable, nothing life threatening. It's what racing is about. You've got to be prepared for a few bits. But we're a different breed, aren't we? In eight weeks I raced at the TT after being completely battered, but we wont roll over. Most people in the world would want 10 weeks off work on full pay. I want to be back to work!

So no real plans to quit?

Nah, I'll just keep going. All my sponsors are keen, my missus is keen, and I'm keen. I'll take it year by year; I still believe I can win races.

So you're going to!

I'll try!

To finish, can you give me one of your favourite TT moments?

Ah mate... Well, your first TT win is very special. And 2007 was very special to me. It was the centenary celebration of the TT, and I did the first 130mph lap. I did it on the second lap, and on the third I got waved at over the whole lap. It was like a milestone, getting that 130mph lap. That was very special.