Speedway superstar Barry Briggs talks to Peter Moore about riding behind the Iron Curtain, teaching Steve McQueen a few tricks and mining for gold in Liberia
It's easy to underestimate how big speedway was in its day. In the 50s and 60s crowds of up to 90,000 flocked to stadiums across the country to watch guys on rudimentary bikes fling themselves around dirt tracks.
Barry Briggs, a Kiwi who packed sheep's kidneys in a Christchurch meatworks to save for his passage to the UK, was the biggest star of them all. He got the red book treatment on This Is Your Life and listed his favourite songs on Desert Island Discs. He would have been BBC Sports Personality of the Year in 1966 too, but then England won the World Cup and he was runner up to Bobby Moore instead.
'We were like rock and roll stars,' he says. 'Thousands of screaming girls wherever we went.'
The sport – and its rewards – took him all over the world. In the US he taught Steve McQueen how to ride a speedway bike. And in the UK he hung out with footballers like Terry Venables.
Speedway was huge behind the old Iron Curtain too and as a racer he got to travel to places where westerners were usually banned. And then, when an injury laid him low, he turned his hand to gold mining in Liberia.
His newly released autobiography, Wembley and Beyond, reads like a Boy's Own Adventure. He talks to Peter Moore about his life in the fast lane.
Just how big was speedway behind the Iron Curtain?
It was huge. Poland. Russia. I was in Czechoslovakia six or seven times a year. At first they sat me on the borders for bloody hours! Then they started to recognise me and say ‘Hello Barry!’ They still made me take everything out of the van though.
Why was it so popular?
People were so pissed off with their lives. The only entertainment they had in a lot of places was speedway and they’d get 40-50,000 people to each meet. That was the only place they had to go. Speedway was entertainment. When a Polish guy was doing badly they used to whistle. Christ almighty! You used wonder what was happening.
It must have been something travelling through those countries back then.
Oh, it was. You can’t believe the difference now. My son is actually living in Gdansk now and we stayed with him for about four months when he was racing there. There's freedom now. Before, every time you visited, it was a hassle. They didn’t want you in there. There was always tension.
Did the riders from different countries have different characteristics?
Oh yeah. The strange thing is, you’d think that the Russians would be the toughest but they weren’t. The Poles were much harder. They’d squeeze you against the fence. The Russians would always give you a fair race. They’d always give you a little bit of room. And you’d always do the same to them.
You very nearly got to race against Lech Wałęsa in Poland.
That was a funny story. They were running a meeting at Gdansk and it was called the Solidarity Games. They asked me to bring a load of riders but when I turned up with six guys the Polish organisers didn't have the money. Lech Wałęsa was going to ride. He used to go to speedway all the time, apparently, they'd had a special bike for him that only went so fast.
Anyway, they didn't have any money. I’d paid all the boys. So they said ‘Let’s go and see Lech Wałęsa at his house.’ They were going to ask him to pay! In the end, my mate Zenon Plech, a Polish rider, sorted it out. He was as well known there as Bjorn Borg would be in Sweden, a real hero. He went to the PZM, which is the Polish equivalent of the AA and they coughed up. It was only a week before the election, their first elections, and they certainly did want me kicking up a stink.
The meet washed out though, so I never got to race Lech.
You were the also first westerner to take part in Japanese speedway.
No one had been allowed there before. It’s speedway, but not as we recognise it. It was a half mile, concrete and special bikes.
They called it speedway but really, it was all to do with gambling. Millions of pounds changed hands each race. It was unbelievable. The money was good though. The Japanese championship final was ten laps and you got £180,000.
Because of the gambling all the riders were locked in living quarters. No phone calls in or out for five days. I was in the living quarters with the riders. You can fly into somewhere, have a week there and you don’t really get what the place is about. But when you’re involved with the whole workings and the day-to-day routines, you understand countries much more.
Was there anywhere you visited as a rider and thought ‘I’ve really got to get back here’?
I ended up living in California after going out to race there. It was half-way between New Zealand and England. And where we lived it probably has the best weather in the world.
You also had a lot of adventures down in Baja as well.
I raced in Baja and then my mate went to live down there. I don’t think I could do that. You’re getting away from the mainstream a little. I like being around people too much. My mate does well because he’s a fisherman and always keeps himself busy. A lot of people look for a haven to spend the rest of their lives in, but I think that’s just sitting around waiting to die and I’m not that kind of person.
