Phil Armes won a lot during his racing career including winning the 1984 250cc Newcomers Race at the Manx Grand Prix. And he almost lost everything. He beat some of the biggest names in motorcycling, and has since overcome challenges most of us would struggle simply to contemplate.
Armes is a special kind of person. Someone who lived – and almost died – at the hands of the thing he loved to do. Racing was in his blood from the start thanks to dad Colin, a key organising figure in British motorcycle racing. It helped Phil earn Manx and Macau Grand Prix titles, Formula One world championship campaigns, and a new 600cc Production standard in 1987 when he smashed the Isle of Man TT lap record ahead of legends such as
Joey Dunlop and Carl Fogarty.
But the sport also left Armes a paraplegic after an accident at one of his favourite circuits, Dundrod in Northern Ireland, in 1995. Having to battle for a return to independence, the thought of returning to a bike was rendered irrelevant.
“When I grew up Barry Sheene was the man, Giacomo Agostini, I grew up in the paddock with them,” Armes reminisced. “I was steeped in it. I already knew how to go racing, and it was a natural avenue to get the speed out of my system. I was only going to do it for a season or two – but unfortunately I was competitive.”
There is a smile on Armes’ face whenever the subject of racing comes up. No sign of bitterness; just pride in all he achieved during 15 years on the bike – most of which centred on the Isle of Man TT. From winning the newcomers’ race at the Manx Grand Prix in 1984, Armes competed 15 times around the
island. “The TT is the most exhilarating thing you can do on a motorbike,” said Armes. “The fans are incredible. It’s not quite a case of the riders being royalty – it’s more a case of respect. You are out there doing what everyone else wants to – and when they see you do it, quite often they don’t want to do it any more because… wow.”
Armes had the respect of his racing peers too.
“In 1987 I smashed the lap record ahead of Carl Fogarty, Joey Dunlop, the lot. And Joey’s manager Davy Woods, who I knew quite well, came up to me later and said ‘I’ve got someone who wants to talk to you’. “I turned round and it was Joey, who was undoubted king of the mountain. No doubt – there will never be another one. And Joey waned to know how I’d set the bike up. I told him the truth that we hadn’t changed a thing from it coming out of the box – but I don’t think he thought I was telling the truth.”
They were heady days for Armes, when he came of age on the bike. And while there was a short break from the sport, he was soon back racing come 1995. What happened that year changed everything. “Ulster was one of my favourite tracks– it still is I suppose. It’s only an eight-mile road circuit but it’s very quick – one of the quickest in the world.”
He recalled a date and time seared into his memory. “Friday afternoon, 1.30pm. I had a big crash and broke my back. QED. “It was at Deer’s Leap and as I went over the top I was slightly on the wrong line. I must have been doing over 120mph when I went down, I went backwards into a curb and that was it. I’d smashed my right arm up and that was the big worry. I can remember it all – the crash, the thump and I can remember shouting at the marshal because I think he thought I was dead. In fact I’m convinced he did, because he ran up the road and then stopped 10 yards from me. He wouldn’t come any closer. He thought I was a gonner.
“When he stopped I shouted ‘Get me out of the road’, because I was worried about being run over. And as soon as I shouted at him, his face lit up.”
It took surgeons at Belfast’s Royal Victoria Hospital five hours to rebuild his right arm. Phil, 54, still carries the plates and scars.
“To this day, nobody has said to me ‘Sorry Mr. Armes, you’ve broken your back and you’ll never walk again’. It was left to my mum (Marie). She was a nurse and flew straight up from Norwich, and after talking to the medical staff said to me ‘Do you realise what you’ve done?’ Minutes earlier a team of medics had rolled Phil over to look at his back.
“I started to ask whether I’d got a spinal injury, and then I realised I couldn’t feel or move my legs – and the penny started to drop.” A fractured dislocation of his back left Armes in a wheelchair. Five months of rehab at Stoke Mandeville and a lot of fall-out followed.
“When the accident happened I was in a relationship, we lived together and we worked together, we had a joint business,” said Armes. “Within a month of coming out of hospital I had no relationship, no work and I had to find somewhere else to live. “I was a very competitive sportsman in those days. I had a lot of self esteem. So then imagine finding yourself like this. Where’s your ego, your self-confidence? It’s down there.”
From those depths Armes rebuilt everything around him, running marketing firm PA Promotions while bringing up his three children – Charlotte, 9, and twins Eddie and Aaron, 6 – with partner Emma.
After all that, it’s no wonder his days on the bike remained happy if disconnected memories. But despite everything motorsport hit him with; Armes is now ready to take it all on again. “When I broke my back I’d achieved most of what I was ever going to, so I saw no reason to get back on a bike – unless somebody offered me the chance to do a lap of the Isle of Man,” said Armes, smile returned.
The Manx Grand Prix celebrates its 90th year on August 28 with a parade lap of past ‘Manx’ winners – offering Armes the chance to become the first paraplegic to complete a lap of the famous TT course on his own, and relive something he thought had gone forever.
Talan Skeels-Piggins’ Suzuki SV650, adapted with toe clips and thumb-controlled gears, plus a helping hand on and off the bike are the logistics. But given the last time Armes rode a bike was on that fateful afternoon in Ulster, the task was about so much more than a few gizmos.