Mat Mladin built a career from scratch. The kid from Sydney’s South West was never going to be anything but the best… Words: Jeff Ware Photos: Mladin Archives & Heather Ware.
On March 10 1972, Carol & Mate Mladin welcomed Mat Mladin into the world at Camden Hospital, NSW, Australia. The proud parents didn’t know it at the time but their newest family member was to go on and become a part of racing history…
Mate was a Croatian immigrant who escaped the turmoil in the 1960s and arrived in Australia alone and with little more than a shirt on his back. A stereotypical European arrival, he got to work and began building a future through blood, sweat and tears. By the time young Mat was four-years-old, the family were living in a house in Merrylands in western Sydney, and little Mladin had his butt planted on the seat of a shiny new Honda MR50 just three months before his fourth birthday.
Mladin had his butt planted on the seat of a shiny new Honda MR50 just three months before his fourth birthday…
His dad was a club-level motocross rider and bike enthusiast and, naturally, like is the case in so many Aussie households, motorcycles were part of the furniture and if you could walk or run, you could ride…
Mladin’s first bike had a clutch and gears – Pee Wee 50s hadn’t arrived yet. Early days were spent motoring around the house and riding in the front yard.
“I remember the bike but not that clearly as I was only four. One memory that is there is the bike catching fire while I was on it during a family BBQ and dad leaping across the yard with an esky full of ice and water and tipping it over me,” smiles Mladin.
Mat only rode that MR50 for a year. Mate Mladin must have recognised some talent in his boy – or he was simply nuts, as the next bike to roll out was a full-on racer. A mighty 1977 Suzuki RM50 motocrosser. It was around this time that the Mladins moved further out of town to a farm at Oakdale, not far from Camden.
Mate bought an old dozer and promptly built a motocross track for Mat to keep himself entertained on. Soon all of the kids in the neighbourhood were hanging out at the Mladin’s house after school. Many a famous name spent time fanging around the unofficial ‘Oakdale Minibike Track’ and young Mat was quickly developing the skills and competitiveness that would take him to the top later in life.
“My first race was in 1978,” Mladin remembers, “I was six. It was at Fairbairn Park at Queanbeyan. I don’t really remember it though. But at around the same time Mum and Dad started the Oakdale Minibike Club. The racing took off from there and I continued to race that RM50 throughout 1978 and 1979. I may have even raced my first open meeting on that bike in 1980, the NSW titles”.
Mat out-grew the 50 and in 1981 he jumped on a used CR80 for a short time then a new YZ80. It was big financial commitment to make for a regular Aussie family but the sacrifice was made and Mat promptly proved that it was the correct one, by winning the Australian Flat Track Championships at Canberra, ACT.
“My first race was in 1978, I was six. It was at Fairbairn Park at Queanbeyan”…
Mat also landed his first sponsor in 1981. His bike was purchased at Campbelltown World Of Wheels and the owner, Brian Maynard, helped the family out with spares and so forth. Perusing the images of Mat around this time, he is rarely seen without a World Of Wheels shirt or cap on. What he learned very early about how important sponsors are would go on to help him become one of the highest paid racers in history…
“I did the usual rounds on the YZ. State and National meetings and I won the 1981 80cc Australian Championship. I still have the hat. And the riding gear”. Yamaha offered to sponsor Mat for the 1982 season but Mate went with a Suzuki. Mat recalls, “I’m not sure why dad went with Suzuki but the RM80 was competitive. There was a new model arriving and I remember Suzuki sending out a pre-production RM for me to ride at the Australian Motocross Championships and I was equal first at that. I remember at that time I needed a block of wood to step up onto the bike. I was still only 10 years old”!
He was, officially, a factory supported rider – at age 12!
Mladin continued to be one of the dominate minibike riders for his age throughout 1983 and in ’84 he stepped back on a Yamaha – this time it was a deal struck through Yamaha Australia. He was, officially, a factory supported rider – at age 12!
While most kids were skateboarding, fishing or riding BMX bikes around the streets, young Mat Mladin was feeling the pressures of semi-professional sport. His father, who had a reputation around the pits as a hard man, was pushing his son hard. It wasn’t all fun…
What he learned very early about how important sponsors are would go on to help him become one of the highest paid racers in history…
“Dad was hard on me,” Mat recalls quite intensely. “He was one of those parents that couldn’t help but be very involved. There was a running joke that nobody could lap faster than Mladin’s old man. Wherever you looked beside the track, he was there, with his finger buried deep into his temple area trying to tell me to THINK. It was very distracting. It was like there were 10 of him!” This pressure would have positive and negative consequences later in Mat’s career…
Mladin continued on the 80 until 1987 when he stepped up to the Seniors on a 125 on the official Yamaha team that was run through Stoney Creek Motorcycles. Mladin had a tough year. He won a Mr Motocross race at Oran Park but injuries prevented Mat from reaching his full potential. He was retained by Yamaha for the 1988 season and competed in a couple of races before his final MX race – a 250 race at Canberra where he crashed and re-injured his shoulder while battling with Glenn Bell, Eddie Warren, Heffo and the other legends of the time.