While you were in America you tried to teach Steve McQueen to slide a speedway bike.
I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie On Any Sunday, by Bruce Brown? I ended buying a house off him and that’s how I met McQueen. He was an excellent rider. But he wasn’t a good speedway rider. He fell off like everyone else. A speedway bike is completely different. It’s got no brakes. Just a pair of handle bars and a throttle really.
You also knew Burt Munroe, the guy The World's Fastest Indian was based on.
He conned a helmet off me! Just before he went to America he took me down to the beach to ride his bike. He put a Dad’s Army helmet on and I said, ‘You can’t ride wearing that!’ and gave him my proper helmet. I don’t know if he conned me or not. Looking back on it I think that he did.
His bedroom and garage was exactly like it was in the movie. And the boy that owns all that stuff now runs a meeting every year, the Burt Munroe challenge. All different types of races, and I went down there this year to do them all and on the first one I broke my bloody ankle!
Your life hasn't all been speedway racing. You also tried your hand at running a gold mine in Liberia.
That was special (laughing). We were the only white people for 50 miles. It’s very green and lush. But that’s because it rains so much and it’s so humid. They call it ‘The White Man’s Graveyard’ and that’s because it’s so hard on your body. People go there to make their fortune and the climate and the government gets to them. We battled a bit. But we’re Kiwis so we hang in a little longer than most people. We spent four years there. There was a lot of diamonds and gold around. We had everything ready to get listed on the stockmarket in London, valued at $44 million. But then Black Monday happened (the stockmarket crash in 1987) and the whole thing fell apart. That was the end of that.
When you first arrived in Liberia you got arrested and had to pay $25 for the privilege.
That was in the middle of the jungle in the middle of the night. We had this guy with us, a reverend, Reverend Scott. He went off with the police and negotiated a deal where we had to pay 25 bucks each. We hadn’t asked permission or something from the local chief. Anyway, the Reverend comes back with a goat which we cooked. So it was a $75 meal! There was an arrest warrant too. Issued for the arrest of ‘three white man’. I wished I’d kept it. It was hilarious.
At the end of that section of your book you state that although it didn’t work out how you’d hoped it was a really positive experience for you and your son Tony.
We were both injured before Liberia. Tony had broken his neck. I’d crashed in New Zealand and they had to open me up to get at my diaphragm. We were both a little bit fragile. One day he’d be OK and I’d be crap and vice versa. We kind of leaned on each other. It forged a tremendous relationship.
Liberia is a pretty hardcore place to do that.
Yeah. But sometimes you need that, don’t you? We had nothing. Just a tent in the middle of the jungle. Him and me. We tried to stay there in the winter, over the wet months. Christ almighty. We’d have to get up at four o’clock in the morning to rescue everything, get it ready for anther day. Then we’d get another downpour. It wore us out in the end. The river goes up 10ft in the wet season, a really dramatic amount of rain.
Such a contrast from your speedway hey-day where you were hanging out with Premiership footballers.
No one knew me in Africa. I wasn’t going to get away with any crap there. I was just another white man.
Two years ago you did a tour of UK speedway tracks to raise money for fellow riders confined to wheelchairs.
It started when I was asked for one of my bikes so they could auction it to raise money for riders who were injured and confined to wheelchairs. I thought, ‘That’s not going to raise much.’ So I came up with this idea of riding from John O’Groats to Lands End, stopping off at as many speedways as possible, collecting money.
The hardest part wasn’t the ride, it was the money. When you’ve got buckets of money and it’s not yours, it’s terrible. I did five nights in a row, doing about 150 miles between each of them, and the van that’s with us is just full of this cash. The banks hate you, coming in with these ridiculous amounts of small change. Luckily, the announcer at Poole speedway helped us out and did all the accounting. It was scary. It would have been ever so easy to rob us.
We got over £75,000. It’s hard times, there’s not a lot of cash around. So it was pretty good going. A lot of those people giving money in places like Glasgow, a pound was a pound to them, know what I mean? And I met everyone of them. I walked around every stadium collecting that money.
What’s the next adventure?
Scotland. Me and a load of mates are getting together to go riding over the hills and the lakes there. We’re going up to Fort Williams, through Cumbria and past Lake Conniston. We just ride. I try to live life to the full, every day.
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