Chris Lawrance sits at a table in his Point Wells General Store. A warm breeze wafts through the open window. Jan, his wife, greets customers from behind the counter. It’s a peaceful morning in downtown Point Wells … a far cry from where these two will be next month: The Isle of Man Tourist Trophy, the oldest, scariest and deadliest motorcycle race in the world.
When the roads on this tiny isle in the Irish Sea were first gouged out of the landscape, they were only intended for horse-drawn carts with one or two horsepower. In 1907, some nutter decided it might be fun to blat around the islet on ‘touring’ bikes. The Isle of Man TT was born. Today, the sidecar race over three laps of the 60.7-kilometre Snaefell Mountain Course on everyday public roads no wider than the streets of Point Wells is proof that insanity has become tradition.
“I’m addicted!” admits Chris. “I’ve raced sidecars at home and abroad for decades with my brother Richard.” But the jewel in the crown was missing. In 1996, the pair decided to tackle the ultimate challenge for man and machine… “Just once! Just to say we’d done it. I have the medal at home,” says Chris with a wicked twinkle. This May, the three-wheeler virtuoso and his ‘swinger’ sibling in the sidecar will contest their seventh Isle of Man TT race. “This will be our last TT,” Chris insists. “I swear! We’re aiming for an average of 170 kph just to prove that we can do it.”
Chris Lawrance is well acquainted with the circuit. After his successful finish in 2000, he had no money to get off the island. For the next two years he earned his bread by delivering it. “At 6am in the morning the road over the mountain was empty so I’d drive the bread van as fast as it could go,” he recalls with a chuckle. “On the outskirts of Douglas I’d stop and restack the loaves. It was a great way to learn the course.”
When the two-time New Zealand champions dump the clutch on their 600cc Formula 2 BLR Honda sidecar in this race against the clock, their job is to go like hell and focus on not having a close encounter of the calamitous kind. And the perils are plenty: dry stone walls, telegraph poles, letter boxes, sheep fences, high curbs, manhole covers and sun strike through tree-lined green tunnels. They hurtle perilously close to picture-postcard cottages, duck under overbridges, squeeze through narrow country lanes and hopefully adhere to the immortal words of Joey Dunlop, 26-time winner of the TT: “There’s a grey blur and a green blur. Try to stay on the grey one…”
The two are no strangers to losing skin on the green bits. In 2003, they were going full-tilt in sixth gear along the mountain moorland doing about 240 kph when the bike nicked a marker post. “Marshals reckoned we flew higher than a double-decker bus. A sheep fence stopped me, Richard ended up down the road,” recalls Chris. “We were pretty bashed up. Lots of broken bones, I burst my nostrils and Richard popped an eye socket. The crash site was so remote I didn’t think anyone had seen us go off the mountain. Luckily, a helicopter arrived within minutes.”
It took twelve years for the brothers to return: “I had this hereditary kidney condition. While the specialists were checking me out for a transplant they discovered a leaky heart valve. Richard said he’d give me one of his kidneys if I kept racing,” says Chris, with a grin.
The TT fascination is not just reserved for competitors. Every year, the organisers open the mountain course to the public. It’s called Mad Sunday. Speed limits? None! Wannabe racers from around the world, most likely hung-over, are let loose in their cars or on their bikes. Chris: “The road gets closed every few minutes because of crashes. We keep well clear. Sometimes we go up on the mountain and watch the idiots doing their stuff.”
The world traveller has a well-stocked vault of stories to tell, which he’ll share in his upcoming book Living the Dream. He just has one more chapter to write.
As they say in Manx Gaelic: Aigh vie, Chris! Good luck!