IMAGINE, for one horrible moment, you are the victim of a violent home invasion.
First published in the May 2017 issue of Wheels Magazine, Australia’s most experienced and most trusted car magazine since 1953.
Your attacker is large, powerful, and fast. He comes at you with an iron bar, and strikes your lower face with one vicious blow.
In that instant, your jaw is shattered; most of your bottom teeth reduced to broken fragments. You black out from nervous-system trauma and pain, but he’s not done.
Just to finish you off, he delivers a massive don’t-argue to the upper section of your skull. Haemorrhaging blood immediately begins to congeal dangerously on your brain. Minutes after this, any medical practitioner would declare your unresponsive condition ‘clinically dead’.
If you don’t receive an emergency tracheotomy to stop your airways being fouled by a morbid slurry of flesh, blood, pulverised bone and teeth, there will be no ‘clinically’. You’re gone.
For 40-year-old stuntman and racer Matt Mingay, his attack didn’t happen in his home; his attacker wasn’t some crazed ice addict after his cash and car keys. Mingay’s attack came via a freakish combination of a Detroit concrete barrier, a torn chromoly roll-cage – and his head – all united in a horrible symphony at over 150km/h.
But the injuries he suffered after that crash in the Belle Isle round of the Stadium Super Truck (SST) series in the USA in June last year were every bit as catastrophic as an attempted murder, and his slow, painful recovery still has at least another eight months or so to run.
IF YOU’VE never heard of Matt Mingay, then you’re surely not one of his 1.2 million followers on social media.
Or maybe you’ve managed not to notice Mingay at a major Australian motorsport event, warming up the crowd with his stunt show. After all, he’s easy to miss, pulling feet-up doughnuts on a barely-muffled motorcycle, covered in tatts, his cartoonish mohawk-style helmet bobbing around like a deranged cockatoo. Actually, he’s been doing it for 20 years, so it’s not as if you’ve been starved of a chance to see him.
I meet Mingay and his wife Sheena at their large industrial unit on the Gold Coast, a boys’-toys trove chockers with two drift cars, a stadium jump truck, five stunt motorcycles, a couple of road-going Harleys, a plethora of dirt bikes, off-road buggies and jet skis. Rows of trophies glint above the workbench, distracting your eye from the racks of tyres and tools.
Mingay cracks a lopsided grin as he says G’day, and assures me he’s not drunk; he just sounds that way. One of his five post-accident surgeries involved stitching his lower lip to his bottom (toothless) gum, and it makes him sound, well, as if he’s had a few. “Definitely not pisshed, mate, but happy like I am. Good ta shee ya.”
If you take inspiration from people overcoming adversity, of sucking it up without a moment’s self-pity, it lives here in Matt and Sheena Mingay.
Then again, injury and recovery does come as an occupational hazard for this bloke. He’s broken bones like you or I have broken bread.
He was born the youngest of three kids, and instantly latched onto wheeled toys. There’s a faded photo of him, aged three, pulling a neat little wheelstand on his BMX.
“I practised my guts out when I was a little fella,” he tells me. “I’d fall off; stack it, go again. Over and over.”
By the time he had his first road bike, on L-plates while still in high school in Townsville, he already had a fan base. “The other kids would hear I was coming, and there’d be this mad rush down to the fence next to the bus stop, because I’d pull a wheelstand for the best part of a kay past the school.”
So the attention and adulation was addictive? “Oh yeah,” he says, with a slightly sheepish smile. “I loved it. It made ’em all so happy; they’d be coming up to me; ‘mate, you’re a legend.’”
As for his own hero, take a guess: the middle name of his nine-year-old son Maddox is Evel. “Yeah, I idolised Evel Knievel,” he says, glancing at the tribute tattoo on his left forearm. “It did take me a while to realise he crashed more jumps than he landed, though…”
Out of high school he became a motorcycle mechanic, and continued to “ride like a crazy bastard, fall off, do heaps of stupid stuff.” Early car control skills came via a Gemini, which he quickly took to with a gas axe to weld the diff locked for oversteer.
