November 2007: Special TT Centenary Issue

Do You Believe in Fairies?

Michelle Ann Duff

Legend has it that a giant living in a land that is now known as Ireland, battled regularly with another giant living to the northeast across a narrow sea. One day, in a fit of anger, the Irish behemoth scooped up a handful of dirt and threw it at his distant counterpart, but the projectile fell short of its target and landed in the sea between. So large was the handful of dirt, that a small island was formed. Many years later, Vikings inhabited this small island, and established a large community that lasted for many years. Today, in gentler times, this little island is known as the Isle of Man. Steeped in folklore, fables and fairy tales of mystical little people that bring fortune to believers and despair and destruction to non-believers, the Isle of Man is a green jewel bathed by the indigo waters of the Irish Sea. Its lush countryside is what most North Americans envision England to be, with stone fences separating patchwork fields of green and gold, rolling hills speckled with grazing sheep, field-stone farm houses in distant farmlands, castles reflecting Viking history, and quaint thatched roof cottages with well-groomed gardens. A breathtaking coastline, more reminiscent of the rugged rocky bays of Newfoundland, Canada, abound with little villages rimming pretty coves, deep fiords, and sheer rock walls falling steeply into ocean blue waters. For years the island’s main industry, tourism, flourished, but now, with the world’s vacation destinations at anyone’s doorstep, tourists no longer flock the island as a favoured holiday spot. As a tax free haven the island’s financial district does a booming business, and banking has now taken over as the island’s main source of income.

The Isle of Man is also famous for the Isle of Man TT Motorcycle Races held annually since 1907. The Isle of Man Mountain Course is unquestionably the most demanding of all motor racing circuits with a single lap of 37 3/4 miles of public roads closed for racing. From Douglas, the Island’s capital, the course winds its way up the west coast of the island, through little villages, picturesque glens, past country farms and churches to Ramsey, the island’s second largest city. From Ramsey the course turns south and climbs the mountain road to an elevation of 1500 feet before dropping down to Douglas once again. Over 200 corners and a multitude of bends and kinks, bumps and jumps, humpback bridges, telephone poles, traffic lights, traffic circles, curbs, telegraph poles, brick walls and grass banks, line the entire circuit. The course’s beauty and immensity cannot be appreciated unless witnessed personally.

From 1960 to 1967 I had the honour to represent Canada in these races. In 1962, it was my third visit to the races; it was also the first year I felt comfortable and confident with my level of knowledge of the course. That year I had also been invited to ride bikes owned and developed by a major dealer/sponsor from England. Not only would I be riding potentially better machinery, but it would save untold wear and tear to my personal race bikes which had been left on the mainland awaiting my return. As these sponsored bikes were the unofficial factory entries, I was obligated to use Dunlop racing tires, as per factory agreement. Up to that time I had been using Avon tires, but the switch to Dunlop rubber seemed of no consequence.

These new Dunlop tires came straight from the company’s experimental department. The front tire had a normal round profile, but the rear tire possessed a decidedly triangular shape. Dunlop’s racing manager explained the theory behind the design.
“In a straight line,” he said, “the peak of the tire puts less rubber on the road. With less rubber there is less rolling resistance, which gives you more speed. Lean it into a corner, the triangular sides increase the amount of tire in contact with the road. This lets you lean the bike over farther. So, you can go around the corner faster, and accelerate sooner. Simple!”

It all sounded terrific, but was it?

These tires proved excellent during practise. In fact, they didn’t feel much different than the Avon tires I had been using. So, I just accepted the Dunlop rubber and got on with the job at hand.

“And, don't forget to say hello to the ‘Wee Fairies’,” said Gladys, the owner/operator of Rose Villa, the boarding house where I was staying.  I was on my way to the airport to pick up my mother flying in from Toronto via London to be with me for the races, and I would have to drive over the little Fairy Bridge where the “Wee Folk” supposedly reside.

