Australia 70/71 - Tragedy & Trajectory
November 8, 1970. Liverpool Raceway, Sydney, Australia. Gordon Guasco had decided a few weeks earlier, to return to his homeland, after a couple of seasons away. 'Horse' was one of Speedway's most loved and respected riders. He had spent six years racing in the UK and was 1969 British League 1st Division Champion with Poole.
The 29 year old star had been instrumental in bringing solo racing to the Liverpool track. Aussie fans eagerly awaited his return. Also on the programme that day; the Aussie debut of Denmark's Ole Olsen, Speedway's Crown Prince. He had earned that title by making his World Final debut and winning the Czechoslovakian Golden Helmet.
Those two happenings may not have made much of an impression on British League fans but in the International Speedway world, they were huge! And Ole was desperate to see and experience for himself, everything his friend Ivan Mauger had told him about.
Other notable names for the afternoon's entertainment included John Langfield, Howard Cole, Sandor Levai, Bob Humphries and Garry Hay. Four months earlier, riding for 1st Division West Ham, Garry had survived the Lokeren disaster that claimed the lives of five others.
Peter White reported from the meeting;
'Olsen lived up to his reputation as a potential World Champion by storming to six wins and a second from seven starts. In the process he twice busted the three lap record, setting a new outright time of 50.8 seconds. Cole rode determinedly to be the only rider to beat the Dashing Dane while Hungarian Sandor Levai also showed up well.
But on this murky Sunday afternoon the very soul of the Speedway was knocked for six when Gordon crashed. Earlier he had totted up a third behind Olsen and Levai in the first race, followed by two smart wins.
In his fourth start, event 11, a simple scratch race - disaster. Gordon was beaten out of the gate by the rapidly improving Jim Ryman, who dropped it on the pit corner. His out of control bike caught Guasco, knocking him off balance. As Gordon fell, he was struck by Roger Brookes who was right behind him. Gordon was rushed to hospital where he clung grimly to life for eight days before succumbing to severe head injuries.'
This was one week before his 30th birthday. Gordon was survived by his wife Elaine and daughter Joely-Ann. It is amazing to think that more than 50 years later, the name Gordon Guasco is synonymous with Australian Speedway Motorcycle racing.
In a tribute, Ken Preece wrote,
'Liverpool promoter and great personal friend Frank Oliveri vows that the name of Gordon Guasco will never be forgotten while ever there is speedway at his track.'
How true that has proved to be.
Ole Olsen became 'SpongeBob Square Pants' decades before the character became reality. He absorbed and totally soaked up Australia. The sun, the Speedway, the culture and he even developed his own Aussie twang. And he rode Sydney's Amaroo Park short circuit dirt track. Famous for its right hand turn. He was voted the most spectacular rider of the day.
His hugely successful stay at Liverpool with Cole and Levai pulled huge crowds and gave him the 'super-edge' he was looking for. On November 20, Ole won the 'Superama' from Cole and Garry Hay.
A week later, Nov 27, it was 'McGrath Monaros' V 'Liverpool Lions'.
Monaros 42. Ole Olsen 11, Howard Cole 10, Bob Humphries 7, Neil Cameron 6, Jim Ryman 6, Barry Van Praag 2, Roger Brookes 2.
Lions 36. Jim Airey 14, Sandor Levai 9, Greg Kentwell 5, Garry Hay 4, Mick Page 4, Jimmy Gossen 0, Dennis Alderton 0.
The re-match was on Dec 4 and again, The Monaros beat the Lions, 40-37. The following night, Dec 5, The Gordon Guasco Memorial was staged. Ken Preece reported,
"Fittingly, it was Jim Airey, such a great friend of Gordon, who won this rain-marred event with a hard-fought maximum."
1st Jim Airey 3 3 3 3 3 15
A break from the Aussie action saw Ole, Jim Airey, Howard Cole and Sandor Levai off to New Zealand for dates at Auckland, Western Springs, Dec 12 and Christchurch, Templeton, Dec 15.
