The Mike Hale Story by dean adams
Tuesday, January 14, 2014
For American racers, the period between Scott Russell and Nicky Hayden looks like featureless landscapeuntil someone remembers it hailedor, if you prefer, it Hale'd.
In 1995 Mike Hale was the most impressive young rider in American racing. Nearly everyone expected to eventually see him racing Grand Prix like Schwantz, Roberts, Spencer and Lawson.
So, how did that not happen?
First, who is Mike Hale?
In 1995, Mike Hale was a 22-year-old sort of ex-dirt tracker being groomed by American Honda and Martin Adams of Commonwealth Racing. Hale was a second-generation racer from Texas and had been racing since he was just a tot. As one rider girlfriend at the time said several times, Hale was "a fine piece of man flesh". While he may have looked like a supporting player from a Steve McQueen movie, the most notable and noticed trait about Hale was that he was fast. The impressing started early: in 1994 he raced a Honda RC30 support bike in the AMA Superbike series. Large portions of that bike were almost six year old yet Hale, several times, finished ahead of the then brand new factory RC45s. No shock, in 1995 Hale was elevated to the factory Honda team in America where he was teamed with Miguel DuHamel. Hale's crewchief was none other than the late Merlyn Plumlee.
Was Hale an ex-250 rider like many from that era?
Hale was asked for his phone number more times that day than ever beforeand some of the propositions were not from women, but WSBK team managers.
He did ride 250, but at the end of his career. An AMA Grand National flat tracker from Carrollton, Texas, Hale traded in his steel shoe for knee pucks when he made the transition from dirt ovals to paved road courses. Initially, he didn't stray far from his Harley-Davidson V-twin roots. Hale's first foray into roadracing was in the AMA H-D SuperTwins series where he roadraced an H-D 883 Sportster against the likes of Ben and Eric Bostrom, Aaron Yates, and even Jay Springsteen.
Was he overshadowed by teammate Miguel DuHamel?
Not at all. DuHamel was in his prime but Hale was up for the challenge. Even with a big crash at Loudon on a 600 which certainly dented his summer, he beat DuHamel--twice in Superbike and twice in the old 600 Supersport class. He also took the RC45's first win in America when he shockingly won the Pomona Superbike round in '95. He finished second overall to Duhamel in both the Superbike and 600 Supersport final points standings, winning Superbike again at the final round at Firebird in Arizona. On top of all that Hale raced several dirt tracks during the '95 season, finishing in the top five in several races. Moreover, he raced an HRC-backed RC45 at the Suzuka 8 hours that July, teamed with Takuma Aoki. Future 500cc champion Alex Criville was Hale's back-up rider. Yeah, that's how important Hale was to Honda.
Laguna '95: Hale at his most impressive.
Winning two Superbike races and leading the 600 title chase wasn't Hale biggest accomplishment in 1995. His Loudon crash hurt him much worse than anyone realizedhe broke five ribs and tweaked his backand it took some, uh, experimental, equestrian salve (provided by Earl Hayden) to get him out of a hospital bed. Spitting up blood, Hale and his dad had to do some serious doctor shopping to find a local physician who would release him from the Loudon hospital and allow him to race. Hale returned to the track on Sunday spitting up less blood and started the Superbike race from pole.
Then, in July, Hale stunned the WSBK paddock by finishing third in the second WSBK race at Laguna Seca on his Smokin Joe's Honda RC45. Anthony Gobert and Troy Corser split wins at Laguna that day but most of the paddock were gob smacked by Hale's race two finish, in front of DuHamel, the late Nagai, Simon Crafer and even some guy named Carl Fogarty. Hale was asked for his phone number more times that day than ever beforeand some of the propositions were not from women, but WSBK team managers. Mike Hale was on his way.
(Above, a short and rough-ish MP3 from the '95 Laguna WSBK race two press conference. From audio tape mind you.)
The Courting & Walk To The Chapel
Ducati flew Hale to Italy and gave him the factory tour and mapped out a plan to have him race WSBK in 1996 but to join the Cagiva GP team in 1997. For a kid who grew up sliding sideways it was all too much. Honda wanted him to do a multi-year deal to race in the US but Hale was set on Europe and he signed a deal with a Ducati customer team, where he would be teamed with Troy Corser for 1996.
At the time, Mike Hale was only 22 years old. He was a shooting star, and like a blazing meteor, he was the hottest thing in roadracing. But, remember what happens to shooting stars?
