Gifford, a New Plymouth Solo Bike Rider
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This is taken from a speech Dave gave to our club in November 2004
Dave went to the UK in 1965 with Rim Malskaitis. Rim joined the Long Eaton club
and rode for the promoter Reg Fearman while Dave went
on up to Manchester with Graham Coombes and joined the club at Newcastle for promoter Mike Parker. This was a very strong team. The previous
year there had been two leagues. The old National League which had got down to about 8 teams and the Provincial League which was like a second
division with about 14 teams. The year Dave arrived they combined and formed the British league which then became very strong and good for
The Newcastle team was Ivan Mauger, Goog Allen, Brian Craven, Dave and a couple of local guys who all made a pretty strong team.
Three days before Dave got to UK Ivan had crashed at Wolverhampton and broken an ankle so he was sidelined. Everybody thought that it was
a good chance for Dave to fit in to the team but in fact they got another English rider called Brian Brett out of retirement. He was a wonderful
Cockney guy who had ridden for 9 years at Swindon as a second half rider trying to get into the team. He had been absolutely hopeless but after 9 years it all clicked and overnight he became the best English rider.
He had got to the world final then said “sod it” and went back to his window cleaning business in London. While he rode in Newcastle he would travel up by train from London. He never did maintenance on his bike; never had goggles or lens, and someone else had to work on his bike, as he did not have a clue. Ivan used to say “that guy is thick” but Dave would say no, he’s the smartest guy in the team because others do his work. He only stayed a year then went back to window cleaning.
Around this time Ian Hoskins was running a superb speedway at Meadowbank in Edinborough. He had Alfie Wells, Wayne Briggs, and Colin McKay from New Zealand plus there were other Kiwi’s around at other clubs. Over at Glasgow they had Bruce Ovendon and Graham Combes. Bruce Cribb and Billy Andrews at Poole, Barry Briggs and Frank Shuter at Swindon, Fred Timmo at Oxford, perhaps 20 of them all told. British League made speedway very popular and strong again at that time.
What made it very good was the introduction of the Jawa. Jawa’s had been around since the mid ‘50’s and Ove Fundin had one when he rode for Norwich. Ove used to take his Jawa along for others to play on as it was like a joke bike but then in ‘67/’68 Briggo started to ride them and Billy Andrews had one and he started to go well so overnight we all started to jump on them and the JAP was finished. They were very economical to run and you did not have to pull the head of them every three meetings and put vales and springs in them. You could do 20 or so meetings on them and they would still be great. So then we had a good league, a bike that was cheap and reliable to run so speedway was a good deal”.
Mike Parker also ran Wolverhampton and Newport down in Wales but most of his riders were based in Manchester which was central for his tracks. Mike had an office in a big old Victorian house and half a dozen lock up garages behind it used as workshops and Ivan had his workshop under the house and so did Goog Allen. Bruce Ovendon and Dave lived with Coombes and his wife. Depending on how well Coombe’sy was going the rent would go up and down to suit. It was on a sliding scale depending on if he had had a good night or a crap night! “But it was hard times and if you broke something you pinched the part of someone else’s bike and so on”. Even Ivan was not happy. He told Dave that “my brother Trevor in Christchurch” drove a truck for eight hours a day and slept in his own bed every night and made more money! “Why are we doing this?” he would ask Dave as they drove back from some meeting together in the middle of the night.
It was very tough. The money was not so bad but the hours etc. in running 3 or 4 nights a week was hard work. In 1967 Parker put in stockcars at Newcastle. The fence for this was just railway irons stuck in the ground with the tops cut off with a gas axe and wire netting added. One night running in the rain they had a Norwegian rider Eric Tilgard who got “filled in” with mud on his goggles and he hit one of the posts and tore his throat out. He lived but never rode again.
So as a replacement Ivan was asked to supply a Danish rider form his training school he was running so along came Ole Olsen because he was the only one who could speak English. “So that’s how he got his big break”. Dave wondered aloud if he would have got to be three times world champion without that break.
The next year Dave was the first of the northern based Kiwi riders to buy his own house in England. Parker owned 80 odd houses and put his riders in them and charged them rent. Dave bought one of Parkers’ houses and converted it into two flats and rented one to Olsen. Gary Peterson and Gerald James did the decorating for £30 as they were broke at the time. They had arrived from New Zealand with no money so Dave gave them the job as Gary’s dad was a painter and decorator which meant Gary at least knew what a paint brush was!