The Springs saw a challenge match, Internationals V Kiwi Select. Tommy Sweetman joined the visitors while the Kiwis fielded Bob Andrews, Colin McKee, Bryce Subritzky, Dave Gifford and Jack Millen. Again, the entertainment was first-class and the visitors won 21 to 15. And Ole was delighted to catch up with close friends Giffy and Gary Peterson, who rode in support races. He also got to catch up with Murray Burt in Christchurch.
Race night was cold and miserable but five thousand hardy souls enjoyed the show as the visitors got to mix it with locals like Tony Nesbitt, Graeme Stapleton, Allan Brown, Roger Wright and Tom Black. Ole won his four races and despite the conditions, got close to Ove Fundin's track-record. One Christchurch fan noted that "Ole looked like Ivan in a Denmark race-jacket !"
The Kiwi experience taken care of, it was back to Liverpool for the NSW Champs on December 23. First heat winners were Airey, Olsen, Levai and Garry Hay. At 24 years of age, Garry was looking good and in that first heat, he had seen off John Langfield, Howard Cole and Bob Campbell.
His next outing was heat 7 against Olsen, Paul O'Neil and Neil Cameron. From the tapes, Ole shot to the pole line with Garry on the outside while O'Neil, between the two, suddenly reared and smashed into Hay. It was a shocker with Hay and O'Neil rushed to hospital. The meeting continued under the cloud of worry for the two casualties.
1st Jim Airey 15. 2nd John Langfield 13. 3rd Gary Middleton 11. Ole Olsen 10. Bert Harkins 10. Howard Cole 10. Sandor Levai 9. Bill Landels 7. Greg Kentwell 7. Bob Humphries 6. Jim Ryman 5. Neil Cameron 4. Garry Hay 3. Bob Campbell 3. Bob Valentine 2. Res Roger Brookes 2. Paul O'Neil 1. Res Dennis Alderton 1.
Paul O'Neil received facial and foot injuries but was not hospitalized and was soon back in action. But the next day's news was not good. Garry Hay had spinal injuries that would confine him to a wheelchair. He would eventually rebuild his life and move to the Philippines. It was there he would marry and have a family. He still lives there today and is cared for by his late wife's family. Speedway is art and thrilling but she can also be cruel and lethal.
It's a terrible word but 'luck' can also play a hand as to who survives or suffers. Good or bad is a coin toss. What if Ole had have been on the outside in that race?
The season continued at Liverpool into the new year and Jan 8 saw the Lionel Levy Memorial. Jim Airey again took the honours, beaten only by Bob Humphries. After four straight wins, Ole was hoping to beat Airey in heat 20 to force a run-off. Ken Preece described the action;
'Airey gated best and carried Olsen high, then as Langfield came by Olsen, they collided and Olsen fell heavily into the fence and remained motionless. I believe the incident looked worse than it actually was, but after much argument, Langfield was excluded and in the re-run, Airey won from Cole while Olsen was unable to gain the second place he needed.'
1st Jim Airey 14. 2nd Ole Olsen 13. 3rd Sandor Levai 13. Howard Cole 11. Bob Humphries 11. John Langfield 10. Greg Kentwell 9. Bert Harkins 9. Bill Landels 6. Neil Cameron 6. Jim Gosson 6. Dennis Alderton 4. Jim Ryman 4. Paul O'Neil 2. John Bowerman 1. Res Mick Page 1. Roger Brookes 0.
Jan 15, Solo Internationale
1st Jim Airey 14. 2nd Ole Olsen 12. 3rd Howard Cole 12. Gary Middleton 12. Neil Cameron 11. Sandor Levai 10. Greg Kentwell 10. Jim Ryman 9. Bob Humphries 7. Bert Harkins 5. Roger Brookes 5. Paul O'Neil 4. Jim Gosson 3. John Bowerman 3. Res David Mills 1. Mick Page 0.
Jan 22. Gold Cup Classic.
This one headlined the World Speedway Champion, Ivan Mauger. Holidays over, it was time to warm up. The meeting was marred with a spectacular fall by John Langfield. 'Lucky' to escape with neck injuries, Langy would be ok but out of action for a while.
