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Isle of Man – “We Had A Great Ride”

Published on January 11, 2022 under Born To Ride
Isle of Man – “We Had A Great Ride”

The Isle of Man is located in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Ireland—and home to one of the world’s most exciting races on two wheels. The history of the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy (IOM TT) race goes back to 1907 when the first race was run as the International Auto-Cycle Tourist Trophy. There were 25 entries featuring two classes—a single-cycler class and a twin-cylinder class. The first race was 10 laps on the 15-mile long dirt road course (now one lap is 37 3/4-miles long). The winner’s average speed was 43mph; he rode a twin cylinder Norton.

The IOM TT is the race many motorcycle road racers dream about … it’s not for the timid or the unskilled. Every summer, the isle’s governing bodies close the public roads and streets for race teams and individuals from around the world participate in the world’s deadliest race on the planet—racing through three small towns and over mountainous roads. There are six classifications: Senior TT, Supersport Junior TT, TT Sidecar, TT Superbike, TT Superstock, and TTXGP. The rider’s bike classification will deem how many laps are run on the course. Riders come to the isle for different reasons: some come to test their skill, some come for fame, and some come for glory. In the end—they come to run the timed 37 3/4-mile course! To find out more about the Isle of Man TT go to http://www.iomtt.com. In February 1974, the AMA Competition Director contacted us. He told us that because we were the top American Sidecar team in the Sidecar Racers Association, the AMA would give us the only IOMTT entry they were given for the 1974 races. However, this was only an entry with no sponsors. We would have to pay for everything ourselves. We jumped at the chance to go to England and race the TT.

We started sidecar racing in 1970 on a very old sidecar outfit. Early in 1973, we purchased a new, custom-made racing sidecar chassis from England. It was one of the best handling models available. When you buy one of these, all you get is the frame, wheels, tires, brakes, and fiberglass body. You must install your own engine, cables, and wiring. In our case, I choose a 1972 BSA 3-cylinder 750cc engine. We had to weld in all the motor mounts, make an oil tank, exhaust system, and shift linkage. The new outfit made the difference between finishing in the middle of the pack and winning. We filled out the forms and mailed them to the IOMTT, England. A few weeks later, we received a letter that said we were accepted. Now the fun starts. In 1974, there were NO sponsors ready to pay our way, so we set about planning the trip. A couple of the sidecar teams we raced against here in the SRA were from the Isle of Man, so they helped a lot. A racing sidecar outfit does NOT come apart. It is a one-piece frame including the sidecar, so I had to build a LARGE crate in which to ship the bike to England by airfreight. Next was booking airline reservations, hotel rooms, and a spot in a local garage for the bike. There were no garages at the track. We found space in a local auto repair garage along with several other riders. Finally, we are on our way. When we got to the Isle of Man, we checked into our hotel. We headed straight to the garage where the bike was shipped. To my surprise, the bike was not there. It was back at the airport in Liverpool, 100 miles back across the Irish Sea. They could not load the crate into the plane. If I could not fix the problem, I would have to reassemble the bike and ride to the ferryboat dock to get it over to the IOMTT. I knew they would do everything they could to help me race. I did not come all this way to be stopped here! At the airport, I looked at the plane and told them to stand the crate on its side, as I knew that would not hurt anything, and just slide it into the plane. The next day the crate was at the garage.

The entry only guaranteed us an opportunity to Qualify for the 750cc sidecar class race. During practice week, we would be on the track for 1 1/2 hours in the morning and again in the afternoon. To qualify you must post lap times under 33 minutes. Our first lap around seemed like it took us a really long time, but it was around 35 minutes. By the end of practice week, we were very low 29-minute times. One problem I was experiencing was trying to see far down the road. The roads are narrow two-lane public country roads, and they have many deep dips in them. When you are riding a racing sidecar outfit, you are riding in the kneeling position very low to the ground. When we would go into one of these dips, I would lose sight of the road ahead, which means I could not see the curve a short distance ahead. When you are on a motorcycle, you sit up higher and can see these curves. When you are racing at very high speeds and cannot see the curves coming, you need to be a little more cautious. It was very difficult to learn the hundreds of bends and turns that made up the 37 3/4-miles around the IOMTT course. Our race was scheduled for Saturday and consisted of three laps, 114 miles. Saturday morning there was heavy fog on the mountain section of the course, so the race was moved to Monday.