“There was a running joke that nobody could lap faster than Mladin’s old man. Wherever you looked beside the track, he was there, with his finger buried deep into his temple area trying to tell me to THINK”…
Then the inevitable happened. At age 17, Mat had already been racing for 12 years and for 10 of those years he was under constant pressure from his old man. A falling out was on the cards and it happened…
“When you’re 17 you start to grow up. You become your own person and I had a falling out with dad. We split and I moved out (Mladin was living with his father after his parents divorced when he was 11). I took a year off. I needed to re-evaluate my future. I had already decided I would never be one of those mid-field riders with their lowered Hiace van and cap on backwards. That’s not me. I needed to keep moving forward”. Mladin did half a season in 1989, on his own without his father and then turned his back on racing for a year, taking a job as a plasterer in the city and not riding all year.
“I would get picked up for work at 4:15am. There were no freeways into the city back then. I’d get home at 6:00pm. It was tough work…” It’s a familiar story in some ways. Many teen sensations vanish off the face of the earth when they get closer to their 20s and they burn out or lose interest. This could have easily happened to Mat. But thankfully for racing fans, he chose a different path and forged ahead.
It was mid-1990 and Mladin was still not riding much. Then he got a call from a friend telling him about Troy Corser’s success in road racing. Troy was a factory Yamaha rider, racing the Peter Jackson Yamaha TZ250 in the Australian Championships, the Shell Oils Series.
“I’d raced Troy a fair few times at Mt Kembla near Wollongong and being a typical MX kid with an MX mentality, I though, ‘If Corser can do it, I can do it!’ That’s what got me started.”
Mat and his mother scraped up enough money to buy an RGV250L and he got himself a set of leathers made by DBT. “I put the bike in my old HX ute and headed to Oran Park to practice. Really, I had no idea. At first I was riding it like a motocrosser. That’s all I knew. Diving into the corners and squaring them off. I remember fast A grader, Ken Watson, flashing past me over the dogleg before the final corner onto the straight. I thought, ‘I’ll never be that quick!”
Famous last words… A few weeks later, after terrorising the Camden area Highway Patrol, Mladin had the road bike thing figured out a bit better. He returned to the track for another practice day, this time at Amaroo Park. Ken Watson was there and by the end of the day Mat was able to stay within a corner of him but not catch him. That may not sound like a big deal but to put that into perspective, Watson was one of the most experienced A graders in Australia…
I remember fast A grader, Ken Watson, flashing past me over the dogleg before the final corner onto the straight. I thought, ‘I’ll never be that quick!”
On August 24, 1990, Mladin headed to Oran Park for a St George MCC meeting. It was his first race. He won 250 D Grade, Formula 2 D Grade and 250 Production D Grade. He also lapped at 1:22.57. He was graded from D to C on that day. A record… one meeting.
Eastern Creek came next and it was a National meeting. Amazingly, Mladin finished fourth in all Superstreet Open races on his RGV and set a lap time of 1:46.50 first time there… It was the end of 1990 and Mladin had people talking in the road-racing scene. He’d already made lots of experienced riders look silly. His own ignorance of the road-racing scene, combined with his exceptional talent, made Mladin fearless and fast on the tarmac from the word go. Mat and his mum discussed 1991 and it was decided they would really commit and get Mat a new RGV250M and raise the funds for a stint at the Australian 250 Production Championships.
“It was decided one year and if nothing comes of it, back to work. Mum couldn’t afford to keep me going trying to raise my sister on her own. We needed the new bike as it was a completely new model, the ‘M’ with the banana swingarm. It was a big deal to buy that bike for us as a family. I remember picking it up from Bob Campbell Motorcycles. It was Blue and White and immaculate. New tyres. No idea – you can guess what happened. I took off up the street and 400m later I was sliding past the Police station on my arse! I had no idea that you needed to scrub new tyres in. The fairings were wrecked and mum was not impressed. We were going to sell those to pay for two sets of race glass…”
“I started to work it out more by then. I needed more corner speed. But I had no idea about machine set-up. I went to Amaroo Park on the M model for a race in Feb 1991, where everyone warned me about Stop Corner. You go from flat in fourth to braking towards a concrete wall for a 90-degree right-hander that went off-camber. I didn’t care and made up a lot of ground passing on the brakes there!”