1st Ole Olsen 15. 2nd Jim Airey 14. 3rd Greg Kentwell 11. Bob Humphries 11. Howard Cole 10. Ivan Mauger 9. Bert Harkins 9. Paul O'Neil 8. Neil Cameron 7. Jim Ryman 7. Sandor Levai 6. Roger Brookes 4. Jim Gosson 3. Dennis Alderton 3. John Bowerman 3. John Langfield 0. Res Mick Page 0. Res Lindsay Davies 0.
The following night, another fatality rocked the Speedway World. Lex Fielding at 30 years of age was an all-round enthusiast. He was riding at Bundaberg's Carina Speedway in a handicap race. Being the backmarker, he struck one of the two riders who had fallen. Lex was thrown heavily and sustained severe head and internal injuries from which he succumbed shortly afterwards. He left behind a wife and family, throwing yet another shock through the already traumatized Speedway community.
Jan 29. Australasian Grand Prix.
This Friday meeting was rained off and so was the re-stage of Sunday Jan 31. So, it was Monday, Feb 1 and Ivan Mauger back in top gear showed 'em all who was boss.
1st Ivan Mauger 15. 2nd Ole Olsen 14. 3rd Jim Airey 12. Howard Cole 12. Jim Ryman 10. Sandor Levai 9. Bert Harkins 8. Chris Pusey 8. Neil Cameron 7. Bob Humphries 7. Paul O'Neil 7. Dennis Alderton 4. Jim Gosson 3. John Bowerman 2. Roger Brookes 2. Res Mick Page 0. Res Lindsay Davies 0. John Langfield injured, no start.
A week later on Feb 6, Mauger was at the Brooklyn Speedway, Melbourne. But this time, Butch was upstaged by Sundance as Ole thundered to six wins from six starts. Also on the programme was 24-year-old South Australian, Laurie Hodgson.
This one was enjoying the season like never before. Selected for the National Test squad, he'd scored 12 points on debut in Perth against Nigel Boocock's Lions. In the second Test, he top scored with 16! His form continued with 14 in the third Test followed by an 8 point return in the Fourth. Missing Test five, he was back for Test six but only scored 2. Thankfully, his form returned for the seventh and final Test in Sydney with 12 points.
Laurie was eager to make an impression and he sure did that. Ivan Mauger reported for 'Speedway Star',
"A series of heats brought the four top scorers into the Final. I lined up alongside Ole, George Hunter and Laurie Hodgson. We all got away and then Laurie dived underneath me taking us both out and off. Laurie was excluded and after a lap or so, I pulled out of the re-run. The previous night, I was in Adelaide for a series of handicap and match races. I didn't have too bad a night although I lost out to both Hodgson and George Hunter when they beat me out of the gate and I could not get past !"
Six nights later, at Adelaide's Rowley Park, Laurie Hodgson was leading a handicap race when it was stopped because of a fall. In the re-run, he clipped an opponent's rear wheel and fell, only to be struck by another rider. He received severe spinal injuries and would never walk again.
It had truly been a calamitous season. Gordon Guasco and Lex Fielding had died, Garry Hay and Laurie Hodgson were crippled. Doing what they loved and entertaining thousands in the process had come at a terrible price.
Ole Olsen went on to become Ole Olsen. This season Down Under had not just given him a new string to his bow, he had acquired a whole new set. He went back to the British League and World Stage with a knife edge now as sharp as Ivan Mauger's. And he cut with amazing precision, when it mattered most. He ended the season as Speedway Champion of the World and won his second straight Czechoslovakian Golden Helmet. Riding for Wolverhampton in 35 matches, ending the season with a 10.99 average. And the rest as they say, is history. But make no mistake, Ole earned his success that also came at great personal loss. None more painful than losing one of his dearest friends, Gary Peterson.
The 70/71 season was 50 years ago. The whole world has changed. The whole Speedway world has changed and it may have to do so yet further as the pandemic shows no signs of slowing down. But I wanted to focus on and remember riders who paid a price way too high while at the same time, remembering a season that equipped a young Dane to conquer the Speedway world like few have done before or since.
My respect to all the riders and their families and special thanks to Peter White and Tony Webb for helping me put it all together. Take care and let's be careful out there.
This article was first published on 25th April 2021
"As one who is old enough to remember all the events posted by Tracy, what else can I say but a genuine and heartfelt "Thank you" for an emotional and brilliantly researched article."
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