“Yeah, sure,” I replied, a silly grin on my face.

The little bridge, about 5 miles from the airport, was situated just beyond a tight right/left S-bend and could easily have been missed. Had I not been warned of its exact location, I would have driven past without giving the expected courtesy, and would have been damned for the entire race week. As I approached the S-bend I reduced my speed and crept around the corner. An inconspicuous sign indicated the Fairy Bridge. I slowly crossed over the tiny bridge, and tipping my imaginary hat, “Good morning, Fairies,” I said. “Lovely day." To say I felt foolish was a gross understatement, but, fortunately, nobody witnessed my embarrassment.

I stopped the van just past the bridge and walked back for a closer look. The terrain underneath the bridge appeared nothing more than a small culvert, its stream of spring waters long since dried up, and seemed such an unpretentious palace for such important people. I could only assume they knew something we mere mortals could not begin to comprehend. At that moment, a local tour bus came down the road. I stood and watched with anticipation. I assumed the driver would be a knowledgeable island resident, and if he did not acknowledge the Fairies, I'd know I was being taken for a fool colonial.  As the bus neared the bridge, I watched the driver carefully. Sure enough, off came his cap, and I could make out his lips, puckered in silent words. I'd swear it was the beginnings of “good morning,” but could not be sure.  Now, I was really confused. Stories of untold vexation and general bad luck during TT practise and race week from riders who scorned the existence of the “Little People,” had me all but believing.

On the return trip to Douglas, for fear of awakening the Fairy's wrath, I warned my mother about the bridge and the expected courtesy, and in unison, smiling at each other, we wished the Fairies a good morning.

During the 350 Junior TT Race on Wednesday of Race Week, the races took the life of Tom Phillis, an Australian rider. He and his family had been staying at Rose Villa, the same boarding house as me, and I was witness to the aftermath for his wife and two young children. It had a sobering effect on many people involved with the races, especially those at the Villa. An intimate gathering of friends and officials at a church on Thursday, to honour our fallen comrade, dampened enthusiasm for many of those in attendance, including me.

On Friday the coveted Senior TT for 500cc machines took place. I felt obligated to at least go through the motions, because so many people had put a great deal of effort into getting me to the starting line.

On a race course as long and as narrow as the Isle of Man TT Mountain Course, for safety reasons, the customary mass start was not employed. Riders start in pairs: numbers 1 and 2 start first, followed ten seconds later by numbers 3 and 4, etc., until the entire field has departed. The event is a race against the clock more than it is against other riders. Lap times that year were just over 21 minutes in length. An added bonus with a staggered start: spectators are able to see action just about all the time.

With a riding number of 17, I was to start 80 seconds behind the leading pair. Riders funnelled up to the line in relative order awaiting their turn, all engines silent. (At that time, all European races employed a push start with dead engines.) Numbers 15 and 16 were flagged off, and, along with number 18, I took my place in the twin starting boxes. Gone were the usual pre-race butterflies, replaced by an air of indifference, my thoughts still pensive, remembering the events of the previous day. On a small platform to my right stood the starter, a small Union Jack held high in his right hand. A hand-sized clock in his left hand ticked off the seconds. I had already pulled the Matchless’s piston back against the compression stroke to give the engine three forward strokes to build up momentum before another compression stroke happened. Fuel and chain oiler taps were on. I pulled in the clutch and concentrated on the starter. Almost casually, the flag fell. I heaved the heavy bike forward taking five steps before releasing the clutch. The engine turned and immediately fired into life. I swung myself into the seat and accelerated away towards the top of Bray Hill to begin the 6 lap, 225 mile Senior TT.

On a race course as intricate as the Isle of Man TT, concentration is paramount. A moment’s lapse can cause instant repercussions. So many sections are blind, and trouble is not often seen until it is too late. Within a few miles of my start, the course had fallen into its learned pattern and rhythm, with all my thoughts on the job at hand.

