Monday, November 20, 2017


I just finished reading 'Built for Speed, My Autobiography' by John McGuinness.  John is the most successful living racer at the Isle of Man TT, having won 23 TT races, second only to the late Joey Dunlop, who won 26.  While the book is written 'with John Hogan',  McGuinness' voice comes through loud and clear.  He's a guy with no filter.  Beyond the profanity and bawdy idioms, McGuinness doesn't sanitize his opinions of other racers, teams, institutions, and individuals in his personal life.  Which is not to say that the book is particularly negative.  He is effusive in his praise of  much of his family, racers, and sponsors.  And, while he has a realistic and matter of fact presentation of his obvious talent, he is just as realistic about his failings.  His talent that rivals racing ability is his sense of humor.  He's incredibly funny.
John had a somewhat hard scrabble childhood.  While saying that he grew up in poverty would probably be an exaggeration, upper lower class is probably accurate.  His father was a motorcyclist, had a motorcycle repair shop, and did some club racing and that certainly influenced Johns career.  He grew up living 3 miles from the ferry to the Isle of Man and to this day has probably never lived further than 10 miles from the ferry.  His father first took him there when he was 10 years old in 1982 and he was hooked and decided then that he was going to race there.  He talks of skipping school and riding his bicycle to the ferry and, while the ticket taker was dealing with the driver of a van, he'd be hiding on the other side and pedal onboard out of sight.  But, it was long after he had done schoolboy motocross, then club short circuit road racing, then professional road racing, that he finally did race at the IOM in 1996 when he was 24 years old and had been road racing six years.  He's clear that he thinks it's important to have a level of experience and maturity to have success, and survive, TT racing.  He worked as a bricklayer then, when the recession hit (which he blames on Maggie Thatcher), he went fishing and musseling with his future father-in-law.
He speaks repeatedly about his great friend David Jefferies. They both had their TT debut the same year.  In addition to being great friend, John though David was the best TT racer at the time.  John was one of the first to come across DJ's fatal accident at the TT, one of many he has seen.
John has huge respect for Joey Dunlop and seems to carry some guilt for impetuously cutting him up a bit in one of their earliest races together.  Despite that, Joey let John into his life and he was honored that he stayed at Joey's house and they were teammates at one point.
McGuinness says that if he were putting a team together to race at the TT, his first choice would be Michael Dunlop, Ian Hutchinson next and himself third.
Family is a huge part of his life.  His parents split when he was in high school.  They always argued a lot and his dad would be drinking, fighting and chasing women.  He says that his Mum went off the rails when they split.   He has a brother who he says alway had something missing and has always been looking to get high.  So, not the ideal household and he lived with his father's mother, Nana, who he adored.  He started going out with a girl, Becky,  who lived across the street from his Nana when he was 16 and she 13 and eventually her parents took him in.  They are still together now with two children and he clearly adores them.  It seems that they give him the stability that he didn't have as a kid.  Becky writes a great forward to the book and Guy Martin writes an odd and funny forward also.
I think the book captures the tension between the allure and challenge of the TT and the risk.  On the one hand, he puts the sight of his good friend getting killed there out of his mind, but on the other he's always aware of the risk.  It seems that if everything isn't just right, he doesn't push it.  But, when everything is right, he's as good as anyone.   The book was written and came out just before John's serious crash early this year at the North West 200 road race in Northern Ireland when the bike's electronics went crazy and it was uncontrollable.  A similar thing happen to John's teammate, Guy Martin, in practice at the TT this year and he was very lucky to escape serious injury.  The bike was withdrawn from the races.  John fractured a vertebra and had a compound fracture to his tibia and fibula.  He lost bone and I believe is still in an external fixator that he has to crank up daily to get the bone to gap the space.  This begs the question 'will he ever race again?'  He talks on both sides of this issue: he'd like to go out on top but he's not bothered if he never wins another TT.  It's an issue most athletes face: when is the right time to retire.  And, he talks of the possibility of just doing the electric bike race at the TT, which is only one lap and considerably slower speeds.  He's 45 years old now.
It's a great book and one gets the sense that it's totally honest; no P.R. B.S.  It extremely funny, but not just fluff, and deals with the subject of what's really important in one's life and what motivates oneself.