Michele Hewitson Interview: Bill Buckley

By Michele Hewitson

He's the grumpy old guy who drives the grader at the speedway ... and as well, he's a millionaire entrepreneur and businessman

Bill Buckley's passion for the speedway at Western Springs is deep enough to overcome even his usual reluctance to do interviews. Photo / Richard Robinson
Bill Buckley's passion for the speedway at Western Springs is deep enough to overcome even his usual reluctance to do interviews. Photo / Richard Robinson

The entrepreneur and very successful businessman Bill Buckley is reputed to be a genius. "Ha, ha. Well, I don't know about that. Just a bloody hard worker." He is almost certainly a very rich man. "Ha, ha. I don't know. I don't count it." He is supposed to be a grumpy old bugger. "I don't know about that. Ha, ha." He is undisputedly a complete and utter speedway nut. You won't get any argument from him about that.

One other thing that is known about him. He hates doing interviews. Ha, ha.

He hates doing interviews except when he wants to promote his beloved speedway. So he is more than happy (in his gruff way; let's not get carried away here) to do one with me because today is the biggest day on the Western Springs calendar: the World Speedway Grand Prix or, as the promotional blurb puts it: No Brakes. No Gears. No Fear.

He had to do another interview before me so we wandered over to where the photographer wanted to take the pictures, on the old concrete stands at Western Springs, which is a bit of a walk from the gates. He arrived a bit later, on a golf cart.

I said we should have taken the golf cart and he said: "No use getting old if you don't get wise."

It was his 70th birthday. Happy birthday! "Yeah, yeah, Ha, ha. Cheers."

What did he get? "Well, I got that book. And that picture of the riders." What book? "It's just all the photos of last year [at the speedway.]" Just? He was dead chuffed. What would he do with it? "I'll just put it on my coffee table." I wondered what his wife would think of that. "Oh, she'll probably put it in my office."

His wife, Bronwyn, might not love the speedway quite as much as he does.

"Oh, she always says she doesn't but I think she does." That might be wishful thinking, but a bit of wishful thinking in an entrepreneur doesn't hurt. After all, he is the kid (one of 13) who came off the family farm in Te Kauwhata and went ship-building at 16 because he wanted to build big things. He now has an engineering business, Buckley Systems, which makes the machines which make about 90 per cent of the world's silicon chips. He never went to university, and learnt engineering training on the job. His eldest brother went to university. He might have resented this. "No. I just wanted to work."

He still works 60-hour weeks and then he spends Saturday at the speedway. What he mostly does at the speedway (as well as running the show, he is the venue's promoter) is drive the grader around the track he designed and made. It looks ... like a dirt track on a rural road except it happens to just go round and round instead of going somewhere.

It is much more complicated than that. Far too complicated for my brain, but it is something to do with the difference between driving Formula One cars, the speedway midgets and tyres and track adhesion and car suspension. But I began to see why speedway appeals to his engineer's mind. And that track might be an illustration of the inside of his head which goes round and round, very fast, and always ends up at the same place. All roads lead back to speedway with him.

"Ha, ha. I'm not against it. You race round in circles trying to get across a silly white line. That's a daft thing. But all sports are like that. Who wants to run around chasing a silly bloody ball around?"

Well, quite. Who would - when you can drive round in circles on a track?

It would be fair to say that he is in love with his track. It might be his eighth child (he has four from his first marriage; Bronwyn has two from her first marriage; and they have nine year-old Travis together - they adopted him as a baby.)

Only he gets to grade this track, I was told. I said: "Hey! Somebody's driving your grader." There was a chap on a machine going round and round the track. The man who made the track was keeping an close eye in this chap who had been brought in from Europe by IMG, who hold the rights to the show. What a mad thing to do. How much do they pay him? "Oh, moonbeams, I think."

I wouldn't want to be that chap for all the moonbeams in the sky. Because: "Well, I do it better! I'd rather do it myself and I think I could do it quicker and better, but they don't think so." Another thing he is known for: "You know, I don't chew words."

