The Isle of Man is a small British possession in the Irish Sea. Inland, a native breed of four-horned sheep graze in verdant fields. On the coasts, castles touch the sea. The Manx have their own (albeit dead) language, their own money, their own laws, and–tellingly for this story–no national speed limit. This quirk of governance makes the place a natural host to a bloody ritual that has taken place nearly every spring for a century: the Tourist Trophy. The TT is not a motorcycle race but the motorcycle race: the first, the most famous, and by far the deadliest.
It’s also a party: 40,000 bikers invade the island determined to scare the wool off the sheep while screaming through the Snaefell Mountain Course, a winding circuit of public roads cordoned off for the event. The circuit climbs from sea level to 1,380 feet, snaking for almost 38 miles through 200-some turns on country roads that cut through village, hamlet, and farm. Much of the track is hemmed in by dry-stacked fieldstone walls topped by spectators drinking their pints. There is no safe place to crash. Racers die or are maimed every year.*
As in warfare, the carnage is accompanied by technological progress. Soichiro Honda came to the race in 1959 having declared five years earlier that it was time to challenge the West. Less than a decade later, his company won the world manufacturer’s title in every class: 50cc, 125cc, 250cc, 350cc, and 500cc. Not long after that, the British motorcycle industry was itself conquered, wiped out by mismanagement and superior Japanese technology. Ironically, the technical advances that made racing bikes so fast led the Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme (FIM), the sport’s governing body, to decertify the race in 1976, calling it too dangerous. Thus, pros no longer ride the TT. However, the race’s bloody reputation makes the TT, if anything, even more prestigious than FIM-sanctioned events. To compete in it, in the words of the legendary FIM rider Valentino Rossi, “you need to have two great balls.”
This year, the Manx government added a futuristic new event to the June race schedule. The TTXGP, for “Tourist Trophy eXtreme Grand Prix,” was billed as the first zero-emissions motorcycle race. While any technology could enter, as a practical matter zero emissions means electric. Even the FIM got on board, making the TTXGP the first FIM-approved TT race in over 30 years and the first officially sanctioned electric-motorcycle race ever. “It is either going to be the most important day in the next hundred years of motorcycling or a complete debacle,” said Aaron Frank, an editor for Motorcyclist magazine who traveled from Milwaukee to watch the race. “But either way, it’s worth watching.”
As the day arrives, everyone watching knows that the TTXGP will be slower than the “real” motorcycle race, the TT, because the TTXGP is an energy-limited race. In effect, the “gas tank” of an electric bike is minuscule, so to win the TTXGP the bikers must mind their energy consumption. In contrast, the gas bikers in the TT run with their throttles wide open. However, batteries’ energy density has been improving at a rate of about 8 percent a year, which means that even without any other technological progress, electric bikes should run head to head with gas in about 20 years. The TTXGP is intended to make the future arrive sooner. The winner will not just be the fastest in an esoteric class but the front-runner in the greater challenge ahead: creating an electric bike that can compete in the $50 billion world motorcycle market. In that sense, the TTXGP is the proving ground for the next Honda.
*This year is no exception, claiming the life of a racer named John Crellin–the 226th TT fatality.