Neil Hodgson and John McGuinness have been good friends for more than 20 years. Both are road racers — one in a more literal sense — and both are from the north of England. They’ve both been very successful; Hodgson won the 2003 World Superbike Championship racing on purpose-built and very safe racetracks around the world, while McGuinness has won 19 races on the lethal roads that make up the TT course at the Isle of Man. Ironically, the younger 38-year-old Hodgson — McGuinness is 40 — was the first to be forced into retirement. After severely dislocating his shoulder in a motocross training accident in California in 2009, Hodgson landed on the same shoulder during Sunday morning warm-up for the opening round of the 2010 British Superbike Championship at Brands Hatch and knew his career was over.
The idea was to have the boys talk about their racing careers, where they intersected, where they didn’t. So we started with Daytona. Daytona 1997 was McGuinness’ first trip to the U.S. and he thoroughly enjoyed it. He’d go on to win the 250cc race in 1999, after Luis Lavado was disqualified for illegal fuel, then without question in 2000. Hodgson rode at Daytona in 1995, but that didn’t prepare him when he returned for the Dunlop tire test in January 2005 after a dismal year in MotoGP with the d’Antin Ducati team.
“I’m not afraid to say, it’s scary as hell,” Hodgson said at the time. “I said to my mechanic, ‘In Barcelona I did 212 mph last year. And on a scale of 1 to 10 of scary, that was 1 and going around the banking is 10.’”
Winning the World Superbike...
Winning the World Superbike Championship aboard the factory Ducati 999 in 2003 was the crowning achievement of Neil Hodgson’s career. He was quickly snapped up by the D’Antin Ducati MotoGP team for 2004, but things didn’t turn out as planned.
Hodgson lives on the Isle of Man, but never raced the TT. He’s said he gets knots in his stomach watching his friends ride. Surprisingly, McGuinness, from Morecambe on England’s northwest coast, has similar feelings. The difference is that his feelings fade with each passing mile. McGuinness’ 19 TT wins are second only to the 26 of Joey Dunlop.
SR: How does the TT compare to Daytona?
Hodgson: I never wanted to do the TT because it was too dangerous. The first time I’m going around the (Daytona) banking, I’m thinking to myself, in third gear on that Ducati scaring myself on and off the throttle, thinking, ‘I never wanted to do the TT and now I’ve agreed to do this?’ But the problem was, I knew I was in third gear and I had been told that you had to be in sixth and wide open, like not let off at all. So it took me a while to get my head around that.
Did you enjoy riding it, even with the danger?
Hodgson: Yeah, I did in the end. But I think that becomes the buzz in the thrill and I’m sure the TT’s like that, having, like I said, never had the balls to do that. But I’m sure that every time you’ve done it, you think that’s amazing.
When was your first trip to Daytona?
McGuinness heads around the...
McGuinness heads around the blind Handley’s bend on his way to the Dainese Superbike TT win. “The concentration levels are always really high. Sometimes you don’t think, ‘This is great.’”
It was 1997. I went there with an Aprilia team called Paul Bird. It was a bit frustrating the first time we went because I crashed in the heat race. I was like the third or fourth fastest rider of everybody when we had like a five-lap heat race and my bike seized and it spat me off going into turn one.
We didn’t really know what we were doing, to be fair. After it seized up they chucked us out of the paddock at 6:30 or whatever, so we put it into the van and took it to the hotel. We couldn’t get the bike in (the elevator), so we had to lift it up, and stand it up like it was doing a wheelie. And we were up to the fifth floor, got the bike out, put in the room and we worked on it. Did a bit of crash damage and stuff. First time in the states, 25 (years old). I hadn’t done much traveling. We had a great time as well. We sort of treated it as a bit of a holiday. It was this completely new world. I really enjoyed it, I have to say.
You’d raced on roads. Were you intimidated by Daytona?
I was, yeah. Obviously with the walls and the nature of the circuit and the uniqueness of it, it did take quite a few laps to have the confidence to run it straight up to the wall out of turn six. That one was a little bit slower on to the banking. Through the chicane, then you just whiz straight to the wall. I walked the track and I wished hadn’t, to be honest, because that wall’s a lot bigger than it looks like on the television or when you look at it from the paddock. The track at the time, there were big holes in it.
