It’s around 8.10 on a lovely warm summer’s evening on the Isle of Man and the sidecar practice session in the 2022 TT – Tourist Trophy – is about to begin. The announcer at the grandstand asks the sidecar riders to get ready to race in ten minutes. There is the sound of engines revving up, great excitement and then… nothing.
There has been an incident in the TT Supersport qualifying session at Ballagarey, it turns out, and other races are suspended.
It’s not until around 11 p.m. that we learn the terrible news. A 29-year-old Welshman called Mark Purslow has been killed following a crash on his 600 Yamaha. He had just recorded his fastest ever TT lap, reaching an average speed of 120.857mph, and the night before his last, fateful qualifying session he had tweeted: ‘Roll on tomorrow’s practice.’ On Monday he had posted: ‘Love this island.’ Earlier on Wednesday I had seen Mark go out on what was to be his final ride. Now he was gone. It seemed so unreal.
Mark had become the 152nd competitor to lose his life in the TT since the event’s inception in 1907, and the 252nd to perish on the Mountain Course, which is also used in the Manx Grand Prix in late summer.
No other sporting event has casualty figures anything like the TT. Nothing comes close. The Mountain Course, for instance, is known as the ‘38 miles of terror’ and it constitutes the ultimate test for bike and rider. If a goalkeeper makes a mistake in a football match, the worst that can happen is that the opposing side will score. If a motorcyclist gets it wrong on the TT circuit, they run a real risk of losing their life.
Just a day before Mark Purslow’s tragic end, another rider, Dave Moffitt, had to be airlifted to Aintree hospital, where he was said to be in a ‘serious but stable’ condition after a smash at Laurel Bank. On Friday, Mike Booth was hospitalised with leg injuries. On Saturday, a three-wheeling sidecar event had to be stopped, ‘red-flagged’ after just six minutes, when there was a horrific crash at Ago’s Leap. The accident claimed the life of the sidecar passenger, Cesar Chanel, and left the driver, Olivier Lavorel, in a critical condition.
On Monday, the veteran rider Davy Morgan was killed on his 80th TT start.
It’s worth pointing out that the organisers have done everything they possibly can to make it safer. For 2022 – the first TT for three years – they have reduced the number of starters for each 1,000cc race to 50 and introduced GPS tracking to aid accident response.
But the very nature of the event – riding motorbikes at incredibly high speeds along narrow winding roads lined with stone walls, trees, telegraph poles and houses – means that casualties, and deaths, are inevitable. And it’s inevitable also that this year, as in years past, there are now calls for the TT to be banned.
But, for all the tragedy, I believe that banning the world’s most dangerous speedfest would be wrong. Instead of proscribing the TT, we ought to be celebrating it for the gloriously retro standout that it is.
For a start the riders compete knowing the dangers full well. For them, the thrill they get from racing at speeds of up to 200mph in terrifying circumstances outweighs the risks – and it’s their risk to take. These unpretentious leather-clad heroes line up on the starting grid not because they have a death wish but because they understand that the closer we come to death, the greater our sense of being alive.
The film director Elia Kazan wisely said that you have to risk your life every six months to stay alive. The TT riders risk it every time they set out on the course.
Mark Purslow’s family issued a statement saying they were ‘beyond heartbroken’ after their loved one’s death. Back at my hotel, I was overcome with sadness that a young man’s life should have ended so abruptly in such a cruel fashion, but consoled by the fact that Mark was killed doing the thing he loved best. He died living his boyhood dream of being a TT racer. And as someone said after Mark’s death: ‘The brave do not live for ever, but the cautious do not live at all.’
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