Ernest Hemingway would have admired Mat Mladin.
Hemingway, Nobel and Pulitzer prize-winning writer and world class adventurer was the original man's man. Bullfighter, deep sea fisherman, soldier, hard-drinker and a man handy with his fists, Hemingway spent a good part of his life with a shotgun pressed against his shoulder and ended it with the double barrels of one pressed against his forehead. In between his own adventures, Hemingway chronicled in both fiction and non-fiction the lives of those like himself: men who make no apologies to polite society for letting the testosterone rip.
Mladin is a man's man. Want a photogenic sponsor-thanking android to head your rider list? Look elsewhere, then, as Mladin is none of the above. Mladin, 24, speaks his mind no matter the subject. Last year, for Mladin's first trip to Loudon, a track announcer stuck a microphone against Mladin's helmeted head during the first practice session at the New Hampshire International Speedway and asked, "So, Mat, what do you think of Loudon?", expecting a typical reply of "It's great, and I'd like to thank all you fans for coming out". Instead Mladin, who was not comfortable with the walls surrounding the track, blurted right into the microphone, for all to hear: "It sucks." Compared to his competitors in Superbike racing Mladin is as different as the Ducati he rides.
But Mladin is in good shape for laughter: he stands six feet tall, weighs 165 pounds, and sports a strong physique. He works out daily at a gym near a house he rents in Pennsylvania. He owns a house in a retirement community in his native Sydney, so you could say that America has been good for Mat Mladin. In less than twenty career AMA Superbike starts Mladin has won three times, been on the podium a total of six times--not unimpressive considering he spent the first two-thirds of the 1996 season on an non-competitove motorcycle. Yes, America has been good to Mat Mladin. He has some tales to tell about his time here though. Take, for instance, his car-buying trip this spring after moving from California to the east coast to be closer to the Fast by Ferracci Ducati clan. A new Mercury Sable four-door was needed to replace the battered 1967 Chevy Impala that Mladin drove last year and which he sold to one of the Yoshimura mechanics upon leaving the team. Mladin picked a car out and gave his credit info to the salesman. He takes up the story: "He looked over the desk at me and said, 'You make that much money, at your age, riding motorcycles?' I said yeah. He came back mumbling about my employment history not being long enough or something and I said, 'But if I worked at McDonalds for five dollars an hour you'd finance my car in a minute, wouldn't you?' I was pissed. I wrote him out a check and bought the car." Americans.
Americans tend to get on his nerves with their constant questions and ribs about his last name. "They think I'm a cartoon character, 'Is that like Aladdin?' they ask." Fame has its price.
Mladin started riding motorcycles when he was barley out of diapersat age four. For a birthday present he received a Honda MR50 and was a quick study. "It had a clutch and a three-speed gearbox; not like those shitty little automatics they have now," says Mladin of the bike. His older brother was his father's first pupil in racing, but like Danny Spencer (Freddie's older brother) he didn't have it or the father-son racing together didn't click and Michael Mladin was replaced by his younger brother Mathew. Two years after the MR50 arrived, Mat was racing dirt track at his father's behest and rode that class for the next six years. He wasn't thrilled about it. "I was bored. Dirt track is boring, even in Australia where they have right and left corners. It was like, sit on the seat for a while, then slide the bike, then sit on the seat again, then slide. Boring, very boring." Mladin swapped to motocross after winning the 1981 Australian amateur flat-track championship. In motocross he won three Australian championships in his first year and a year later was a factory rider for Yamaha.
Somewhere in this motocross period, perhaps prior, it is clear things got very bad for Mat. His parents were divorced, and in 1988 he distanced himself from his father who had been his early mentor in racing. Mat reputedly became a pretty decent motocross brat. He did one final year on his own and by 1989 he quit motocross, completely disillusioned. "I didn't know how to handle the pressure my dad laid on me. I was too young to handle it." He left racing, expecting to take up a trade. On and off throughout his teens he'd been a carpenter and hung drywall so that seemed to be his fate. Until a mechanic he'd worked with in motocross called him one day.
"He said that Troy Corser was roadracing. Troy and I had raced against each other in motocross. I swear I didn't even know where he was. So I took some time off from racing until 1990 and then I started roadracing." He did a club day at the end of 1990 and then began roadracing in 1991. "
I won straight away. Won everything." Well, yes he did, after a fact. After talking his mother into borrowing him the money to buy a streetbike to race, he put in a stint as a street rider during which he terrorized the countryside, with the obligatory police chases and near multi-vehicle accidents following in his wake. "I was an absolute terror," Mladin says. "A danger to myself and a danger to everybody," he says in a 'don't do what I did' tone. Then he went club racing, which to all fast street riders is an enlightening experience.
