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Inside a racing team at the Isle of Man TT

This is a story about my weeklong suffering with an asshole of a motorcycle racer, a strict Team Manager, his blonde girlfriend and a seventy-year-old playboy. Recollections from the life of a racing team from the Isle of Man.

– Bye, you big Jew, we’ll meet in the next life, called the Finnish racer Juha Kallio to me as I was tying my boot laces in the hardly one-metre wide hallway. A few hours later he had the first race of his life in the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy. This was one year after his nearly fatal accident in one of the infamous race’s training sessions.
– Tell me Juha, what do you think you’ll be in your next life? I asked as I stepped back and put on my coat.
– Probably an asshole, he replied.
I nodded, agreeing with him and remarked that he was one then as well, so he would basically remain the same.

 

 

I spent a week with Kallio, his friends and the racing team in a mood like this in the attic of an approximately 100-year-old three-storey house where the heating didn’t work. If we were lucky, the room was about 10 °C when we woke up in the morning with Antti, the cameraman. Still every minute was like a dream.

 

By the way, who are these people?

Before travelling to the island in 2013 I had received a video that was recorded in a snowy forest in Finland. In it a Harley overtook a car at a horrendous speed. The short video was, naturally, a part of a longer story. The motorcyclist in the video was the Finnish racer Juha Kallio, who was to enter the TT for the first time in his life.

Two months later I was standing by a large toilet on the pits on the Isle of Man and was waiting for Juha Kallio. In the meantime, I was talking to Antti, my contact, who mentioned that Juha didn’t like self-important journalists. When standing by the toilet I also knew that Kallio would not participate in the 2013 TT because he had had a huge crash on the mountain the day before my arrival and wouldn’t be able to continue the race. When he joined us, the three of us agreed to spend the day together instead of a traditional interview.
The Finn took over my rental car after I had asked him to show me around the racetrack. Antti, besides arranging his friend’s affairs, was a film and television studies student in Helsinki at the time. He was recording while we were driving because – as it turned out on the way – in addition to the 20-second Youtube videos, he was making a full-length documentary of Juha, the penniless guy from Imatra, eastern Finland, who is just making his biggest dream come true by participating in the TT.

Yes, you’ve read it right; these two guys have come from the legendary city Imatra, the town that used to be a citadel of motorcycle racing. Even though they weren’t that familiar with the details of the races in Imatra, their adoration for motor sports was visible. Living in Imatra, family background and tradition weren’t the reason Juha started to race. His father used to work as a pianist, so instead he was infected by his brother, Timo, who had been considered a natural racing talent.
The Kallio brothers are not from a family of millionaires but children of a middle class family. Juha is completely satisfied by wearing only torn jeans and his pair of Slayer-sneakers, as long as he has some money that he can pay to a team for racing.

Our afternoon together started well, with the completely bruised Finn who suffered from a headache driving the old Audi 80 like a madman. When we arrived at the top of the mountain, not far from the scene of his accident, he started to murmur something. First, I thought he was praying, but, finally, I realised that he was telling the layout of the racetrack to himself in Finnish.
A few hundred metres after the left curve where he had his off, we burst into a long, elongated right curve at the speed of about a speed of one hundred and sixty kilometres per hour. The running gear of the Audi wasn’t suited for racing and couldn’t tolerate any more. We drifted off the road, there was an abyss next to us, and I started to scream.
Antti was recording resolutely and hardly even noticed what was happening. Juha calmly noted the situation, compensated with subtle steering input and the car was on the road again. He looked back and indicated with a smug smile that I was a total pussy. I whined and laughed and, finally, we quickly stopped at the first pub.

Juha and Antti left the next day, so telephone and Skype remained as the ways of communication until a letter arrived from Antti in March stating that the film, Fast of the Forest, was ready and I was welcome to the premiere in Imatra. I packed up and left. I would have liked to be there and finally see in person the place that I had seen so many photos of in my childhood.

