Records are always a very talked topic on the Isle of Man and an interesting one belongs to Carolynn Sells.
This lovely lady, mother of three children and Director of the Manx Motorcycle Club, is no less than the first and only woman to have ever won a race on the Mountain Course. The only one to ever stand on the top step of the podium, an achievement that earned her a Guinness World Record.
Carolynn’s story is that of a conveyed passion, with the English family travelling every year from Lancashire to the Isle of Man to help her father competing in the Manx Grand Prix. Carolynn received her first bike when she was sixteen and from then on she dreamed of following her dad’s footsteps, a dream shared with her brother Rob. In 2003, in fact, both of them were newcomers at the Manx Grand Prix and their dad was competing in the event as well. A real family affair, with the mother as a non enviable spectator!
From that moment on it had been a constant development for her, in an activity that, like for many other competitors, was just a hobby. Carolynn’s results got better and better on the Mountain Course, with the spectacular win in 2009 as the icing on the cake. It wasn’t an isolated achievement, though, since she got very close to that fantastic result two years before, when she was forced to retire due to a technical issue. In 2008, then, she fell off at the Bungalow while battling for the podium.
Finally, the 2009 edition crowned Carolynn “queen of the Island” that, after moving to Peel with boyfriend Roger Maher, became her Island. During the final day of the 2009 Manx Grand Prix she won the UltraLightweight Race onboard the FZR400 Yamaha by Paul Morrissey Racing, with a margin of no less than 62 seconds on second place finisher Mike Minns, while Wayne Kirwan got the third step of the podium. What paid off was a tremendous no-pit stop strategy, where Carolynn gained precious seconds while the other competitors stopped in the pits. Her best lap in the UltraLightweight Race was at 107.780 mph, with a dodgy track and several damp patches. Curiously, though, on the Mountain Carolynn overtook her father, as well.
Carolynn, let me say it’s a real pleasure to talk with the only girl that has ever won on the Mountain Course. Can you describe your feelings during the last lap of that UltraLightweight Race at Manx GP 2009?
Thank you and it’s lovely to speak to you too! The last lap was very special, as I knew I had a good lead and my only focus was to keep smooth and consistent and to get myself to the finish line. Everyone around the circuit was going mad, waving and jumping up and down when I came through. I had people giving me #1 signals with their fingers and some had written on paper and were holding it up. I had a few people giving me pit boards and some waving at me to slow down, because I think they thought I was trying too hard, as I was still pulling out more time in the lead. In fact, I was riding at a very steady and comfortable pace and I didn’t want to slow down, in case I lost my rhythm and concentration, so I just kept my head down and talked myself and the bike around for that lap just asking the bike not to let me down and telling myself to remain calm. I did find time to give a few people a wave here and there though. I remember seeing Conor Cummins on the exit of Ballaugh and he gave me a wave, so I waved back, plus some friends who gave me a board at the Ginger. Things like that are special on the TT Course. Coming over the finish line all the emotion just came flooding out and I started shaking, crying and screaming in my helmet. I was very emotional.
What did that victory mean to you, from both personal and rider’s point of views? I mean, you became a symbol!
It meant the world to me. I had known I was fast enough for a couple of years, qualifying in the top five for a few years and the year before, I had crashed out of 3rd place whilst catching the two people in front of me and Dan Kneen went on to win that race. I had it in my head that it was my goal to get the win, although I kept it quiet as Maria Costello was very vocal in interviews that she wanted to be the first woman to win on the TT Course, so I just kept my head down and said nothing to anybody, apart from my partner and sponsors. In the 6 years previous I had had 3 top ten finishes in this class, so my main focus after the crash the year before was to really go for it and we worked hard for that win. On a personal note, because I’d been around the racing at the Manx Grand Prix since I was 12 years old, it was unreal that I had achieved something I’d only dreamed about when I was younger. Unfortunately, as much as I have won the admiration of many people involved in road racing, there’s still a lot of motorcycle fans that wouldn’t even know that a woman had won a race on the TT Course, which can be frustrating!
Sure. I hope we can help spreading the world! How did you celebrate that night?
The race was on the last Friday of racing and the Senior race was on after the race I’d just won, in fact I was due to race in the Senior, but as soon as I got off the 400 I decided I wasn’t going out because the conditions were pretty bad in places and, at the end of the day, I’d done what I wanted to do. When I was on the podium in the garlanding ceremony, everyone was shouting at me not to drink the champagne because they thought I had another race to do! That night was the presentation for both of the days races and I always remember one of my main sponsors, Martin Bullock, saying to me “don’t get too drunk. Enjoy tonight and make sure you remember it!” So, I did. We had a great night at the presentation where I got to ride in the winners chair and receive the fanfare and a standing ovation, which was an amazing experience, then we partied until the early hours with everyone at a local nightclub. It was brilliant and I remember the whole night!
What do you feel when you are on your bike waiting for “the touch on the shoulder” from the marshal at the start of a race?
Nerves. Lots of nerves! I always feel like my legs are going to give way and worry I might fluff the start. Those 10 seconds seem to take forever too and everything goes in slow motion, but then, you get the tap and you’re off and you leave all those nerves on the start line.
Why did you retired, then?
I was in a relationship and we were discussing having a family at some point. I was 36 (which was also my race number in that race) and if I was going to have children, I didn’t want to leave it too much longer. I’d also lost a lot of friends in the previous few years, most recently one of my good friends and team mate, Andrew Neill, who was killed just 6 weeks before the start of the event and to be honest, Andrew was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I was pretty devastated, not least for his lovely wife and my friend, Sharon. I had wanted to do a TT before retiring, but after that, I decided not to bother and I went into the event knowing it would be my last proper road race. Of course, I didn’t tempt fate by telling anyone this.
Now you are a member of the MGP organization. Are you trying to increase in some way the number of girls competing on the Isle of Man?
No. Not really. Whilst I do follow other women racers and am friends with most that I meet, I don’t consider it my aim to increase the amount of women in the sport. I give a lot of encouragement to those who want to follow that path and will do everything I can to help them, but ‘real’ road racing would not be for everyone, whether male or female.
What would you do if one of your daughters tells you one day that she wants to race on the Isle of Man?
I was going to mention my 3 daughters in the last question! To be honest, I don’t know. They’re only little at the minute, so my instant reaction would be ‘no way’! I’m sure I would feel differently if they said it to me at the age of 18+ and they had been racing various motorcycles before then. I don’t know… I have at Least 13 years before any of them is old enough to even consider it! As a foot note, I was about 16 when I first dreamed about racing the Isle of Man TT Mountain Course, but I was 30 before it became a reality, so here’s hoping I have that long to get used to the idea if any of my girls decide they would like to.
What kind of relationship you had with your male “colleagues” at your first attempt on the Mountain Course? And what was the reaction, and still is, of the male riders you beated at the MGP back in 2009?
I never had any real problems with any of the men I raced against and there’s only been one that I can think of, who has had a bad reaction to me beating him, but he was an idiot anyway and it was a great pleasure to beat him several times on several circuits! There has been a few people who have said things behind my back since the win, but mostly they’re people who had no chance of beating me anyway, so I take no notice. That’s all jealousy, but not from the people that I was actually competing with or against. I had a good relationship with most of the people I raced with and they all told me they felt safe racing with me, as I was smooth and neat, which is what we all like from those that we race closely with. Generally, I have had a fantastic reaction to my win on the TT course and people still speak to me about it now.
Is there a possibility you come back racing one day?
I’m afraid not, not on real roads on motorcycle. In a rally car though? Possibly… watch this space!