Exactly one month later, on March 10, Mladin returned to Amaroo Park, won the 250 Production race, and set a lap record of 56.62 seconds.
Mat finished second in 250 Production that morning. Exactly one month later, on March 10, Mladin returned to Amaroo Park, won the 250 Production race, and set a lap record of 56.62 seconds. Back to Oran Park in late April and Mladin was on the pace. He was on a roll and reeled off a 1:20.44 lap time in the morning. Jaws dropped. But in the afternoon he really caused a stir by doing a 1:19.98. All of this on Michelin Hi Sport tyres. Not the conventional Dunlop Sportmax or Rideens that the others preferred. Already, Mladin had the others totally psyched out.
On June 10, Mat was graded to B from C, another record. He went on to win the Australian 250 Production Championship in his very first year at National level. Yet another first. Mat then jumped on a TZ250 for a meeting at Phillip Island. He finished fourth behind the likes of Ricky Rice and Rene Bongers… In August Mat was offered a ride on a Superbike for the first time. He had offers from every major team for a superbike ride for the 1992 season. Honda really had big plans for Mat, perhaps they’d found the next Daryl Beattie, and so a privateer RC30 was organized for Mat to ride at Oran Park and Eastern Creek.
In August Mat was offered a ride on a Superbike for the first time. He had offers from every major team for a superbike ride for the 1992 season.
“I remember I drove to Victoria to pick the bike up with Garry McCoy, who had to pick up a speedway bike for a meeting at Nepean. We drove back overnight the night before our races, trying to stay awake with AC/DC flat out and the windows down! Needless to say the race weekend didn’t go to plan for either of us.”
Mat qualified ahead of Campbell and Giles at the 2 + 4 meeting but on Sunday he fell in morning warm-up and injured his shoulder and was unable to race. “I had a good offer on the table from Honda but just from riding that RC30 I knew it was old and that the Kawasaki would be the more competitive bike.”
A few months later at Eastern Creek, Mladin raced a Kawasaki superbike in F1 and won the race, setting a lap time of 1:36.77. “It was a Kawasaki endurance superbike that the factory had sent over. We were also entered in a round of the World Endurance Championships at Phillip Island at the end of the year. Myself and my teammates were the laughing stock of the paddock. Everyone was saying we’d crash out. We didn’t. At the 5 hours 54 minute mark we were third then the bike broke a link and spat Tommy Larsen down the road. Phillis won from DuHamel and Scott Doohan. If I remember rightly Scott Doohan had pretty loose lips about us having a crack at that race so flogging him the next year on a superbike felt good.”
In October 1991, just 14 months after his very first road race, Mat Mladin signed a contract with Kawasaki to replace Aaron Slight who was off to WSBK. For his services, he was to be paid just $12,000. It was the start of a stellar career…
THE WORLD STAGE
Just 14 months after his road-racing debut 20-year old Mat Mladin was a factory Kawasaki Superbike rider contesting in the Australian Superbike Championship full time. Mladin had a good offer from Honda for the season, and a smaller offer of just $12,000 from TKA. He chose the Kawasaki. The Honda, he thought, was at the end of its development. He was right and as it turns out, it was to be a brilliant decision.
Mladin dominated on the Peter Doyle prepared and managed TKA ZXR750, winning his first ever meeting on the bike at Eastern Creek. He also won the Winfield Triple Challenge, quickly muting his vocal critics, who were sure he was a one-class wonder after his 250 title. He won 11 of his first 12 superbike races in the 22 round Shell Oils Series. He was destroying Mal Campbell and Troy Corser by bolting from the start. Nobody could hang with Mladin on the first lap and he would go on to win nine times out of 10. He went on to win the Australian Superbike Championship at his first attempt. An astonishing achievement…
Mladin dominated on the Peter Doyle prepared and managed TKA ZXR750, winning his first ever meeting on the bike at Eastern Creek. He also won the Winfield Triple Challenge…
In October that year, by chance, Honda GP boss Erv Kanemoto was watching a bike race on TV at Melbourne Airport in the lounge. He saw Mladin win at Winton. He began to make inquiries and discussed Mladin with Gardner, who was to retire after the Kyalami round. Erv wanted to run a 500 team and wanted an Aussie rider and with pressure from Gardner to give Mladin a test, it was arranged. Mladin lapped fast enough on the 500 to have qualified 12th at the previous weekends race.