Around this time Dave made his first trip to America. Ivan had been the year before in 1969. They were quite close at this time, living handy to each other and traveling together in England, and had started buying houses about the same time. Ivan had left Newcastle and gone to ride for Belle Vue in Manchester. He had returned from American with tales of wonder about streets paved with gold, naked women on every palm tree etc. “I had to go” said Dave.
Dave here is thinking "Is that all for me? These American's are sure generous!"
He went to Los Angeles and rode at Costa Mesa. “The Yanks gave us
everything. You just get of the plane and everything is taken care of. The first
meeting I rode at Ivan was not there yet and I was with a Scottish guy called
Bert Harkins. It was a tiny little track and when you first looked at it you
could not believe it was possible to race there. I used to start on a 50 yard
handicap and that was on the back straight!”
It was about 150 yards all together yet it was brilliant. The bike they gave him was owned by the wife of the guy who gold plated Ivan’s bike for him, Ray Bokelman. It was an old model JAP which Dave had not ridden for some years as the Jawa had taken over in England. It was quite tired and had a 19” back wheel and all the Yanks had 22” which gave more grip but he rode it anyway. He said the local riders like Mike Bast, Stevie Bast, Bill Cody and Rick Woods were really very good. Dave managed to plonk the old JAP into the Scratch final so the next week a good Jawa was found and Dave stayed on for about 6 weeks and rode also at other tracks like Indio and Bakersfield and Ventura. He had a good time and decided he would like to return and do a year there. But the system was quite different to UK. To ride competitively in UK it was necessary to ride 3 or 4 nights a week so the rider could not have a day job as well. So the pay structure was designed so that even the worst guy could just make a living.
In the states it was totally different in that the winner took almost everything and most of the rest got nothing. So when he went back to America to do a full season on his first ride at the opening night of Costa Mesa they had 8000 people there and turned 3000 away. Dave won the scratch main event which was the big race of the meeting. He came up against Rick Woods who was the national champion. Rick blew Dave away in the heat and the semi final but when he won those he got $10 for each win.
Dave knew the money was on the main event and it was $650 for the win and $400 for second. So with a system like this the Americans could never be professional.
Half the program was handicap and half scratch racing. They only stopped races if more than half the field crashed on the first lap so handicap races on the small tracks with six riders meant that sometimes there would be bikes and bodies every where but you ignored them and kept riding and took the money if you could get it. You put everything into scratch racing because that was straight up and even competition.
Also in America it was different to UK where if you had a disagreement with a rider on track or in the pits it was quite acceptable to “get a bit physical” and the promoters would prefer you to do it on the track so if you started fighting in the pits the promoter would tell his pit crew to “get them out on the track so the people can see them”
In America the term for ‘Dickhead’ was squirrel and they (the dickheads) knew it as they had genuine squirrel tails sewn on the back of their leathers.
“So I got knocked down by some squirrel once at Costa Mesa and I went over to him and picked him up and was just going to hit him when this official comes over and said ‘If you hit him it will be $100’ so I asked why?”
“I was just going to argue with him when he said “and if you argue with me it’s another $100!” ” They really frown on physical ‘settlements’ over there. It’s considered real bad form.”
This is Dave riding under Sonny Nutter at Costa Mesa.
After that he returned to
England and had two seasons at Wolverhampton which he said was a bad move as he
did not like the promoter there, but Ole Olsen had talked him into the ride.
During this period Dave was badly injured in a test match riding for NZ against
a Norway/Denmark team. He went down and another bike went over him and damaged
During the time riding with Olsen, he watched him mature into the champion he became, but in the early days it was different. At a league match against Wolverhampton at Newcastle Olsen was leading the last race and the win would give him his first maximum, but Dave was following fighting shoulder to shoulder with Bobby Andrews from Auckland and on the final straight Dave needed to beat Bobby to get a bonus point when Olsen crosses the line and suddenly sticks both hands in the air in triumph. This of course means the throttle closes and the back wheel starts to lock up with Dave and Bobby right behind at a ‘million miles an hour!’ They managed to both go each side of Olsen. They both grabbed Ole in the pits after and “sort of explained a few things to him”
Another story Dave then told regarding Olsen explains the experience and cunning of Ivan Mauger during this time. Ole was starting to reach his peak and was ‘starting to get a bit chippy’ so they had to watch him. Dave, Ivan, Ole and another rider were in the “rider of the night final” which was for the top four riders in the second half of the meeting. This was really a bit of a display for the crowd as the promoter did not want them going out and hurting themselves. For this reason the prize money was shared equally among the four so the result was not important.
