Only two riders have won more than 20 TTs - Joey Dunlop and John McGuinness - while no less than 144 have tasted the champagne from the top step of the Glencrutchery Road podium just once. For many motorcycle racers the Isle of Man is bike racing’s Everest, so all those 144 riders were delighted to win a TT, but at a later time disappointed not to have won more.
There are all kinds of reasons why so many riders have won only one TT, not least the fact that there’s no more punishing race circuit in the world. Every TT course used since the inaugural event in 1907 has placed huge demands on machinery - punishing engines and chassis equally. That’s certainly the case for our first one-hit wonder: Rem (short for Rembrandt) Fowler, famed winner of the twin-cylinder race in June 1907.
Incredibly, this was both Fowler’s and Norton’s first roadrace. Fowler overcame all kinds of nightmare - tyre blowouts, failed sparkplugs, broken drive belts - to take victory after ten laps of the original 15.5-mile course, which started and finished in Peel, via Ballacraine and Kirk Michael, and was little more than a cart track.
In fact, these were only minor problems to overcome. Fowler had been ill and was set to miss the race, until some kind soul suggested he fortify himself with a stiff brandy before the start. His biggest scare during the four hours and 21 minutes was a fiery incident at the Devil’s Elbow between Kirk Michael and Peel:
‘As I rounded the bend there was a machine, well alight, with flaming oil and petrol all over the road,’ Fowler recalled. ‘I had to make up my mind instantly - obey the violent flag-waving of the Boy Scout on duty or take a chance and dash through it. Realising that I had a good chance of winning I decided to make a dash for it. The Boy Scout and others only just got out of the way as I vanished into the flames. The burning machine was hidden in the smoke. However, I managed to dodge it and got through okay. All I felt was the hot blast.’
Rem Fowler, not only the first TT winner, but the first of the TT’s one-hit wonders
Fowler won £25 for his efforts and the same trophy that’s awarded to winners of the Senior TT to this day. And that was as good as it got for the toolmaker from Birmingham as he never troubled the top ten again. Fowler’s last TT race was the 1911 Senior, the first to be run across the current 37¾ mile Mountain Course. His 500cc Ariel conked out before the chequered flag, leaving Oliver Godfrey to take victory aboard Indian’s ground-breaking v-twin with two-speed gearbox and chain drive.
Godfrey never won another TT and lost his life during the First World War. Like many mechanically minded motorcycle racers he flew for the Royal Flying Corps (the forerunner of the RAF). Godfrey was shot down in 1916 over the Somme by the notorious Jagdgeschwader 1 squadron led by Baron von Richthofen, aka the ‘Red Baron’.
Half a century later East German Ernst Degner made history on the Island when he became the first rider to win a TT aboard a Japanese-made two-stroke. Degner had defected from the East, taking MZ’s highly prized two-stroke secrets with him to Suzuki.
Using MZ’s knowhow he won the 1962 50cc TT and that year’s world championship. However, bad luck followed him ever after, with multiple injuries finally ending his career. Degner never won another TT, but in 1963 Suzuki team-mate Mitsuo Itoh also won the 50cc TT. This was Itoh’s only victory and he is still the only Japanese rider to have triumphed on the Island.
A decade after the victories of Degner and Itoh signalled the arrival of two-stroke domination Peter Williams’ success in the 1973 Formula 750cc race aboard the John Player Norton marked the demise of British dominance on the Island. Williams was a genius rider and engineer who would’ve won more TTs if the British machines of that era had been faster and more reliable. Williams was son of famed AJS development engineer Jack Williams, so the TT was always a part of his life, unlike 1980s hero Ron Haslam, who was very much a short-circuit scratcher.
Ron Haslam could have had more, but left the island with a single win in 1982
Haslam was renowned for his wild riding style, which some thought unsuitable for the Mountain course. Rocket Ron proved the doubters wrong in 1982, when he won the Formula 1 TT on a Honda RS1000, beating team-mate Joey Dunlop by just four seconds. Haslam might have won many more TTs, but the following year he was signed by Honda’s grand prix team to contest the 500cc world championship. He never raced on the Island again.
Three years after Haslam’s success American gentleman racer Dave Roper wrote his own piece of history, winning the 1984 Historic TT aboard a Matchless G50, less than a second ahead of similarly mounted Ian Lougher, a ten-times winner. This race was also the only Historic TT and Roper remained the only American TT winner for a quarter of a century, until Mark Miller won the 2010 TT Zero electric race aboard a MotoCzysz.
Grand prix machines had been raced at the TT for decades, but by the late 1980s they were overtaken by road-based race bikes, which were now faster and more suited to the rigours of the Mountain Course. The last-but-one Senior TT won by a GP bike was the 1986 Senior, won by Roger Burnett aboard a Honda RS500, the customer version of the NS500 that Haslam raced in GPs. Burnett beat Geoff Johnson, riding a pimped-up Honda VFR750 road bike, by one second – proof that lower-cost road-based racers were the future for the TT.
Like Haslam, Burnett was signed by Honda for GP duties the following year, returning to the TT only briefly in 1988 and 1990, respectively. In between times, the 1989 the Junior TT went to a Northern Irishman by the name of Johnny Rea. He never won another TT either, but he did father six-times World Superbike champion Jonathan Rea, who chose short-circuit racing over the roads.
Johnny Rea’s one and only TT victory happened to be a true classic – the 1989 Junior TT
Meanwhile generations of the Jefferies family from Yorkshire were very much dedicated to the TT. Allan Jefferies started the family’s lover affair with the Island when he competed in the 1933 Manx GP. His son Tony took the baton, winning three TTs in the early 1970s, before a serious accident at Mallory Park ended his career. After that it was down to younger brother Nick, who contested his first TT in 1975. Twenty-one years later he took his one and only victory in the 1993 Formula 1 TT, beating Honda team-mate Philip McCallen.
Most Isle of Man TT races are won by British or Irish riders and very few by locals. In 2002 Richard ‘Milky’ Quayle made the Manx population proud when he won the 2002 Lightweight TT aboard a Honda CBR400RR. Later that year Quayle won the Senior Classic race at the Manx GP, aboard a Norton Manx, but a big crash during the following year’s TT ended his racing career and prevented him from winning any more TTs.
Several current top TT riders have yet to take more than a single TT victory - including James Hillier and Lee Johnston - but they’ll be doing everything in their power to add to their Island successes next June. That’s what TT winners do.