“The power didn’t really concern me, I always rode bigger bikes, even when I was 11 I was practicing on a 125 motocrosser. But I do remember thinking, ‘this bike can win races’. I did not have the same thoughts after I rode the Cagiva…”
Sadly, Kanemoto had no budget to run any 500s so concentrated on Max Biaggi in the 250cc class for 1993. News of the test had spread and Giacomo Agostini contacted Mladin, inviting him to test the Cagiva. Mladin travelled to Varese in Italy to meet with the team.
“I’d discussed it with Peter Doyle and he advised that I wasn’t ready. In hindsight I’d have stayed in Australia that year but I have no regrets. It’s all a blur really. But I remember sitting in a boardroom with GP rider manager Harris Barnett and the Cagiva personnel one minute and the next minute I signed a two million dollar deal to race the bike for three years. What 20-year-old kid from Western Sydney would knock back two million bucks?”
“The next minute I signed a two million dollar deal to race the bike for three years. What 20-year-old kid from Western Sydney would knock back two million bucks?”
Cagiva then gave Mat a two-day test at Mugello where he performed extremely well, close to Alex Barros’s fastest lap on the Cagiva at the Italian Grand Prix. After one last race in Australia, the World Superbike round where Mladin had a wildcard. He finished fifth while Kevin Magee took a win and a second place. That race was a very valuable one as he got to experience the might of the Fast By Feracci Ducati, which he would later ride in the USA…
Mat came home and prepared and trained over Christmas. He organised to lease Gardner’s motor home and to take Aussie Frank Pons with him along with a mate Mark Knebel with him. Mladin based himself loosely in Germany, near Hockenheim, and lived out of the motor home.
“Everything was new. The tracks, the bike, tyres, team, the entire experience. I remember thinking, ‘I should not be here riding with these guys’…
“Everything was new. The tracks, the bike, tyres, team, the entire experience. I remember thinking, ‘I should not be here riding with these guys’. That was not a good start. But I was cocky and full of myself at that time – I had been winning everything at home and constantly… had people telling me how good I was. I was also used to winning. I went in to the season with expectations to do OK, not win but have some top five or so races, and to finish every GP”.
Unfortunately the season was tougher than most debut seasons. Mladin finished a credible 13th despite missing numerous rounds due to injuries or, more commonly, machine failure. He hit off the season well at Eastern Creek qualifying 12th and finishing ninth despite a brake problem and injuries from a practice crash. I remember being there as an 18-year-old watching Mladin in action on the Cagiva. It was an animal…
Malaysia was next and a 10th just behind Chandler. Mechanical DNFs ruined the next two rounds then 10th again at Salzburgring followed by a sensational seventh at Hockenheim. At Assen, a practice crash saw Mat break his collarbone and injure his knee. He was replaced by Juan Garriga, for Catalunya, then returned for Mugello and scored ninth.
However, at Donington for the following round, just when things were on the up, Mladin highsided and re-broke his collarbone. Fran Pons was also released from the team. Mladin returned to Australia to recover and at the same time something happened that had a huge impact on the team. John Kocinski, the brat himself, was drafted in as number one rider after being sacked by Suzuki for intentionally blowing up an RGV250 grand prix bike in the warm down lap. Suddenly Mladin was third rider in the team. Not good for his confidence and when he showed to race at Brno, Kocinski was on his bike.
Read our Racer Test of the Cagiva 500 here…
“I lost my mechanics and basically, Doug and I did not matter. Cagiva wanted Kocinski.” Team moral was getting low and Mat was dreading race weekends. Things were going downhill and the intense politics of the Grand Prix world were swallowing Mladin up. You can only imagine the Italian press, Aussie media pressure and of course plenty of riders festering over not getting Mladins golden ride at Cagiva. He was, literally, shark bait.
“At Misano, I’d had enough of JK and the team. I was on a practice lap and he basically shot straight out of the pits onto the straight, right in front of me. I braked hard but could not avoid hitting him. I took him out big time. The team forced me to apologise so I walked up to him and said, ‘Get in my way again and I’ll hit you twice as hard you little f@ck’!”. A DNF at Laguna and a brilliant sixth at Jarama ended the season and, ultimately, Mat Mladins grand prix career. Needless to say, the Cagiva/Mladin pairing did not continue for 1994 and Mat returned home, seriously considering quitting racing.