"The first time I went there was this guy -- one of the best 250 production riders in Australia at the track. I thought I was a bit of a Wayne Gardner at the time. And that guy came past me so fast I was like, 'Shit, I'm never going to be able to go that fast.' I was on the edge anyway, out of control. I'm a little loose now sometimes when I'm pushing, but I'm in control. Then I was completely out of control."
Mladin kept practicing and was faster each time out. "At about the fourth meeting (race) I was up to speed. It was just a matter of using more corner speed. In motocross you're almost stopped in the corner -- you hit it and then get it out." Once he started winning, he didn't stop and his streak garnered him the attention of the Australian factories. Honda mapped out a Daryl Beattie-like plan for him beginning in 1992: first the Australian Superbike championship, then F-1 or Superbikes in Japan and then maybe Grand Prix. To test him on a better than production machine, they gave him a ride on a second-rate Superbike at Australia's Oran Park. "The bike was 40 pounds heavier than the factory bike and less power," says Mladin. He qualified it on the front row with the factory Honda two spots behind.
From that day his riding career has never been the same.
He didn't sign with Honda. It was Kawasaki instead that nabbed him, this after he did a round of the endurance world championship for them at Phillip Island. "In 1991 there was this endurance round at the Island. Kawasaki Japan brought over this ex-Formula One bike for us to ride, a 1989 model. It was a known pig. It was no shocker." The bike was built for Japanese riders which didn't fit well given Mladin's 6 foot frame. "There was no testing and the bike was just tiny. Little screen, little seat, felt like a scooter."
According to Mladin the word in the pits was that 'those young guys are going to throw that Kawasaki away spectacularly and break themselves up. Keep an eye on them for some fun.' The buzz was not entirely correct. Recalls Mladin, " I got the thing going and went faster than (Aussie Superbike rider) Rob Phillips had ever gone on that bike at Phillip Island." Mladin performed better than the bike itself, which ended up breaking a shock linkage with six minutes to go, but Kawasaki had seen enough to be impressed and they had a contract ready shortly after for young Mat's signature.
Strange that a rider would turn down an early ride on the Honda gravy train as Mladin did, shunning Honda for Kawasaki. "I looked at what Aaron Slight did in the Australian Superbike championship and thought it was the best package then. It was the best bike on the best tires with the best crew."
Mladin hit Australian Superbike racing like a nail-gun shooting bunnies. "Mat's strength was that he was so much faster than anyone on cold tires. In two laps he'd have a huge lead as everyone else tried to let their tires warm up," says Australian Motorcycle News editor Ken Wooton. Mladin confirms that he was fast from the flag, and too that he was all hands and feet and didn't know what to do with either, "I had no set-up knowledge at all, none. If the bike started bouncing I just kept riding it. I had been roadracing less than a full year and I didn't really know the bike isn't supposed to do that."
Example: the first race of 1992 at Sandown during the end of January. Corser was on a Yamaha, Scott Doohan also on a Yamaha, Mal Campbell on the Honda and Mladin on the Kawasaki were the top qualifiers. In race number one, on the second lap Mladin had almost a six second lead. "I looked over my shoulder on lap two and thought they'd red-flagged the race. 'Where is everybody?' I thought." Mladin won fourteen races in a row (Australian Superbike runs WSC format of two races per round). The first man to beat him was Troy Corser. "He beat me in damp conditions at Perth. I finished third."
After the race came another round of the decade-long rivalry between Anthony Gobert and Mladin. "He and his mechanic came up to me and called me a wimp because I'd been beaten in the rain. 'You wimp!' they said. Anthony was riding 250 production and crashing about every five minutes. I said to him, "Listen pal, I just won fourteen Superbike races in a row, what have you done?" From motocross and prior there is a very deep-running, animosity-filled river running between Mladin and Gobert. Whether cool head will prevail and they'll manage to stay on opposite sides of the river looks doubtful; at the moment there seems to be seriously bloody fistfight brewing between the two.
In 1992,however, by keeping his focus off fist fighting and on racing, Mladin won the 1992 Australian Superbike championship in what was his first season of professional roadracing. Do that and your phone really starts ringing, people you've only read about leave messages on your answering machine, 'Hello, this is Barry Sheene ...' In short, Grand Prix came calling to Mat's house. Cagiva wanted Colin Edwards for their team but the Australian living in America (Edwards) balked and so they hired Mladin for 1993.
