Get Acquainted With The Tighter, More Technical Road Race Held On The Isle Of Man
Photography by Will Broadhead
In a sleepy corner of the Isle of Man, in the parish of Malew, lies Castletown, the ancient capital of the island. Not much goes on here now, with field-flanked roads hinting at the arable activities of the local farmers and not much else. Indeed the only real disturbance to the tranquillity of the scene is the occasional passenger jet departing from the nearby airport of Ronaldsway. Three times a year though, the roads that cut veins through the fields are traversed by racing motorcycles, a two-wheeled show that transforms the tableau’s sound and color. The Isle of Man isn’t just about the TT you see—there is motorsport happening across the Island throughout the year—but in my opinion by far the best of these non-TT events is the annual Southern 100 Motorcycle Races.
The Southern 100 takes place upon the Billown Circuit, 4.5 miles of public road that twists and turns its way from Castletown past farm buildings and through the hamlets that nestle its corners at Ballakeighan, Ballabeg, and Cross Four-Ways. Where the TT is about outright speed, Billown is a tighter and more technical loop, with one other important distinction: the Southern 100 is not a time trial. Meaning the riders leave the grid in a mass start.
They say there are only two walls to worry about at Billown, the one on the left and the one on the right, and whilst the Southern may not be the flat-out, white-knuckle ride of the TT, it is still just as dangerous and just as difficult in its own ways, this is a street circuit after all, and all of us there this year were unfortunately reminded of that fact, when young star James Cowton paid the ultimate price for his endeavor. A grim aide-mémoire of the sinister side of the sport that we love.
Still, you can’t love the excitement of the sport without accepting what can come with it, and boy is this a tremendous place to watch motorcycle racing! The riders love this event and as a spectator, it is easily my favorite event of the year too. The racing is close-quarters, with frantic scraps for the lead a common occurrence as bikes slipstream each other down the bumps and undulations of the straights, tipping into the ultra-fast corners at Stadium and Great Meadow and brushing the walls through Church Bends.
There is plenty of overtaking too, with tight corners making up the links between the straights of the square track. It isn’t unusual to see a final lap, “last of the late-brakers” maneuver into the concluding corner at Castletown, back wheels in the air and the bikes snaking on the anchors as the riders search for the fine line between ultimate stopping power and lack of adhesion.
The majority of the top riders turn out for the races, and since the first Southern 100 in 1955 the winners and competitors here have included some of the best to ever compete on the street. Phil Read, Tom Heron, Phillip McCallen, Guy Martin, and of course the great Joey Dunlop. Ian Lougher is the most successful rider of all time between the walls of Billown, but in the past few years the main protagonists have been TT stars Dean Harrison and Michael Dunlop, and at the minute there is a surge in young talent nipping right behind them. Racers like Joey Thompson and Davey Todd, who are as flamboyant as they come, wringing the neck of their machines with a certain vitriol, more often than not with the front wheel pawing at the air or the rear of the machine sliding super-moto style into a corner.
It isn’t just solos either, as like at the TT, sidecars take part in the racing here too, and the bravery of the passengers is even more apparent at a place like this as their leathers kiss the walls whilst hanging off their machines, trusting the pilots that make up their duo to position the pair millimeter-perfect to the walls. For the stat lovers amongst you, the fastest lap time around Billown sees an average speed of 115.707mph—it’s not slow, and on such tight roads with the fabulous spectator vantage points on offer, the pace of the bikes should be taken with a grain of relativity: these aren’t a bunch of straightaways.
Racing at Billown is frantic, exhilarating. The sensations felt as a peloton of superbikes streams past you on the first lap, transmitting their noise and motion through the ground like a herd of marauding animals never fails to raise my heart rate. There are any number of astonishing places to watch from—for example the Billown Dip, where the front wheels of the bike wave through the air as they traverse the descent and flip-flop left and right past Gelling’s farm—so you won’t feel crowded and like you’ve got limited access.
It is a sight to behold from whichever perch you take though, and each race presents a seemingly vital pursuit of speed around one of the best circuits in the world, but without the crowds and commotion of the TT. It is perhaps the Isle of Man’s best-kept secret, and a superb way to experience the thrill of pure motorcycle road racing without breaking the bank. Despite, or perhaps in spite, of the tragic end to this year’s meeting, I will be back next year. I just can’t imagine my summer without it.
My thoughts and prayers are with the family and friends of James Cowton and with Ivan Lintin, whilst he continues his fight and recovery.