Forty years ago, Mike “The Bike” Hailwood made one of motorcycle racing’s most famous career comebacks. Following an 11-year hiatus from motorcycle racing, Hailwood, who had switched to Formula 1 car racing, decided to return to the Isle of Man, where he had first ridden as an 18-year-old in 1958, to take another stab at winning on one of his favorite circuits. Given his long absence from motorcycle racing, he was considered by many a long shot to win, but win he did, coming in first in the 1978 Isle of Man Formula 1 race aboard Steve Wynne’s Sports Motorcycles Ducati 900SS.
Hailwood had actually quit car racing following a bad crash at the Nürburgring in 1974. In an interview with motorcycle journalist Alan Cathcart, Wynne said that Hailwood’s re-entry into two-wheeled racing came about after a chance meeting at Silverstone, where Wynne had one of his Ducatis. According to Wynne, Hailwood threw a leg over the Ducati and said, “This is the kind of old-fashioned bike I understand — wouldn’t mind doing another TT on this!” Wynne basically said, “why not,” and after a brief discussion and a handshake — followed later by a contract for a mere £1,000 (roughly $1,900 U.S.) — Hailwood’s victorious return was set in motion.
Already a legend for his race-winning years riding for MV Agusta and others, Hailwood’s win permanently etched his name into the history books as the greatest motorcycle racer of all time. He raced the Isle one more time, in 1979, before retiring for good at age 39, leaving behind a legacy of 76 Grand Prix wins, 14 Isle of Man victories and nine World Championships.
Two years later, on a Saturday afternoon, March 21, 1981, Hailwood went out for fish and chips with his two children. A delivery truck making an illegal turn struck his car, critically injuring Hailwood and killing his 9-year-old daughter instantly. Hailwood held on for two days before succumbing to massive internal injuries. The truck driver was reportedly fined £100.