Mike Hailwood's racing resume is impressive enough: nine-time World Champion, winner of 76 career Grands Prix, and 14-time winner of the legendary Isle of Man TT. But Hailwood was much more than simple statistics to a world of motorcycle racing fans. To many he was the greatest motorcycle racer of all time, a man from a family of wealth who became a people’s champion. A racer who came out of retirement after an 11-year absence and, against all odds, returned to win at the Isle of Man. He became known to his adoring fans simply has "Mike the Bike."
Stanley Michael Bailey Hailwood was born in England on April 2, 1940. He grew up in the college town of Oxford. His father, who also raced in the pre-World War II era, owned a large motorcycle distributorship and young Hailwood was raised in relative affluence. He began riding at an early age, starting on a minibike as a small boy. He learned to ride in an eight-acre field near his home and wore an oval track from the constant laps he rode on Sunday afternoons after church. The young Hailwood was prone to mischievousness and was caught driving his mother’s Jaguar before he could even see over the steering wheel.
In 1957, Hailwood began his road-racing career. Barely 17, he finished 11th in his first race, but was soon winning on a regular basis. In fact, Hailwood was able to earn his international racing license after only a few months of racing, something that took most riders several years to attain. During the winter of 1957-58, Hailwood went to South Africa to hone his racing skills even further and returned home that spring as South Africa's national champion.
1958 was his inaugural season on the Grand Prix circuit. That year he finished second in the 250cc world championships and earned three domestic British championships. In all, he won an incredible 74 races in only his second year of racing. The motorcycling press went nuts over this young rider and dubbed him "Mike the Bike." In 1959, Hailwood rode for Ducati and, at 19, became the youngest rider of the time to win an international championship race – a 125cc event in Ireland.
By 1961, Hailwood was racing for a Japanese upstart factory named Honda. Riding a four-stroke, four-cylinder 250cc Honda, Hailwood won the 250cc world championship. In December of that year, Hailwood made his first appearance in the United States and raced at Rosamond Speedway in California (now Willow Springs Raceway) in an "international" race held by the United States Motorcycle Club. He easily won the race against primarily local Southern California riders on his factory Honda.
In 1962, Hailwood signed with MV Agusta and went on to become the first rider to win four consecutive 500cc World Championships. In the middle of that string, in 1964, he returned to America and won the United States Grand Prix held at Daytona International Speedway. After his success with MV Agusta, Hailwood went back to Honda and won four more world titles in 1966 and ’67 in the 250cc and 350cc categories.
Hailwood is perhaps best known for his accomplishment at the renowned Isle of Man TT. By 1967, he had won an amazing 12 times on the infamous island mountain course. He won what many historians consider to be the greatest Isle of Man race of all time, the 1967 Senior TT. That event pitted him against archrival Giacomo Agostini. "Ago," on the MV Agusta, faced off against "Mike the Bike," on the blazingly fast but ill-handling four-cylinder Honda. Agostini built a 12-second lead on Hailwood on the first lap. The ever-determined Hailwood rode harder than he ever had in his life, pushing the Honda up to and beyond its limits (setting a new lap record of 108.77 mph in the process, a mark that stood for eight years) to close the deficit to just two seconds when the two titans pitted on the third lap.
During his pit stop, Hailwood lost 11 seconds to Agostini as his crew tried in vain to fix a loose throttle grip. In frustration a mechanic tied a handkerchief tightly around the throttle in a last-ditch effort to hold it in place. Hailwood valiantly fought the Honda, loose grip and all, in what appeared to be a hopeless effort to catch the flawless Agostini. Suddenly, on the last lap just a few miles from the finish, the chain on Ago’s bike snapped. Hailwood sped past the freewheeling Italian, who was fighting back tears, and took the dramatic victory.
In 1968, Honda pulled out of Grand Prix racing, but paid Hailwood not to ride in expectation of keeping him as its rider upon return to competition. But Hailwood would never return to motorcycle racing on a full-time basis, instead electing to pursue a career in auto racing.
In 1970, and again in ’71, Triumph coaxed Hailwood into racing the Daytona 200 in an all-out effort to win America’s most prestigious motorcycle race. While he qualified second in 1970, both Daytona appearances ended in mechanical failure.
While he never attained the success in cars that he had on motorcycles, Hailwood became a respected driver in Formula One and World Sports Cars. He won the Formula Two world title and earned a podium finish at the 24 Hours of LeMans.
Hailwood earned the admiration of fans and fellow drivers when in 1973 at South Africa’s Kyalami circuit, he stopped his car and waded into flames, his own suit ablaze, to pull Clay Regazzoni from a burning car. A terrifying crash of his own at the German Grand Prix in 1974 resulted in a severely broken right leg for Hailwood and ended his auto-racing career.
Hailwood had retired to New Zealand when the idea of coming back to the Isle of Man was brought up. Against the advice of friends and family, he returned to the TT in 1978. Most figured Hailwood would do nothing more than tarnish his image. But he didn’t. Instead, he won the F1 category on a Ducati 900SS. Thousands of screaming fans flooded the track as Hailwood took the checkered flag in what motorsports writers who were there described as the single most exhilarating moment they’d ever had the privilege to witness. Hailwood came back and rode his 14th TT on a Suzuki GP bike the next year. Shortly thereafter, he retired for good.
Queen Elizabeth honored Hailwood for his contributions to the sport of motorcycling by naming him a Member of the British Empire.
Hailwood died tragically in an automobile accident on March 23, 1981. His daughter, Michelle, was also killed in the crash, and his son, David, survived.
Hailwood will always be remembered as one of the all-time greats of motorcycling. He was named to the International Motorsports Hall of Fame and Moto GP Legends Hall and was named as Rider of the Millennium by several European motorcycle magazines.