 

If you think Blues Brothers is just a film, you are mistaken. The premiere was namely promoted in a rather unique way. Juha’s brother, Timo thoroughly prepared the Ford Fairlane slumbering in the back of his workshop. He hung an improvised billboard on it and invited his rock musician friends to sit on the back seat. This is how we drove around town, while Juha informed the inhabitants through a loudspeaker about the film projection that evening. At the end of the tiring day, Jussi, the front man of the band invited everyone to his home, that’s how I ended up in the sauna with eight naked long-haired men.The film was shown to a full house and I was sad when I boarded the plane on Sunday. I felt sorry it ended.

Juha wanted to return to the TT, to prove to himself that he was able to do a good job there. The next three months were troubled times, his participation was questionable several times, the promised sponsors withdrew one by one and he couldn’t pay his team, 777RR Motorsport the agreed sum.
After numerous doubts, it was finally decided that Kallio would participate and the team would renounce its claim to some of his debt. Then, he begged to be allowed to have his childhood friend, the Goth metal and Finnish folk song fan, Antti and me stay in the rented apartment. Antti arrived as a friend and Juha claimed that I would take free photos in return for board and lodging and these photos could be used when and wherever they wanted to. His posse also included Janne, who theoretically helped the team having self-nominated himself as the visor technician. Consequently, they didn’t send a limousine to fetch me at the airport and I had to drag my suitcases behind me during the one-kilometre walk from the bus stop in Douglas.
The Finnish 777RR Motorsport has a stable financial background; its owner is well off, might even appear on the top list in Finland, and has been in the business for a long time. Such a long time that he would like his son to be a Formula 1 racer. The team arrived at the Isle of Man with a perfectly equipped truck with all modern technical bells and whistles with Juha as the driver. According to the auxiliary agreement he had made with his team, he could work off some of his debt, saving the cost of the lorry driver this way.

The staff was minimal, the owner was absent, only his right hand man, Joni, who acted as Team Principal and his girlfriend, Tytti arrived by plane. For the two weeks they employed a mechanic who they had already worked with before when they had participated in several wild card British Championship races.
Basically, the Finnish team consisted of these three people. Joni’s task, naturally, went beyond those the classical Team Manager’s by far and he arranged everything himself. He helped the one-man mechanic crew; he cleaned the bike, cleaned chains and carried out smaller repair work, if necessary. Whenever he had time, he was on the phone.

 

 

The alarm clock usually went off between seven and eight, except for Juha, who partied during all the nights excepting the ones before the races.
Unfortunately, I only came for the race week, when the programme was usually delayed because of the weather. The mornings were mostly spent waiting. We didn’t even leave for the pits if the rain was pouring or mist was rolling in as the organisers informed the participants on the official TT Twitter channel every few minutes about the situation.
When the weather would finally turn normal and the beginning of the first event of the day was nearing, everyone quickly got ready and went to the start line. It was a 20-minute walk made difficult only by the fact that the apartment was in the middle of Bray Hill, so the tour regularly began with vigorous mountain climbing.
This, by the way, only affected Antti, Juha and me, because Joni, his girlfriend and the mechanic usually left in the rented car. Actually, it is nearly impossible to do anything without a car on this island. If you need anything, driving is the simplest. The truck transporting the racing bikes was parked in the depot and the lockable tent in front of it functioned as a workshop. It is slightly bizarre but – apart from the Honda team – nearly everyone hid their motorcycles in a tent and at night these tents housed the racing bikes worth hundreds of thousands of pounds.

