Four-times World Speedway champion Barry Briggs was a phenomenon – 90,000 watched him race and his speedway invention is still used today.
arry Briggs may be the most famous racer you’ve never heard of. But it wasn’t always this way. In 1958, after winning the second of four Speedway World Championships, he was one of the most famous sportsmen in the world.
Briggo appeared in 17 consecutive Speedway world finals, was twice
runner-up in the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year and was even paid to start badly, so dominant was his form in league races.
Now Briggo’s autobiography, ‘Wembley and Beyond’, has been published. The book looks at his life before and after his racing career, covering his youth in New Zealand all the way to running a diamond mine in Liberia. He’s using the money raised from sales to fund his charity work for injured riders.
Briggo told MCN about life in the heyday of speedway: “We had the best times. At Wembley you had 50,000 people for a league match, and at the final you’d always have 80-90,000. Half were for you and half against. The atmosphere was incredible.
“It’s only when you go to a football match and you see 90,000 people that you think, ‘This is what used to come and watch you and they used to boo you!’, because I wasn’t the English boy, and some of them wanted to kill me!
“You don’t take it in when you’re within it. It was an unbelievable period. Speedway was before rock ’n’ roll, and all the young girls that got into rock ’n’ roll used to be at speedway when I was there. You were overwhelmed by it, they used to give you their chocolate rations. You never fully realised it, but here was a girl giving you chocolate and that was her week’s sweet ration. It was really lovely but you’re an 18-year-old kid and you never had time to appreciate it.”
So what happened to speedway? “It wasn’t looked after. The worst thing it ever did was move out of Wembley to White City because they thought it was too expensive,” said Briggo.“Alan Jones [Australian F1 world champion in 1980] summed it up well when he said, ‘The only difference between you and me is Bernie Ecclestone’. I’ve always remembered that. Bernie took something that was boring and look what he’s given to it.”
The dangers of speedway, too, were always working against the sport. Briggs said: “Death always scared me. On my recent tour I saw a plaque at one stadium saying, ‘Lest we forget’, and there must be 100 riders there who have been killed in speedway. And probably I knew 50% of them, which is bloody sad.”
Despite these dangers Briggo rose quickly to the forefront of speedway and stayed there for three decades. How did he find such great success so quickly? “I’m sure it’s in your upbringing and your attitude to it,” he said. “Everything’s split-second timing, but it’s also down to personality. When things get really bad, can you handle it?
“New Zealand’s a country that gives you a lot of chances to play a lot of sport. And I played a lot of sport – rugby league, soccer and hockey every weekend. Wearing no shoes was part of the deal. I think it makes you hardy. Cycle speedway was big in New Zealand too. So I started riding. I had no money. A bloke had to give me a bike.
“Eventually, I ended up at Wimbledon when I came to England, and I wasn’t good enough for them, but I was thrown in at the deep end with one of the top teams in the country! I was a 17-year-old kid and didn’t know what was happening. I had leathers that I’d made for myself on my mum’s sewing machine. I was very naive.
“Perhaps the worst thing was that I started doing my own tuning which was meant to be done by the track mechanics, but when you’re number eight on the list mine was lucky to get washed.
“I used to go very fast and never shut it off. I’d knock fellas off and people wanted to kill me! I wasn’t very popular, but I just absorbed everything and it made me very strong.
“Always make the start, that’s what I thought. If I made the start then nobody could beat me. I was strong enough to go where I wanted to go and there’d just be no room for anybody else.”
A lifetime of tinkering with his own bikes made meeting Burt Monroe, subject of the 2005 film ‘The World’s Fastest Indian’ and a fellow self-taught mechanic, all the more meaningful.
“He took me down the beach and showed me his bike and I was scared s***less that he was going to make me ride it!” said Briggo. “My bikes are bad but I didn’t want to do 50mph on the thing.
“He lived in his workshop and he rolled out of bed with an idea, got on his lathe and made it. There was this guy making his own bikes, blowing them up, 100 hours of work, blown up! ‘Oh well, make that a bit stronger’. Just undefeatable.”
Briggo’s greatest invention, however, is the dirt deflector, which is now standard on all speedway bikes. “The dirt comes off a speedway bike at 100mph and you go black, you can lose your eyes,” he explains. “So this thing just keeps the dirt down. Without it when you go down the straight you’re blind, so you shut the throttle – but people came to see you race!”
Wembley and beyond: the adventures of Barry Briggs’ is available from Circle Productions, priced £16.99.
Words Dan Aspel