To many people he remains the greatest racer of all time. Winner of four TT silver replicas at his first attempt, aged 18. Multiple British champion and world championship contender at the same age. Triple TT winner and world 250cc champion at 21.
But all this happened as the fifties were turning into the sixties. A revolution was taking place. Rock ‘n’ roll changed the world. The Beatles and the Beach Boys were on their way. London, epitomized by Carnaby Street, was swinging.
The young Hailwood, son of the owner of Kings of Oxford, the biggest bike dealer in the country, was on his way. A public schoolboy, he was at first resented by the true fans, many of whom hadn’t two pennies to rub together, because he was given, inarguably, the best bikes. His father, affectionately dubbed ‘Stan the Wallet’ by Jim Redman saw to that. But the talent of Hailwood was undeniable.
Many in the paddock resented him too. They were working-class heroes, sleeping in their van. None of that for Stanley Michael Bailey. Young upstart. But they respected him. And eventually they liked him. They liked him because he saw himself as one of them. He would stick up for them when they were being victimised by organisers. And when there was fun to be had, he would lead the charge.
His racing career was therefore far from incident-free... off-track. Travelling from circuit to circuit with a collection of free spirits in high-powered cars – Mike had an Iso Grifo and Bill Ivy a Ferrari – lent itself to the occasional brush with walls or trees to see who could get from Clermont Ferrand to Imola the quickest.
In the US great fun was to be had with hire cars (rent cars in US parlance) and Ron Grant notched up more tin-to-the-tarmac incidents than most, including rolling one on an unauthorised blast round Oulton Park on the great days of the Transatlantic Trophy.
If you can’t beat ’em join ’em and the greatest rent car moment of all was executed by Hailwood, still a hellraiser at 31, while at Daytona Beach for the 1971 Daytona 200. Autos are banned from the famous beach after dark which is a challenge to be taken up. So it was that, under cover of darkness and fuelled by liquor with origins in Tennesee, a small posse of rent cars hit the beach.
What followed was a ‘who can execute the most spins’ contest brought only to a halt by the rear tyre of the Hailwood vehicle being ripped off. How to get back to the hotel? “Drive it, of course,” said our hero. And with sparks flying we headed along the promenade. The entrance to the Plaza Hotel was up a ramp but we made it, the rear wheel rim cutting a groove in the cement. There it remained for the night, atop of a small pile of cement and sand, until the hire company was summoned to take it away.
In those heady days, free of PR, political correctness and an over-intrusive media, having fun was a big part of the deal. After-race parties, sampling the local hooch and sampling anything else that was available. After all, for too many it was a short life.