 

 

The 777RR truck contained a spare racing bike, lots of tyres fitted to wheels, a team moped, a bicycle and nearly all the parts subject to wear that might be needed in a motorcycle race at any moment. The box of the truck can be imagined as a garage-workshop-flat divided into three parts. While there was a spare racing bike, spare tyres, a moped and spare parts in the back, in the middle there was a workshop with electricity, a drill, a workbench and all kinds of electric and other tools you can imagine. The front part of the box, behind the cab, contained a bedroom with an iron bunk bed, a table, electricity and a tiny fridge.
Owing to the spare bike, they could have even rebuilt the GSX-R if there was a big crash. The two engine blocks were completely identical so changing them wouldn’t have caused difficulties.
Joni said that the engines were just minimally tuned, but, of course, they included whatever the Supersport regulations allowed. These are identical to the TT rules. The cylinder head, pistons and the camshafts were modified; the rest of the block was factory-made. This was complemented with a race exhaust system. There is no difference between the bikes used for training and racing, the same level must be held in all the sessions.
Doug, the English mechanic worked exceptionally precisely and excluded all kinds of bohemian acts during working hours. Contrary to the high-budget professional teams using racing petrol, the Finns purchased their fuel at the local petrol station.

 

And what about housekeeping?

Many people believe that motorcycle racing is exclusively about money, blown up engines, the smell of oil and burnt tyres and hot chicks. No-one even thinks of who is in charge of the household, who cooks for the bigshots, who washes their underpants, who vacuum-cleans the chips they drop on the floor. Joni’s girlfriend, Tytti does exactly these things. Of course, she didn’t wash Juha’s clothes, but she worked a lot. Just like a wife who is at home after giving birth to a baby, looks after the kids, cleans the flat and cooks and, still, her husband thinks she has time as she just keeps corresponding with her friends all day anyway. Besides all these, communication was also Tytti’s task if Joni didn’t have the time to handle it.
She went to the local Tesco to do the shopping so that the freshly cooked baked beans would steam on the table every morning with baked sausages and eggs. When everyone leaned back with a full stomach, she put away everything, did the washing, and, if she had some time, started to make dinner so that we could just sit down to eat when we returned from the racetrack in the evening.
It is an interesting perspective from the view of the motor sport fan reeking of ale, who keeps staring at the umbrella girls as Tytti also did this if necessary. The only difference between average husbands and Joni was that Joni was fully aware of his girlfriend’s worth. Dinner was usually pasta with meat, some vegetables and chips. Doug, the mechanic was given special treatment and he received his favourite rosé wine every evening.

 

Doug Randall, a.k.a. Doggy

It is unquestionable that the Finnish team was lucky to have the seventy-year-old Englishman as their machanic. Doug, or Doggy as Juha called him (naturally inferred from the crash course on the Kamasutra) was a walking history book. He had participated in the TT fifteen times and the greatest achievement in his life was when in 1980 he came seventh in the Senior category on a two-stroke Suzuki RG 500. His lap average was 107 miles per hour – a great achievement even today. And even though he doesn’t actively ride any longer, he is in a fantastic condition and is as fast as a rabbit.
Finally, it turned out that he was not only a great mechanic, but he also proved a great support to Juha. It is an open secret that there has sometimes been tension between Joni and Juha. Randall was the guy who used normal tone when talking to him after failures, gave tips to help him and told him to keep calm. They understood each other in a few seconds, maybe partly because – due to their nature – they thought in a very similar way.

When they were not talking about bikes, girls came into the centre immediately, and while Juha was trying to find out how many girls the old man had had in his life, Doug was mainly curios about trying to find out how many girls Juha would be able to seduce in two weeks. During the night he went into the Finn’s room with his cell phone handy several times, but never got lucky.
Randall first worked with the Finnish team in 2012 during the English championship and it was largely thanks to him that the Suzuki became one of the fastest bikes. He didn’t reveal the secret, but he said he was astonished to see how weak the engine was. As there was no time to rebuild it, he modified the air intake, thanks to which the bike started to soar. One evening he and Joni disappeared for about five hours while they were supposedly in the workshop of one of his friends somewhere in the island, but he revealed no more and even told Juha that he should rather ride than think.
The Englishman was telling great stories in the evenings. We found out that when he was still racing, the fuel tank of every single bike had to be emptied on the ferry because the shipping company found the petrol-filled tanks too dangerous and it was also said to endanger the balance of the ship. Five or six ferries used to go to the island, there was no other way to get there and there was a petrol station right in the harbour where everyone could refuel. Naturally, it was much more expensive than back in Great Britain, but nobody got back the petrol they had siphoned off.