Ole drew gate four and immediately stated it was a bad deal as “I can never beat Mauger off gate four”
So Ivan swapped gates with him and started in four himself. After the race, which Mauger won easily from four, Ivan explained to Dave that the following week was the British/Nordic final at Sheffield and Ivan had to race against Ole and up to that point Ole thought that if he had a good gate he could beat Ivan, but Ivan just set out to show him he couldn’t! Ivan said that now he knows that he can’t beat me whatever gate he gets.
Dave said “That’s what Ivan used to do.” “I partnered Ivan in a test match at Wimbledon in the early ‘70’s once and at that track my Gran or even Briggo could have made a good start of gate four, it was unreal!”
“We were going out to the gate and I asked Ivan which gate he wanted.” He said Dave could have the outside gates 3 or 4 for the meeting and he would take the crap gates. This was his way of showing every one that he could win of any gate. He would be sending this message all the time to show how good he was.
“I am sure a lot of riders were not intelligent enough to pick up the messages but he sent them all the time”
In the end Dave had a big row with the Wolverhampton promoter/manager Bill Bridget and walked out. Coatbridge in Glasgow got in touch with him and asked him to ride up there, but Dave thought it was a joke to start with, as that was the end of the planet and no one rode up there. He accepted a very good offer though and went up. It was a banked track and good to ride. Edinburgh had closed so this was the only Scottish track going. The referees had been told that if Coatbridge did not win at home then there would be no speedway. The ref’s got the message so Coatbridge riders “could kill on the track and still get back a ride”. No exclusions for anything. Dave remembered one night it was bitterly cold and he was talking to a ref in the pits and said how cold it was. The ref pulled a hip flash from his pocket and proceeded to have a drink with Dave in the corner of the pits! “That’s how it sort of was!”
The first night an official came up with the ‘dominos’ that were used for the gate draw and Dave told him not to bother with all that as he wanted gate 4. The official said no they had to have a draw so Dave asked “how do I know they are properly numbered?” at which the guy turned them over to show Dave they were genuine and Dave picked up 4 and said “that’s the one I want!”
He rode there for another 2 years but never went of any gate in the second half of the meeting but gate 4 as they always “pulled” Dave’s domino before they went to the other riders.
The reason Dave liked gate 4 was that the ref could not actually see that gate from the starting box as the crowd stood in front of it at the fence and actually leaned over the fence and could almost touch the rider in gate 4. So Dave was able to “use the system” in his starts from that gate and not be seen!
So it was particularly tough for visiting riders. One night Ivan Mauger rode there and the Coatbridge riders were messing up the starts and every thing else to make it hard for Ivan. At the time Ivan held the “Golden Helmet” and he had to defend it at every track he visited in a match race and there were three local riders in the running to have a go at the match race.
Ivan got so fed up with all the “local rules” that he went and got the helmet in its trophy box and threw it down on the track and said if you want it that badly then have the bloody thing!
The local crowd there were great though said Dave. Their humor was great. Dave said he thought everyone at Coatbridge was Billy Connolly’s cousin!
Coatbridge came to a grinding halt though as there were four co promoters and only one knew what Dave was being paid so it all blew up when the others found out and he went to ride at Berwick for his last couple of years. “Yes, riding in Britain could be a lot of fun.”
The supporters clubs were great in England in those days to.” Especially Edinburgh, they would raise money and get right behind the team riders and give them anything, even there daughters”
“They would buy the team new motors, wheels and tyres, yes they were great They would turn up with their scarves in team colours and their rattles”
Dave lives in New Plymouth and is an active member of our club. He has a vintage midget car under restoration and a 4 valve Jawa bike. Photo at right is the front page of Speedway World. Marcel Facoory sent it in and stated that anyone who got on the front page of that magazine were "a Rock Star." In fact the image is of Dave in the 1970 World Cup Teams Qualifying round at Reading Speedway.
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