At Kawasaki Mladin came under the tutoring of Peter Doyle, the famed Australian crewchief whom Scott Russell credits with his stellar WSC seasons. Doyle, along with Wayne Smith, is one of Mladin's noted influences in his racing career. Doyle told Mladin he wasn't ready for Grand Prix and to stay in Superbike for a season or two more. Mladin ignored him. "I didn't listen," says Mladin. "He told me, 'You gotta stay man and get a bit more experience.' Being a smart-ass prick I thought they didn't know what they were talking about. You become a smart-ass prick at 19 when after a year of starting to ride professionally you're winning Superbike races. Peter and Wayne told me to hang about for awhile and in due time I'd be ready. I ignored them. It proved costly." Mladin was managed in this period by Wayne Gardner's manager Harris Burnett.
According to nearly everyone, Mladin's self-description of being a "smart assed prick" during that period is factual. Doug Chandler signed with Cagiva for 1993 as well and he came home in the pre-season telling stories to friends about his new teammate, a mouthy little Australian with three or four girlfriends that showed up and told everyone at one of the first test that he intend to win the first race of the year.
When those results didn't surface, and when he needed the encouragement of the team to keep going, they instead hired John Kocinski, took Mladin's good bikes and crew for John and left Mat with the leper equipment and mechanics. Those who saw it will never forget it--the 1993 USGP when in qualifying Mat stopped on pit road for adjustments and none of the Cagiva mechanics would come over to help him. They instead waited by the pit wall for Kocinski and even second-rate Chandler to come in. It was as if Mladin had an infectious disease.
"It was tough," Mladin says of 1993. "Especially when Kocinski came in. Most of the early problems were because I was inexperienced. Same thing as with my dad -- they put a lot of pressure on me to win and I didn't know how to handle it. There I was in Europe with a 45 foot motorhome and big paycheck. One year or so before I had one pair of shoes, and was racing 250 production out of my own pocket. All of a sudden I'm in Europe racing with Wayne Gardner, Mick Doohan and Wayne Rainey. I swear to God that back in my bedroom in Australia I had their posters on my wall. And Cagiva was putting pressure on me to beat them."
When Mladin couldn't hang, or seemed to have a steeper learning curve than they expected, Cagiva hired Kocinski. "Even when Kocinski came in my results weren't that bad," says Mladin. "Until the last four or five races of the season I was ninth or tenth in the points, this after 24 months of racing. I thought that was pretty good. The bike wasn't a Honda but it wasn't that bad. A couple of times I caught up with Luca Cadalora and Beattie and raced with them and beat them. A couple of times I raced with Doug (Chandler) who had heaps more experience than me. I thought I done okay. Then this little jerk comes in (Kocinski)he's one of the best riders around, no doubt about it, but he's still a jerk. It was like the team lost the plot. It was sad."
"I can truly think back to August of that year when I was driving my motorhome to one of the races and I was thinking to myself, 'What the hell am I doing here? This is Wayne Rainey. This is Schwantz, Chandler, Doohan, Gardner. I can't beat these guys. Twelve months ago I was just a bum. I don't belong here. Why am I here?' Mladin believes that Cagiva shares in the responsibility of the failed GP season: "They should have put me on a Superbike."
Lawson, Mamola and Chandler have tales of the Cagiva free-spending days. After a podium finish (or just because they felt like it) the Castiglioni brothers would hire a luxury helicopter to fly everyone to Monaco for the weekend, or they would buy Italian sports cars for the riders, or invite them to spend the weekend at the opulent mountain estate, guarded by Italian military police. Mladin has none of those narratives. "I was never involved with them too much. I kept to myself that year as much as I could. I'm like that. Unless I feel at home with people I won't get involved with them."
In two years of professional roadracing Mat Mladin had won a prestigious national Superbike championship and had gone straight to Grand Prix. Year three saw him back on a Superbike in Australia for Kawasaki. " I knew Cagiva weren't going to have me back and they were all behind John Kocinski anyway" Mladin says emphatically. "So I said screw it, I'm going home."
