#F1 History: Mike Hailwood by Elizabeth McCarthy – Pt 2

Brought to you by TheJudge13 chronicler: Carlo Carluccio

I recently wrote an On This Day article celebrating the life of Mike Hailwood. It was a brief account of his incredible sporting life and mention was made of a woman that knew Hailwood at the peak of his career – Elizabeth McCarthy.

Following the article, TheJudge13 received an email from Elizabeth thanking its publication and surprise at the mention of her name. The communication also explained briefly the reasons behind her decision not to marry him and she included the full history of their encounter. Further correspondence between Elizabeth and myself explained how the story came to be written.

The renowned author and journalist – Christopher Hilton – wrote over 70 books, the majority biographies about Formula One drivers. Possibly his most famous: “Ayrton Senna – The Hard Edge of Genius” – was the first biography of the legendary Brazilian and in 1995 he published a book about another legend – Mike Hailwood, “A Man Called Mike: The Inspirng Story of a Shy Superstar”.

After it’s publication, Elizabeth contacted Hilton and in her own words:

“The way my story came to be written was that I contacted Christopher Hilton to ask if he had been asked to leave out the prediction of Mike’s death. I was surprised when he said that he hadn’t heard about it.

As a good journalist, he asked me some rather probing questions that only someone who knew Mike and Stan could answer. Then he asked me if I would write down everything that I could remember for inclusion in a future edition of his book. As you might imagine, I left out a lot, but over the course of a couple of years a narrative began to take shape. I sent it to friends of Mike’s and asked for their comments.

When the second edition of Christopher’s book didn’t come to pass, several people suggested that it was worth publishing. I’ve given it freely. I hope that reading my story gives people a fuller portrait of Mike than they get from the dry statistics of his career. I also hope that it might inspire people to record their own memories and save their photos from that era of racing.”

The feature is Elizabeth’s story and with her kind permission we are publishing her story. The 3rd June 1978 proved to be one of the most famous Isle of Man TT races ever witnessed. Record crowds were drawn to the Island following the announcement that legendary Mike Hailwood was returning to bike racing after an 11 year retirement.

The first installment was published on Saturday 31st March – here. Today follows with the second installment of the three part article.

My Memories of Mike Hailwood


By Elizabeth McCarthy

Part 2

It was a strange time for Mike. This was the first (and ultimately the only) Canadian Grand Prix to count towards the World Championship. It was so discounted by the racing press that the usual crowd of reporters and others didn’t bother to attend. That was another reason we were able to have so much time to be alone together.

I teased him about the fact that in spite of his reputation as a Don Juan we hadn’t gone much beyond kissing and lying together fully clothed on his bed just talking. He replied that he was trying to prove that he wasn’t a womanizer and “besides you’re not a race track dolly. I’m going to marry you”.

Mike wanted me to go back to London with him. He liked to tease me by reminding me that I had said that I wouldn’t walk across the room to meet him. Once I joked, “You’re never going to let me forget that, are you?” He said, “No, I am going to tell our grandchildren, your grandmother once said she wouldn’t walk across the room to meet me”.

Practice day had been cold and rainy. Mike was starting to feel ill from the cold and dampness. By the afternoon we were both wet and cold. We agreed that the best thing was for me to go home – about 70 miles away and get out of my wet clothes. We were both going to rest and then have dinner together. There was an unspoken understanding that this might be the night when I wouldn’t go home. He was going to call me when he woke up from his nap. When I didn’t hear from him I assumed that he was sleeping and trying to recover his strength for the next day’s racing.

It turned out that Mike did call. But, those were the days before answering machines and caller ID. So I didn’t learn that he had called until he told me the next morning. He has assumed that I wasn’t feeling well and had gone to bed.

I really believe that Mike was the most profoundly lonely person I have ever met. He hid it under a carefully maintained veneer of joviality. But, there was a real sadness there.

We talked about music a lot. Mike told me that he often traveled with a clarinet because it was easy to fit into a bag. I asked him if he would play for me. Mike said that he had been in such a funk when he left London that he had forgotten it. But, he promised that he would play for me one day. (This becomes important later on).

Mike teased me about my former desire to be an engineer and jokingly said that I should try to fix the awful handling of the Honda 500-4. He had little interest in the technical side of racing and joked that now he could stop worrying about it because he now had his personal engineer.

My car accident had left me with very poor depth perception so I didn’t drive. I asked him if he minded that I couldn’t drive and he said that he drove enough for both of us.

