The Isle of Goose TT: T-T-Licious!
The Isle of Man TT remains the pinnacle of motorcycle racing for many factory and privateers competitors. Run on public roads without the typical safety barriers and run-offs specific to sanctioned racing events, to protect both competitors and spectators, the Isle of Man race course has been deemed too dangerous for inclusion in the required circuit for international competition. Yet the legendary IOM TT continues to inspire racers from all over the world who see it as a kind of Holy Grail of racing, requiring skills and a discipline not demanded by sanctioned tracks. For both professional and Mad Sunday racer wannabes, miscalculations in increments however minute can result in defeat as well as unspeakable tragedy.
So why run the TT? “Because,” according to Dave Roper, the only American to have won the TT, “it’s something you can’t do any place else in the world. It’s a unique privilege to race on public roads. It’s also unique in that you get combinations of corners you can’t duplicate in the sanctioned circuit. Plus the tradition is an attraction for sure.” He also describes it as “incredibly crazy, dangerous and satisfying . . . On the one hand it’s the best thing you can do [as a racer], on the other it’s totally insane.”
There is an unlikely inspiration spawned by the IOM TT legend and history, born on a tiny island in the river that runs through Chicago, Illinois, in the distant U.S. of A., across the pond from the U.K.. Known as Goose Island, the tiny spit of land is home to various industrial businesses and warehouses, one of which is owned by a local man who collects antique cars. Among the three-wheeled Messerschmitts, Isettas and Citroins, among others, are numerous open mechanics’ bays as well as enclosed shops, rented out to individuals, one of which is the headquarters of “Urschel’s Friendly Enfield Service.” Mike Urschel has specialized in the repair and rebuilding of British bikes for over thirty years, and is a creature of the local section Vincent Owners Club, which has taken up meeting at the “Goose Island Garage” on Wednesday evenings to share beers and glean free advice and service tips from Urschel. The Wednesday evening meetings draw non-Vincent owning enthusiasts, many of them younger and attracted by the exotic machinery and collective wealth of knowledge. Many of these hangers-on are aficionados of esoteric smaller displacement machines, marques such as Benelli, Puch, and Allstate, as well as the early Japanese fours, all of which can be found easily at local swap meets and had cheaply.
It was on such an evening that Steve Stewart and Mark Anderson took a borrowed Continental GT for a test ride around the island, when the concept of a race was formed. The public road encircles the island at a distance of 1.1 miles and includes mixed surfaces, railroad tracks, and crosses Division Street twice, once at a stop sign, the other at a light which changes when the pedestrian trip button is hit. The distance, its confinement and its shape suggested a perfect venue for testing the limitations of smaller machines, and thus the clandestine Isle of Goose TT was conceived.
The opportunity for amusement with comparisons to and contrasts with the granddaddy of all motorcycle road races was not lost on the race organizers. The name was a no-brainer, and an IOG flag was designed with fat, plodding water fowl feet as a brilliant parody of the IOM triskele with its trim armored legs. Racing rules and regulations (see Appendix) were constructed, but, rather than to provide hard and fast guidelines for technical and safety regulations, according to Stewart, “to be as inclusive as possible with enough loopholes, i.e., interpretation, written in that we could change them as we saw fit.” Timed laps and reengineered second-hand trophies were incorporated. “We tried to model the TT after the actual TT—sort of an open track situation, going as fast as you can go, with the standing start and all,” Stewart explained.
But instead of 1000cc sportbikes, competition machines are limited to 50-100ccs, reflecting the personal interest of the race organizers as well as the collective humor of the competitors. The Isle of Goose TT has been raced on step-throughs, mopeds, scooters, and small motorcycles, of all ages, makes and models--from the pristine, blueprinted and jetted, to the rescued rat--an array of bikes that could belong in the circus, the junk heap, or a museum. The race has been deemed a “wuss bike” event by the racers, who have democratically determined you’re riding a “wuss bike” if your helmet is larger than your gas tank, if hanging off is the only way to appear fast, when your face shield slows you down, and when the only way to further lighten your bike is to go on a diet.
Just as the IOM TT has four classes—Superstock, Superbike, Supersport and Senior—the IOG race event has classes: “Wuss Class” or Middleweight, for 50cc with tranny; “Ultra Wuss Class” or Lightweight, for 50cc automatics; and the Heavyweight class or Open (perhaps “Monster Wuss”?), for 50cc to 100cc. Besides the race run on the street, there is a parking lot Grand Prix, featuring five laps on a “short track,” with bikes split up by type to equalize the competition. The Timed Trials is a winnable event, although it also determines starting position for the main event, and laps are timed with a Hotwheels stopwatch. The Le Mans standing staggered start—NOT a feature of the IOM TT—adds some macho flair to an otherwise ludicrously tame event. Although the staggered start was designed to contribute toward a “fabulous finish” for the main event, the organizers readily confess they “never got the math right.”
