A new book about Isle of Man TT star John McGuinness reveals how the English rider once told Ulster legend Joey Dunlop as a young boy that one day he would stand alongside him on the podium at the iconic event
That was in 1986, when a star-struck McGuinness asked Joey to sign a picture as the Ballymoney bike genius worked on his Rothmans Honda machines at the TT.
Eleven years later, McGuinness held true to his pledge as he joined Dunlop on the rostrum in 1997.
Dunlop remains the most successful Isle of Man TT rider in history with 26 victories, but McGuinness increased his tally to 19 this year and is closing in on his hero’s proud record.
John McGuinness: TT Legend, with author Stephen Davison, is the popular Morecambe rider’s personal account of his Isle of Man career so far.
Here, we publish an extract from the book in which McGuinness recalls that day in 1986 when he boldly told a bemused Joey of a childhood dream that ultimately came true.
“A BIT further down is the first house I lived in in Morecambe,” John McGuinness explains as we meander past rows of Edwardian mansions in the Lancashire town.
“This is the posh end of town,” he smiles. “We lived in the working end.”
A few streets later our tour of his hometown takes us into a weed-strewn lane lined with narrow terraces. “And this is where I rode my first motorbike.”
The ‘Morecambe Missile’, as the TT legend has become known, is proud of his roots. He has never lived anywhere else since his arrival in the seaside town on July 16, 1974.
And it was here, on this scruffy back street behind the little house in which he was born on Granville Road, that the man who would become the world’s greatest road racer first threw his leg over a splendid little Italjet at the tender age of three.
“I had stabilisers on the sides and my dad showed me how the throttle worked – back to go, forward to stop,” John remembers. “And he told me about the brakes. But I just wanted to get going and I set off with the throttle wound open.
“Dad was running after me screaming and shouting to pull the brake, to stop – he thought I was going to go straight into the wall at the back of our house but I just got it stopped in time!”
Although his late-braking tactics were his first sign of daredevilry with an engine beneath him, John had already been living on the edge in his tiny pedal sidecar outfit on these same cobbled back lanes.
The earliest photographs in the family album show him proudly perched on a bright yellow three-wheeler accompanied by a huge Alsatian dog called Sam.
“When I would disappear down to the end of the road Sam would run along beside me,” John laughs. “And then he would turn me round with his head and push me back up towards home! On my first day at Sandylands Primary School Sam sat outside the school gates all day waiting for me to come out.”
With all this errant activity going on it wasn’t long before the three-year-old had his first brush with the law.
“I had set off on the sidecar along the road and had wandered a few streets away from home when a police car pulled up and asked me where I was going,” John recalls.
“I didn’t realise that I wasn’t allowed on the road on my buggy and they brought me back home.”
Word of the tiny tot’s biking prowess quickly spread far and wide. The Daily Mirror and a television crew appeared on his doorstep to capture images of the four-year-old jumping a row of toy buses, Evel Kneivel-style, in his backyard.
The defining family influence came from his father. Racing motorbikes were a permanent feature of the McGuinness household as John Sr raced motocross, grasstrack and short circuits as well as running his own motorcycle sales and repairs business.
If he wasn’t around the workshop during the week John was at the races with his dad on weekends and some of these racing forays included trips to the Isle of Man.
“My dad did Jurby road races on the island in the early eighties and I would go with him and watch. We would take in some of the TT practice and when I had to go back to school I would be kicking and screaming on the ferry because I didn’t want to go home,” John recalls.
His desire to soak up the TT atmosphere eventually led the youngster to stow away on the ferry from Heysham on his BMX bike.
“I’d wait and pedal alongside a van on the blind side and sneak on to the ferry past security,” he says.
Such escapades provided the young McGuinness with some unique glimpses of his hero, Joey Dunlop.
“In 1986 I remember really vividly seeing Joey riding down the street in Douglas on his works V4 full factory Rothmans Honda.
“He pulled up on to the pavement and leaned it against the wall and went into a shop to get fags – he didn’t even switch it off! It was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen.”
Soon afterwards John enjoyed a remarkably prophetic encounter with the great man.
“In 1986 we had heard that Joey was garaging at the bottom of Bray Hill,” John recalls. “I went to the shop and bought a picture and me and my brother headed down to his garage to get it signed.
“Joey was spannering away at his bikes and after he autographed it I told him that I would stand on the podium with him one day. I was only 14.
“He just looked at me – Joey didn’t say much – but in 1997, 11 years later, I did stand beside him up there. And I reminded him then that I had told him I would, but he didn’t remember!”
The precocious youngster still had to serve his racing apprenticeship before that date with destiny would arrive but the die was cast as the trainee brickie’s teenage years revolved more and more around motorbikes.
Like so many other 16-year-olds in the seventies and eighties he cut his biking teeth on the popular mopeds. A burgundy red AP50 Suzuki was the weapon of choice for the young McGuinness as he blasted around the local laneways imitating his TT heroes, brushing his shoulder off the walls like Steve Hislop and Joey Dunlop. Sometimes the similarity was too close for comfort.
“We had a lot of our own little racing circuits on the roads around here,” he says of those daredevil days as we drive out of Morecambe towards the picturesque village of Heysham.
“A good summer night down here and you’re laughing. Me and my mates would chase each other all around these lanes but I had a big near miss down this road one night. My bike had a crap headlamp and I couldn’t see where I was going properly – I peeled in too early and clipped this bit of the wall that sits out on the inside of the bend.
“I took all the skin off my shoulder but I just missed being fired into the wall on the exit – it was a wee fright all right!”
Like every moped-restricted teen John couldn’t wait to graduate to something more powerful when he turned 17 and he scraped together enough cash from gathering mussels on Morecambe sands to purchase a pristine red and white Yamaha TZR125.
The increase in power boosted his bravado and as the speeds got higher so too did the jumps and wheelies, activities that brought him to the notice of the local constabulary.
“I had given up the bike shop and was working on the oil and gas rigs at the time,” John Snr recalls.
“Every time I would come home on leave I would hear stories about John’s antics and local coppers warned me that he was getting a bit too wild. So that’s when we decided to go racing with a Kawasaki KR-1S.”
“When you’re a kid you think that you can do anything, don’t you?” John reflects. “I thought that I was dead fast around here but my Dad put it up to me: ‘OK so you think you’re good, then we’ll go racing and see if you are’.”
His first ever race was a club race at Aintree at the end of 1990.
“I was beaten by two girls that day,” he smiles ruefully, but he wasn’t deterred.
“In 1991 we did a full season of club races. We didn’t really have a plan, it was just a case of doing some races and seeing how we got on, see if I could do any good really.
“I did the first round of the British Clubman’s series at Mallory Park in the pouring rain in 1991 and I won so we did the rest of the series and by the end of the year I had won the championship,” he says.
It was a promising start and the following year the 18-year-old was awarded the Shell scholarship, a bursary that was aimed at supporting young riders as they learned their craft.
Over the next three years the Morecambe man doggedly pursued that path, racing week in week out in the British 250cc championship on the short circuits.
In 1994 he made his road racing debut at the North West 200 but it was to be two more years before John McGuinness would cross the Irish Sea to line up on the Glencrutchery Road for the first time.
n John McGuinness: TT Legend, published by Blackstaff Press, is on sale now, priced £17.99. The book will be officially launched this Saturday at Ballymoney Town Hall from 12pm to 4pm, when McGuinness will attend to meet fans and sign copies.