20 years at the Isle of Man TT: How McGuinness the bricklayer became King of the Mountain
When a bricklayer for Morecambe stepped off the ferry onto the Isle of Man in 1996 he had no idea how it was going to change his life.
Nobody knew much about 25-year-old John McGuinness as the wide-eyed resort racer dreamed of topping the podium on the Mountain Course.
Twenty-three wins later the man who became known as the Morecambe Missile has cemented his place as an icon on the island ahead of his 20th Isle of Man TT this year.
“It’s unbelievable,” said the 44-year-old, reflecting on the milestone at his home in Bare.
“The weird thing about it is how fast it’s gone.
“My first one feels like yesterday. Going in my seven and a half tonner, getting off the ferry, signing on and my first lap.
“It’s just like yesterday. Two strokes, four strokes, 125s, 250s, Ducatis, Yamahas, Hondas, I’ve ridden so much stuff.
“God knows how many laps I’ve done in total.
“It’s a nice little milestone, it’s quite a cool thing to do.
“I still have the passion for it. I’ve nothing left to prove but it draws me back and won’t let go of me.”
For many riders, their first visit would have been their last.
McGuinness was pleased with 15th in his one and only 250 race but saw friend Mick Lofthouse killed in practice, a harsh lesson in the extreme highs and lows of a TT rider.
“He was a really good mate of mine and got killed on the last day of practice on the Friday,” he said.
“It hit me pretty hard. I was only 25 years old. I got a whack in the guts and felt like going home.
“I thought, ‘you know what, I’ll just do the race’, and see how I feel.
“I finished the race in the sunshine and then there was the emotions, the beer, and all of sudden you forget about the horrible side of the sport.”
The racing side of things was certainly satisfying, as the man whose record of 26 wins McGuinness is chasing, Joey Dunlop, topped the podium.
“I only had one bike,” said McGuinness.
“We finished every practice session and finished the race, it was solid.
“I got the best newcomer in class and got a little bronze replica.
“We did what we set out to do which was finish the race.
“I did 111.8mph which was respectable and Joey won the race.
“I came in under the radar a bit. No-one really knew who I was and I had a good backer in Paul Bird.”
McGuinness wasn’t an unknown for long.
Two third places followed in 1997 and 1998 before the coveted first win in 1999, the resort racer coming home first in the 250cc Lightweight TT on his Vimto Honda TSR250, setting a new class record.
“My ambition was to win one,” said McGuinness, whose love of the island goes back to visiting with his dad as a child.
“I said to the missus if I win a British Championship and a TT I’ll pack in.
“That was in 1999. Now we’re sat here in 2016 with 23 wins!
“I remember winning my first one. I crossed the line and I didn’t know what that feeling was going to be like.
“I didn’t know whether to do a nude streak or what. I was just jibbering a load of rubbish when I got off the bike.”
From then on it’s been success after success for the modern-day King of the Mountain.
Further wins came in the Lightweight 400cc and single cylinder races before McGuinness clearly signalled his intentions in 2004, taking a hat-trick of victories on his Yamaha as he broke the outright lap record.
A second hat-trick followed in 2006 and despite his advancing years the Honda rider has continued to prove doubters wrong time and again.
Last year’s victory in the blue riband Senior TT was a real triumph, his seventh win not only equaling the great Mike Hailwood’s mark and setting a new outright lap record but also marking a fine comeback after an injury-hit 2014.
Over that time plenty has changed, with McGuinness seeing a festival that was the pride of the Manx become an international phenomenon.
“It was run by the Manx club and they didn’t want anyone to come and wreck their event,” he said.
“But now terrestrial TV is sending it straight to your front room.
“The actual getting the helmet on and going down Bray Hill hasn’t changed though.
“It’s the same, there’s more hospitality suites and stuff like that, but the actual crux of it is exactly the same.
“The racing against the clock is the same. We might have transponders on and people know where we are on the track but the actual twisting the cables is just the same.
“It hasn’t lost any of that.”
The event itself may have come a long way but so has McGuinness, the Isle of Man TT great pinching himself when he thinks about what he has achieved.
“If a little dicky bird had whispered in my ear what I was going to achieve I would never have believed it,” he said.
“I suppose if somebody dealt me some cards out and said, ‘you’re going to win six, you’re going to win three’, you’d have just taken it wouldn’t you?
“You don’t know where it’s all going to go.
“I’ve lost loads of mates up there, had loads of ups and downs and grief.
“I could have hurt myself or run out of money but I never gave in.
“There was no way that was going to happen.
“It still burning away in my belly to win some more too.”