The bravest competitors in the 160 mph Ride Shotgun sidecar races

  • Sidecar racing involves two people controlling a three-wheeled motorcycle that can go over 160 mph.
  • One person uses handlebars, throttle and brakes; the other uses nothing but his body weight.
  • There are acrobatic stunts and crashes, and it makes driving a race car feel like a walk in the park.

Narrator: It’s unlike any motorsport you’ve ever seen. Sidecar racing involves two people riding a three-wheeled motorcycle that can travel over 160 miles per hour. While one person sits behind the throttle and brake, the other uses only their body weight to help steer the vehicle. It requires a degree of acrobatics not often seen in motorsports. Teams race on circuits around the world, including Mount Everest Motorcycle Races, Isle of Man Tourist Trophy Races. As expected, there are a lot of ugly accidents. Since 2000, 10 sidecar racers have been killed at various stages of the competition.

Most people associate sidecars with the campy, even cartoonish bubbles that attach to motorcycles. But the machines used for sport do not bring smiles. These vehicles are designed to be powerful individual units and look more like futuristic three-wheeled motorcycles. But their behavior is very different due to the asymmetrical configuration of their wheels, which completely changes the balance of the vehicle. That’s why, unlike motorcycles, they have wide slick tires that resemble the tires found on a Formula 1 racing car. With these tires and the massive car brakes on all three wheels, they can brake almost any superbike and get a lot more grip when navigating corners.

But with such a clumsy shape, it’s not enough for riders to optimize their lap times without going off track. In this sport, the key to success is in the passenger. In sidecar racing there is no room for fear when driving a shotgun. These competitors don’t have time to ride or even really have a seat to relax. Their sidecar is nothing more than a handle to grab onto and a platform to kneel on when they’re not hanging their bodies to one side of the bike or the other.

The passenger has a crucial role: to stabilize the vehicle. This is necessary due to the imbalance the third wheel creates when spinning. That means climbing behind the rider on a right-hand bend to keep the weight on the inside tires or hooking so far off the bike on a left-hand bend that his back almost scrapes the pavement. This is all done by gripping the strategically placed handles throughout the vehicle. Things can quickly get chaotic for the passenger, depending on the difficulty of the trail. On a fast straight they may have to bend down as much as possible to minimize aerodynamic drag on the bike. Seconds later, the team could come into a tight corner, requiring the passenger to move into a different position to ensure the bike stays planted.

This dynamic of a rider relying on his teammate’s shifting body weight to safely navigate the race tracks requires tremendous trust from both parties. The driver must trust that the passenger will be where they need to be at the right time, and the passenger must trust the driver to navigate the track as skillfully and safely as possible.

But even for experienced runners, things don’t always go as planned. This is particularly true in the Isle of Man. The 38-mile-long circuit has over 200 corners and little to no run-off spaces and has been the scene of some of motorsport’s ugliest crashes. In the 2022 Isle of Man TT, three sidecar riders were killed in crashes, including a father-son team. Frequent tragedies like this are why many riders hug their loved ones before they even take a practice lap on the Isle of Man.

Every type of motorsport, from production cars to superbike racing, involves some degree of risk, but only sidecar racing involves two people relying on their every move to avoid swerving off the track. This symbiotic relationship is what sets this sport apart and what can ultimately mean the difference between triumph and tragedy.

About Lillian Coomer

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