Speedway legend and six-time world champion Ivan Mauger died aged 78
This story originally appeared in 2012
God knows what it was like to be Ivan Mauger, six-time world standard-course speedway champion, three-time world long-course champ. He was the lad from Woolston, the Christchurch suburb of labourers and mechanics but rarely doctors or lawyers, who worked until no man was ahead or above him.
But I remember how it was in 1970 for a boy like me, how the place to be on a Saturday night was in the crowd at Ruapuna Park being showered by cinders spat from the tyres of the posse of revving speedway racers. It wasn't Dad's choice of a Saturday night out but we could regularly be found on the embankment: me, wide-eyed and probably high on the fumes of high-octane race fuel, and he, using the picnic rug as a shield against the flying grit.
Speedway was A Very Big Deal, probably because New Zealanders were the kings of the 50s, 60s and 70s. Ronnie Moore was twice world champion, Barry Briggs, four times, and then Mauger topped the lot. It didn't hurt that all three hailed from Christchurch.
Mauger had dark handsome eyes and a matching Beatles thatch. He was all business but could be showy, too. He was an early adopter of coloured leathers, he said when we met this week. He showed me a picture of him in race leathers that looked like a Tiger print in pink and blue.
I asked him how it was to be a legend but I fear the question came too late. We met two days before his 73rd birthday. He and wife, Raye, were in New Zealand to attend one of many reunions he gets invited to, and were leaving next day for home in Runaway Bay on the Gold Coast so he could celebrate his birthday with their three children and five grandkids, who all live close by.
He is a dapper fellow, quite little and with the spark so evident in old photos still in his eyes. Raye had explained that his memory wasn't what it was but with her help he could manage an interview. And so, together, they did. Raye would correct a date here, offer a prompt there, and add width and depth as required.
During the hour, Ivan, sprightly, fidgety, would periodically disappear from the room and reappear with one or other of the half-dozen books he has co-authored about his life in speedway. He raced for 30 years and has been retired as a rider for as long. He continued in the sport as a promoter and has done well. He showed me a photo of their house and seemed pleased when I exclaimed that it was a mansion.
What was Barry Briggs like? I asked. "He was quite hard," said Ivan, who was sitting on the edge of a sofa. Raye said she used to will her husband to beat Briggs, "because it was like a psychological hang-up at the time". When Briggs won the last of his four world titles, young Ivan Mauger was fourth. To be champion, the young bull must first conquer the old bull. Raye: "He was a really hard rider, Barry. He'd put his elbows up [forcing a challenger wider] but he was a good rider."
Not all dates elude Mauger. He could reel off the years of his world titles. He'd flick through the pages of the books, stopping when something took his eye, such as a photo of him and Raye at a tender age. "February 9, 1957, I married Raye," said Mauger. "Fifty-six years."
They met when he was 14 and she was 13 - the same year Mauger bought his first speedway bike. He was good at hockey, harriers, and was selected in the Christchurch secondary schools' rugby team on account of being able to kick off either foot, pass either way and play as well on either wing. But Speedway took over. Being ambidextrous wouldn't help in speedway where all turns were left. So why was he so good?
Raye: "We had our three children before I was 21, and that made him hungry. He wanted to be like his hero, Ronnie Moore."
Did he feel he had to make the most of his time?
Tell me about Ronnie Moore?
"Ronnie Moore was my hero. But Jack Young [Australian, a former world champion] was my all-time hero."
Raye: "But what we are getting at is why you became such a good rider. You emulated Ronnie to begin with, didn't you?"
Her husband was dedicated for such a long time, she said. Obsessed? "You could say that, but he was so good at it, and he gave up while he was at the top, too." Mauger has found a picture of his young self with a whippet of a motorcycle. "I was 14 here," he said as he tapped a finger on the page, "and I told the ref I was 15 to get a licence. That was the first lie I told to the ref." And with that he chuckles and it makes a merry sound.