We talked about his experiences in car racing. Mike talked about his fear of being trapped in a burning car. He had survived numerous spills on bikes, sometimes being able to pick up the bike and continue racing. He also felt that he wasn’t accepted in F1 racing because of his bike racing.

Some of Mike’s friends were racing cars or going into racing them. They wanted him to have another go, but, he had strong reservations about it.

Mike’s previous experience racing cars had been frustrating and discouraging. I felt that car racing, like any racing, was such a demanding sport that it didn’t make any sense to undertake it if it wasn’t fulfilling. The only thing that had really been fulfilling in his life, the only place where he felt at home was in bike racing. He loved its relaxed informality, casual atmosphere and the genuineness of the people.

One day we were daydreaming about the future as lovers do. We talked about where we might live and he suggested the Isle of Man, at least for part of the year. His blue eyes sparkled whenever he spoke about the Island. He loved the place, not just the racing, but, also the warm – hearted people, the villages and the terrain of the Island. He described it in such detail that he made me see it in my mind’s eye. He even told me about the wee folk, their legends and how important it was to always honour them. Mike went into great detail about leaving gifts of cakes and ale in certain places. He had a passion for the Isle of Man that was contagious. It was the one place in the world that his heart told him was home. Since I have a keen interest in the history of ancient Britain I knew of the Island in that sense. But, he made it come alive as an enchanted place in which to live. He planned to show me his beloved Island the following spring before he raced in the TT. That was not to be. Honda withdrew from racing at the end of the 1967 season. Mike signed a contract with them not to race for anyone else. He wouldn’t again race in the Isle of Man TT for another 11 years, but no one could have guessed that on a September evening in 1967.

Race day was cold and wet – about 40 degrees and drizzling. Mike and I were sitting alone in a big rental sedan.

We talked about the missed communications of the night before. I told him that it was probably just as well, because if we had spent the night together I wouldn’t have let him go back to London alone. I said, “I guess I’m old-fashioned, but that’s the way I feel”.

I remember his reply. With a laugh he said, “Now you bloody tell me! Here I thought I was winning points by being such a gentleman. Now you tell me, when I’ve checked out of the hotel and the helicopter’s been ordered to take us to the airport right after the race. What am I going to do with you?” Then he hugged me for a few moments without saying anything.

The pit area was bustling with activity and we were quickly losing our privacy.

This was the coldest day of the week. The clouds cast the whole scene in shades of gray.

Ralph Bryans brought us some hot tea, which was most welcome. Mike left for a few minutes. While he was gone Ralph told me that Mike had a ritual of polishing his goggles endlessly to concentrate his mind before a race. He said that Mike didn’t talk at that time and Ralph didn’t want me to be hurt by Mike’s silence. Ralph was always extremely considerate and kind.

Mike came back and handed me something. “Here, I got you a tower pass – that’s where all the wives and girlfriends go.”

I said, with a laugh – “but, I’m not your girlfriend, and I’m certainly not your wife.”

He just shook his head and laughed too. He said, “You can be so stubborn”.

So?” he asked, “Where are you going to watch the race?”, he asked with a laugh

I said “I’ll stand in the pits with the mechanics.” He wanted to know why. I said, “I want them to know that I appreciate what they do for you.”

Then he said “but you’ll get cold and wet”.

I said something like, “I think we all will – and then we’ll be equal.

He kissed me and then he took out his goggles and started polishing. I just sat quietly in the passenger seat laughing to myself at the accuracy of Ralph’s kind warning.

After a while he said, “You’re not saying anything”.

I said with a laugh, “sure I am – I’m just not saying it out loud.

What are you saying then?” he asked. I said “I just told you I loved you about a hundred times”.

He kissed me and said, “I’m off“.

As he walked away the reality of the danger suddenly hit me.

I waited for a couple of minutes so that he could walk to the pits alone. Then I walked to the pits and stood behind the wall and watched.

Mike won, of course. But he was nearly frozen to death. Imagine 40 degrees and drizzling. Then factor in the wind chill from the weather plus the speeds of the bikes at over 160mph. The temperature felt well below zero to the racers.

Mike’s teeth were chattering and his hands were stiff and blue. I bundled him up in his Dunlop parka and he drank some hot tea. Mike could barely hold the cup. The next race was to start in a little over 30 minutes.

I said, “I know what we can do.” I put the lock button down on the doors.

I said, “If you slide over to the passenger side and put your legs up on the seat I’ll sit between your legs.” He made some naughty remarks. He wasn’t that cold!

I took off my ski jacket. Then I pulled an extra parka from the back seat and put them both over us like blankets. Mike was still freezing.

