Posted Nov. 10, 2015.
Corrects made Nov. 11.
Some introductory information:
One of my early motorcycle heroes was Mike Hailwood. I was reading motorcycle magazines even before I got my first bike, and I really admired the way he could get on just about any bike, even one as evil handling as the 1966 Honda 500cc four cylinder GP bike, and ride it faster than anyone.
Fast forward ten years or so to 1978. I was racing Ducatis in AMA Superbike class and doing pretty well. Hailwood’s return to racing at the Isle of Man after not racing there for 10 years, and winning the F1 class on a Ducati, was a magical event. It reaffirmed my belief that Mike Hailwood, aka “Mike the Bike,” was one of the best motorcycle road racers who ever lived.
Things like this don’t happen in real life. But they did. Part 1.
There is a museum in Bologna, Italy, inside the Ducati factory , that contains displays and examples of Ducati racing history going all the way back to the 1940s when Ducati first started making motorcycles. The museum was started after the Texas Pacific Group purchased Ducati in the mid-1990s, took over management and modernized production. The museum opened its doors to the public in 1998.
Along a wall inside the museum are a series of panels, containing the dates, names, and locations of all forms of Ducati racing success the world over. My name is on one of those panels, listing my two AMA Superbike race wins. Jon, a motorcycle pal, had been to the factory in 2005 and sent me a photo of the panel, and I noticed my name, and Cook Neilson’s name, and thought, that’s nice of Ducati to remember the successes we had back in the day.
Then a couple of years later Phil Schilling and Cook Neilson also visited the museum and e-mailed a photo of the panel to me. This time I took a closer look at the photo and noticed something that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.
In the center of the plaque, under the year 1978, are the words “ ENGLAND – TT Formula 1 World Championship, Hailwood, Mike, Ducati 900.” and just after that, “ 3/6 TT Isle of Man F/1, Hailwood Mike, Ducati 900.”
Holy shit! My name is on the wall at the Ducati Racing Museum alongside Mike Hailwood! Stanley Michael Bailey Hailwood, a.k.a. Mike the Bike, and me, on the same panel. I immediately told Dee, showed her the photo and explained the significance of it. She must have heard the excitement in my voice, because when I finished she said, simply, “We have to go see it.” I thought for a minute. “You’re right,” I replied. It took a while getting an itinerary together and finding accessible accommodations at all the stops we wanted to make, but we finally flew to Italy in late May 2009.
When we arrived at the factory Livio Lodi, the Ducati museum curator, met us. He was our host for lunch in the Ducati Cafeteria, with a guided factory tour and the museum tour in the afternoon. At the end of the factory tour Livio gave us a special treat – a visit to the MotoGP race shop. This area is strictly off-limits to the usual visitor, but Livio had asked for permission in advance of our visit, a benefit of my past success as a Ducati racer. We got to see the bikes being prepared for the Italian GP at Mugello in 10 days time. We saw Nicky Hayden’s carbon-fiber-framed Desmosedici with its fairing off. Very cool.
One of the important reasons for his trip was to see the plaque on the museum wall with my name on it, along with Cook’s name, and Mike Hailwood’s. There is a row of panels along the wall documenting Ducati’s notable racing successes in many countries, starting back in the late 1940s. I won two AMA Superbike races, one in 1977 and one in 1978, and my name is on the wall for those years. Mike Hailwood is listed for winning the Isle of Man TT race and the TT World Championship in 1978. On the same panel!
Photo by Jon Diaz.
When we entered the museum the first thing we saw was a long curving row of race bikes from the earliest tiny singles up to the World Superbike and MotoGP winners from 2008. The panels on the wall are behind the row of bikes, and Livio led us to the one we came to see. It was truly a thrilling moment for me (photo by Dee).
Things like this don’t happen in real life. But they did. Part 2.
Move forward a couple of years to 2011. Ducati North America’s Vicki Smith organized an event she called “Ducstock” at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama. Ducstock was co-sponsored by NCR, the Italian race shop that makes very trick race and road bikes (think titanium, lots of it) using Ducati motors. Cook Nielson was going to be there, and notable Ducati race winner Paul Smart, and a bunch of other Ducati people I know. In addition Dee’s son Russ would be racing in a couple of AHMRA classes on the racetrack. It was too good to pass up so Dee and I made plans to travel to Alabama in October.
One evening, Saturday I think, there was a special barbecue dinner in the pit area for Ducati people. Early on Dee spotted a silver-haired gent holding his plate and looking around for a place to sit.
“Would you like to join us?” she asked, and he accepted the invitation. Introductions were made, turns out he was Pat Slinn, a British national who worked for NCR and had been involved with Ducatis since the 1970s. When I introduced myself he looked puzzled.
“Why does your name seem familiar?” he asked. I told him about my 1977 and 1978 AMA Superbike wins. “That’s it. I remember reading something about that. Weren’t you a rookie?”
“It was my first pro race,” I said. He seemed impressed.
The conversation got pretty lively. Mike Hailwood’s 1978 win at the Isle of Man came up, and I mentioned that there is a wall plaque in the Ducati race museum in Bologna that has both Cook and my names, along with Mike Hailwood; Cook and I for our AMA Superbike successes in 1977 and ’78, and Hailwood of course for his 1978 triumph at the Isle of Man.
“You know, Sport Motorcycles and Ducati get all the credit for that win, but it was an NCR bike that Mike rode to victory that day,” Pat said. I told him about my long standing admiration for Hailwood.
“Wait right here. I’ll be right back,” Pat said, and he left the table. He returned carrying a photo album. It had many pictures of the Isle of Man weekend, photos of Mike Hailwood, his motorcycle, and the Sports Motorcycles pit area. I remember one in particular of Hailwood with his bike in the background being pushed by a young man.
“That’s me,” said Pat. “I was pushing the bike to the tech inspection area.”
I asked Pat if he knew Mike very well, and it turned out he did. The rest of the evening’s conversation centered around Hailwood and the 1978 Isle of Man victory. For example, Hailwood has a reputation as a rider without much technical savvy. Pat said Mike encouraged that sort of image but it wasn’t the case. Hailwood knew quite a lot about what was going on with his racebikes and had a lot to say about setup issues, and was good at it.
It was an enchanting evening, and it all started with Dee seeing an old man looking for a place to sit to eat his dinner. At the very end of the evening Vicki Smith presented me with a special name badge.
I sometimes feel like parts of my life are unreal. Things like this happen in novels, or in the movies, but not in real life. But they did.