[Words: Mark Gardiner]

Mike ‘The Bike’ Hailwood, perhaps the most famous motorcycle racer of all time, competed only once in Canada, in 1967. But was that his last appearance in the Great White North? Not according to Elizabeth McCarthy.

Canada has only ever hosted one World Championship motorcycle road race, in September 1967.  The Mosport circuit was the first purpose-built race track in central Canada; a state-of-the-art layout when designed in the late 1950s; flowing and forested, 10-turns, 2½-miles in length, strategically located near the main highway connecting Toronto to Ottawa and Montreal. In the early ’60s, the track held high-profile sports car races drawing big crowds, and 1967 was Canada’s Centennial year. A Centennial Commission was created to fund suitable events; the Canadian Motorcycle Association secured a grant, and petitioned the FIM to sanction a first-ever Canadian Grand Prix. With funding and a world-class track, the CMA got its Grand Prix; World Championship races in the 500, 250, and 125cc classes. The downside – it was scheduled between the last European round at Monza in early September, and the season-finale Japanese Grand Prix in mid-October.

The Mosport race program for the first Canadian motorcycle GP on September 30, 1967

Late September weather is iffy in Canada, and the ’67 GP lived down to expectations. Cold, drizzling rain threatened to turn into snow. The racers and spectators who came out for the poorly-advertised event still shiver at the memory. You may think that the 2017 MotoGP season was close-fought, but it was nothing compared to the ’67 title chase.  The Japanese GP at Fuji did not include a 500cc race, so the premier-class championship was actually decided in Canada. According to the rules, racers counted their best six results from the 10-race season. Giacomo Agostini (MV Agusta 4-cylinder) came to Mosport with five wins and one second place. Mike Hailwood (Honda RC181 four-cylinder) had four wins and two seconds. Agostini merely had to follow Hailwood home, and they’d be tied at 46 points apiece. The first tie-breaker was number of wins, and they’d be equal there, too, with five apiece. The next tie-breaker was second-place finishes, and Ago had one more of those, so if it all went to plan, Ago had it in the bag.

Of course, there were potential spoilers in the field. Gary Nixon planned to race, but he was recovering from injuries incurred on the AMA circuit. So, he loaned his 500cc Triumph twin to TT star Ron Grant. And, there was Mike Duff, Canada’s greatest racer and a past GP winner, but he’d been hobbled by a smashed-and-replaced hip, plus a Matchless G50 racer that wasn’t as fast as either Hailwood’s four or Ago’s triple. The 500 race took place in the rain. Grant crashed out early, while Hailwood tried to lure Agostini into really racing – he let Ago lead the first several laps past the grandstand, then passed him at will on back straight. With a few laps to go, it was clear the Italian was not taking the bait. Hailwood, frustrated, cleared off and won by a yawning 38 seconds. Duff was the only other rider on the lead lap.

Agostini leading Hailwood at Mosport in 1967, riding steady to finish second and win the World Championship [Ed Cunningham photo]

The Mosport GP made a sad coda to the last GP World Championship year for the remarkable Honda RC181, and the far more remarkable Mike Hailwood. Honda exited the premier GP class for several years, and actually paid Hailwood not to race GPs in 1968.  He left Mosport by helicopter, straight to the Toronto airport, where a plane was being held for his flight back to England.  Monday was a bank holiday, and he’d committed to a big-money non-championship race at Brands Hatch.  Thus ends the Mike-Hailwood-visits-Canada story.

But it’s funny what will show up, unprompted, in a journalist’s inbox. Years ago, I made a passing reference to Hailwood and that ’67 Grand Prix, and a stranger named Elizabeth McCarthy queried if I had any photos from the event?  We exchanged emails, had long phone calls, and she sent a 20-page typed memoir of her time with ‘Mike the Bike’.

Elizabeth McCarthy met Mike Hailwood in 1967, at a hotel reception early in the week before that Mosport race.  She didn’t recognize him, but soon got to know him, and they were inseparable for those few days. She recalled how Mike’s hands got so cold between practice sessions that he could hardly work the controls, and how she’d pull up her sweater so he could warm them on her breasts. She told how Mike often traveled with a clarinet, and how he wished he’d brought it to Canada so he could play for her.

Elizabeth ‘Liz’ McCarthy in 1987, on her 40th birthday, in Toronto

As a young Toronto girl, Elizabeth Smith (her maiden name), was the first female in the Canadian student chapter of the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE).  She’d attended the marshaling school at Mosport, and through racing acquaintances found herself at a Toronto hotel reception for racers and sponsors. As she recalled, she and Hailwood spent hours talking, and she didn’t realize who he was.  When he finally identified himself, he told her he planned to marry her in the next breath. This was the Swinging Sixties, and ‘marry’ might have been a figure of speech; almost every paddock photo of Hailwood or Agostini from that era includes fetching young ladies. But Elizabeth’s story goes a bit deeper; she explained that two years before meeting Mike, she’d had a near-death experience, and spirits had explained her purpose on earth was not automotive engineering, but helping the poor and disenfranchised.

