Meet Mr McGuinness
All smiles before the big race from John McGuinness
"Is John around?"
No sooner have the words left my lips than I'm already regretting them. Maybe I ought to have gone with 'Mr McGuinness', given that I'm referring to a 20-time Isle of Man TT winner. As it turns out, though, the question doesn't seem to have caused any offence, and indeed, none was intended. Where am I, then? At the Guia Circuit, the venue of the legendary Macau GP. And, while the GT cars are out racing through the tight and twisty street circuit, I've got something else up my sleeve. Namely skulking around the paddock and causing a certain degree of alarm amongst the unsuspecting crew members at the Honda TT Legends team. With good reason, of course. You can't end up at Macau, with a living legend like McGuinness around and not do everything in your power to meet him. A helpful mechanic pops over to tell me that McGuinness isn't around and will likely only show up 15 minutes before the race starts.
"You here for John?" says the same mechanic when I show up at the appointed hour. Yes indeed I am. Standing within the Honda TT Legends pit is John McGuinness. And he's puffing away on his inhaler when I walk up to him. Of course he's got a minute before the race for a quick chat he says, while putting his helmet away and checking on his leathers that are hanging within the garage, complete with 'Mc' and the picture of a glass of Guinness stitched onto their seat. And though he's probably told the tale several times before, Mr McGuinness obliges me by starting at the very beginning.
McGuinness or McGenius - depends on how you look at things
"When I was younger, I went to the ferry terminal, where the ferry goes to Isle of Man. I used to go there on my bicycle, which was a BMX at the time and when the security guards would turn around I'd cycle by on my bike. I really did that quite a few times when I was younger. I'd get there on my bike," he says. And it's not hard to imagine that the man who rides a 1000cc motorcycle around one of the most terrifying road racing circuits in the world would do exactly that.
And by his own admission, racing at the Isle of Man is the only thing that he ever really wanted to do. "It was the only thing I dreamed of doing when I was a young kid." And he dreamt of it with the confidence of youth. So confident was McGuinness, in fact, that he even went to the extent of telling his idol Joey Dunlop that he'd stand up on the podium with him at the IOMTT some day. It's no urban legend, that. "I went to get Joey Dunlop's autograph in 1986, I would have been around 14 years old. And a few years after that, in 1997 I stood on the podium with Joey. I reminded him as well, up there on the podium, but he never remembered. I thought he might have remembered actually, as you do when you're younger. Took me a long time to get over it," McGuinness says with a far away look in his eyes. For a second or two it seems like he's back on the podium in 1997, still standing beside Joey Dunlop.
But from that first podium at the IOMTT, McGuinness has certainly come a long way. In fact, he's the man who is the closest to beating his own hero's record at the hallowed island. However, with 20 wins at the Isle for McGuinness, he believes Dunlop's record of 26 is untouchable. "Six is still a long way away, you know," he tells me with a smile. "Six more to pass Joey would be great. But I'm too old now. Too old a man," and there isn't a hint of sorrow or bitterness in his voice. Just acceptance of the fact that time passes, racers, even the really good ones, age, and not all records can be broken. "Maybe one more, maybe one or two more, but I can't see me get another six wins and equal Joey," he declares, while also adding that the older he's getting the harder it's getting. But like he says "I still love being on a bike and going racing, so that's the main thing, the enjoyment."
And it's this enjoyment that keeps him going in the terribly dangerous sport of road racing, so many years after that first trip down Glencrutchery Road. Like a true racer, McGuinness remembers every single second of that lap. "It was a long time ago, 1996. I remember it being a miserable lap. It was sunny in parts, dry, damp, wet, cloudy, misty - so yeah, it's a difficult lap," he laughs. "It feels like yesterday, time's going by so quick."
Post the races at Macau where he managed a fourth place finish
Over the many years that he's raced at the Isle of Man, though, McGuinness has seen time pass by, racers come and go, but the spirit of the Isle and the race itself has remained the same. "Nothing's changed really. The circuit's still the same. A couple of corners have changed a little, a few areas have been resurfaced. But the basic layout of the circuit has been the same since 1907. But it's getting bigger and more global if you like as far as the entries are going. So it's been good."
And it appears that McGuinness prefers racing the Isle as compared to a track like Macau. "What I like about it, is it's a race against the clock. When you race right here it's a bit wheel to wheel. It's a bit dangerous unlike the Isle of Man because there you're riding around on your own." I'm still reeling from the fact that he's used the words "dangerous unlike the Isle of Man" in that order, when he begins to tell me that he'll only carry on racing as long as he likes doing it. "While I can I'll carry on doing it and then if I stop enjoying it, then I'll stop. Maybe the next two years."
For a road racing career as spectacular as the one McGuinness has had - both in terms of longevity and success - there have been plenty of important memories. But to McGuinness, every single one of those wins he's taken has been significant. "I like them all, all of them are special. The first one was special. Obviously the senior last year was special, I just beat Michael Dunlop. He'd been winning all the races and it was like I wasn't going to win anything out the year and we got a win. The seventh win was good - first 130mph was special. Yeah, they're all special in their own ways."
And he speaks of breaking the 130mph barrier very casually, even describing it as 'normal'. "It was nice to do it. It doesn't feel that fast on your bike, it just feels normal when you're doing it. When you watch it it looks crazy." There's no denying that it was probably one of the more significant achievements of his career though. "It was nice to get it," he admits. "I was the only one to get it that year and it was a milestone for me. I'm proud of it really."
It's getting closer to the time of the race, though, and McGuinness has to go and get ready for the big race. Not before he admits to me something very fundamental. That even racers, no matter how experienced and hardened, still get afraid. "Yeah, I get afraid all the time, you know. Even when I'm having a good weekend. Just before the start of practice, just before the races. I mean I'm in Macau now and I'm nervous now, really nervous, before the race. But everybody gets nervous, everybody gets scared. I still get scared. Once you're on the bike you're not scared. You're just doing your best," he declares before heading off to suit up.
I watch the race from within the Honda TT Legends pit garage. It's scary really to see the motorcycles barrel around Guia, close to the wall, close to the tyre barriers. It's enough to frighten anyone. Ian Hutchinson is the big story that weekend, winning everything in sight. McGuinness finishes fourth. But like he says, he's doing his best. And he still enjoys the racing. And, even though he might believe six is a long way off, we're willing to just wait and watch.
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