He means he says what he thinks. At his factory, if someone isn't running a machine the way he wants it run, "I'll tell them to get off and I'll do it myself." He doesn't think much of the moonbeam man's technique. "I find a lot of these grader drivers only know how to grade a road ... You wouldn't keep going the same way all the time because you start thinking the track's flat ... You've got to go the other way now and again. The chap on the track is going the same way all the time." Also, "well, I would grade the track with a grader. I wouldn't use that." Oh. Somebody is not driving his grader at all. What is it then? "It's levelling bars. It's an amateur way of grading a track." For a grumpy old bugger it was kind of him not to make me feel like a complete and amateur ninny for not even knowing what a grader looks like. He wasn't quite as diplomatic with the driver. Was there a row? "Yeah, a little bit." He told him he was an amateur. "They don't like that too much."

Not that this has ever stopped him. He is what you might call blunt. His promoter's licence is up for renewal with the council next year. Some people might be doing a bit of sweet-talking to ensure their licence is renewed. He called the council "pricks" in an interview. When I raised this he laughed for quite a long time. "They've got their own ideas, they've got their own agendas but, you know, you've got to try and steer them in the right direction." Steering them in the right direction means keeping speedway at Western Springs. He claims he doesn't care who runs the venue as long as it remains speedway's home. I don't believe him; I think it would break his heart to have to hand it over - probably to some amateur - after 10 years.

So maybe calling the council pricks is not the smartest idea. "Ha, ha, ha," he said, looking not a bit chastised and in fact rather pleased with himself.

He was wearing - for his birthday presentation at Western Springs, an affair with muffins and the Monster promo girls in teeny tiny leather pleated mini skirts - trousers which could, possibly, once have been described as dressy, a shirt and a bomber jacket. All of these items had, to some degree, smears of dust or mud. He wore black lace-up shoes which were un-laced. He has thrown at least $2 million into the money-eating machine that is the speedway. He said he wasn't about to tell me exactly how much. He doesn't understand rich people who don't spend their money and who are forever wanting more. "You've got to enjoy your life."

He often goes to work on a Sunday. He often gets on a fork hoist and trundles around the factory on it; it gives him a good overview and then he moves things around. A standing joke at his factory is that you're likely to come to work on a Monday and be unable to find your machine because the boss has been in, moving machines, again.

His 9-year-old once said: "Why do you have to go to work on a Sunday, dad? You own that business. You should be able to delegate." That, I said, thinking of the hapless track grader, is a very good point. It was such a good point that he entirely ignored it and carried on with his point which was: "I said, 'well, when you get to running Buckley Systems, you might have to make that decision and then you'll understand.' He said, 'What? Me run Buckley Systems? Hell, no! I'm going to be a celebrity and make more money than you've ever dreamed of."'

He has made more money than he ever dreamed of. "Oh, yeah. I think so." But he doesn't think about it much. He's practical to the point of being peculiarly so, if you can believe him. I asked why he and Bronwyn had adopted a child when they had a fair number between them and he said: "Oh, I had 300 guys working for me and I had a lot of apprentices and I don't want to get out of touch with what the kids get up to, you know." That can't be true and I'm almost certain it isn't. I think he's a dead pan leg-puller but also that he's not big on banging on about his emotions. He said, about his boy: "Oh, he's a magic kid."

He is supposed to be evasive in interviews (he is laconic, certainly, but that's not the same thing) but he told me a lot about his first marriage. His wife had a motorbike accident and was in a coma for six months and, after she came to, things fell apart spectacularly badly .

It is a tragic story and I'm not sure why he told me. At the end of it I said: "What a sad story."

He said: "Yeah, yeah. It is, but anyway, it happened." Things just do happen, he said.

You wonder how it happened that he has been such a success. You can go on wondering. I did ask and he said: "I've always been a good sleeper." A good sleeper! There must be a bit more to it than that. No point asking. He's not a word chewer. He got back in his golf cart and off he went, looking a bit like a grumpy old bugger but I've rumbled him. He's not a bit grumpy. He's a bit of a sweetheart, actually. Unless you happen to be grading his track the wrong way and then, watch out!

- NZ Herald

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