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Dream Team : Cary Cotterman

I first saw speedway in 1968, at Whiteman Air Park near Los Angeles, when I was fourteen years old. I spent a lot of time in the pits oiling, fueling, and pushing for various riders. I was keen to have a go myself, and in 1971 I entered the ranks of third-division (novice) riders for the entire season. Wholly unsuccessful, I resigned myself to the role of spectator until 1983, when I returned to the sport in a capacity to which I was much better suited--as a writer and photographer for 'Speedway' magazine. I still attend a few meetings a year and follow the Grand Prix on the internet and DVD. My dream team is an eclectic mix of riders domestic and international, past and even more distant past.

MaugerCook

Ivan Mauger
I know, it's so obvious a choice it's a cliche. But the six-time World Champion from New Zealand was the first top-class speedway rider I ever saw in action, and I'll never forget his amazing display on that night back in October of 1968. After an absence of nearly two decades, the sport was making a tentative comeback in the U.S., promoted by ex-rider Dude Criswell on a track built next to the runway at Whiteman Air Park in Pacoima, an obscure suburb of Los Angeles. An odd assortment of machinery had been dragged out of dusty storage, including quite a number of JAPs that had seen their best years just before and after the Second World War. Young flat-track and motocross racers, as well as two or three older riders who had been on a speedway oval in earlier days, showed up to take part throughout the spring and summer, but no one seemed really to come to grips with the proper technique of riding the wiry thoroughbred bikes.

At the end of that first season of modern American speedway, Criswell offered to pay Ivan Mauger, just crowned World Champion for the first time, 150.00 U.S. dollars (equal to 585.00 GBP in 2008 money) to make an appearance at the Whiteman circuit. When the time came, Criswell couldn't raise the cash, so his pit steward, Harry Oxley, borrowed it from his employer, former World Champion Jack Milne. That transaction, small as it was, was the beginning of the Oxley-Milne partnership that resulted in the founding of Costa Mesa Speedway the following year, an event that touched off the American speedway renaissance that flourished in the 1970s and 1980s. For days, there was speculation about this 'Mogger' from New Zealand, whose name few here had yet learned to pronounce.

His legend grew until the anticipation was almost unbearable. He was said to be the fastest rider in the world. The story was that he jetted from continent to continent with only his special handlebars, which were attached to a bike upon his arrival, minutes before he took to the track. Finally, this hero arrived on a cool autumn night, when I was fortunate enough to be in the pits helping one of the American riders. The first half of the programme was finished, the interval over, and at long last the moment had arrived. Mauger strode confidently and casually toward a new JAP that had been specially prepared for him, and onto which, indeed, his handlebars had been mounted. After a short introduction by the track announcer, he swung his leg over the bike, adjusted his mask and goggles, and the crowd and pits fell silent while he was pushed off and the machine came to life.

I remember standing, along with everyone else, near trackside, my attention focused on the lone rider as he cruised around slowly for a full lap. What would he do, this exotic star clad in plain black leathers, black high-topped boots, and a New Zealand body colour? How fast could he truly be? As he came around to start a second lap, I was startled as he suddenly cracked on the throttle all the way and flew towards the first bend. But rather than remaining in the saddle, shutting down the motor, and tracking into the turn as I was accustomed to see the American riders do, the sound didn't diminish. Mauger seemed to shift his weight forward as he left the throttle on and pitched the machine sideways into the turn.

It's impossible to convey how astounding and thrilling it was to see it done for the first time. For four perfect, explosive laps he never let off the tap, and barely ever touched his left foot to the ground. The instant the engine's roar finally subsided and he turned back to the pits, the crowd burst into applause and cheers, and everyone knew that speedway in America would be different from that moment on. Before the week was over, Mauger's compatriot, the great Barry Briggs, had joined him in California, and while the pair trounced the young Americans effortlessly again and again at night, they also began to teach them at daytime training sessions. The Yanks were good pupils, and within a couple of years began to give their international-class mentors a good run.

Ubiquitous to almost any discussion of Mauger is the complaint that he was little more than a gating machine, a white-line rider with a limited penchant for passing. When he rode in the U.S., there were handicap heats in which he was forced to start 60 or 70 yards behind the gate, with five other riders in front of him. Far from being easy targets, by the early 1970s many of these American riders had become quite proficient and were, in addition, specialists at riding the shorter California tracks that Mauger only visited briefly once a year. I've seen countless races of this type where, by the back straightaway of the first lap, Mauger had passed three or four riders, and went on to win, riding near the fence as often as the white line, weaving in between his opponents and leaving them behind without ever touching them. The man was simply a superbly talented rider who earned and deserves every bit of his legend.

Peter Craven
Of all the many legendary riders I never got to see in action, the one who stimulates my imagination the most is Peter Craven, the Liverpudlian and Belle Vue Ace who was World Individual Champion in 1955 and 1962. Craven was killed at an inter-league challenge match at Edinburgh in 1963, less that a week after he had experienced a disastrous World Final at Wembley and failed to defend his title. Had he lived past the age of twenty-nine, Craven probably would have been World Champion again and again. It's a melancholy but exciting daydream to picture him in coloured leathers, mounted on a Jawa, challenging Mauger and Olsen in an early 1970s World Final in Poland. but it was never to be. Ian Hoskins wrote, 'Peter Craven is so good that until he has been seen in action he cannot be described'. If only another generation of fans could have had the opportunity.

