(2001) Something has been bothering me lately, something I couldn’t put a finger on exactly. Not pit stops and red flags and eviscerated left legs of riders I know, but something that left me with a feeling that I’d gone to the market and forgotten something on a list. Isn’t it the most annoying thing when you know there’s something important you have forgotten, but you haven’t the foggiest idea what it is?
Driving down to the office this morning and putting a to-do list in my head, running today’s date against the date a year ago, somehow my coffee addled brain came up with the mystery item I’d left out of the sack.
It was twenty years ago this month that Mike Hailwood died.
Nine time world champion Hailwood was 41 and was officially retired when he and his daughter were killed in a car accident in England on March 23, 1981. (Michele was killed instantly, while Mike the Bike hung on for two days.) Hailwood was busy trying to make a go of a motorcycle dealership in the UK, owned with racer and friend Rod Gould. It wasn’t going well but Hailwood was glad to be back in the UK and enjoying his family.
At the time of his death he’d won literally hundreds of motorcycle races in his career and was regarded as the best motorcycle roadracer of all time.
When the year 2000 rolled around, and some were asked to name the best riders of the 20th century, Hailwood topped many of the lists I noticed, even some put together by non-Brits.
Knowing that the twentieth anniversary of Hailwood’s death was approaching, over the past year or so I asked some of the people who knew him to share their thoughts on SMB Hailwood.
Daytona 200 winner Don Emde
I first met Mike Hailwood at Daytona in 1971. I had just signed with the BSA factory to ride a Rob North-framed, three-cylinder 750 that season in the AMA roadrace Nationals along with Dick Mann, David Aldana and Jim Rice.
As they had done the year before, BSA lured Hailwood out of retirement to come over from England for a Daytona-only appearance. In 1970 he had battled with Gary Nixon and Dick Mann for the lead, but his Rocket III burned a hole in the piston about mid-way. Ironically, Hailwood’s 1970 bike was now my ride for the 1971 race, and he had a new bike.
What I probably remember most was that Mike was such a cool guy. I was just twenty and had followed his career in GP’s for many years. Now he was my teammate at Daytona.
It took me a day or so to get up the guts to talk to him, but he immediately made me feel comfortable. Mike talked with me like he knew me and that I was on the same level (which I knew, of course, that I wasn’t).
One funny conversation that I’ll never forget was a night at the bar at the old Plaza Hotel on the beach (it’s still there, but under a different name which escapes me now). I was there with Triumph rider Don Castro and we were actually having a beer with Mike Hailwood himself.
This was the year that Dunlop had come along with the BSA/Triumph team from England, and being the company’s tire supplier they assumed we Americans would all be using Dunlops. The problem was that Goodyear Blue Streaks were what we had all been using up to that time over here and Goodyear also had a contingency program. If you placed in the top 3 on Goodyears there was some extra money posted, but none with Dunlop.
Castro and I were talking about tires with Mike and we mentioned this issue of contingency money.
Mike very coolly said, “I think I’d rather win the race on Dunlops than get 2nd or 3rd place contingency with Goodyears.”
The problem was that BSA didn’t really pay us all that much in our contract, so most of what I could make in income was on the track. I stuck with the Goodyears, as did Castro and everyone else on the team except Dick Mann.
Mike and I both qualified for the front row for the 1971 race. He led, again, only to break another motor. I was able to bring his 1970 bike in for 3rd and collect my Goodyear contingency money. My teammate Dick Mann, however, won the race on Dunlops, the exact scenerio that Mike had suggested.
I’ve always regretted a bit that I didn’t take his advice at the bar that year.
I did, though, make the switch later and won the 1972 Daytona 200. With Dunlops. –Don Emde
Kel Carruthers has a unique perspective on Mike Hailwood. Before Kel was “tuner to the stars”, he was a fellow Grand Prix competitor and friend to Mike the Bike. According to Kel, a man that rode against Agostini, tuned for Roberts, Lawson and Spencer, and watched Rainey and Schwantz from pit lane, Hailwood was tops.