How does Daytona compare to the Isle of Man?
McGuinness: I think it’s totally different.
Is your comfort level higher at the Isle of Man?
McGuinness: Probably not, really. You never get absolutely comfortable with racing at the Isle of Man. The concentration levels are always really high. I suppose racing anywhere, it’s probably if you have a result, the after-buzz is the best of it, then you feel great. But I don’t know, Daytona is similar to somewhere like the Northwest 200 with the big straight and the slipstream and the drafting. I mean every track’s…the TT’s another level isn’t it? You never really get comfortable with it. And even now that I’m actually thinking about it, I get that feeling in me stomach now. If I don’t think about it…it’s fine if you’re away with friends, whatever. Then someone will mention something and I get a flash of the TT and think, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to be going there in a few months.’
Hodgson: And it’s a constant pressure you put yourself under. And the pressure that John is under with the expectations, he’ll definitely be a jolly retired rider when he decides to call it a day.
Neil, you had no desire to do the TT?
Hodgson: No, I didn’t know much about the TT. I knew the TT and everything, but when I started racing, when I was club racing and doing British championships, there was just never a thought that I would do the TT. Dad never mentioned it. And then my short-circuit racing was doing good, I started doing Grand Prix after three years of racing. So I never thought about it. It’s only when I really moved there, if anything. I wasn’t a fan of the TT at all. I thought, ‘That’s crazy.’ But then once you live there, and I’ve lived there for 13 years, I’m more of a TT fan now than I’ve ever been and I want to do it more now than I’ve ever wanted to. I’m not going to do it, but I can well see the buzz and the thought of being on a nice 600 riding down the middle of the road relatively, you know what I mean? I can imagine it’s the ultimate bike ride isn’t it?
John, how did you get to the Isle of Man?
McGuinness: Started racing on a (Kawasaki) KR1S and basically, I was riding on the road, I was crazy. Just our local roads in the Lake District, all that lot, out with my friends on public roads. Then a few of the older riders sort of had a word with my dad and said, ‘Hey, you need to get this lad off the road.’ I did motocross, but wasn’t really any good. Then I got my license to ride on the road. Me dad says I was showing off. Me dad just said, ‘Oh, you think you’re good enough, do you? Right, let’s go racing.’
McGuinness’ win in the Royal...
McGuinness’ win in the Royal London 360 Superstock race at the 2012 Isle of Man TT raised his number of wins to 19, second only to Joey Dunlop. Unfortunately, the Senior TT race — where McGuinness was expected to be a contender — was canceled due to weather.
McGuinness hurtles through...
McGuinness hurtles through the kink at Rhencullen during the 2012 Isle of Man TT Superbike race, getting airborne at 130 mph.
John McGuinness added to his...
John McGuinness added to his already legendary tally of victories at the Isle of Man TT with a win in the 2012-opening Dainese Superbike back in June.
So basically took the lights off the production bike and went to a place called Aintree, near Liverpool. It’s probably my local track; it only gets used a few times a year. I finished 27th and 31st, something like that. I had a massive reality check. Got beat by a couple of girls. I thought, ‘Oh my God…this is not quite as easy as it looks.’ (Hodgson and McGuinness laugh uproariously.)
The road racing thing, I was a fan of it when I was growing up. Like my all-time hero when I was a kid was Joey Dunlop. Like me dad would talk about going over in the ‘60s and watching the greats, the (Mike) Hailwoods, Bill Ivys, (Phil) Reads. All the men of the time. Ago (Giacomo Agostini) and stuff. It was part of the world championship, was the TT. I went over there in 1982 as a kid and I mean the first bloke to come down the hill was Joey Dunlop. Joey came down, Mick Grant, flippin’ Ron Haslam, all these guys. I was just like, at 10-years-old thinking, ‘I like that. I’m going to win one of them one day.’
When did you first race at the Isle of Man?