1996 was a tough year for Mike Hale. He made the jump to World Superbike where he rode a Promotor Ducati 916 with Troy Corser as his teammate. Racing on a new continent, new tracks, a new bike, and a new brand of tires (Michelins instead of the Dunlops that he was so familiar with), Hale finished 11th in the WSBK Championship. In reality, it all started to go bad very quickly. Hale raced Daytona on a fast Ducati but DNF'd the race. Then in WSBK Hale struggled and became disillusioned when he realized that the Ducati team were not going to pay him, and that collecting on his contract was going to be difficult. That big money contract is still unpaid today, while Hale's lawyer tries to chase down the people responsible.
A big portion of racing is momentum. And after just one bad season on a Ducati, Hale's trajectory was in trouble. He rebounded quickly by signing a deal with Suzuki's factory WSBK team. He followed that up with another 11th in the 1997 WSBK standings, which was his second and final full season in the series. But he was never able to match his podium performance in his World Superbike debut at Laguna Seca in 1995.
So he never rode a real blood-and-crutches V4 500 GP bike?
Actually, few remember it today, but Mike Hale did ride a factory Lucky Strike Suzuki 500. He tested it during a Suzuki GP test at the end of the 1997 season at Phillip Island. According to those that were there, he looked spectacular on the 500 and posted competitive lap times. Seeing Hale toss the RGV around motivated then Suzuki GP manager Garry Taylor to try and put a deal together to see the American ride in GP, but sponsorship could not be found. When the silly season stopped, all rides were full at Suzuki and the best offer that Hale had was from ...
In 1998, Hale was back in America and racing for Fast by Ferracci Ducati, teamed with (now) Pastor Tom Kipp. Michelin tires on the wheels but a good, solid team. Hale and Ferracci mind-melded wellHale had spent most of 1996 trying to understand "Italglish", so conversing with Ferracci was not a problem.
Hale was hella fast out of the gate, but a big crash at Phoenix where he literally tossed the Ducati to the cloudsover a catch fencemuted things and Hale struggled more as the season progressed. Ferracci made noises like he was going to replace Hale with Roland Sands.
From there, Hale's 500 ride at Phillip Islandit really was impressivegot him a job testing for the Swissauto GP team in post season 1998.
A chance to Ride for the King
Kenny Roberts hired Hale to race for him in 1999 season on the Modenas KR3 Roberts two-stroke. He lost a bunch of the season due to injury and machine problems and at one point Hale returned to American racing late in the Summer when he raced a 250, trying to perfect a high corner speed riding style that the KR3 needed in order to lap fast.
But it was clear Hale was becoming disillusioned. He says, "When you're a racer, what matters at the end of the day is your result. I'd lived and breathed and gave it everything I had, starting in dirt-track when I was five years old. But when the results aren't coming, it's very frustrating. You go back, and instead of running a 10K, you run 10 miles. You're looking inside yourself. You just dig deeper and deeper and deeper inside, trying to find those extra tenths. It can be real frustrating when those results don't come. If the results aren't there, you lose the leverage of your positioning, and maybe you get maybe a little less supported equipment, and then you're praying for rain on race day, just so you've got a chance to get it on the box or win."
"I never wanted to race so I could put a paycheck in the bank. At the end of the weekend, at the end of the day on race day, there's no joy if you put that much into it and there's no results. That's what I raced for, and I guess that was my motivation when I raced."
After sitting out of motorcycle roadracing for two years while he tried to jump into car racing, Hale returned to Honda when he joined Erion Racing in 2002. He rode a CBR600F4i in Supersport and he finished fourth aboard a CBR900RR in the Formula Xtreme Championship. He had offers for 2003 but decided to stop racing and join the real world.
Today, Mike Hale lives comfortably in Fort Worth, Texas. When Soup attended the inaugural MotoGP race at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, we ran into him in the paddock. He had the same magnetic smile that endeared him to so many fans in the mid-1990s (especially the female fans). Hale is happy, comfortable in his existence, and he's proud to own a Farmer's Insurance Agencythe Mike Hale Agency, to be precisein Aledo, Texas, just outside Fort Worth.
Mike Hale says, "I was very fortunate in my career, and am very fortunate to have my health today, because we buried a lot of good friends over the years, unfortunately. I got to work with great people, and I still have a lot of good friends from racinglifelong friends, from around the world. I didn't get the win, which was obviously my, any racer's, ultimate goal, but I got to do a lot of good things. It is real easy, when you don't meet your goals, or when you put as much into something and you don't meet those goals, to be miserable. I'm a glass half-full guy and it's all been good. I am on to the next thing. I have a great family and an interesting job. I'm very happy."
The shooting star came back down to earth too quickly for some, maybe. But, for Mike Hale himself, life is good.