Ken Dobson faced a road block to match the Isle of Man's formidable stone walls when he contemplated returning to the island's treacherous motorcycle race.

Two years ago, at the tender age of 56, Dobson felt the call of those twisting roads and lethal surrounds, where he had raced three times in the mid 1980s.

It was never going to happen, not on his wife Denise's watch.

"I just wanted to relive that unique experience - there was that flicker there, to see if I could still do it," says west Aucklander Dobson, as we meet during this week's Isle of Man TT racing.


"I'd like to think I could have gone back and done a 190kph lap. There is an attachment to the place which is quite difficult to describe. It's 250 corners, massive average speeds, on a pretty small island.

"Denise pretty much dismissed it immediately, that it wouldn't get approved on the danger aspect. She just asked 'Why?' You don't expect them to understand.

"On reflection, it was a good decision not to go because of the planning and must respect the place but it wasn't about fear."

Few of us understand, actually. The TT has claimed about 260 lives including seven Kiwis since 1907.

A look down an online excerpt from island's hospital log book portrays a human demolition derby: fractured tibia, death certificate, multiple injuries, died in theatre, vertebra fracture, head injury, and on and on and on.

The 2018 Isle of Man TT — which stands rather disarmingly for Tourist Trophy — had claimed two more lives at the time of writing this. Dobson's final Isle of Man in 1986 was a particularly bad year, when five died.

Ken Dobson raced in the Isle of Man TT three times in the mid-1980s.
Ken Dobson raced in the Isle of Man TT three times in the mid-1980s.

And yet for racers and spectators this is irresistible to the point of addictive. During the racing fortnight about 35,000 people (plus 11,000 bikes) flood onto this speck, normal population 80,000, in the Irish Sea.

Dobson started his Isle of Man TT experience on a high, finishing fifth on a slightly modified Honda VF750cc in a 1984 production class race. A little trophy marking this sits in the corner of his Takapuna motorbike shop office.

"I was a motocross rider whose first road race was in 1975 at Pukekohe and I had so much fun that I came back into the pits, lifted the visor, and told my dad 'I'm going to race at the TT one day'," Dobson recalls.


"In those days it came from reading magazines and books, about superstars like Mike Hailwood and Giacomo Agostini."

Up he rocked in 1984, a week early so he could do extra study of the course with more than 200 corners, driving around it a good 100 times in his white VW van.

"My first impression was 'how the hell am I going to remember all of this?'," he says.

"There are so many corners, corners after crests, a massive amount to recall while you are trying to ride it at 90 odd per cent.

"Lots of riders drive around it outside of the official practice sessions. It doesn't give you a total picture, and you are only using one half of the road, but at least you can store some information about important parts of the track.

"One of the challenges is you come out of bright sunlight into shaded areas all the time."

Ken Dobson int the 1980s.
Ken Dobson int the 1980s.

Comradeship. Danger. Speed. Skill. Rivalries. Fear. History. The quaint location. Whatever the attraction factors, the racing can take a hold.

Richard Quayle, one of three locals to have won there, told The Guardian this month "the orgasmic feeling lasts the whole 37.7 mile course — we know the dangers but in a sanitised world there is freedom in the TT".

In the same piece, a veteran TT photographer named Stephen Davison recalled a Northern Ireland rider named Phillip McCallen as "craziest bastard of them all".

"Phillip had a crash where he could have been paralysed so he was smart enough to get out. But the TT grips many people and they can't escape," Davison observed.

This could be why a 50-something Ken Dobson came perilously close to aiming a 600cc Kawasaki ZX-6R in the direction of the 60.73km Snaefell Maintain Course two years ago, before his wife intervened.

Dobson says: "It's an incredible buzz, racing through villages at speeds in my day of 240kph, down a narrow two-lane road, streaking between footpaths and shop fronts.

"That is something hard to describe — you are so tuned in and focussed on what's next.

"Adrenaline? For me, you have all that on the start line. You are sitting there with cold tyres, cold body, with massive amounts of adrenaline flowing through your system.

"You accelerate all the way up to sixth gear at the bottom of Bray Hill, which was probably about 200kph, within seconds of leaving the start line. It is all encompassing.

Ken Dobson. Photo / Michael Craig
Ken Dobson. Photo / Michael Craig

"It's about being smooth, not attacking at 100 per cent, leaving margins, and knowing the course almost down to millimetres to achieve such high average speeds.

"To some extent yes, I just wanted to experience that again, of attacking roads like that."

Living in Hayes, west of London, Dobson's encouraging 1984 result won some financial support from Honda, while Denise was working up her career in midwifery. All this, for the chance to dice with death.

His own most memorable date with destiny came during a practice session, on a super fast part of the track approaching Hillberry Corner, where he opted to stay in top gear on a fully modified bike during a particularly good lap. Attacking a corner 15kph faster than previously, he ended up in an open, gently-curved drain.

"I still have visions of the culvert which was coming up at about 100mph," he says.

"I just stayed hard on the gas and somehow climbed out. It was a huge moment. I might not be here now."

But here he is, his daily routine including the drive in a "comfy car" from Green Bay to Takapuna.

Now and then he bumps into fellow Isle of Man competitors, particularly the Kiwi great Graeme Crosby, and says the TT experience might create some kind of bond.

He is in awe of Wellingtonian Bruce Anstey, who has won 13 TTs and held the lap record, putting his success down to incredible knowledge of the course.

Dobson was glued to TV coverage of the Isle of Man this week. Some things have changed — there are no production classes — but he was amazed and almost nostalgic on hearing part of the course he found particularly difficult remains the same. Tragedy is always at hand.

"It is still a huge shock to the system," he says about the deaths.

"I remember we held a minute's silence at our prizegiving, but there is also an attitude that you move on.

"We all go there knowing it has the potential (for tragedy) more than any other track on the planet. Nobody forces you to go."