Car parks and paddocks became his drift training ground. His properly pivotal moment, though, came in his late teens via stuntman Robbie Bolger. The ex-pat Irishman held a competition for a stunt rider to join his crew, and Mingay literally and figuratively smoked the opposition. In that moment, he ceased being just a talented hoon doing crazy shit on a bike around his neighbourhood. He was suddenly a pro stunt rider.
A couple of years later, in 1997, aged 20, he had an off-chops Suzuki GSX-R1000, an imperial ton of fearlessness, and ambition churning in his guts. He quit the tools and forged out on his own as a full-time, self-employed, professional crazy person. Work came patchily, but soon built into a steady flow.
“How did you know how to price yourself?” I ask. “What’s the going rate for 40 minutes of tyre-destroying, injury-tempting mayhem?”
“I had no idea,” he laughs. “I’d just throw a number out there – ‘ummm … 1500 bucks?’ – and see what stuck. When I got a ‘yeah, okay’ I was like, YESSS! I went from there.”
He added sub-contracted riders to bolster the on-track spectacle and weave in choreographed moves. Then Holden saw the following he was attracting at motorsport events and offered a couple of V8 utes. It was in those utes that he really honed his drift skills from the sublime to the ridiculous.
He’s drifted competitively, and his Camaro is set up for pro competition, but there’s little guaranteed money in it.
Mingay is a savvy, pragmatic type. “I could spend five grand to compete in a round of the drift championship, or get paid five grand to drift in front of a huge crowd, all going nuts. It’s a pretty easy decision.”
But it’s the bike stunts that really forged his rep, and ultimately what sends the crowd into raptures.
“Bottom line; quite a lot of people can now drift well. Me and Kent [Dalton, his co-drifter] keep upping the ante to make it look awesome, but fact is not many people can do what we do on bikes. Especially Harleys. People said, ‘No way, you can’t do that show with Harleys.’ I said, ‘bullshit, just watch me do it with Harleys.’”
To see Mingay on his motorcycle is to understand why toy giant Hot Wheels came on board in a lucrative sponsorship deal; why promoters pay him big bucks to bring his huge truck and merchandise stand to events, and why crowds stare transfixed before screaming themselves hoarse. Some of his moves are like a cross between rhythmic gymnastics and bull fighting, often with a bit of rodeo riding thrown in.
Others seem to defy physics, like wheelstanding the bike with his legs draped over the handlebars. His feet-up doughnut burnouts are almost balletic, the grace in complete contrast to the bellowing bike and screaming, tortured rear tyre.
What defines his style is the sheer ease he has with the machine; the way it fluidly obeys every input. There’s never a sense that he’s muscling it into submission; instead it’s like a trained animal that jumps through a hoop when he snaps his fingers. He clearly has an almost obscene amount of natural talent; phenomenal balance that allows him to pull wheelstands past the point of vertical. Or to take both hands off the bars when the bike is at its balance point. (Correct, that means letting go of the throttle. No, I don’t get it either.)
THE IRONY that it was an accident while inside a race truck that nearly claimed his life is not lost on Mingay, given what he does on motorcycles. “Yeah, so much for the old adage: ‘as you age, get a cage’,” he smiles ruefully. “That didn’t work out so good.”
It strikes me as a bit like stunt-swimming with white sharks in a seal-mince wetsuit, only to go home and be mauled apart by the neighbour’s slobbery Rottweiler. Says Sheena, who was at the race meeting in Detroit: “I saw the replay and it didn’t look that bad. Normally the trucks just get rolled back onto their wheels and everything is fine. The worst they’d had before this was a broken collarbone.”
The bad news came fast, though. “Then I was told he was non-responsive, and I realised how serious it was.”