Left: IOG racer taking a turn. Photo: Trevor Sadler, Mastermind Motorsports
Right: Isle of Goose racers. Photo: Rich Wood. (Click to enlarge.)
As at the Isle of Man during TT Week, when the Douglas population swells from 30,000 to 100,000, the industrial-zoned Goose Island, normally deserted on a Sunday, is thronged by spectators there to become part of the scene, or “TT Festival,” if you will, with coffee and donuts in hand, as well as cameras. It is telling that, with two races run a year, one in spring and one in late fall, due to frosty Chicago temperatures, “the winter one is much better because people were there to participate,” according to Stewart.
Why run the IOG TT? “This is the closest these guys and women will ever get to riding something this eccentric, dangerous and prestigious,” Stewart explains. Though one contender on a new Derbi was overheard and seen practicing the course for weeks in advance of a race date, typical preparation involves buying a beater for $25, putting some gas in the tank and getting it running. Furthermore, Stewart elaborated, “It’s against the law to race in the city, but if anybody passed the cops they wouldn’t know we were racing,” since the typical IOG TT bike can’t go faster than 10 mph over the posted speed limit—if that. Although a paddy wagon did show up at the first ever event, “We just said we were having a rally,” explained Anderson, and as the event in progress was the slow race, one police officer remarked “that she hoped ‘it caught on’.” Oddly, a police car has been present every morning of a scheduled IOG TT when the promoters arrive, around 6:45 a.m., but departs once the crowd begins to grow, possibly maintaining a presence to deter auto drag racing, which occurs on occasion due to the isolation and lack of overnight residents. Should a police round-up occur, IOG TT riders have discussed possible escape via the freight train bridge off the island.
The IOM TT has been plagued with problems that at times have threatened its very existence. After losing its status in World Championship competition in 1977, factory riders could opt out of participation. This led to a drop in quality of competition, and “a continued decline in the TT’s perceived status” (Duckworth 237). The resultant drop in media coverage, added to the difficulties in getting to the island, slowed the spectator stream and impacted the economics of hosting the event, fueling local discontent, since the TT inconveniences far more of the island’s occupants than those who benefit from it.
By contrast, IOG TT competitors are all privateers, many of whom have never been on a bike track or raced before, with little invested in bike preparation or worries regarding skill level. Underscoring the recent fantastic win of a 2005 model bike, the organizers are considering a ban on bikes newer than 1980, with the exception of scooters, to deliberately limit the quality of the competition. While the physical location of Goose Island has it surrounded by water, it is near the heart of downtown Chicago, and easily traversed by a major thoroughfare, versus the twenty-minute air flight or four-hour ferry ride to the Isle of Man. Once on “The Goose,” its industrial flavor is in stark contrast to the Isle of Man’s verdant growth. The course itself, at 1.1 miles and five turns, contrasts wildly with 37.75 miles and 360 turns on the Isle of Man, including a mountain to traverse! Eleven-time IOM TT winner John McGuinness’s fastest lap at 126.18 mph (Wright 267) is a stark contrast to the IOG TT’s fastest time at 1:27 minutes, or 45.5 mph.
The greatest threat to the IOM TT is the danger presented by the course, with its torturous turns and often bumpy straightaways lined with stone fences, houses, trees, and over zealous spectators. Rider error, bike failure, pedestrians and animals on the course, and bad weather conditions, are the top contenders, and media coverage increases when deaths occur, highlighting the tragedies and resulting in a public outcry for the end of the TT. Conversely, IOG TT racers often ride junk machines, and it is not uncommon for a bike to begin to smoke and quickly seize while on the course, or run out of gas, although, unlike at Isle of Man, the Goose offers plenty of run-off for exiting riders. Road conditions are not extreme enough to pose a threat for the limited speeds squeezed out of a 100cc motor, thus the greatest danger is the traffic crossing on Division Street. The racing has always been scheduled on Sunday mornings at 7:30, however recent economic development of Goose Island, as well as gentrification of the surrounding neighborhoods, has brought more traffic at all times of day down this major artery. Thus a race marshal—one of a small handful present at the IOG TT—is positioned to trip the pedestrian light switch as the bikes approach the intersection, as those who don’t make the light lose precious minutes waiting for the next green, if they choose to stop for the traffic light (see Appendix #6). This is the one element of true danger in this TT, as illustrated in the last IOG TT, when a pile-up occurred as one rider skidded into another while braking at the light, pushing him into cross traffic, which somehow managed to avoid him. Injuries in the IOG TT have so far been limited to minor cases of road rash due to ambitious attempts at stunt riding on underpowered bikes with inadequate suspension.
Population growth and development spelled the end for the last true flat-out head to head legal motorcycle race run on public roads in the U. S., at Steamboat Springs, Colorado, in 1998. Touting itself today as “Ski Town, USA,” with “the sophistication of a world-class resort” (“Steamboat”), the course is lined with newer vacation condos whose transplanted residents found the closing of public roads and subsequent inability to come and go from their homes at will an inconvenience. Likewise, with the Isle of Man’s population now at 51% non-native born, the bond of pride and tradition with the TT is becoming weaker with time. But each year the IOM Ministry of Trade and Industry still invests $2.5 million in promoting the TT both as a tourist event as well as an opportunity for island residents to both join in the fun, with plenty of events planned within the fortnight of TT Festival, and benefit economically from the event, which generates $17 million in revenues.
