The Australasian Finals - 1978
For the third straight year, this meeting held World Championship Quarter Final status. As from here, the top four went to the Intercontinental Final at Frederica, Denmark on July 2nd. And from there, straight to the World Final at Wembley, September 2nd.
Sadly, the Australasian Final suffered major blow, literally ! The Speedway Champion of the World, Ivan Mauger would not be lining up, having been seeded to the Intercontinental Final.
Now le'ts get something very clear. The Speedway world did not revolve around Ivan Mauger. Never did, never will. BUT, this meeting needed him as THE number 1 drawcard to keep the sport Down Under well publicized and front page news. Imagine the advertising, 'World Speedway Champion Ivan Mauger starts his Title defence right here.' It's no secret that Mauger did not approve of this meeting, never did but if someone in power owed him a favour, and being seeded was it, well thanks for nothing !
Back in November, Mauger had been named the 'New Zealand Sportsman of the Year'. It was a BIG deal back then. And yes, he shot himself in the foot and Speedway through the heart by proudly stating that he had ridden in South Africa and Rhodesia. The look on John Walker's face was priceless ! [ If you don't get it, Google 'apartheid' ] 48 hours later he rode at Western Springs and won all four races against John Goodall, Mike Fullerton, Jack Millen, Colin Tucker and Greg Joynt. It was a great advertisement for Speedway so his no-show at the Australasian Final, also at Western Springs meant the Big Top Circus was missing its biggest attraction !
The next biggest name missing was Phil Crump. Badly injured at the end of the '77 British League season, it was two engine failures rather than a lack of fitness that saw him knocked out of the Australian Final. His 7 points were one short of a run-off for the last spot.
Auckland's John Goodall again missed the NZ Final. In fact, he missed the competition altogether. By the time he got back from the UK, entries had closed. When it came time for the Auckland qualifying round, John arrives only to be told he cannot ride. [ How Bizarre How Bizarre ] OMC. Kiwis will get it. Roger Abel qualified for the NZ Final but chose not to ride while Robin Adlington qualified as reserve but was not called upon to ride. Graeme Stapleton this year a surprise non qualifier.
So to the Australasian Final. Febuary 18 and the storm clouds over Western Springs blew away. Securing programmes for friends and soaking up the atmosphere from the pits, it was time to get my seat on the first turn. Mitch Shirra, now riding for New Zealand arrived with two gleaming bikes and not happy with either, quickly drove away. He was back as the stadium was filling up and was allowed a couple of practice laps. And again, the air was electric as proceedings got underway.
Round One, Heat 1 and Mike Farrell got the ball rolling with a win over the Christchurch pair of James Moore and Roger Wright. But the drama came when Aussie sensation, Lloyd Cross [ 3rd in the Australian Championship & 2nd in the Australian Final ] fell on the town bend, going between Farrell and Moore on one wheel, canning off and sliding up the cycle track sending sparks flying. The fall did not look bad but it must have been as his night was sensationally over ! It would be a busy night for Kiwi reserves Greg Joynt and Cliff Anderson.
Heat 2 and Mick McKeon beat Mitch Shirra with a surprising 3rd place for Phil Herne. John Boulger took care of NZ Final winner Larry Ross in Heat 3 and it was the 'Battle of the Champions' in Heat 4. Australian Champion Billy Sanders V Australian Final winner John Titman. A super show saw Sanders successful with local ace Mike Fullerton in third.
Round Two and Mike Fullerton brought the Pine trees down as he beat Phil Herne in Heat 5. More drama in Heat 6 as Larry Ross may have kissed his Wembley dreams goodbye, dropping out with engine failure as Titman beat Shirra and Farrell. Heat 7 and Billy Sanders inexplicably broke the tapes ! With all due respect for the Kiwis, he only had John Boulger to deal with and at least two points were in the bag. But no, Billy was out while Boulger in cruise control took care of Colin Farquharson and Roger Wright. Heat 8 and two straight wins for Mick McKeon as Auckland's Colin Tucker saw off the Christchurch challenge of James Moore and Allan Brown.