The team forced me to apologise so I walked up to him and said, ‘Get in my way again and I’ll hit you twice as hard you little f@ck’!”…
“I came home with a bit of money left and bought a small house in the Camden area. I was going to quit but after talking to Peter Doyle, who had a spot for me on the TKA team again. I decided to sign up for another year”.
Mladin would be racing against his neighbour, Anthony Gobert, as well as Kirk McCarthy, on the all-new RC45. Mladin smashed them straight out of the gate with a big win at Sandown, then Symmonds Plains. Phillip Island was plagued by a brake issue when a pad fell out causing Mat to crash heavily and worse came when he had a huge crash at Wanneroo in qualifying. Mladin was in severe pain but refused treatment. Those who witnessed the crash say it was a huge, huge one with Mladin being flung in the air. He went on to take a win in the rain the following day.
“I was losing interest, just going through the motions”.
On the Monday, a CAT scan revealed multiple crushed vertebrae… hard-core. He was back with wins at Lakeside and Oran Park just two months later. Nobody had a chance against that kind of dedication and determination to dominate. At the end of season WSBK meeting Mladin finished seventh and DNF’d race two after tyre selection mistakes while Gobert famously walked out of Honda and into Kawasaki to take a win. Despite a fading interest in racing, Mladin signed for 1995 with the same team.
Mladin had met Janine during the 1995 season and the pair were living in the house Mat had bought after his GP season. There was some normality in Mat’s life and the idea of settling in for another year in Australia was appealing. In fact, Mladin had no aspirations to go overseas again. He was even offered a one-off ride on the Lucky Strike Suzuki of injured Kevin Schwantz but let the ride go – he was not going back to Grand Prix without being 100 per cent fit and focussed.
After a break over Christmas with family and friends, Mat had another major setback. A passion for flying was just beginning to take off. Mladin decided to have a go at ultra light aircraft and while attempting a take off at Janine’s family property he managed to wrap himself around a pole, literally ripping his left foot from his leg.
“The actual crash didn’t worry me, being a bike racer, and I hadn’t noticed my foot at first. Then I went to stand up and I was looking at the bottom of my sneaker. The local Ambos’ knew me and when they arrived the first words one said was, ‘Mate, what the hell have you done this time!”
Mladin underwent numerous operations to repair the foot but as luck would have it, Golden Staff set in and Mat was in hospital for two months, dropping from 71kg to 60kg. As bad as that experience sounds, it was not without positives on Mat’s life…
“I had plenty of time to think about my future in hospital. I realised that, basically, I was a dickhead and had an amazing opportunity to race at the top and make a damn good living out of it for my family and the future. I really woke up in those two months. My entire attitude changed. I became 100 per cent focussed on the job”. Mat went on to gain his pilot’s licence for both fixed wing and helicopter and has owned many planes and choppers since, with a new helicopter on the way for 2022.
Mladin proved that by returning to racing in July and within a few meetings setting lap records and taking race wins again. A few weeks later a life-changing call came from the USA. Suzuki race boss legend Masayuki Itoh was on the end of the line offering Mat a place on the factory backed Yoshimura Suzuki team in the AMA Superbike Championship for the 1996 season. The rest, as they say, is history.
Next time in Part 2 we take you through the incredible AMA years of Mat Mladin’s career…
Mat Mladin Career Highlights
- 2009 Champion, AMA Superbike Series, 10 wins and 4 additional podiums
- 2008 Second, AMA Superbike Series, 11 wins and 6 additional podiums
- 2007 Second, AMA Superbike Series, 12 wins and 5 additional podiums
- 2006 Second, AMA Superbike Series, 8 wins and 10 additional podiums
- 2005 Champion, AMA Superbike Series, 11 wins, 2 additional podiums and 10 out of 10 pole positions
- 2004 Champion, AMA Superbike Series, 8 wins
- 2003 Champion, AMA Superbike Series, 10 wins
- 2002 Seventh, AMA Superbike Series
- 2001 Champion, AMA Superbike Series, 4 wins
- 2000 Champion, AMA Superbike Series, 4 wins
- 1999 Champion, AMA Superbike Series,1 win
- 1998 Third, AMA Superbike Series
- 1997 Third, AMA Superbike Series
- 1996 Fourth, AMA Superbike Series
- 1995 Second, Australian Superbike Series, despite missing several races
- 1993 13th, World 500cc GP Championships, with a 6th, 7th, 2 x 9th, 2 x 10th places
- 1992 Champion, Australian Superbike Series
- 1991 Champion, Australian 250 Production
- 1990 First road race, Suzuki RGV250L
- 1976 – 1989 Multiple Australian/State motocross and flat-track titles 80cc, 125cc, 250cc
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