Isle of Man TT: John McGuinness on retirement talk, returning to the island and living in lockdown – The Independent
After three years of disappointment, pain and infuriating lies, 2020 was the year that John McGuinness was going to be back doing what he does best: challenging for wins at the Isle of Man TT.
The 23-time TT winner was due to be on board a Kawasaki for the first time in 16 years having agreed a deal with the Quattro Plant Bournemouth outfit to put three rather miserable years behind him. The painful exit from Honda after his 2017 North West 200 crash ruled him out of the TT for two years, before last year’s struggles with Norton proved to be the beginning of the end for the British team. McGuinness lost out financially during Norton’s demise, a situation that has been compounded by the coronavirus pandemic and the cancellation of all motorsport in Britain until August. That includes the TT, with the event abandoned for the first time since 2001’s Foot and Mouth outbreak.
It has left McGuinness with endless time to fill. A bricklayer by trade, he hasn’t had to pick up a trowel in years thanks to his success on two wheels, and tomorrow he would have been donning the leathers for the final time this week for the 2020 Senior TT. Instead he will be finding different ways to keep himself occupied as the country eases itself out of lockdown.
“I’m just fortunate really” says McGuinness, reflecting on spending the last three months at home. “I sort of feel sorry for the troops who are on floor 12 of an apartment block with no garden. We’ve got plenty of room, a few toys and that so I’ve just been doing stuff like painting my outside toilet block, taking some old rotten fences down, tinkering with a few of the bike projects. In one way it’s been quite enjoyable really, especially with the kids off school. That side of the coin has been quite pleasant.
“The other side of the coin has been frustrating, but we’re sort of in our own world here to be honest. You look out the window and you wouldn’t think owt was happening, farmers are still cruising round and we’re still doing what we’re doing. You get your food online and blah blah blah, but when you put the news on it’s just death. It’s just pure f****** aggro so I don’t watch the news or anything, I just play around and that’s it really. But the frustrating thing is the wages, we don’t get furlough or no help at all, but we’ll be reet, we’ll survive.”
The motocross bike has been getting plenty of use in lockdown, while a go-kart track has also been built on his land.
But with little work planned this year, McGuinness admits that he will have to return to his bricklaying days in the near future to keep the bank balance ticking over, though he is quick to admit that he is in a secure financial position that he is very thankful for.
Before then, he will join the TT’s ‘Lock-In’ for an episode on Thursday evening that will be dedicated to his own career. It has gone under the radar, but 2020 would have been his 30th year of his racing career and the 24th since his first visit to the island. With a record bettered only by Joey Dunlop, his name is already cemented alongside the greats. But at 48 years old, and more importantly winless in the last four years, retirement talk is never far away.
“To be honest I was going ok at the TT when Foot and Mouth came out in 2001,” he recalls. “I was 27-odd and a lot younger so it didn’t really matter. It was just a blip.
“But missing a TT at 48 is a bit more … you know. Little things like more time to think in your head, stuff like ‘is it worth carrying on, shall I stop riding’ and so on. It’s not come at a great time for me.
“I feel like I’ve just not had a bite at the cherry for the last couple of years, after the Honda mess and the Norton mess, and I’ve felt like I haven’t done aught wrong but I’ve not been able to grab anything by the horns and produce anything. I’ve been under the cosh really for the last couple of years.”
This isn’t the first time McGuinness has been asked about the ‘R word’. “When you’re sitting at home and nowt’s happening you are thinking about it,” he says. But these questions about eventual retirement have been lobbied at McGuinness for many years, having first surfaced back in 2015 after a week of disappointing results. His response was to go out and romp to a famous victory in the Senior, a race that saw him set a new outright lap record and remind everyone why you write him off at your peril.
“If there was ever a time to bow out of racing it was probably 2015 wasn’t it?” he jokes, but if others have doubts about whether they will see him at the TT again, McGuinness has a definitive answer.