“I think he was the best rider. I mean he won on all sorts of bikes,” Carruthers says. “My reckoning is the bikes were a lot harder to ride in those days, in my opinion. I think now to win is just as hard as it’s ever been, but to do fairly good now it’s a lot easier now than it used to be because all of the equipment is so good. I mean I don’t think people realize how difficult things like that 500 Honda and the big MVs and that would have been to ride. Those were damn fast motorcycles and pretty poor tires and not good suspension and the tracks were really rough and you were racing on eight, ten, and twelve mile tracks all the time and regular roads. I mean he was just the best.”
Kel came to Europe in 1966, in the midst of Hailwood’s domination, but he found Mike the Bike to be a shockingly regular guy. “He used to come in my motor home and my wife would make him a cup of tea and all that sort of stuff,” says the 1969 250 World Champ.
“You know a lot of time, I mean he’d come in there and hide from the crowd. I mean, God, the poor guy, they’d follow him into the bathroom and everything. I mean he was “the guy” so to speak.”
Today’s bike racing paddocks are fairly open and friendly compared to some types of car racing, but those of the 60s were even more so. “He had a tent at the racetrack and he slept there a lot of the time. At the international races he just had a van and a mechanic guy that drove it around and he’d just show up and he was one of the boys. Just the way things were (it) made him more of regular guy, more than maybe the way the top guys would be today.” Can you image Doohan or Biaggi in a tent?
Carruthers learned of his friend’s death in Europe while tuning for Kenny Roberts.
“The day he died, I’d flown into Amsterdam from America and I got to Yamaha’s workshop,” remembers Kel. “A guy by the name of Jerry Woods was a really good friend of Mike’s. Up until a couple of years ago he was the workshop doorman/caretaker type guy up at the Yamaha workshop in Amsterdam and I kind of met him at the door and he was pretty upset and he told me then.”
Carruthers believes it ironic that Hailwood lived through a dual racing career when safety standards were shockingly bad, then to die in a street car crash after he had retired. “To go through what he went then get killed on the streets … You know he used to drive cars fast but, I mean, I don’t think he was stupid. It was just one of those things that wasn’t his fault.”
Time shouldn’t diminish Hailwood’s achievements to the die-hard enthusiast, according to Kel. “To anybody that was around or knows a bit of history of motorcycling, I would think people regard him as being the best. I certainly regard him as being the best and I also just regard him as being one of the guys. I think being in that era it was easier for him to be one of the guys. I just think of him as being a good friend and a good guy.”
Rino Carrachi, patriarch of the NCR Ducati squadra, was part of the team tuning for Mike Hailwood at the Isle of Man in 1978 and 1979. Carrachi has a photo in his Bologna shop of himself push-starting Hailwood on the Ducati. It is the only photo of Carrachi in the entire shop.
“I met Mike Hailwood in 1979 at Donington Park; Hailwood was there for two days testing the suspension … Girling. Then we went to Oulton Park for two more days to try more suspension. After that we went to Isle of Man to practice for the TT for fourteen days.
“Hailwood was very special. I have met many different riders over the past fifty years, but I have never met anyone like Hailwood. Not since. He was a very kind person and he would talk to everyone from the top managers down to the mechanics; he would hang out with the mechanics. After working all day and not having anything go well, at the end of the day Hailwood would come up and say, ‘Okay, now let’s go get a drink.’ He was one of a kind.”
“I followed his career prior to working with him, and thought he was a great rider and was excited to have the chance to work with him.”
“After having gotten to know Mike in working with him, I felt very bad to hear that he had died; it hurt me inside and was a sad moment.”
“At Douglas, (on the Isle of Man) at the Grand Hotel, in a party after the race, Napoti and I were hanging out in the background as the riders and team managers talked and partied. Hailwood had won the event. No one really would talk to us, because we were just the mechanics.”
“When Hailwood came in with his date, he immediately came over to us and asked us if we would like a drink. He was the star of the party and he stayed and talked with us, leaving his date alone at the bar for a long time, ignoring the managers.”
Three time world champion and the only man to win both the 250 and 500cc world titles in one season in the modern era, Freddie Spencer, only met Hailwood once, but he remembers it.
“It was in 1980 at the Easter Match Races in England. He was the captain of the British team, and we were intermixed much of the time we were over there.”
Spencer recalls the quality Hailwood was renown for: “He was very colorful. I had heard about him and he lived up to his reputation, let’s say that.”