At the end of lap three, I pulled into my pit to refuel, change goggles and have a mouthful of water. I came to a stop with the fuel cap already open, and my father, who was acting as my pit crew, inserted the fuel hose and began filling the tank. I reached over and took the clean goggles that lay across the top of his head and replaced the bug splattered goggles I had been using. As I climbed off the bike and pulled the piston back against compression again, I shouted, “How am I doing?” My father had just finished filling the fuel tank and clicked the gas cap closed. He shouted back as I pushed off to begin my fourth lap. It took me a moment or two to digest what he had said. On the plummet down Bray Hill at about 140 mph, I shouted to myself, “Third! No, it can’t be. Not me.” But it was true. My previous best position at the races had been fifth, and that had been due to many other riders experiencing mechanical failures. It seemed out of character for me to be in a podium position.

At the end of lap 3, Phil Read, a British rider, and I were officially tied for third place to one hundredth of a second. The previous year, Read had won the 350 Junior Race, so for me to be in such select company was indicative of how much my riding had improved in the last year. Read and I were averaging just under the 100 mph mark. On my second lap, I lapped at an average of 100.36 mph to join the elusive “ton-up” club, its ninth member, and shortly thereafter, Read, with a later starting number, had done the same. Unknown to either of us at the time, the rider who had been second, had retired with engine problems on that lap, so in fact, Read and I were tied for second place.

All subdued concerns from the previous day’s memorial service forgotten, I rode with renewed enthusiasm. Half way round on lap four, at Sulby Bridge, unofficial timing placed me 15 seconds ahead of Read.  However, on a race course the length of the Isle of Man TT, the latter half of the circuit could easily have been Read's better half, and this startling advantage I appeared to have could have been lost. We were never to know, however, for my 500 G50 Matchless came to a sudden stop with a broken crankshaft, on the climb up from Ramsey Hairpin. I tried in vain to restart the engine in the hope my initial conclusions had been in error, but a tortured grinding of metal on metal was the only response out the open exhaust.

I threw the useless pile of organized metal, plastic and rubber against the wall at the track's edge just the other side of Waterworks Corner. In disgust, I plopped myself down on the stone wall with my feet resting on the bike’s seat. Read, now in sole possession of second place, motored past a few moments later and waved. I sat, fighting back tears for what might have been, cursing my bad luck. It was at that moment that I glanced down at the rear tire. I couldn’t believe what I saw. I looked again, questioning what my eyes recorded. Big chunks of rubber, many an inch in diameter, were missing from the treaded face of the experimental tire, and the canvas showed through in numerous places. I stared in horror at the mutilated tire, and considered what lay just up the road from where the crankshaft had broken: The Mountain Mile, the Black Hut, The Veranda, the three lefts before Windy Corner, the 33rd Milestone, and the drop through Kate’s Cottage to Creg-ny-Baa, all fast and demanding corners requiring a good rear tire. It could have been instant death, or worse still, permanent mutilation, should a tire have blown on any of these corners. I wonder to this day if the tire would have finished that lap, let alone another two at nearly a 100-mph average had the crankshaft not broken? Looking again at the tire, I knew for sure it would not have gone the distance. The metallurgy failure had been a blessing. But what had caused the crankpin to fracture? It was not a common failure.

Back at Rose Villa, Gladys suggested another possibility: “Perhaps it was the Island's Wee Fairies who came to your rescue.”  The possibility had crossed my mind, but for fear of sounding foolish or slightly demented, I had not suggested it, or for that matter, seriously thought about it.

Whatever explanation best suited the situation, it had prevented serious injury or my possible demise, and I was glad to be sitting in the warmth and comfort of Rose Villa, in relative good health.

Although I still professed a degree of skepticism concerning the existence of the Island’s Wee Fairies, later that evening, following the ceremonial  prize giving, I drove alone, out to the Fairy Bridge and verbally expressed my gratitude—without embarrassment. 

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