Subaru TT Challenge 2

10/31/2014

Version 11.3

Looking at the picture of Mark Higgins on this page – relaxed, smiling, leaning back as if he had all the time in the world – you’d never take him for a man in a hurry. 

In fact, with his kindly demeanor and soft voice, he could be mistaken for the pastor of St. Trinian’s, one of the notable country churches on the Isle of Man. 

As a native of this island in the Irish Sea between England and Ireland, Higgins would surely know the legend of the Buggane, the fearsome tusked fairy who tore off the church’s roof because the pealing church bells were so irritating. But the genial, unhurried portrait below gives no hint that Higgins, a three-time British Rally champion, was shortly going to be flying past St. Trinian’s at 160 mph in a 2015 Subaru WRX STI, maybe blowing the place apart by this more modern means – faster than a tusked fairy. 

The WRX STI was lightly modified from the same specifications and trim that Americans are served at their local Subaru retailers. For this Subaru TT (Tourist Trophy) Challenge 2, Higgins would have to summon up bravery to match the much-refined sport-sedan’s turbocharger boost pressure.

Higgins was attempting to break the treacherous Snaefell Mountain Course’s automotive lap record of 115.3 mph, which he had established in 2011, also in a WRX STI. St. Trinian’s stands along the 37.7-mile Mountain Course on Route A1 between Douglas, the Isle’s largest city and home to about 30 percent of the 85,000 inhabitants, and Ballacraine Corner. It’s at the bottom of the roughly rectangular combination of public roads on which the Isle of Man TT motorcycle races, originally known as the Tourist Trophy, have been held 95 times since 1907.

Turning northward from Ballacraine Corner on the A3, the Mountain Course arcs across the middle and top of the Isle to meet Ramsey, situated on a sweeping bay along the northeastern coast. From this harbor city, second-largest in Manxland, it heads back to Douglas. There the course runs across its most dramatic section, as the A18 climbs over the slopes of Snaefell. Its 2,037-foot summit dominates the northern half of this 221-square-mile aggregation of rugged shores, wooded glens, divided fields, and lonely moorlands. 

Getting Ready

The new WRX has a stiffer chassis, and the WRX STI version’s turbocharged 2.5-liter horizontally opposed 4-cylinder engine produces 305 hp. Modifications for the record attempt included a fortified suspension and the addition of Dunlop Direzza® 225/45R18 tires. In order not to hold back Higgins, the top-speed limiter was disabled. 

And to make the car look unique, the Isle’s ancient triskelion symbol added graphic distinction to the exterior bodywork: The three legs radiating from a common center are thought to represent the sun’s movement through the heavens. 

Higgins, who is 43 years old, had taken a practice run on Saturday, May 31, and the results shocked Andrew Carr. The Tech Sport Racing engineer oversaw the car’s preparation, but it was impossible to anticipate the Vesuvian throttle-position readings until he reviewed the data downloaded from the engine control unit. As the result of so much wide-open running, heat buildup was seen as a threat to ultimate performance. “I’d be surprised if there’s any production car this side of £200,000 [approximately $340,000] – of a sport-saloon [sedan] type – that could sustain this kind of punishment,” Carr said. “It’s very difficult.” 

During the practice lap, Higgins ran out of fuel just before the finish line, but he had been on a 116-mph pace. For the sake of comparison, this is faster than the first TT motorcycle sidecar race winner of the week, who averaged 113.9 mph over four laps. So Higgins looked good to beat the 2011 mark. 

Setting Up

On Wednesday, June 4, the morning of his first official attempt, Higgins took a group of reporters around the Mountain Course. Standing in our transport van’s stairwell, he seemed to be making mental notes for himself. “It‘s flat out through here,” he would say matter-of-factly, “but it gets a bit tricky at the hairpin.” Over and over, he revealed ways to gain a few tenths in one corner or a full second in another. 

In order to warm the car’s tires and brakes, the late-morning run went off from Creg-ny-Baa, a sharp right-hand turn where a side road meets the course about 3 miles from the start-finish line. The big challenge of Bray Hill came up a few moments after the official start. At the bottom of the hill, any vehicle’s suspension is fully compressed, which can lead to iffy moments. In 2011, Higgins’s famous Big Moment happened here. (His commentary, anything but pastoral, can be heard on YouTube™.) Today, he figured that by not sliding sideways at 150 mph, he could save a few more ticks. 

Higgins had begun in motorsports as an 8-year-old, doing motorcycle trials. “I was never very good on two wheels,” he told me. Establishing himself in rallying, he first tried the Mountain Course on four wheels in 2001. 

That attempt ended from power steering and turbocharger issues. “I just sat there and cried,” he recalled. 

The Official Challenge

When the run began, Higgins’ heart-rate monitor registered a different kind of emotion. As expected, his normal resting rate of 50 bpm would spike to 150 bpm in the twisty sections. But toward the very end it soared unexpectedly. Overshooting the Signpost Corner, he craftily used the hand brake to make the WRX STI pivot out of a tight spot. But continuing palpitations were attributable to the hot engine and brakes, which had started to respond less readily. Still, he crossed 30 seconds faster, in 19:26, for a 116.4 average – a big difference from 2011.  

“It’s been a long struggle,” Andrew Carr said. “To do it with such a standard car? I can’t believe it, to be honest.” 

Having done his job, Higgins uncorked a magnum of champagne. “I made a couple of mistakes,” he soon said. “I could pick up another five seconds, maybe another mile per hour, or two.” 

