25 May 2003
The 40-year-old veteran, with 11 TT wins to his name on the ever-dangerous Isle of Man circuit, shows no sign of slowing down
Is courage just the fag end of fearlessness? Steve Hislop has been racing motorbikes for 24 years. He has won 11 TT races round the Isle of Man. He has had some of the most gory smashes you could ever imagine. Yet last September he became British Superbike champion for the second time at the not so youthful age of 40. The cigar must soon be smoked through.
You would not always believe it. “It was here that it happened,” he said, eyes shining as he stopped the car 11 miles out of Douglas to show us when the madness finally struck. He got on to the bank of this country road to Kirk Michael which is one of the fastest parts of the Isle of Man’s 37-mile circuit. The view down to the west gave us the beach and the sea, but Hislop’s mind was set back south down the road to where the memories were.
“My mate and I were sitting here eating our piece [Scottish for lunch] when I picked up the engine noise,” he said. “It was Norman Brown’s RG500 howling down the Cronk-y-Voddy straight towards us. `vrrrrrrrrrm, vrrrrrrrrm’. He came up over the crest, braked hard, back shifted the gears a couple, bip, bip, and then roared off towards Handley’s. Joey Dunlop was right behind him and seemed even quicker. They were going so fast they almost blew me off the banking.”
The memory is so well minted that he relates it almost exactly to the text of the vivid and uncompromising autobiography which comes out on June 3 to coincide with this year’s TT races, for which practice began yesterday. But the significance of the tale is in its chronology even more than its location. For this was 1983. Hislop was 20 and to his own, and most others’ reckoning, definitely on the downward path.
An idyllic if bike-obsessed youth, spent just south of Hawick, was shattered at 17 when his dad, a jobbing joiner who sacrificed his own racing ambitions to support his wife and two sons, had a heart attack and died in Hislop’s arms. Worse was to come. Two years later Hislop’s friend Eric Glendinning was murdered in the fish-and-chip queue one Saturday night. The next year Hislop’s younger brother, Garry, was killed on a little track called Shiloth just a month after he had made a brilliant winning debut on the Isle of Man.
Hislop was in a mess. The fearlessness had always been there, childhood games included rolling down a hill inside a giant tractor wheel. So had been the motorbike dream. As a small boy he had crouched on the arm of the sofa and done his own Isle of Man commentary . . . “and Jimmy Guthrie [Hawick’s legendary six TT-winning son] is coming out of Quarterbridge and heading into Braddan.” But now fatherless, friendless and brotherless, nothing seemed worthwhile. Until those bikes hit him over the hill.
“In those split seconds that it took Brown and Dunlop to hammer past me in 1983,” he writes, “my life had changed forever. I determined there and then that if I never did anything else in my meaningless life, I would try to ride round the TT circuit like those boys. My mind was made up.”
A month later he was second in a newcomer’s race on the circuit. Within three years he was standing on the podium after winning the TT’s Formula Two race with a new ignition bought from a whip-round in the burger queue the night before. The story of the next 10 victories continues on its glorious, neither celibate nor teetotal trail. But Hislop has not ridden the Isle of Man since winning the Senior TT in 1994. As he drove us on past the overhanging trees, stone-walled banks and the bumpy, paved villages through which next week’s riders will roar, you begin to understand why.
“It was here that Brian Reed fell off his 250 in 1966,” he says, once again stopping the car to paint the picture. Lean, shaven-headed, 5ft 8in and 10½ stone, he is a jockey still. “This is Ballaugh Bridge, the bike seized up on the point of the hump, threw him over the handlebars and broke his collar-bone. They got the helicopter to him but as it landed, it frightened a horse which jumped out of its field and ran into the road where Gene Macdonald hit it at 160 miles an hour.”
Sudden deaths sear deep into the consciousness. In 1989, the year that Hislop became the first rider to set a 120mph lap and only the third to win three TT races in a week, there were five fatalities and at Quarry Bends he should have made it six. “The front end tucked under and I was thrown from the bike at about 140mph and headed straight for a brick wall. I was sliding backwards on my back staring straight at the sky and I can remember thinking `F*** no, this is it, I’m going to die’.”
By some miracle his path changed and he landed on the grass, got up and won next day, just as he survived the “to-the-limit” rockiness of his epic duel with Carl Fogarty in 1992 and his loss of three spokes before that final victory in 1994. “I still believe in my own ability round here and I don’t want the races banned,” he says as we come into the 90-degree turn in Ramsay’s Parliament Square at the north of the Island, “but when mechanical components are out of your hands, this place is very unforgiving. If a wheel breaks on the Superbike circuits, you can have an awkward fall and just break a wrist or something.”
Not always. He broke his neck in a sensational Brands Hatch pile-up in 2000 and all but severed his foot when hitting the wall at Rockingham in 2001. It suggests an almost death-wish lifestyle contradicted by the near-obsessively tidy semi-detached in Douglas and the clear devotion to his two young sons. As he points out the millionaire flat occupied by World Superbike ace Niall Hodgson overlooking the sea, you wonder if it’s the simple need for finance in the less-remunerated local scene that keeps him going.
Sitting at the table he admits that after his shock replacement in the Monstermob Ducati team by current leader Shaky Byrne in the close season, his new post with Virgin Yamaha is very much a development process and hard work is needed to get higher than his present sixth place in the rankings. The phrase “It’s just a job” lingers as we drive back through Douglas. But then we reach the bike shop.
Outside is a scarlet R60. It is a 600cc road bike capable of 180 mph. It looks very small. In a moment of almost insane bravado, I had asked if he would take me round the TT course. Helmet and gloves were fitted and in a “this cannot really be happening” trance I was up behind `Hizzy’ as we roared into the traffic. My cigar was in the dustbin long ago.
At first the terror was total. At the traffic lights, I all but knocked him over the handlebars. At the garage, I actually fell flat while trying to dismount. At the first sight of oncoming traffic, my head involuntary jerked to the pavement side. But gradually you realised that you were clamped on to someone for whom speed was the natural element.
In the Sulby straight before Ramsay, a burst of acceleration took us quickly over 80mph. After we climbed out of the Ramsay hairpin, the throttle went a bit wider than that. A storm had broken and the rain was now hitting hard on the helmet, but over his shoulder you could see the speedometer: 80mph, 90, 100, 120. The fingers dug hard into Hislop’s chest to keep some grip on life, let alone reality. The needle retreated as we eased to a mere 80 for the descent.
At Keppel Gate, we stopped for the sun to come through for the photos. Without a trace of irony, Hislop apologised for having to go so slowly because of the traffic and that we now had to hurry to get his boy out of school. Sometime soon Hislop will have to take himself away from the racetrack. Whether he ever takes the track from himself may be another matter.