McGuinness: The first time I raced there was 1996, but I’d done a couple of other road races. I did the Northwest 200 in ‘94 and ’95. But I went there with nothing, never had a spare clutch lever. Me and the girlfriend went in the van. I remember having 80 quid (British pounds) in me pocket. That was enough to get me home, diesel to get me home. Somebody nicked (stole) my jeans with the 80 quid in it. And I came back after the race, clutch started slipping coming out of the roundabouts, so I broke down. And I remember going to the organizer, and I said, ‘I’ve no money.’ They’d given me the 80 quid, they covered me costs to go. And I said, ‘The 80 quid you gave me, somebody stole my wallet,’ and they actually gave me another 80 quid to go home. (They’re) a bit more passionate with the racing over there. I went to the Northwest in ‘96 with a new bike with Paul Bird as a sponsor. I went from 15th, 12th, 13ths, 14ths to being right at the front. And I remember thinking, ‘Geez, what am I doing? I’m at the front.’ Joey Dunlop, Mick Loughout, all these guys all around me, all the top road racers at the time — I couldn’t believe it. And then after the Northwest, I got a late entry for the TT in ’96.
Neil, what do you miss most about racing?
Hodgson: Nothing, nothing at all. Not one bit, not one bit. It’s that…I started racing when I was 8, I finished when I was 36. Done. I don’t miss it. And everyone’s well shocked with that. It’s f**king well hard to be at that limit all the time.
You did push yourself so hard.
Hodgson: I was a stresshead. And I pushed myself that hard. And now I’m just like, ‘There you go.’ I don’t want to do that any more. I’m lucky because I get to ride bikes all the time. I ride bikes more now doing track days and teaching, so I get the fun side of riding bikes now. Funny, isn’t it? People are really shocked. You think you’d miss the adrenaline. I could go jump on my motocross bike and get an adrenaline rush without any pressure at all. And when I’ve had enough I stop, I sit, and have a coffee.
Your last season must have been tough.
The crash that ended Hodgson’s...
The crash that ended Hodgson’s career, as his Motorpoint Yamaha R1 superbike snaps back and gets ready to slam him into the pavement at Brands Hatch during warmup for the 2010 British Superbike round.
After placing fifth in his...
After placing fifth in his first overseas trip to Daytona for the 250 GP race in 1997. McGuinness (101) returned in 1999 and 2000, winning both times (although the 1999 victory was due to winner Luis Lavado being DQ’ed for illegal fuel).
Despite his reputation as...
Despite his reputation as a road circuit specialist, many tend to forget that McGuinness (6) is also talented on the “short” circuits (not unlike his hero Joey Dunlop), nearly winning the British Supersport Championship several times, as well as being the British 250 GP champion in 1999.
Hodgson: In America it was horrendous. I was riding with one arm. Especially at Infineon (Raceway), the first ride back. It’s just all flip-flops, it’s all second-gear flip-flops, where you’re jumping around the bike. You need your arms. There’s no run-off. There’s a bit of hard braking. And I’d turn it with one arm, literally. I took off a tear-off and couldn’t get my arm back on the handlebar. That sounds theatrical; no, that’s exactly what happened. I had to go like that (making a windmill motion with his left arm.) But I had to ride, contract-wise, otherwise I’d have lost a fair bit of money — and you know what I’m like with money, John.
McGuinness: Well, it is an important part of racing. I mean you can’t go sweeping streets or whatever. Everybody’s got a job, you know. We’re doing what we’re doing, we need to be paid. I had a lot of respect for you when you retired. You just sort of walked away from it. I just hope that I can do it very shortly. I don’t want to do it forever. I mean, I still feel as good as, you know…I’m not the most in-shape person in the world, but at the moment I feel as good as ever, as strong as ever. A lot of off-road riding and stuff. I look at my bike and I think, I like the Honda TT Legends (CBR1000RR) and it does flip me switch. But I don’t want to do it forever. I’d love to be able to win and then walk away. Steve Hislop did it from the TT. He did the double on the (Honda) RC45 and said, ‘Thanks very much.’ I’ve had a fantastic TT career. I’d like to do that.
Hodgson: You’re going to so love retirement, John.