Round Three and a shock for Boulger in Heat 9, headed home by Shirra. Heat 10 and Sanders holds his nerve, seeing off Herne and Farrell. Amazing stuff from Heat 11 as firstly, Titman breaks the tapes ! Then a jaw dropping race between Mick McKeon and Roger Wright. The two collided going into the town bend and they stayed under a blanket for the whole 4 laps that ended in a dead heat !!! Everyone was asking of Roger Wright, "Where did that come from ?" He thoroughly deserved the 2 and a half points shared with the Aussie Ace. Just when it could not get any more breathtaking, Heat 12 sees Mike Fullerton haul himself into contention as Larry Ross breaks down again.
The half time scores were; Mick McKeon 8.5, John Boulger 8, Mitch Shirra and Mike Fullerton 7, Billy Sanders 6, John Titman - Phil Herne - Mike Farrell with 5 points each. Half the field all in with a shot at qualifying and Larry Ross was not one of them ! "Oh What a Night" indeed as I raced to the loo then hot dogs, chips and a Coke. Magic son, magic !
Round Four and Titman stays in contention winning Heat 13. Big showdown looms in Heat 14; McKeon, Boulger, Farrell and Fullerton. Something had to give and it was Boulger, breaking the tapes !!!
If that was not sensational enough, the re-run almost boiled over as McKeon and Fullerton locked together on the Pine Tree bend. The race was stopped and a very heated discussion took place before it was decided that all four would line up for the re-run. At the third time of asking, Farrell took the 3 points from McKeon and Fullerton.
With just enough time to catch our breath, Phil Herne gets back into shape winning Heat 15 from Larry Ross. Now all eyes are on Heat 16 as Billy Sanders lines up against Mitch Shirra. Thankfully it's a clean start and Shirra makes the gate with Sanders hot on his heels. Down the back straight and into the town bend, Shirra has a three length lead then at the apex, Sanders suddenly and violently rears going up and over, crashing heavily ! The race is stopped and there is stunned silence as people rush to aid the fallen Champion. Thankfully he was not injured but he was ofcourse, excluded. Shirra wins the re-run to stay firmly on target.
One round to go and the scores are; Mick McKeon 10.5, Mitch Shirra 10, John Titman - John Boulger - Mike Farrell - Mike Fullerton - Phil Herne all with 8. Seven riders going for the four places and Billy Sanders was a 'Gone Burger' !
Round Five, Sanders, shaken and stirred winning Heat 17 from Larry Ross who stuns Mick McKeon, keeping him back to third place. But his 11.5 means he is the first to qualify, mission accomplished. Mike Farrell takes Heat 18 for 11 points and he now waits to see if it means a run-off. Heat 19 and Mitch Shirra wraps it up, qualifying and winning the meeting with Mike Fullerton scoring another vital 2 points. This meant that Shirra, McKeon and Farrell were all through.
Now, what a blockbuster to end the round. Heat 20 with only the winner taking the last Qualifying place. I could hear Wally Loak loud and clear, "Heat number 20 ladies and gentlemen, whose it gunna be, Boulger, Herne or Titman. And there's the young Kiwi James Moore thrown in for good measure. And so comin down to the loin, under starters orders, throttle 'ands itchin and THEY'RE AWAY !!!"
James Moore knew to keep well out of their way but it didn't stop him from being a 'Mixit Maori' as he flew from the gate and into the Pine Tree bend with big three. At the apex Titman made the break from Herne and Boulger to jet away and hold it to the end. 11 points and he was through. A hugely disappointed Phil Herne was left with 10 points to equal Mike Fullerton's haul. For John Boulger, it was 'All Over Rover' and James Moore was just thrilled to be part of it.
So after a magnificent competition, Mitch Shirra was Australasian Champion, Mick McKeon was second. Two run-offs then took place. Titman beat Farrell for the 3rd place and then, Auckland Ace, Mike Fullerton lined up against Phil Herne for the 5th place. If any of the top four could not line up in the next round, this winner was next in line.
The tension was "fever pitch" as they approached the tapes and BANG ! Herne goes through them for an instant exclusion, leaving a delighted home-town hero to punch the air and soak up the cheers. What an incredible night it had been. Could it have been any better ? Yes, eerrr but only just !
Heat 1. Farrell, Moore, Wright. Cross fall.
1st. Mitch Shirra. 2 2 3 3 3 13
This article was first published on 5th February 2019
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