Vale Ivan Mauger – New Zealand Sport’s Literal Golden Boy

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After a few down the bowling club my dad would come home and always ‘wax lyrical’ to me about some of his favourite topics whether I wanted to listen or not. With a takeaway king brown in a brown paper bag in his vice like grip he went on about the marvel of the Mosquito Aeroplane, Hank Williams ability to drink himself to death by 29 and to never mess with the boys from Bassendean on or off the footy field. One subject he always went to the most of all though was on his hero Ivan Mauger.

Ivan was the Pele of Speedway during the golden era for the sport. He was the Federer, the Ablett without the off field dramas and insecurities or even the Schumacher without the cheating. A consummate professional and an icon in a sport now long past its glory days where it rivalled Football as the most popular sport in the UK.

Ivan was born in the Garden City of Christchurch in 1939 and was one of those kids that had a talent for everything he tried. Despite representing Canterbury in some levels of Rugby his size (or lack thereof) was more suited to his other love of Speedway. A meticulous planner in everything he did it wasn’t long before had the funds and the support to try his luck in the UK after being a junior racer.

At the age of only 18 and already married to Raye he joined Wimbledon as an apprentice. The league system in the UK was much like the system for the round ball game. Different divisions with promotion and relegation with teams of four riders taking each other on over a series of events raced on ash or clay. It was racing at close quarters on four stroke bikes in a flat out slide with only one gear (adjustable for track conditions) and no brakes. It was dangerous, it was brutal and it was rewarding attracting riders brave as they were foolhardy.

Ivan only lasted a year in his first attempt at a career before heading back to New Zealand in 1958 frustrated with being unable to achieve what he wanted to for probably the first time in his young life. Instead of packing it in he honed his craft on the tracks of Australasia. These tracks included the iconic speedway at the Sydney Showgrounds and at Claremont Showgrounds in Perth which at the time was the longest Speedway in the world. He also sought the advice of other Kiwi riders already at the top of their game and world champions like Barry Briggs who was a father figure to many Kiwi riders.

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Superstar in the making (Photo: Newstalk ZB)

With some experience (but no money) the Maugers headed back to the UK to try again five years later in 1963. Living in a cramp flat in Manchester with other riders looking for their break the results started to come through the second division after Newcastle took a punt on him. While the team racing paid the bills the glory came in Speedway as an individual rider. The World Final was the crown that every rider aspired to. In an FA Cup like knockout system where riders went through qualifying rounds until the final 16 were decided with the world champions decided at one off events in front of crowds of 100,000 at places like Wembley Stadium. It was one of the only times Western riders would come up against those from behind the Iron Curtain with riders from Poland, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. Mysteries wrapped in enigmas and racing leathers.

Mauger qualified for his first final in 1968 finishing fourth behind two Poles and a Russian and ahead of his old mentor Briggs. Still plying his trade at lowly Newcastle he still learned as he went and escaped injury in a sport that took lives and crippled riders at an alarming rate. In 1969 in only his second final he won the first five of his six races to walk in his first world title. Now a bona fide star Mauger moved to the big team Belle Vue in Manchester and his riding went to a level above all and sundry. In 1969 he made it back to back world titles in front of one of those massive Wembley crowds. In his final race he deliberately slowed down to let his club teammate Soren Sjosten get third place in the final standings. Ivan was very generous so long as you weren’t a threat. In 1970 it was a third title and in a row and his most impressive when in Warsaw he saw off the Polish stars to somehow take a title behind the Iron Curtain: a feat no other Western rider had been able to do.

Two American businessmen, George Wenn and Ray Bokelman, boasted that if Mauger made his history and won the unprecedented third title in a row they would cover the winning bike in gold. When Ivan delivered so did they giving his bike back plated in gold and somehow making it back by ship to the UK and to Ivan and Raye’s modest Cheshire home. The bike these days lives at a sports museum back in Christchurch.

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The man with the Golden Motorbike. (Photo: Newstalk ZB)

For the event in Poland and other places far off the beaten track he shipped in or brought his own food such was his micro management yet it was this micro management that saw him as a bit of an outsider to many in the sport. He was a rider not full of the piss and vinegar of the other riders which saw as an outsider. He said in many interviews he saw racing as a jigsaw and all the pieces had to fit. He always got the same bikes built by the same individual and had the same mechanic.

After a second place at the World Final in 1971 he won again in 1972 and again in 1977 and 1979 confirming his god like status and a record six world titles. Only the Swede Tony Rickardson had equalled his record and only in modern times in a changed format. An OBE was in the post in 1976 for Ivan with New Years Honours in 1989 following. His club career was also prolific moving from Belle Vue to Exeter and being labelled a judas although he got the last laugh denying his old team the title on more than one occasion.

Back home in New Zealand he was seen as a star equal to any All Black or climber of a big hill in Nepal. Despite all his success in Europe and always returned to race in Australia and in particular South Australia and Western Australia every antipodean summer. His close relationships with promoters Kim Bonython at Port Pirie Speedway and Con Migro at Claremont was the reason for this. When I interviewed Con last year he was misty eyed when the subject of Mauger was brought up.

He was someone who was a close friend but also someone who would rent a garage and work on the bike after inspecting the track until all hours of the night rather than dine and catch up with close friends in Perth. He always wanted to be ready for every eventuality and on the massive Claremont track there were plenty of those. The biggest crowds Claremont got every summer were for the annual two meetings he participated in with crowds if today (to scale) would fill the new Perth Stadium. A chance for the locals to see greatness and a chance for the local riders to try and knock off the king.

At the age of 46 Mauger retired the greatest the sport had seen and relocated to the Gold Coast. He would be involved in Speedway after hoping off the bike but only if it didn’t clash with watching his beloved All Blacks. When a kid with a head full of Dad’s ramblings about Mauger I saw the man himself visit Claremont bringing riders over to race and was in quiet awe even though never seeing him race. Many did remember and came along to see him letting others know of his achievements and how he wowed fans. It was like those who go on about Polly or Beetson to many unlucky not to see them that adds to the legend.

Mauger represented riders as head of the World Speedway Riders’ Association until 2008 when he was diagnosed with dementia and began ‘the long goodbye’ for 10 years. On April 16 2018 Ivan passed away on the Gold Coast leading to tributes from his fans, his rivals and those who remembered his feats. While many when thinking of Kiwi sports stars will think of a Hadley, Crowe or even Wrestler Ritchie Blomfield Mauger was an inaugural inductee to the Kiwi Sports Hall of Fame.

Ivan Mauger should never be forgotten even though his sport slowly is. RIP.

About Dennis Gedling

RTR FM Presenter. Glory Guerrillas Producer and Co-Host. Contributer to Football Nation Radio and Football West. Worships at the feet of the mighty Cats, Socceroos, Matildas, West Perth, Glory and Glasgow's Green and White most of the time.

Comments

  1. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says:

    I saw Ivan at Rowley Park and probably also at Virginia Speedway as a kid (not that I remember much of the detail). He was a big drawcard, I remember that.

  2. Dennis Jones says:

    Thank you for these words. Speedway greats do not get the profile they should have received. I started watching Speedway at Tracey’s.

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