Sunday there is no practice scheduled because it is MAD SUNDAY. They open the course to the spectators to ride and play IOMTT racer. There are about 100,000 spectators, most with their motorcycles there to watch the race. So the name Mad Sunday fits. Monday dawned clear and warm. All the sidecars had to be placed in the pits on Sunday night and had to be race ready at that time. We went to the pits early to warm up our engine and get our racing leathers on. Then the horn sounded the signal to get in your starting position. The racers line up in pairs.

Each pair starts 10 seconds apart. At the IOMTT, you race against the clock. As we moved toward the starting line, on the side of the road were Boy Scouts holding the flags of the countries entered in this race. The American flag was there for us. When I realized the American flag was there for us, I took a deep breath of pride knowing we were there representing the USA. It was like going to the Olympics. Before we arrived at the starting line, 74 other sidecar racers had started their race. Please note, in the years up to about 1980, all road races were started with engine off, push/bump starts for both solo and sidecar classes. As we approach the starting line, we grabbed hands—looked at each other and nodded we were ready. Engine off, ignition on, transmission in first gear, the starter waves the flag and we were off. She takes two steps, and I take three. I release the clutch—the engine starts and we roar down Glencrutchery Road and down Bray Hill to the first turn, Quarter Bridge. On lap one, 17 miles out we fly over the jump at Ballugh Bridge. A little over 24 miles out, we approach the Ramsey Hairpin corner. This is a very tight, first gear, left hand corner. I glance at the crowd and the flagman. Alma moves out, hanging on firmly because I am on the breaks hard. We round the apex of the corner, I start to accelerate and all of sudden the bike snaps around. The passenger’s side flips up throwing Alma over me and knocking us off the bike. The bike falls back on its wheels and stops. We scramble to our feet, I look at her, she gives me thumbs up, she is ok—and so am I. I quickly look over the bike and everything looks ok. So we push the bike and the engine restarts, we are off again. On the second lap as we approach the Ramsey Hairpin and the flagman was waving the warning flag for “Oil on Track,” I gave him a one-finger wave. The remaining laps went without any problems. As we exited the last corner and headed toward the finish line, I was very proud of our accomplishment. We were told that less than 10% of the rookies finish their first IOMTT. After starting 76th, we were both happy with our 30th place finish. Over the years, I come to realize that our experience was similar to going to the Olympics—just to have the opportunity to compete at that level was worth the trip We continued racing in the Midwest and Canada until 1982. Over the years, we won many races and two championships and had a hell of a fun time racing! The sidecar racing started one at the races in Canada. After I had finished my race, we went over to a nearby corner to watch the sidecars run. We were watching these guys going around when Alma said, “That looks like a lot fun.” I agreed they look like they were having a great time. And to my surprise she said, “Let’s get one, and I will be the passenger and you can drive.” I answered yes.

Later she was telling some of our racing friends about what she was going to do, they said she was crazy and she would never have the guts to do that. Her answer was, “Put your money where your mouth is!” She won and collected. I never had any doubt. Oh yes, she also won the rookie passenger of the year award from the Sidecar Racers Association. She was a very dynamic person, that’s what I loved about her. When she got into something, she was in 100 percent. When she wanted something, she went after it—even me. She picked me out of a crowd at a bike event and said to a girlfriend, “he is the one I want.” Now the question was, how she was going to let me catch her—a blind date. She knew a few members of the Detroit Highwaymen—I was a member. So with a little help from my friends, the rest is history. Thirty years later, she told me all about it.

For the ladies reading this, she would tell you, go after the things that you want. In many cases, you will have only one chance to get it. She took no chances on gifts; she gave me her list. And ladies, don’t hope or hint about what you want, he will never get the message, tell him.

Alma and I were married 38 years; she passed away in September of 2006 after fighting ovarian cancer. She loved life, going places, and doing things together. She wrote me a letter a few days before she died and ended it by saying, “We had a Great Ride.” It was true, we did have a great ride, and this story is dedicated to my sidecar passenger!
Joseph Rocheleau

After all this great reading and photo look back to the IOM TT, I can’t thank Joe enough for sharing his story with us. This is real; it’s old school. The bond between him and his wife Alma racing together goes beyond the power of motorcycles. It is life, it is love; it is a relationship that we all can learn from and be inspired by. Just when you think it’s over, it’s not over because ace Journalist Scott Odell went to the Isle of Man the summer of 2013 after this story ran to cover the race for Born To Ride. So in this issue, we’re seeing 1974 to 2013 and 2015 with Alain Bernards tribute Ducati to the Isle of Man all in this issue.