When speedway’s popularity as a spectator sport was eclipsed only by football, Ivan Mauger was its greatest star. In an era when the sport, and many of its participants, were a little rough round the edges, Mauger pioneered hitherto undreamed-of levels of professionalism on and off the track, which he allied to perfectionism in the preparation of his machinery, and a clinical riding style. Mauger, who has died aged 78, won the world championship six times between 1968 and 1979 and led his British clubs to four league titles.
The first three of those championships came in consecutive years with the Manchester team the Belle Vue Aces, when their home was the 40,000-capacity Hyde Road stadium, part of a 68-hectare (168-acre) amusement park that included a zoo, fairground and dance hall. A good night out in Manchester in the early 1970s started with the Aces, whose management ensured at all costs that racing was over by 9pm so the crowd could get spending in the fair. It was an unusual weekend if the spectators had not seen Mauger score maximum points for winning all his races.
Ivan was born in Christchurch, on the South Island of New Zealand, to Alice (nee Forscutt) and Edwin Mauger, and grew up obsessed with sport. He was a talented rugby and hockey player – good enough to represent Canterbury at rugby and hockey as a schoolboy – as well as a cross-country runner. Unsurprisingly, he was a lifelong All Blacks supporter.
In a precursor of his later attitudes to turnout, he would not just clean his boots before a match, he would launder the white laces. Edwin liked bikes and American cars, and took the family to the new Aranui track that was part of the postwar speedway boom. Ivan took his first steps in oval racing shortly afterwards with a cycle speedway team and from there it was just a matter of adding an engine.
Mauger arrived in the UK in 1957 as a newly married teenager with his wife, Raye, and they headed for south London, to Wimbledon speedway, where their fellow Kiwis Ronnie Moore and Barry Briggs, both multiple world champions, had started their UK careers. Mauger got a job helping with track maintenance but did not make much of an impression as a rider. At the end of 1958, disillusioned, he and Raye went back to Christchurch.
They returned in 1963, fortified by competition in Australia and advice from the Aussie world champ Jack Young. The results started to come, as Mauger helped Newcastle Diamonds to the 1964 Provincial League (the second-tier) title, but the money took longer. The Maugers shared a flat in the Whalley Range area of Manchester with an assortment of aspiring riders. Visitors remember a loaf and jam on the table, but no butter, and children sleeping in the bath.
Up until 1995, speedway’s world championship was run along similar lines to the FA Cup. Riders worked their way through qualifying events and regional finals until just 16 were left to contest the world final. Mauger made it for the first time in 1966, finishing fourth, and went one place better next time. In 1968, still a Newcastle rider, Mauger went through the card winning all five of his races. In 1969 he did it again, dropping a point only in his final race as, with the title already retained, he shepherded his Belle Vue team-mate Sören Sjösten home to put him in a run-off for second place with Briggs.
He was now the fully formed professional, just in time to ride a popularity boom as the days of baggy black leathers gave way to TV coverage and colour. Mauger was indisputably the best in the world, but he was not universally popular with fans. Neither his personality nor his riding were theatrical. There were no wild broadslides on full lock – he dealt in beautifully traced arcs precisely calculated for maximum efficiency. Winning was more a cause for relief than joy. No detail was too small to escape Mauger’s attention. Racing, he said, was a jigsaw puzzle; every piece had to fit perfectly without being forced. Diet, sleep patterns, travel schedules were all planned with the world title in mind. Throughout his career he had just one engine builder, one wheel builder and one mechanic.
In 1970 he was champion again, and again with a maximum score. Mauger is still the only rider to have won three consecutive world titles. His other wins came in 1972, 1977 and 1979; between 1968 and 1974, he was never out of the top three.
On the domestic front, now comfortably ensconced in Cheshire, he captained the Belle Vue Aces to a hat-trick of titles, forming them into the best team the UK had seen. Mauger demanded high standards from other riders but was a generous team leader. One junior Ace was shocked when Mauger let him take first pick for grid position and on summoning up the courage to ask why was told: “They won’t let me pick my starting position in the world final.”
He was not given to sentiment. He won the league again in 1974 with Exeter, again with a squad he moulded. Next season, after he was booed at Belle Vue, he took cold satisfaction in Exeter winning the return fixture to prevent the Manchester club becoming champions. By contrast, he was always generous in his assessment of Jerzy Szczakiel, the Pole who beat him in the controversial run-off for the 1973 world title: “I made a mistake, he didn’t.”
On Mauger’s retirement from racing in 1985, he and Raye moved to the Gold Coast, Queensland. She survives him, along with their children, Julie, Kym and Debbie.
• Ivan Gerald Mauger, speedway rider, born 4 April 1939; died 16 April 2018
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