wearing orange

It has been an incredibly sad few months amongst the little community I spend much of my time within. A horrifying and scarring set of events, that has given way to a wave of bereavement, grief, and weariness. For me, a personal reassessment has come due. With growing sense of the barbaric. A coliseum. Like we are all complicit in the loss of our heroes, loved ones, paddock colleagues. It has begun to seem grotesque to me.

And here, and honestly, I am questioning myself. For my continued passion, for facilitating the sport, as spectator, and marshal. As an avid motorsport enthusiast and seeker of knowledge, in this unique sport we love. Am struggling with acknowledgement that I, perhaps we, have not yet found the humane limit of acceptable.

Over the last few months the world of road racing has been faced with deaths of their most loved, most admired, young stars. A harrowing experience for all involved, both on circuit and off. And yet people reflexively intone they would want us to continue. Media platforms are populated with proclamations that “they died doing what they loved…” Families have rallied and haltingly requested we carry on in memorial. And I will not take this latter from them. I have not been there, awaiting news under those paddock awnings, in the hospital hallways, in the coroner’s office. So grant me opinion without personal insight. For a moment at least.


From Appledene Gate towards Kennels, remembering the lovingly nicknamed and awe-inspiring ‘Dan Kneen Line’ through this part of the Mountain Course.

If I believed in existence of a Big Viewing Deck in the Sky, and thought they were looking down at the mess left behind, if I imagined them watching during the days, weeks, years following their death… I wonder at the certainty we assume. At the unquestioning belief that upon reflection those killed by their sport would unanimously agree wholesale we should continue. I proffer, with posthumous observation, perhaps they’d acknowledge a challenge to their sacrifice. The choosing of risk, the desire so strong they put road racing above their children’s needs, loved ones, family’s future. The trauma experienced by roadside volunteers and liability landed on officials. As each heart-breaking event unfolds… upon reflection, maybe some would question our continued commitment? That the driving force to conquer roads and machinery and their own mental limitations, may not seem so important if they saw, really understood, the direct responsibility they have for the personal grief and devastation left in their wake.

rsz_mercerI have read a number of riders are calling some time-out, to heal and reassess. This cannot be easy and have utmost respect for them – to live with what they have seen and experienced, must be incredibly affecting, haunting. To forsake the gathering of friends and fellow competitors, the buzz of pre-race nerves, the racing, the highest accolades. Respect. I know marshals, circuit-side for decades, who have chosen to step away. This is important, an indication of the gravity of situation. Ours is a tight community; loss is felt deeply.  But then we see this agonising message from Steve Mercer, in hospital having fought for his life, for his future. And in sadness are uplifted.

There are 10 other countries that host motorcycle road racing events (if infrequently), in line wherever possible with the traditional ‘closed road’ format. Most have distinctly dissimilar landscapes from that found on IOM and in Ireland. Without 300 year old drystone walls running narrowly alongside, trees edging (and in middle of) circuits, or other ancient buildings and rural road furniture. They are different beasts. You know what I am saying.

Here, Samantha Wanless briefly, but with sensitivity, outlines her feelings on the subject. And I include it to offer balance and also because I know most of you will read and agree with her thoughts – sometimes, in moments of doubt it is helpful to find language that affirms your point of view: The Truth About Road Racing.

Thank you to Samantha for sharing (I hope she doesn’t mind my inclusion of this link). I want to note that I do not accept her premise. Feel like this has become much more nuanced, more time should be taken to really look at the sport from all angles. And maybe without so much of our hearts.

I am fascinated by frequent comparison to climbing Everest and subsequent death stats. At 8,848 metres, the mountain represents the ultimate challenge for climbers and adventurers. As background, it costs around US$45,000 per climb. This covers visas, permits, and basic insurances. The permit cost (purely permission to climb) is fixed at US$11,000 per climber. This does not include years of training, cost of gear, or travel.

Statistically the top causes of death are avalanche, falling, altitude sickness, and exposure. I could not find any documented numbers for deaths specifically caused by gear malfunction or based on climbing infrastructure breaking down. Data suggests scaling Everest is much easier than it used to be (not exactly a Sunday stroll). It is also getting safer. In 1990 only 18% of summit attempts were successful, in 2012 56%. Deaths are declining. Repeat – declining. From 2000 to 2017 there were 7,056 summits and 118 deaths. This is approximately 1.7%. I am not going to do the comparative maths for road racing deaths across UK, Ireland or IOM. But you get the idea. Tourism money into these small, otherwise isolated, communities will ensure whilst the economy benefits adventurers will be granted permits to climb – however, both access countries are re-establishing previous restrictions, implementing new rules, and monitoring local social impact, as they learn how better to manage their mountain course.

I am heading back to the Isle of Man in a few weeks. Booked holiday for Killalane again for later in year. Have already made travel plans for the new season’s Cookstown and Tandragee festivals. But I am sitting here with heavy heart and wondering how many more sad sunsets we face, we accept, for this exhilarating, beautiful, destructive, sport.


(sources: thebmc.co.uk, telegraph.co.uk, economictimes.com, thetimes.co.uk, ma.org.au)


3 thoughts on “wearing orange

  1. Thank you for sharing your heartfelt sentiments and also for suggesting that others might benefit from reflecting on the larger context in which all involved in the sport find themselves.
    There is no doubt that dedication and sacrifice have a different definition in the context of road racing. It’s the pinnacle of risk in motor sport. It seems to select for people who, above all else, thrive on nearly super human feats of strength, willpower, and skill.

    • Thank you. They are no mere mortals, ay? Very special human beings. The breathlessness that I have, the awareness of my heart beating as each goes passed – no matter who or where in the race – is utterly addictive and captivating. I am honoured to be roadside for them. Every time.

  2. Thinking Outside the Box. It doesn’t disrespect the racers, organisers or marshals to acknowledge the scale of the losses and injuries suffered by riders, & consequently by their families. And it’s not a weakness to grieve for that wider suffering. As years and Death notices continue to go by, that “My god, is it worth it” feeling hits me too. But I don’t say this with any sense of ‘It shouldn’t be allowed’. Those taking part, as competitors or trackside marshals, do indeed know the risks and – in the case of the latter – that includes emotional risk and vulnerability.
    I’ll stop waffling now, but thanks Jo.

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