And, in fact, he went out again on Friday, June 6, ironing out this next lap in 19:15 and 117.5 mph. 

Notes on the Future

For the record to be broken again, it will take a fast car and as much bravery as the legendary Timothy the tailor showed centuries ago at St. Trinian’s, when he met the raving Buggane. Timothy escaped to another church, whereupon the grotesque, black-maned fairy tore off his own head. 

Or it simply will take a driver as brave as Mark Higgins.

A Guide to Visiting the Isle of Man 

As suggested by Subaru being the exclusive automotive entry of the Isle of Man TT motorcycle races, there’s good reason to visit this island in the Irish Sea, whether in June, when the place is jumping during TT Week, or in the fall, when the heather quietly changes color. For travelers from the United States, the Isle is easily reached from any of several cities with nonstop flights to the international hub of Manchester, England. From there, the island’s primary airport, known as Ronaldsway, is but a brief shuttle flight. 

As the writer Paul Duchene has observed, “The Isle of Man clock stopped at 1953. It’s green as Ireland, with whitewashed cottages, fishing villages, narrow lanes, and misty mountains.” The main city, Douglas, is a short ride from the airport. Along the way, be prepared to stop at the Fairy Bridge of Ballalona. Greeting the fairies is a tradition observed by Manxmen and motorcycle racers, all of whom hope to avoid being cursed in spite. 

Arriving in Douglas, don’t expect great accommodations: the part about time stopping is owing to the change in habit of British holidaymakers. By the 1960s, it became possible to choose cheap junkets to Spain and the Canary Islands instead of a journey by train and sea to Man, which had been exceedingly popular from the 1880s until after World War II. Consequently, the hotels in Douglas are quirky. On the other hand, the Central Promenade along Douglas Bay is so quiet overnight that a good night’s sleep is all but guaranteed. 

And be prepared with a pocketful of British pounds, which are accepted here on level footing with the Manx pound, the official currency of this self-governing land. (The Isle of Man is a British crown dependency.) Whichever pound you like, U.S. dollars and euros are not accepted. 

Things to do and see on the Isle of Man:

  • In early July, the Tynwald parliamentary body meets in public, as it has for more than 1,000 years, at St. John’s, in order to announce new laws. Legislators proceed over rushes that are spread over the ground in tribute to sea god Manannan, who, like many ancient deities and fairies, is a shape-shifter. 
  • The Manx Museum and Art Gallery, in Douglas, offers a large collection of artifacts telling the 10,000 years of local history as well as presenting works created by native Manx artists.  
  • Ramsey, once known for shipbuilding, is the location of the Milntown estate, which maintains a collection of vintage cars and motorcycles in running condition. 
  • Manx Electric Railway starts on the Douglas Promenade, where the quaint ticket office has stood since 1897. The line goes north along the coast, passing through Laxey on the way to Ramsey. In Laxey, passengers can transfer to the Snaefell Mountain Railway and ride to an altitude that’s 46 feet below the 2,037-foot summit. From either line, there are excellent opportunities for highland hiking. 
  • Isle of Man Steam Railway, extending between Douglas and Port Erin, is the longest narrow-gauge line in the British Isles. July and August are the busiest times, with seven round trips daily. 
  • Kipper Factory & Museum, in Peel, shows the traditional process for preserving and smoking herring, known as kippers – a mainstay of the Manx economy. 
  • Neolithic, early Christian, and Viking ruins abound on the Isle, although many are on private property. Reached by a public footpath after a trip by car, bus, or the Manx Electric Railway, the Cashtal yn Ard site near Glen Mona (between Laxey and Ramsey) has a well-preserved communal tomb more than 4,000 years old, the most ancient of its kind in the British isles. 

Touring the Isle of Man by Motorcycle During TT Week 

Every year during the Isle of Man TT, thousands of motorcyclists migrate to Manxland to enjoy more than 500 miles of roads, stirring coastal scenes, and Mad Sunday, when a key part of the TT’s course over public routes is restricted to one-way traffic and bikers cut it loose. As long as I would be watching the Subaru Isle of Man TT Challenge 2 in person, I had arranged to borrow a motorcycle and take part in the two-wheel action. I’ve been a rider since 1973 without ever having had an opportunity like this one. 

The bad news was that I arrived on Monday, June 2, the day after Mad Sunday. A huge procession of riders went out in honor of Simon Andrews, who had died a few days before in the North West 200, a road race held in Northern Ireland. I missed the tribute. 

But the good news: I was able to ride the course the next evening, adding some southern and western coastal roads for scenic variety.  

If Subaru made motorcycles, I happily would have tried one. Instead, Honda® U.K. gave me its Honda VFR1200F DCT. Besides letting me appreciate the island’s beauty, my ride highlighted the complexity of the Snaefell Mountain Course, over which WRX STI driver Mark Higgins would attempt his record run the next morning. My seat-of-the-pants experience revealed that bumps, crests, and kinks are part of straightaways taken flat out by racers. Buildings and stone walls stand at the road’s edge – except on Snaefell, where the cliff side falls away. Some 242 riders have died during 95 years of competition, and it was easy to see how. 

A particular challenge for Higgins was the crowned center part of the road, which would tend to unbalance the car as he drove into turns. Feeling my way along, I tried to imagine the skill and steely nerves required of any competitor. 

Short of driving the WRX STI on a lap record attempt, seeing the Isle of Man by motorcycle is the best way I can think of to experience all the festivities and exhilaration of the TT.