Meet Ivan Mauger, The Greatest Speedway Racer Of All Time
WORDS Michael Hilton IMAGES Bonhams/John Somerville Collection
It was 1958 when 18-year-old Ivan Mauger stood on the docks in Tilbury, England, watching a passenger liner push away from port, his 17-year-old wife and their baby daughter on board, making their way home to New Zealand. "I just stood there crying, watching the boat as it sailed out of view,” said Mauger. “I have never forgotten the feeling, standing there so long, alone with my thoughts. That was when I vowed to dedicate myself to doing whatever it took to become world champion."
Both the boy from Christchurch, New Zealand, and his young wife, Raye, had worked two jobs in order to save enough money to sail to England and rent a one-room flat so Ivan could get his start in the world of Speedway racing. "It was all rather overwhelming," said Mauger, thinking back on his first “Faces of the Future” races at Plough Lane. "The greatest shock was seeing how fast everyone was as they raced around the track — guys riding ‘round full throttle, going faster than I'd ever thought." Mauger began learning the ropes and got noticed by National League racing promoter Ronnie Greene, who invited him to ride with the Wimbledon Dons racing team. Mauger earned money by doing maintenance work alongside the Wimbledon groundskeeper, but it wasn’t enough to support his growing family. “This was a crucial moment, not just in my career, but in our life,” said Mauger. “We had no idea what the future held, no certainty that my second year in England was going to be any more rewarding than the first." Alone and hungry, he began to win races and build up his confidence. He called his time in England "the best apprenticeship a young Speedway rider could wish for,” but after two years he followed his family home back to New Zealand.
"I never set out to be unpopular, but if winning is unpopular I would take winning every time."
Mauger didn’t give up on his dream of being the world champion of Speedway. He dedicated himself to learning the art of charging through oval corners without brakes, suspension, or gear shifts, soaking up knowledge from his friend and rival Jack Young. Mauger learned from Young that "sometimes slower is smarter" — a more conservative racing style would preserve the engine, chain, and tires throughout a race — as well as how to properly pass so he could stop fretting about staying in first place every single lap. The hard work paid off.
In 1963, Mauger received an invitation to return to England with his family and race for Mike Parker, who owned multiple tracks and led Britain’s Speedway revival. Mauger had another rough start in England, from broken bones to a nasty case of meningitis, but in 1968 he finally broke his bad luck and won his first World Championship. He won his second World Championship the next year and his third the next, making him the only Speedway racer to complete the “Triple Crown.”
Mauger describes his winning recipe in his aptly named autobiography, The Will to Win: "Work harder, prepare more thoroughly, be mentally stronger, and execute better than the opposition." He emphasized the importance of visualization techniques, seeing every part of a race before it even started. Mauger wrote, "It wasn't high speed for me... everything was slow motion. I planned it." Mauger also enjoyed playing mind games with his competitors. "I didn't care if people liked me," said Mauger, who gained a reputation for being a ferocious, brash competitor. "If you want to win races and titles, it's no bad thing if opponents feel a bit intimidated. I never set out to be unpopular, but if winning is unpopular I would take winning every time." He did a thing called “gardening,” which is when he would delay the start of a race by fiddling unnecessarily with his gear. A good friend, Peter White, said, "It is my opinion that Ivan was so good, so capable, so dedicated, so professional, so overwhelmingly superior as a rider that he had no need to indulge in start-line psychology at all. He could beat the pants off anyone out of the trap nine-and-a-half times out of ten."
Mauger won his fourth World Championship in 1972. Most experts had written him off by 1977, but racing a new Jawa with a four-valve DOHC engine pumping out 65 horsepower — a bike that recently snagged $22,767 at a Bonhams auction — Mauger claimed his fifth Speedway World Championship. He won his sixth and final World Championship two years later, making him one of only two Speedway racers to ever earn a half dozen world titles.
Many consider Mauger to be Speedway’s all-time greatest. He was inducted into the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame in 1990 and had the privilege of carrying the Olympic Torch to the summer games in Sydney in 2000. Mauger retired from racing in 1985 and, although dealing with some health issues, is now enjoying life on Australia’s Gold Coast with his wife Raye and their three daughters.
*Quotes courtesy of Ivan Mauger: The Will to Win by Ivan Mauger (Nationwide Books, 2010) and Ivan Mauger: The Man Behind the Myth by John Chaplin (The History Press, 2012).
This article was originally featured in Issue #030 of Iron & Air Magazine.