Once in Australia again the twenty-three year old Mladin was back in front: " I got back on the bike and won five or six races straight. Anthony Gobert was of course the big mouth, saying he was going to do this or that, that I was washed up. He thought he was the king in pre-season. After I started winning he didn't know what hit him." Mladin's season turned bad by halfway, he broke his collarbone in practice at Phillip Island and then he crashed again in the race. His collarbone on the mend, he managed to win the next round, only to crash epic during the practice session of the following race. Though he didn't know it at the time, he had broken five vertebra in the process. All he did know was that he still had to race the next day: "I spent that Saturday night in the hot tub, slept in it. Then I went out on Sunday and beat his (Gobert's) ass again." Three weeks later when his back was still very sore he went in and had a CAT scan done; the broken vertebra were found. "I was living in my house alone, and was, no lie, crawling through the house to go to the bathroom." Risking another crash so soon after this serious injury could have paralyzed him for life so Mladin understandably coasted for a while, finishing fifth and sixth.
But as soon as he was able he came back hard -- winning again at Eastern Creek. Gobert might have won the Aussie Superbike championship that year, but Mladin got one small lesson (with more to follow) about the transitory nature of human life. He did pursue a few leisurely, safe interests like photography and golf in the interim, but that old Hemingway streak in him manifested itself again when he took up flying Ultra light aircraft back in 1995.
Hemingway himself survived various plane crashes in his life, including two in one twenty-four hour period. The last crash seemed to unhinge him and he later tried, unsuccessfully, to kill himself in a hanger after visiting the Mayo Clinic in 1961. Just days later, in Utah, he met with success.
In a much different way, Mladin's life was irrevocably changed by a plane crash as well. In January of 1995 he crashed his own ultra-light airplane in Australia. "I was at thirty feet, engine quit and the wind at my back, trying to land. When you're close to the ground you have to be careful because she'll go nose down easy. There was one pole in the whole area and of course I had to hit it." His left foot and ankle were shattered in the crash, just from the impact of hitting the pole, and for a time no one knew if he'd be able to keep his foot. He has to wear a brace to this day to keep it in place. Mladin's recuperation took an eternity in racer-time; he was flat on his back six months, until the end of July.
"It was a strange accident," Mladin says of the plane crash. "One pole in the middle of nowhere, engine out, wrong wind. That happened for a reason, I think. I know I wouldn't be racing right now if it hadn't happened."
Mladin's life was spinning out of control in 1994. "No motivation. I was a bit lost, lost in myself. I didn't
have the drive to get back on top in world championship. I would have quit but the guys on my team in Australia weren't just my mechanics; they were my mates. I didn't want to screw them over but I was pretty close to pulling the pin." Whether that pin was that of a grenade or a one holding a door closed, Mladin doesn't say.
Ingredients make the whole. Mladin was a successful motocrosser as a teenager; talented, but not happy. Then he was a fairly successful roadracer, talented, and still away from the racetrack, very unhappy.
Relations with his parents were strained and the failure of 1993 in Europe weighed heavily on him. Being immediately successful, relying nearly 100% on talent to get you in front is a double-edged sword for riders. When times are good you can look at yourself in the mirror and say it's you; when it's bad, the same holds true.
"Laying in that hospital I changed my attitude about life, family and on racing. Flat on my back for that long and I just made some decisions. . .
I was a cocky little prick before the crash. Before that I would have to talk about myself and what I was going to do, a bit like Gobert does now. I had to do that to get people to say, 'yeah, you're good.' I needed that approval for motivation."
"I believe in myself now, truly. Now people come up to me at the races and say, 'Hey, you're really looking good out there', and I say, 'Yeah, whatever.' I don't care what anyone thinks anymore. I'm happy with myself and I know that if I give 100%, then at the end of the day I'm happy. As long as I give it the best I have to give I'm satisfied. Even if I don't win. I know that if I'm on the right equipment and everything is as it should be, I'm going to hard to beat." Mladin says that he came to America to ride Superbikes because a rider can make a good buck here and seems to be the route to world championship rides. And that is where he wants to go.
"I want to go to Europe next year, hopefully with Ferracci or on the Ducati team. We really have a good effort here, there's no bullshit. Whatever I need, Ferrach' gets it or makes it."
Ferracci says of Mladin, "That guy (note that every Ferracci rider since Dale Quarterley to Jamie James to Polen to Corser, has been known to Ferracci as "That guy") is good, you know? Very driven. He wants to win. We'll see what happens next year." TPG was already asking Ferracci for bids at Daytona to do a WSC effort again next year.
When his riding career is over, Mladin claims he will be at ease. Like most riders he enjoys the actual riding and the competition but the rest of it they can keep. He has invested in an engineering firm in Sydney and will run that when his riding career ends, which he feels won't be soon.
Mladin's life has taken many unexpected turns and he knows probably better than anyone the true meaning of one of Hemingway's quotes. "There are some things which cannot be learned quickly, and time, which is all we have, must be paid heavily for their acquiring."