So I said ‘I have another idea.’ I pulled up my sweater and undid my bra.

I said, “Put your hands under my sweater”.

Mike said, “But you’ll freeze”.

I said, “The important thing is for you to warm up.

I am quite well endowed in that area so he became a willing patient. Mike’s hands felt like ice on my skin.

He said “I can’t believe that you would do that – make yourself cold for me – nobody has ever done things like that for me”. I said something like – maybe no one ever loved you the way I do.

Mike just buried his face in my hair and was quiet.

He won the next race too, but because of the number of points Ago had, Mike still wouldn’t win the 500cc world championship. I don’t remember the details of the rules, but he was down about that.

By this time he was developing a fever and a poor colour. I was afraid that he was getting sick. He said he was feeling worse and didn’t think he could go the awards presentation and might not even race at Brands Hatch the next day. He talked about staying in Toronto and meeting my family.

After much discussion with the team manager, Mike agreed to get in the helicopter and return to England. Mike had someone call BOAC (as British Airways was called in those days) and there was room on the plane for me. He wanted me to go home and get my passport and a few things and meet him at the airport. I wish with all of my heart that I had.

Instead, I said that I had things to take care of, but, would be there as soon as I could. Mike wanted me to join him in London in a few days.

Later, I told him that maybe we had been saved from ourselves and this was the way it was meant to be. Besides my work commitments, my mother had a recurrence of cancer and I had 3 younger brothers – 14, 11 and 9 who needed me. Mike said that he needed me.

Everything had seemed possible when we were together. But, once we each returned to our very different worlds – Mike to London and his friends who wanted him to try racing cars again and me to the path that my near-death experience laid out for me – it seemed that our chance to be together was slipping away.

We stayed in touch for several years. I even went to Nassau to meet his father, Stan. When Mike spoke about leaving racing he said that ‘the old man wouldn’t wear it‘ and wanted me to go to Nassau to meet Stan to sound him out on the idea of Mike living a different kind of life.

His father was probably the most powerful force in Mike’s life. Mike introduced us on the telephone. I was hardheaded about not letting Mike spend money on me. So it wasn’t until the following year that I was able to leave my family, my job and pay my own way. The plan was that I was to spend 2 weeks there, with Mike joining us for the second week. Being on a strict budget I stayed in a tourist cottage. Stan wanted to move me into the Montagu Beach Hotel, which was almost his second home. But, I stayed in my cottage.

Stan and I talked about many things from politics and racing to antiques. My mother and I both collected antiques. I remember him telling me that when he lived in England he had one maid who did nothing but polish his silver collections. Stan had to leave his silver and his other antiques in England because the salt air and the climate in Nassau would have ruined them.

I remember being surprised by Stan’s house in Nassau. Mike had told me about the beautiful house that they had lived in when he was growing up in England. This was a modest bungalow – mind you it was on the Eastern Road and right on the Atlantic Ocean. But, it was not the kind of house you would turn around to look at.

Stan’s next door neighbours were two retired American women who shared an almost identical bungalow to his. They also shared an infatuation with Stan. He looked a lot like Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and set many hearts a flutter himself. The women told me that Stan was known for never dating anyone in Nassau – much to their disappointment.

Stan and I spent many happy hours sitting on the floor in front of his hi-fi listening to race records. The wall above us was decorated with pictures of Mike.

Stan was delighted that I was able to identify different bikes by their sounds. During that week we listened to every racing record he had – some more than once. It was wonderful to hear his stories of Mike’s racing – especially in the early days before he had factory sponsorship when it was just Stan and Mike and their Ecurie Sportive. Their motto “For love of the sport” was an expression of their shared passion for racing.

Stan talked about his own racing days and his business life. Stan was the son of a coal miner. His family was so poor that when Stan suffered a terrible injury to his leg they couldn’t afford to have it set properly. That left him with a permanent limp and ended his budding career in gymnastics. Stan started working at the very lowest level in a motorcycle dealership, doing odd jobs. He had tremendous determination and drive. Stan worked his way up and eventually he bought the business. He had a flair for promotion. He was also willing to finance young men who were struggling as he once had and needed inexpensive transportation to get to work. Stan became the most successful motorcycle dealer in England.

In spite of his leg injury Stan was a keen competitor in sidecar and car racing. He raced in the same era as Jack Surtees, John’s father, who was the top sidecar racer in England.