At the time of the TT, not only the price of petrol but also that of milk, bread and everything else reached astrological heights. When the visitors returned home, life got back to normal and the locals went shopping again. The racers received a coupon in terms of compensation and could purchase fuel much more cheaply with it because the island’s regulation stated that the petrol used for racing was exempt from extra taxes. This did not apply to the other vehicles and only very expensive petrol could be bought to drive on the roads.

Randall basically knew everybody worth knowing and even had had the chance to work with the legendary John Britten. He confirmed the rumour that racing bikes had been secretly tested on open roads. They were usually tested at dawn or at night on the road by the shore, north of the capital, Douglas that is not part of the racetrack.
The Englishman believed that it was better for everyone when the practice sessions were organised at dawn, between five and half past six. He loved it and compared it to going jogging in the morning when, after the training, everybody put down their helms, had a shower and leisurely had breakfast. He claimed that, because of the current schedules, the whole day was often like in an asylum, the traffic was unnecessarily blocked for hours and the changing light conditions in the evening were far worse than at dawn. In the evening there were much more bugs disturbing the racers than at dawn.

Although he also added that thirty years back the weather used to be much more balanced on the Isle of Man as well and it was sad to experience to what extent the Earth had been damaged. He was astonished by the nightly fog that often stayed until ten in the morning. In spite of this, standing in the middle of the living-room he could decide precisely when it was time to put on our shoes and leave for the depot.
We have discussed the TT as an investment too. Doug firmly believed that – owing to the exemption from taxes – big capital would be prepared to come to the island to establish it as the world centre of motorsports but only if safe races could be organised. It is a question whether it would be worth ruining the best bike race of the world.

 

How much is it?

I will be brief and concentrate on the facts. In the two weeks we consumed nearly three hundred litres of petrol, used three sets of chains (one hundred pounds per piece), a few sets of brake pads and some other little things. The rent of the apartment was approximately three thousand, plus the rental car, food, travelling costs, the truck ride to and back, fuel, toll, the ferry and Randall’s wages. The race might have cost about seven thousand pounds altogether.

 

Let that be the way of it

Racing on the Isle of Man is far from safe. Many people are fed up with the adjective fatal, but the TT still overrides all rules. Especially dramatic are the few minutes before the race when even the greatest enemies forgive each other and souls are overcome by peace. The whiff of death is in the air. Although the organisers have been doing their best to eradicate this from the official communication, anyone with half a mind knows that survival is not guaranteed. The racers are aware of this too. Right before the start, the main role is given to embraces, silent glances and intimate kisses. We did the same before the first Supersport race: following the unwritten rules, Antti and me went to Juha, embraced him and said: “Be careful and look after yourself.” He kept nodding as if in a trance and I don’t know whether he realised what was happening around him. Then he put on his helmet and we left.

 

 

That day we got a ride to Barregarrow and followed the events from there. I concentrated on the photos, so I didn’t even realise that during the last lap I was signalled that we had to leave if we wanted to catch Juha at Ballaugh Bridge. We got on the bikes and arrived at the bridge as fast as possible. We were late, the competitors had already left and we found out that right there, just before our arrival there had been a fatal accident.
A bike was in the yard of a detached house carefully packaged in black plastic film. Antti and me panicked and I kept asking him in a trembling voice every two minutes whether he had managed to reach anyone in the depot but he just shook his head. Finally, after forty minutes Juha sent a message that everything was all right he had just quarrelled with Joni because he had messed up the last two laps.
I believe that I couldn’t describe our feelings. Our friend survived. We were so happy that we would have liked to cry but the covered bike was there, opposite us, reminding us that it could happen to anyone.
I was left alone for Juha’s second race. Antti had to leave, so I was lying on the hillside before Barregarrow alone, a little forsaken. Before the race I had embraced Juha again, although he once more seemed to have excluded the outside world.

