Book review: Built for Speed by John McGuinness
The name John McGuinness might leave some people puzzled'¦ but in Morecambe and the world of TT, his name is legend!
From his humble beginnings in a terraced house in the resort’s Granville Road, ‘less than ten minutes from where you catch the ferry to the Isle of Man,’ the Lancashire lad who was just three when he rode his first motorbike is now one of the all-time giants of road racing.
The place of 46-year-old McGuinness – better known as the ‘Morecambe Missile’ – in the history books is already assured. With 23 Isle of Man TT titles under his belt, he is a hero in the sport and has been billed as the most versatile rider in the world.
His success seemed unstoppable but, only a short time after publication of last year’s first edition of the book which he had decided would finally tell the truth about what it is like to live on the edge, the Lancashire speed king’s career ground to a devastating halt following a horrific crash.
The accident during practice at the North West 200 race meeting in Northern Ireland in May of 2017 resulted in four broken bones in his back, five broken ribs and a badly broken leg which, McGuinness reveals in a new final chapter of Built for Speed, has left him still unable to walk properly.
Despite his easy humour and grounded attitude off the bike, McGuinness has always kept those around him guessing when it comes to the inside story of the man inside the helmet and what has kept him at the top of such a perilous sport for over 20 years.
All that has changed with this down-to-earth autobiography which takes us from his childhood days toddling round his housing estate on a little Italjet 50 motorbike, through the battle to follow his dream of being a professional racer, his debt to his wife Becky and their two children, and on to his many victories in the most dangerous sporting event on the planet.
Born at Morecambe’s Queen Victoria Hospital in 1972, McGuinness admits that the ‘pull’ the resort has on him is ‘weird.’ Despite his fame and career, he has always lived within six miles of the hospital, whether that was in a motorhome or a house.
His father had a motorcycle shop and it was there that his love of racing began. The bike-mad youngster moved into motocross and in 1982, aged just ten, he went to his first Isle of Man TT meeting and had his first taste of a spectacle once famously dubbed ‘38 Miles of Terror.’
For the boy, who was just another face in the crowd watching the bikes fly by, the smells, the noise and the speed were ‘like a massive injection in my head and it just blew my mind. I knew within seconds that I was going to be a TT racer. I didn’t know how or what I was going to have to do to achieve this, and my dad wasn’t going to be keen. Everyone around me was aware of the dangers, but from that moment I knew I had to do it.’
Another groundbreaking moment came in 1986 when McGuinness met his hero Joey Dunlop, the Northern Irish legend who is still the most successful TT rider of all time and who died in a racing crash in Estonia in 2000.
Dunlop was signing a picture for the 14-year-old McGuinness at the TT races when the teenage bike fanatic looked up at him and told him that he would be up on the podium with him one day. ‘It was only a dream at the time,’ he confesses, ‘but it felt completely natural to say that to him.’
But before achieving that dream, McGuinness had to first work as a bricklayer around his home area and as a cockle fisherman on the dangerous sands of Morecambe Bay, from where he could see the Isle of Man shimmering tantalisingly in the distance.
In 1996, McGuinness finally lined up for his debut TT race and won the best newcomer award, but in those intervening years he had done thousands of miles on race bikes, hit his head ‘on the floor’ a few times, lost money racing and won money racing.
Soon McGuinness was being billed as the most versatile rider in the world. During his career he has ridden all types of racing motorcycles including singles, in-line fours, V-twins and GP 500 two-strokes in all parts of the globe, from Daytona USA to Macau in the Far East.
He has now racked up 23 TT victories, only three behind Joey Dunlop’s outright tally. In 2007 he became the first man to break through the 130mph average barrier and then the 131mph barrier (in an official race), pushing it up to 131.578mph in 2009.
McGuinness, who admits that he is ‘still head over heels in love with the Isle of Man and the TT races,’ reveals what it takes to be a champion in such an incredibly dangerous sport, and to keep winning even though all logic tells you to stop.
In what now seems an ironic reflection as he battles to regain his fitness, McGuinness tells readers that he knows there will come a time when you have to accept ‘that it’s time to roll over,’ adding ‘I just hope the devil on my shoulder is man enough to tell me when that happens, rather than having the decision made for me through injury or something else.’
So is the steely Lancastrian born to be a racer ready to quit motorcycling for a new career of commentary and after-dinner speeches? ‘Not by a long shot,’ he declares.
(Ebury, paperback, £8.99)