The pair met while Sheena was employed by the action sports brand Jet Pilot, at the time one of Mingay’s sponsors. That was about seven years ago. He was besotted by her Gold Coast good looks and sunny, switched-on disposition. They went through courtship on a wide-open throttle with minimal speed humps, and married in Vegas in 2015. Together they work for anything up to 12 or 13 hours a day, often seven days a week on the business; bookings, logistics, sponsor commitments, merchandise, staffing the operation. There’s gentle ribbing and tangible adoration between them.
Sheena is almost always by his side as the Mingay show moves around the country. The Clipsal 500 in Adelaide in 2015 was no different, where Matt was granted a wildcard entry to the Stadium Super Truck curtain-raiser. A third place there was enough to get some momentum and connections; it was this that led to an invitation first to Vegas for a round, and then to Detroit in June last year.
On that Sunday, his life would change forever, yet he has no recollection of it. “I can’t even remember the morning before the race,” he says. “My last memory is of the day before. Then … nothing.”
So, no memory of the three weeks in the Detroit hospital, of the reconstruction that took a bone graft from his hip and fused it via a titanium plate to replace the missing section of lower jaw.
No recollection of being cared for by Sheena, then at night by his older brother Chris and his best mate. And absolutely no recollection of the private jet provided by motorsport billionaire Roger Penske to get them all from Detroit to LA for the flight home to the Gold Coast. “It’s like my brain has just wiped all that,” he says. “The first thing I remember is being in the Gold Coast hospital, a week or so after I’d been admitted.”
For Sheena, the exact inverse applies. Her recollections of the experience are laser etched in her memory. There’s a photo of him as he first lay on the Detroit operating table. His chin looks as though it’s been decorated with some ghastly hibiscus flower; pink petals peeled back to expose a horrible black abyss.
Later, cranial surgery was vital to remove blood from his brain. Sheena faced the initial shock of Matt’s condition; then, the huge unknown of what sort of recovery he’d make. The thought that she could be facing the rest of her life as a carer to a semi-vegetative or impaired shell of what was her vibrant, dynamic husband did not escape her.
Matt did regain a degree of coherence after a few weeks, and a sense of optimism flickered, but even this improvement in his condition brought its own challenges.
“I remember at one stage he started to pull at the hospital tubes, and snarling that he had to leave,” says Sheena. “I said, ‘Go where, matey? You can’t go anywhere.’ He was an awful patient. We ended up having to strap him to the bed with wrist and ankle cuffs.”
There will ultimately be five surgeries as a result of this accident. It will take his career total deep into double figures.
By the time you read this, he’ll have had another operation to install false-teeth ‘anchor points’ in this new jaw. Later in the year, only after the anchor points have healed, can the prosthetic teeth be screwed in. This will finally – hopefully – end the procedures needed to put him back together.
“Looking forward to that last bit,” he smiles. “Can’t wait to rip into a good steak.”
Along with Sheena, a core part of his support has come from a chunk of those 1.2 million social media followers. He has been inundated with messages of support, of lovingly crafted cards from hundreds of kids, and offers of financial help from people with only modest means; even kids wanting to donate their pocket money towards his rehab costs.
“Yeah, it’s touched my heart, very humbling,” he says, looking visibly emotional.
He’s always loved his fans, he says, but this accident and recovery has given him a fresh appreciation, and he’s humbled – but quietly, deeply proud – when he hears that he’s serving as an inspiration for kids who follow him who are battling either illness or their own accident-recovery hell.
“Yeah, it makes me feel so special; such a good feeling. Love it when they come up and I can give them a bit of encouragement, or send a message on Facebook,” he says.
So is it the showmanship side, the fan base, that really drives him, rather than the thrill and accomplishment of forcing a motorcycle (or car) to do something for which it was fundamentally never intended?
“Absolutely,” he says. “I love my fans. Love seeing them going crazy, love really amping up the crowd. It’s the greatest buzz. Look, if you pull an awesome wheelstand and there’s no-one there to see it, it’s like … what’s the point?”
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