Rick Woods
A new crop of speedway specialists rose from the ranks of former flat-track riders after the California training sessions held by Mauger and Briggs in the autumn of 1968. Among these young men, Rick Woods stood out. Over the next few seasons, he established himself as the first superstar of modern American speedway. He was the first American to beat Ivan Mauger, and was United States Champion in 1970 and 1972. In his bright orange leathers, he seemed to win nearly every race he was in with a distinctive upright style entering the bends, often lying flat-out, left leg trailing, as he exited the turns. He spent a short time in the U.K. at, I believe, Newport, but returned to California without giving himself a chance to make a mark in the British League. I have no doubt he would have achieved great things in British and international racing if he had only stuck with it.

Wilbur Lamoreaux
Lamoreaux is another legend I never had the priviledge to see, but I heard plenty of stories about his riding prowess from my dad, who saw him many times at Lincoln Park Speedway in 1946 and 1947. 'Lammy' has to be high on any list of greatest riders never to have won the world individual title. The diminutive Illinois native was second to fellow American Jack Milne at Wembley in 1937, third in 1938, and was running third among the qualifiers in 1939 before those irrepressible Nazis interrupted the season. Lamoreaux began motorcycling as a teenager, delivering telegrams for Western Union in Pasadena, California, where his family had moved when he was a child. There he became friends with fellow delivery boys Jack and Cordy Milne, and together they went on to form a nearly invincible trio in speedway racing during the 1930s. Jack and Cordy became stars for New Cross and Hackney, respectively, while Lammy established himself as a heat leader at Wimbledon.

After World War II, Lamoreaux returned to the track and dominated racing in California, winning his only United States speedway title in 1946. Two years later, at the age of forty-one, he was persuaded by Sir Arthur Elvin to return to British racing, and joined the Wembley Lions. He transferred to Birmingham in 1949, a season that would bring him heartbreakingly close to a World Championship triumph. On the big night at Wembley, September 22, Lamoreaux was flying, leading his first race, Heat 2, by several lengths ahead of Dent Oliver and Jack Parker. Oliver went down and took Parker out with him, and the race was stopped. In the rerun, Parker had better luck and Lammy could only manage second place. Bad fortune struck again in Heat 12, Lamoreaux's fourth outing, when again he was leading by a safe margin. His engine failed entering the first bend of the final lap, giving eventual title winner Tommy Price an unexpected three points, while Lammy pulled onto the centre green with naught.

Had bad luck not prevented Lamoreaux from winning his encounters with Parker and Price, all three would most likely have ended on thirteen points, calling for a runoff to decide the title. If he had won the runoff, Lammy, aged 42, would have been the oldest World Champion ever, more than two and a half years older than Ivan Mauger was when he won his sixth title in 1979, a month before his fortieth birthday. Lamoreaux didn't return to speedway in 1950. He lived out his life in Pasadena with his wife, Margaret, and owned a motorcycle shop in nearby Glendale. He died at the age of fifty-six, in 1963.

Mike Bast
Of the two Bast brothers, Steve was the first to achieve fame in speedway, challenging Rick Woods for the reputation of best American rider in the early years, and winning the first modern U.S. Championship in 1969. But it was Mike who dominated American speedway with a record seven U.S. titles in the 1970s, including five in succession from 1975 through 1979. Bast was a lighning starter who, legend has it, honed his gating skills in a petrol station car park while watching a nearby traffic light as a surrogate for the tapes. He was also an immaculate stylist with a seemingly magnetic attraction to the white line. Nevertheless, he could ride 'round the boards' with the best of them when he needed to, and came from behind to score many of his more than 4,000 race victories.

A few British fans might remember Bast's poor showing at the Intercontinental Final in 1977, where he came dead last at White City with only a single point. Two years later, he qualified for the Intercontinental Final again, but chose not to make the trip to London. The idea of racing abroad never seemed to appeal to him, and a large part of the reason he stayed at home must have been money. In the early 1970s, the British League could not have hoped to compete with the annual 60,000.00 U.S. dollars (equal to 200,000.00 GBP in 2008 money) Bast was earning racing speedway in California. It's too bad that fans in the U.K. and Europe never got to see him at his best. Among the American riders who never attempted an overseas career, Mike Bast was probably the greatest ever.

Les Collins
One brief line would suffice to characterise Les Collins as a speedway rider: '28 August, 1982, Los Angeles Coliseum, Heat 4'. But I'll say a little more. I only saw Collins ride five times, all on that summer evening twenty-six years ago, and that first ride, alone, was enough to earn him a place on my list of great riders. Most of the talk before the 1982 World Final centered on Bruce Penhall and Kenny Carter, and most of it since has been of their seventy-mile-per-hour brawl in Heat 14. But it was the clean duel between Les and Penhall in Heat 4 that should be remembered, not only as the race of the night, but as one of the most exciting speedway races in World Final history. If only Carter hadn't come off in Heat 14, Peter Collins would have won the race, leaving Penhall with, at best, second place and a run-off with Peter's younger brother for the title. Or, if Les had not been third in Heat 10, in which it seemed he surely should have beaten Jiri Stancl and Jan Andersson, he might have been World Champion. But he had a great year, nevertheless, winning his British Semifinal at Hackney and the Intercontinental Final at Vetlanda on his way to qualifying for Los Angeles. He never quite equaled that season again, but I'll always remember the tenacity and skill he showed in that brief minute and fourteen seconds against Penhall.

John Cook
Cook was perhaps the most physically coordinated and balanced rider I've ever seen. He had a respectable career, coming seventh and eighth in his two individual World Final appearances, but could have gone so much further with, perhaps, a slightly less-carefree outlook. I'll never forget the thrill of standing next to the fence at the 800-metre Ascot Park oval as he flashed past at one hundred miles per hour, then shifted his weight into a perfect leg-trailing broadside without touching the track with his left foot. Cook was one of those gifted stylists whose riding was an aesthetic delight to watch, regardless of whether he was in first place or last.

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This article was first published on 11th December 2008

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