Sir Mike Hailwood was arguably the greatest motorcycle racer of all time, stated without any sentimentality. Over the course of his career, he won 74 Grands Prix, and the Isle of Man TT a record 14 times. While he came from a wealthy and affluent family, he was a people’s champion, whose respect he earned by performing such acts as when in his later years as an auto racer, he stopped mid-race to pull a competing racer from a burning car. They called him “Mike the Bike” after his almost unreal ability to ride a motorcycle.
Hailwood was born in England in 1940, son to a pre-World War II motorcycle racer and owner of a motorcycle distributorship. Hailwood started riding minibikes at a very early age, and is said to have worn ovals into the field on his parents’ property from all the laps he ceaselessly rode.
Hailwood started racing shortly after he turned 17, and took 11th in his first road race. With that singular experience under his belt, he started winning. Consistently. Within several months of his first race, he acquired his international racing license, which often took racers several years to acquire.
In 1958, one year after he started racing, he was a competitor in the Grands Prix circuit. He finished second in the 250 cc championship, and won three British domestic championships. His second year of racing, he won 74 races. In 1959, he signed on with Ducati, and became the youngest rider of his time to win an international championship race at age 19.
In 1961, he won the 250 cc world championship. In 1962, he started competing in the 500 cc class, and won the 500 cc world championship four years running. In 1964, he won the American GP at Daytona International Speedway. In 1966 and 1967, he competed in the 250 cc and 350 cc classes, and won four more world titles.
By 1967 he had also been competing in the Isle of Man TT, which he had won 12 times. In 1967, he won what is considered to be the greatest race ever held on the track: the 1967 Senior TT. Hailwood was pitted against his arch-nemesis Giacomo Agostini, who was beating him by a 21 second lead by the third lap around the infamous course. Hailwood was struggling with a loose throttle grip, which could not be corrected when he made his pit stop after his second lap. In frustration, his mechanic tied a handkerchief on that helped slightly, and pushed him back out onto the road. Hailwood raced harder than he had ever raced before, and slowly made up time as he pursued his competition. But suddenly, just miles from the finish during the final lap, Agostini’s chain snapped. Hailwood sped past him and seized the victory.
In 1968, Hailwood’s sponsor pulled out of Grand Prix racing, and paid Hailwood to also pull out to keep him on their roster for when they would re-enter. But Hailwood never did, and opted to start a career in auto racing.
Hailwood’s auto racing career was successful, but not nearly as successful as his motorcycle racing career. His auto career was crowned by two highly respectable achievements, however: he won the Formula Two world title, and earned a podium finish at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
In 1974, Hailwood suffered a horrifying crash during the German GP, and so severely injured his right leg that he had to retire from auto racing.
Hailwood retired to New Zealand, and never thought he would race again. But in 1978, someone planted the idea of racing in the Isle of Man TT again, and so he did. 11 years after his last motorcycle race, atop a Ducati 900SS, Hailwood effortlessly won the F1 class in what motorcycle journalists called the most exhilarating race they had ever witnessed. The following year, he competed again, before fully retiring from motorcycle racing.
For his blindingly great career in motorcycle racing and his contributions to the sport, Mike Hailwood was knighted by Queen Elizabeth, and so became a Member of the British Empire.
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