With a typically cynical journalist like me, stories of guiding angels don’t lend credibility, but it’s well known that Hailwood had been told by a psychic he wouldn’t die racing, but would be killed by a lorry. Some of Elizabeth’s stories were hard to swallow, like this one; “[H]e took [the RC181] out for a couple of record-smashing laps and then quickly jumped off. I jumped on, putting his goggles around my neck and his helmet on my head and his gloves on my hands. I bent forward and pointed to the front wheel pretending to convey something of importance to the two mechanics who were surreptitiously helping me hold up the bike. I wonder what Ago thought when he walked by. Mike was in the back of the Honda pits, nearly doubled over with laughter.”

Rock Stars! In 1967 Mike Hailwood, Bill Ivy, and Phil Read were global sex symbols on the GP circuit

Elizabeth says she spent a week with Mike’s father, Stan Hailwood, in the Bahamas, and Stan introduced her as his son’s girlfriend / future daughter-in-law. But it was not fated to be; Elizabeth’s mother had cancer and needed her help, so she stayed in Canada. Both Elizabeth Smith and Mike Hailwood got married in 1975, but not to each other. Then Mike died in 1981…yes, in an accident with a lorry, as foretold by a psychic in South Africa. Elizabeth wrote that she learned of Mike’s death from the pastor at a spiritualist church. “At the end of the service the minister, who was a Scottish woman, began giving messages to people in the congregation. Then she came to me and said, “There is a man standing behind you who wants to be recognized. Do you know anyone who has recently passed to spirit?” “No,” I answered. She said “He is disappointed that you do not remember him. He is nice looking and I think he is probably English – does that help you?” “No” I replied. “He is holding a little girl in his arms who looks just like you – now do you know who he is?” “No, I am sorry I don’t.” I answered Then she said, “He says he has three things he wants to tell you: The first is, “It was so fast he didn’t feel a thing”. The second is, “It was one of those damn lorries.” (Hearing that, tears flooded my eyes.) The third thing is “He loves you and will never leave you.” “Now do you know who he is?” “Yes, now I know.” I was fighting back tears.” Elizabeth told me that many years after Mike’s death, a real estate agent called to ask if the house she’d just moved out of was haunted. Had she ever seen a ghost there, carrying a clarinet?

Mike Hailwood captured by Cycle World‘s Kevin Cameron at Mosport; Elizabeth McCarthy has just stepped out of the frame!

I’ve never seen a ghost, but as a motorcycle journalist and historian of our sport, I can honestly say that Elizabeth McCarthy’s story haunted me. She first sent her story years ago, and I didn’t know what to do with it. It’s my job to explore long-past events, and plenty of the stories I hear are self-aggrandizing, or at least exaggerated. Even sincere recollections, after half a century, describe a mix of what actually happened and what the person believes happened. So, as a journalist I have to verify stories – “Is there anyone who can corroborate your account?”  I asked Elizabeth if she had any letters or postcards from Mike, or any photos of them together. She does not. That said, I’m still ready to believe parts of her story – that she spent the better part of a week fifty years ago inseparable from Mike. And I’m certain that she has never fallen out of love with that memory, which included undoing her bra to let Mike warm up his hands that cold race day.

Michelle Duff on the same Arter-Matchless G50 she rode (as Mike Duff) in 1967, now owned by Team Obsolete [Photo by Bill Murphy/VRRA]

I’ve wanted to write about Elizabeth McCarthy for some time, but couldn’t find a point of entry.  Then the VRRA announced it was going to assemble as many racers as possible from that 1967 Mosport GP. Elizabeth told me she wouldn’t attend.  In the end, the most famous rider to return was Phil Read, who finished second to Mike in the 250cc class both in Canada, and in the Championship that year (another class in which 1st and 2nd were tied on points!). Agostini was a no-show; he wanted too big an appearance fee. Mike Duff is now Michelle Duff, and came to ride the very same Matchless G50 – built by Tom Arter, now owned by Rob Iannucci – she rode in 1967. Michelle told me, “My biggest concern was actually getting on the bike with feet on the footrest and hands on the handlebars. But I managed for a couple of laps. Damn the bike was quick from what I remembered 50 years ago!” Of course, the real hero of that one-off GP was Mike Hailwood. And after September 30, 1967, he never made another appearance in Canada. Unless you believe in ghosts.

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