In contrast to this well-oiled publicity machine that springs into action a year before the IOM TT, promotionof the IOG TT occurs mostly by word of mouth, in a deliberate effort to keep it “off the grid” and under the radar of law enforcement. Cryptic notices appear on web-based small bike forums such as ChiVinMoto and www.2strokebuzz.com, a scooter website. One announcement cited from 2003 reads, “ChiVinMoto is hosting another Isle of Goose TT . . . on Sunday. . . . If you don’t know where [it] is run, you’re not invited.”
Media coverage has included articles in print publications Long Riders (Slawinski, “Duck” 40-42) and IronWorks (Holdsworth 55), on the web at www.kristigerlady.com (Slawinski, “T-T-Licious!”) and on Team Chicago Challenge, a cable TV motorcycle race program. Dan Schmitt, the TV show’s producer and host, is a current U.S. endurance race champion, has raced the IOG TT three times, and produced three half-hour shows with footage from a helmet-mounted camera. Schmitt is also the current reigning IOG TT champion, having bested the average time of two minutes in 2005 on a 2000 Kawasaki MX80 motocross mini bike with street tires with a time of 1:27. TV coverage has given the race legendary status among viewers, who approach Anderson and Stewart at local bike events to acknowledge them with kudos. “We’re treated like some kind of gods,” Stewart relates with wonder.
Click here to see a short video of the IOG TT riders in action.
The popularity of this event with TV viewers, who include armchair as well as amateur racers and other bike enthusiasts, belies America’s fascination with small time grassroots racing, the “run what you brung” mentality of an era that Spiceman laments as having “gotten out of reach for the common guy” (21) these days. This is certainly a huge part of the appeal for participants of the IOG TT, and has long been a part of the history of racing on the Isle of Man.
As we have seen, the IOG TT has little in common with its inspiration except its name, which has provided it significant purchase in capturing the imagination and attention of a small group of enterprising and game participants, as well as incredulous and amused spectators and TV viewers. The IOG TT is unlikely to have any reciprocal impact on its namesake, except for the occasional curator or researcher who may stumble upon the DVD of a Team Chicago Challenge episode on the race that now resides in the TT collection at the Manx Museum, and see potential in a comparison of its oddness to the original.
It has been three years since the last IOG TT was run, mostly because the race organizers have young families and work pressures that dominate their time. They have not given up on holding another TT on The Goose in the future, but admit that they have considered moving the event to a go-kart course in the near west suburbs, for increased safety as well as more realistic course challenges. As for the race that inspired it all, none of the IOG TT competitors have actually seen it in person, nor do any of them ever expect to participate in it. Indeed, it is likely that few really understand what the IOM TT is all about—they just want to run their bikes around close to home with buddies and get home in time to have Sunday breakfast with their families. Even Anderson and Stewart admit that the possibility of going to the Isle of Man to observe the races, however much they may dream of it, is remote.
In spite of the disparities of the two events, participating in the lesser imparts a similar type of cachet and status to the racer as the more formidable (perhaps due to its “outlaw” nature as an illegal event). The organizers make no bones about the tongue-in-cheekiness of the IOG TT, but, when the bikes are lined up at the start, riders revving loudly with mock bravado, as Stewart puts it, “They all want to win the TT!”
Anderson, Mark. Personal interview. 10 Jan. 2007.
Duckworth, Mick. TT 100: The Official Authorized History of the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy Racing. Isle of Man: Lily Publications, 2007.
Holdsworth, Paul. “Isle of Goose TT: An American . . . Classic?” IronWorks, November 2003: 55.
Slawinski, Kris. “Duck, Duck, Goose!” Long Riders, March 2003: 40-42.
---. “T-T-Licious: Chicago’s Very Peculiar Isle of Goose TT.” Tiger Talk 3 (December 2002-January 2003). http://www.kristigerlady.com/
Spiceman. Motorcycho Magazine, April 2005: 21.
Steamboat. “About Steamboat.” http://www.steamboat.com/index.aspx
Stewart, Steve. Personal interview. 10 Jan. 2007.
Roper, David. Telephone interview. 7 Jan. 2007.
Wright, David. 100 Years of the Isle of Man TT: A Century of Motorcycle Racing. Singapore: Craft Print International Ltd, 2007.
APPENDIX—2003 IOG TT RIDERS RULES
1. All racers must wear proper safety gear: Helmet, leather jacket and pants (we will over look jeans), boots and gloves.
We have noticed a flaw in our starting of the main event and will be changing that technique, please pay attention at the riders meeting.
Images and text copyright © International Journal of Motorcycle Studies