 

 

During the race a miracle happened. Randall’s lengthy speeches yielded a result. Juha finally believed that he would be able to reach a good place and he was racing in such a way that his name was mentioned in the radio broadcast several times. When I arrived back at the pits, we hugged each other. Juha Kallio made history: he acquired the bronze replica statuette that he received at the award ceremony held in Villa Marina.
It was a great evening. We went out to have dinner after the gala and all the Finns staying on the Isle of Man that day came with us. Everyone participated in the success; there was no jealousy and also Juha’s friend and major opponent, Tuukka Korhonen and his mechanics attended the celebration. The statuette was passed from hand to hand and everyone who took it kissed it immediately.
After dinner we walked along the promenade and ended up in Keith Flint’s disco with nearly all the TT competitors. The Japanese Mugen team was also celebrating their victory there and the last thing I remember was that Jamie Robinson sprinkled two bottles of ice-cold beer on my back through the neck of my T-shirt. We caught a taxi at about three a.m.

 

Endgame

Thursday morning passed in a pleasant, dreamy stupor, wiping away the tears of joy when the bombshell that Joni and Tytti would fly home that day, Douglas was leaving as well and we would have to pack our suitcases exploded. Fortunately, we had somewhere to go although the sudden eviction felt like a kick in the teeth.
So, we grabbed our suitcases and moved into the part of the truck –mentioned earlier – that was transformed into a living area. Janne stayed with us, so the changes affected us three. The bunk bed planned for three persons was far from spacious. Owing to the need to save space, it was slightly small: twenty centimetres from my eyes the welded hollow section frame of the middle bed protruded into my face, with screws hanging off of it like deadly icicles.
Juha slept on the upper bed, Janne in the middle, and I got the lower one by claiming I had acrophobia. We were absolutely broke, we didn’t have any money left, so we could only afford a meal a day in the pizza place at the end of the pits.

It’s interesting to stay in a truck, it is different. When it was pouring with rain, we tried to avoid going to the toilet, as the nearest one was 100 metres away. If it was impossible to avoid it and we still went, we were quickly discouraged by the fact that the mains burst in the bathroom on a daily basis, resulting in an intolerable stench surrounding the building.
It was also possible to have a shower in this building, so although the air cooled down quite a lot by the weekend, if we wanted to moderate the underarm odour, we just had to bear it with clenched teeth. Unlike Ian Martin, Guy`s father who went to the common bathroom in underpants, barefoot, with a towel hanging over his shoulder in the pouring rain with temperatures as low as 10 °C.

 

 

During the remaining few days Janne spent most of his time on Tinder. He was trying to seduce most of the girls by telling them that his friend was a very famous bike racer and he was his right hand. Some of the lucky chosen ones brushed him off and the others told him that he should send his friend then.
What I had been terrified by came true during the last night. At about 5a.m. Juha dashed in the truck and demanded a soda. I was woken up by the noise and believed that there was a burglar so I sat up or rather I wanted to sit up. I completely forgot about the low space and the projecting screw. I only remember the huge blow on my head and my head started spinning. Next morning I walked to the bus stop with a big smile on my face and a small hole on my forehead.
When I got on the airport bus, I felt terribly sad, because this week can never be repeated, or only in our next life. And Juha will remain who he is anyway.

Editor’s note: This story takes place in 2014. Juha Kallio’s experiences on the Isle of Man encouraged him to start working to get his local race, Imatranajo, back to the racing calendars. Imatranajo made its comeback in 2016 as a part of the IRRC series. At the moment Juha Kallio is racing his second full season in IRRC with Markka Racing BMW S1000RR.

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