It seemed so sad to me that Stan obviously loved England, his life there and the excitement of travelling on the racing circuit with Mike. Yet, here he was in Nassau so very far away from it all. His life was on a much smaller scale than it had been in England, not just in respect to his house and his modest car (I think it was a several year old Vauxhall or similar sedan) but the lack of excitement. His day consisted of driving to the Montagu Beach to see if anyone interesting had arrived from England, swimming and sunbathing. He was only in his late 50’s or possibly 60 – in the prime of life. It all seemed rather aimless for a man of such powerful drives. Stan was lovely to be with – charming, gracious and intelligent – so much like Mike.

We were together every day. He would pick me up in the morning and we would drive somewhere for breakfast – usually to the hotel. Then we would meet some of his friends or just go back to his house or stay at the hotel for the afternoon.

One day he was complaining to the two women next door that I was too stubborn to let him arrange for me to stay at the hotel. They very kindly invited me to stay for the rest of my time in their house. I remember Stan battling enormous crabs that had invaded both their garages.

One night a major storm was heading towards Nassau. The storm tides were predicted to reach 15 feet. The average height of New Providence Island is only about 6 feet above sea level. Both of the houses were less than 100 feet from the ocean. All of us spent a very anxious night without electricity or telephones.

Stan came over a little before midnight to check on us. The four of us talked until dawn, by candlelight, while the wind howled.

One of the women, Jean, had lived in Washington, D.C. for many years and had fascinating stories to tell about political scandals. She had been married 4 or 5 times. Her last husband had owned a gambling club on Paradise Island. She told us he had refused to sell his club to some people from Miami who were used to getting their own way. His body was found floating in the harbour. You can imagine the stories that were told that night. We were all grateful to be alive – and very sleepy – the next morning.

Final part to be published on Tuesday 3rd June.


7 responses to “#F1 History: Mike Hailwood by Elizabeth McCarthy – Pt 2

  1. This isn’t a new unknown story, it’s been around for a long time

    I have also read “A Man Called Mike” where the author brings up how often SMBH had caught a dose and needed to visit the local pox clinic.

    Some stories just don’t need telling, especially when the subject isn’t alive and never harmed anyone.

    • You have missed the point.

      Nobody is claiming this was an unknown story. I would suggest that any historical article has been around a long time but it doesn’t necessarily mean that people have read it.

      My main passion is F1 and I fleetingly watched either MotoGP level or WSBK bike racing but I knew little of the history of the sport. Rossi mentioned Hailwood and others who were heroic to him but the only one I really knew was Surtees because of the Ferrari connection.

      I have followed F1 over four decades and still I learn new things every day.

  2. Thanks again, it’s fascinating to hear history in the first person. I also feel like Jonno makes a point I’ve been hammering on rather inadvertently; the portrait of the drivers drawn in the media rarely represents the full complexity of who they are. Can’t wait for part 3. 🙂

    • Great point about the complexity of these characters. Isn’t that partly why Hamilton is such a major draw, because it’s on show all the time?

      I remember the 2003 San Marino GP when Michael and Ralf Schumacher raced the day after their mother had died. The pain of losing a loved one is huge and yet their professionalism over-rode what would make many succumb.

      In 2011, we knew that Hamilton was suffering throughout the season because of relationship problems. It affected his driving and people could empathise with him, yet that winter we learnt that Alonso had been going through a divorce – yet he had controlled his feelings and was unaffected.

      I admire both drivers immensely but doesn’t Lewis feel like someone you could relate to?

      • Yes, and probably for several different reasons. Part of it is very much his open wearing of his emotions on his sleeve, part of it is his socioeconomic background is easier to relate to for many folks. Underdogs are always popular and the nature of his journey into the sport meant that he has been cast in that light though realistically he is hardly one at the moment.

        But my wife,who works in theatre, tells me that certain actors just have this “look at me” factor, regardless of their physical beauty. Daniel Craig is an excellent example as I just saw him on stage last fall. Although not by any stretch does he have the looks of a “typical” leading man, you simply couldn’t keep your eyes off him when he was on stage. Karl Malden would be another great example, or Ernest Borgnine.

        I think Lewis possesses this quality and so even folks who’d rather ignore him can’t. That’s why he’s more marketable and written about than Vettel or Alonso. In other sports, Lance Armstrong had it and so did Michael Jordan. People relate to Lewis differently than they do many of the other drivers, and it has to do with more than just his skill as a driver or his level of success. I would imagine looking back you could find similar drivers in earlier eras, but the difference today is that the coverage in the media never really stops and it reaches a much, much greater audience.

        Great question, and much more interesting than the usual noise about him. 🙂

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