I never thought I’d find myself standing by one of the most famous race tracks in the world holding a flag and wearing three pairs of trousers, but it’s funny how life works out sometimes.
I fell into marshalling by accident – I was in my final year at uni, chatting with a fellow petrolhead, and the next thing we knew we were on a ferry to Douglas for the Isle of Man TT. Our destination was a football club, their pitch temporarily repurposed as a campsite, packed with bikers from all over the world. One evening after watching a practice session, we fell into conversation with a couple of marshals. The next morning we were straight up to the grandstand to sign on.
For the first race day we headed to Ramsey Hairpin – which is where our new friends were regular marshals, and I have marshalled there ever since.
One thing I quickly learned is that even on a warm summer’s day it can get very chilly under the trees, and particularly for evening practice layers are your friend. My marshalling outfit generally involves leggings, bike jeans and over trousers, plus several tops and at least one hat!
Having become a qualified marshal, I am now one of the regular flag marshals at Ramsey Hairpin. It is probably the only place on course where the flaggie has to run – the flag point is about 100 yards down the hill, where you can tuck in behind a matrix sign wrapped in padding. But down there you have no view of anything from halfway round the bend – there is a long stretch of road up towards Tower Bends which is now out of sight.
Once the call comes through that roads have closed, the ropes go up and we inspect the track, which generally involves a lot of sweeping, a handful of cement dust, and the odd broken bit of wall (I have a tiny chunk of Ramsey Hairpin wall sitting on my bookcase).
And then we wait. The Hairpin is just over 24 miles from the grandstand, so when the first bikes set off we have a few minutes to dig out another packet of biscuits and get to our stations. One of the other marshals makes me a cup of tea, which will be scalding hot for ages as it’s in a thermos mug. The world falls silent. It feels like the whole island is waiting, listening, holding its breath.
And in the far distance we start to hear a swarm of bees, the noise coming from the north and echoing around the hills. Gradually it resolves into a deeper growl as they approach Ramsey. One marshal, who has been at the Hairpin for 40-odd years, can name the bends by the engine noise. Starting with Parliament Square, he calls them out “Cruikshanks… Whitegates… Stella Maris…” and pop they appear, sometimes two or three abreast, the machines pushed to the limits of their braking ability as they close in.
Any incident, and I am running down to the padded signpost, displaying the flag as I go. Down at flag point riders pass close enough to see the whites of their eyes, and holding a stationary flag the back of my hand is warmed by the heat of passing exhausts. At that point, I am watching the approaching traffic, while glancing back to see if the flag needs to be waved. If the incident is out of my line of sight, I have to rely on the other marshals to keep me informed, while they deal with the incident.
Once everything is cleared, I then nip back up to my spot in front of the marshal’s hut, ready to do it all again.
Occasionally we will have a ‘visitor’ – a breakdown or a minor incident. If they are on the inside of the course the rider will stay with us until we can get them across the road at the end of the session. Spectating from the hairpin during racing is a new experience for them, and their reactions can be entertaining as the machines approach, and they take the opportunity to study the various lines.
There is no one line around the hairpin – some hug the wall, some are wide on the entry, some on the exit, or a few take a wide smooth line around the outside.
Between racing mainly involves a nice sit down, eating biscuits, or having in-depth discussions about biscuits. One regular favourite game is Travelling Marshal Bingo, but nobody is entirely sure of the rules…
That one drunken conversation on the campsite has led to some incredible experiences and lifelong friendships. Marshalling gives a whole new outlook on racing, and without the marshals there would be no racing.
It’s so rewarding to feel that you can make a tiny bit of difference to the greatest show on earth. I can safely say it has changed my life.