Places like the Nürburgring and 24 Hours of Le Mans are most likely must-visits on every gearhead’s bucket list, as they should be, but it’s time to add another magical place to that list: The Isle of Man.
Nestled just off the shores of Britain and not too far from Ireland, the Isle of Man is only 355 square miles. Don’t let its small size fool you, though; the roads that cover the land are some of the most exhilarating on the planet, and most of them don’t have a speed limit.
That’s why every year for the past 93 years, motorcyclists have raced around a 37.8-mile road course that can only be described as the Nürburgring on steroids plus more steroids and then some. Before visiting the Isle of Man, I’d heard about the TT races and even watched some videos of the action, but to experience firsthand the madness of this event is the only way to truly appreciate it.
If the average speed of 131 mph on a motorcycle around the course doesn’t get your eyebrows up, then just imagine going flat out at near 200 mph through city roads that are uneven, worn from daily use, and have homes, trees, bushes, and other potentially deadly obstacles just inches away from your two-wheel speed machine. There’s a reason they say this is the most dangerous race in the world and anyone willing to compete must have a screw loose. Don’t think for one minute that’s folklore; 237 professional riders and countless more wannabe racers have died since the race’s inception.
Up until two years ago, automobiles never officially raced the course, however, thanks to the efforts of Subaru, one of its ’11 turbocharged AWD Impreza STIs ran a 19:37-second lap time with Isle of Man native and multiple British Rally Championship holder Mark Higgins. His hot lap became a worldwide YouTube phenomenon when Higgins lost control at more than 130 mph and with some unbelievable hand work was able to save the STI from crashing into one of the many homes lining the street. Search YouTube for “Mark Higgins near crash” if you haven’t seen the clip.
As you can imagine, when I was invited to drive this course in a ’13 Subaru BRZ, I was giddy all over and scared sh*tless at the same time.
Sadly, I would be robbed of that opportunity thanks to the unkind hand of Mother Nature.
When we arrived at the Isle of Man, a massive storm was moving in and brought enough rain with it that the event organizers had to cancel the next day’s racing, which meant the circuit would be open to the public and we wouldn’t be able to drive our BRZs around the closed course. What we could do, though, is drive the circuit with some interruptions from traffic. With Mark Higgins leading the group, it certainly wasn’t lethargic—quite the opposite, really, as the pace at times dug into triple-digit speeds. Thankfully, we were in one of the best-handling cars on the market. The BRZ was a star during our drive, showing off its incredible ability to be driven fast with confidence. You’d think driving a RWD car up a mountain in pouring rain and fog would be downright nerve racking, but thanks to such a well-engineered package, it was quite the opposite.
Despite the soggy conditions, I was able to get a great sense of what an amazing and incredibly technical course this is. There are so many variations of high- and low-speed corners, elevation changes, and hazards that I simply can’t imagine anyone remembering the entire course, and that, to me, is what makes it so challenging. Get one high-speed corner wrong, and if you don’t go flying off into the trees, you’ve scrubbed enough speed that you’ll never make up the time. This is a race won by veterans, not rookies.
With the rain carrying on well into the night and the next day, we would have plenty more time to put the BRZ’s wet-handling capabilities to the test, as Subaru had a real treat in store for us. We would get a ride-along in a rally-prepped BRZ with none other than Mark Higgins driving. But to get out to the rally stage, another proper follow-the-leader convoy commenced. This time the pace was feverish, and we drove the very same roads that competitors do during the Isle of Man International Rally. Let me tell you, I thought our BRZ was going to fall apart during some of these stages. We were flying down single-lane narrow roads on the suspension’s bumpstops while maneuvering around bumps, cracks, and holes big enough to snap a front tire off like a twig. This was rally style driving at its finest, minus the rally cars, and somehow, to everyone’s surprise, not a single BRZ suffered any breakage, although, I’ll bet most of the cars needed their alignments checked.
Driving the rally roads was a great lead up to the ride-along with Mark because it was amazing how much smoother (despite going much faster) the ride in the rally-prepped BRZ was. The thuds and puddles of water were soaked up with ease, and equally impressive was Mark Higgins’ driving. I never doubted the BRZ would be an excellent platform for a race car, but this solidified my beliefs.
With gaps in the rain, we were finally able to experience some of the racing during the event, and it is a spectacle that must be seen with your very own two eyes. Video and pictures do not do it any justice. Add in some track action with the BRZs, and this event was one for the record books.
So if you’re planning a trip somewhere in the near future that happens to be close to the end of May, then I urge you to come check out the Isle of Man TT race. Even if motorcycles aren’t your fancy, the island itself is a must visit for any gearhead. Just remember, leave the wife and kids at home because you’ll want to drive these roads at speeds they won’t approve of.