“I’ve got nothing more left to prove in racing, but I miss it. I miss going to the races, loading my camper up, I miss waiting for the postman to come with my new leathers, all that sort of stuff has just been part of my life for such a long time.
“I still get the buzz, the excitement to look forward to things. The aches and pains are there a bit more and I look at myself in the mirror and think ‘Jesus, looking a bit saggy there old boy’, but I get up every day and think about bikes and think about racing. I think about how I can improve and long may it continue.
“There ain’t half a couple of boys who are still shifting on at our old age. I have a couple of friends who I go riding with and they’re both 57, and if we went for a walk up a hill they just make me look like I’m very, very average.
“They’re still driving me forward, I gain inspiration from people like that. There’s no real answer to it, everyone’s got their own thoughts. Bruce Anstey is still shifting on, Ian Lougher still races classic bikes and I could still race a classic bike in my mid-50s couldn’t I? There’s no reason why I couldn’t as long as you’ve got your health.”
McGuinness vows to be back next year, with the agreement between himself and Quattro Plant boss Pete Extance extending to 2021. “There’s no reason not to believe Pete, he’s a genuine sort of guy, I get the right feeling from him and he goes racing for the right reasons. So unless something drastically changes it’s all go for next year. Maybe we’ll ride at Macau at the end of the year if that’s on.”
But tonight will be about reminiscing on a career that ranks among the greats. It may not be over just yet, but there have been so many highlights along the way to pick out a favourite. For many, the 2015 victory was by far the best of his career, a real two fingers up to his critics who had written him off that week at odds of 16-1 for the Senior.
Something still wrangles about that race for McGuinness though, because by his own admission it was not a full Senior. The race was red flagged on the second lap after Jamie Hamilton’s horrific accident, and a rescheduled four-lap event was announced which McGuinness dominated. Had those two extra laps been completed, perhaps it would be the one that stands out for him.
“I think the 2013 one was for me actually a little bit stronger when I beat Michael Dunlop, because Michael Dunlop had won all four races and looked like he was going to go through the card,” reflects McGuinness. “I was against the ropes to be honest, on the same bike and he just turned me over in all the other races. So I sort of came out fighting and even though it wasn’t the greatest race, or there wasn’t a lap record broken at the time, it felt a little bit sweeter.
“When you get on a bit of a crest like Michael was and he was winning, breaking lap records on 600s and stockers and that, sometimes it’s hard. I need a bit of motivation sometimes and it’s silly little things that really motivate me. They thought he was going to win and so I decided I’m going to come out fighting. I was at my best there.
“I’m in a really fortunate position where I’ve won races so everyone tells a tale. Things pop up, it was 20 years ago since I won that last ever Singles TT, and again it’s one that went under the radar because everything’s overshadowed by Superbike wins and Seniors, but the story behind that, the Dave Morris story; Dave got killed at Croft and me and Jason Griffiths rode in his memory and finished first and second. That meant a lot.
“There’s loads of tales, loads of them. But the 2015 one, because of the lap record – people love a lap record don’t they? I remember when I did the first 130mph lap and everybody said ‘wow, well done for the first 130!’ but they never said well done for winning the race. For me, winning the race was the most important thing, the lap record was the icing on the cake.”
McGuinness is proud of many things that he has achieved. His win record for starters, and just having the chance to try and equal his hero Joey Dunlop’s all-time record of 26 TT victories, as well as his ongoing run of having never crashed by his own errors. One thing stands out above the rest though.
“Just getting into a position to be successful really, because I started off with nothing,” he says. “It was me, mum, dad, nana, my missus, all throwing a few quid in the pot, get in an old van to go racing with a huge dream and a passion for racing.
“I’m just proud of being able to do it. The wins are amazing, don’t get me wrong, and the first 130mph lap, the first win in 1999, it’s hard to just pick one out. But I think going from rags to riches if you like, or whatever you want to call it. I’m not rich but I’m alright, I had it tough on a council estate and now we’re doing alright, travelling the world and meeting loads of people and have loads of famous friends. I suppose it’s that that I’m proud of really, just the whole journey.”