Another photo shows Danish world champion Ole Olsen at one of Mauger's training camps in England. We'd talked about him earlier and Mauger had been searching to confirm the details. For the record, it was February 1967. Raye said Ole spoke with a Kiwi accent, so much time did they spend together.
That done, Mauger comes back to the question of what made him so good. "Dedication, the will to win, absolutely the will to win," he said. Raye: "That's why he called that book The Will To Win." Published in 2010, it's his latest.
Did he have to win everything? Board games, cards? "I don't play Monopoly. I don't play cards. I don't play anything else." His life is speedway. After he retired, he bought a boat and called it Aranui after the first track he raced on, which was in the Christchurch suburb of the same name.
Mauger told a story about paying seven times the cover price of his first book (Ivan Mauger's World Speedway Book) to buy copies on eBay for each of his grandchildren. Which I thought was a nice grandfatherly thing to do and showed how those books had become collectors' items, as well as being a story about the presence of a legend in the midst of the Mauger family.
I suggested that a new book (Ivan Mauger: The man Behind the Myth), a collection of impressions others hold of him, painted him as a ruthless, if not cocky, competitor. He wasn't bothered. "I was always going to be a champion speedway rider," he said. He'd try to psych the opposition out, make them think they couldn't beat him. Said Raye: "He used to love his psychology."
Mauger found a passage in his latest book where each paragraph is headed in bold type: "Visualisation", "Mental Rehearsal", Mental Toughness", "Goal setting". That's it, he said. "[Most people,] they don't set a goal, and I always set a goal. I always wanted to be world champion."
He was first to win three in a row and that changed his life. It made him forever the man to beat and the guest to have at your function - everywhere. "Every country on the planet," said Mauger.
In Poland, 130,000 turned out to watch him race. No pressure then? "I didn't feel anything about crowd pressure," he said. "He stayed focused," said Raye. "He was always able to remove himself from situations and be calm. He could doze off and have a catnap."
Their son, Kym, followed his father into speedway but didn't have his father's attitude. Raye recalled Ivan once said of his son that he was too nice to be a speedway rider. "He didn't have that attitude. He liked being with all his mates, having a good time."
Champions don't necessarily have mates. "You get respect [from rivals] more than friendship," said Mauger. "I did, then. But since I have retired, I've got friendship."
I showed Mauger two quotes featured in the new book. The first one was his: "I never set out to be unpopular, but if winning is unpopular I would take winning every time." The second is former Formula One boss Max Mosley: "To be a world champion you have to be extremely ruthless and determined. It is a very dangerous, very difficult, very tough job and that degree of ruthlessness has to be there and sometimes it shows itself."
"I'd agree," said Mauger.
Asked about modern speedway, the old competitiveness showed itself. It's easier to win a world title now, he said, because you could drop a bad run from your score, where under the old system it would have killed your chances.
Fences were wooden whereas now they use air bags. "Air fences," said Mauger, possibly with distain, "make riders brave".
He had his share of injuries: broken wrists, ribs, ankles. He reckoned 99 riders died during his career but said smoking killed tens of thousands. His dad smoked and suffered from emphysema.
He raced with the Smokefree logo on his leathers, spoke for the cause in schools, and when they wanted to airbrush out the logo on his image used on a New Zealand stamp, he told them if they did that then there would be no stamp. The stamp went ahead - with the logo.
So how's life, I asked? Mauger didn't hesitate. "Oh, bloody great!" he said. And it is. He has Raye, his true companion, their family, the big house with the flagpole, up which he runs the All Blacks flag for every test match, and, of course, he has his legend.
I wished the six-time World Speedway Champion, three-time world long-course champion, happy birthday and tootled off. Seems I wasn't tootling. The ticketing officer didn't know what I was talking about when I said it was ironic considering whose company I'd just left. The road was wide and empty and I hadn't noticed the speed, I said, and that was my true story.
Ivan Mauger's true story? He was the boy from the poor side of town who couldn't rest until he made it - and therefore did.
* Watch a documentary on Ivan Mauger here.