Happy as Larry, living the speedway dream
Larry Ross' face lights up with excitement when he reminisces about New Zealand Speedway's golden era in the 1970s and 1980s.
The 58-year-old Ross, who competed in the opening event of the Burt Munro Challenge last night - the longtrack solos -was part of a legendary group of Kiwi riders, who raced professionally in England and took the speedway world by storm.
Ross was one of the biggest names going around in the sport, riding for four different British speedway league teams between 1975 and 1986, and also taking out two London Riders' Championships in 1977 and 1979.
Looking back on that special chapter in his life, Ross said he was living the dream and counted himself fortunate to line up against some of the best riders going around.
"It was the last of the heyday.
"I was one of the last guys to go over there and make a living out of it.
"It's drifted off. There's no Kiwis over there now." he said.
Ross' finest memory in the British speedway league came in 1982 in his second season with Manchester-based team, the Belle Vue Aces.
The Aces won the title in thrilling fashion at the last race of the final meet of the season, which he said was a huge achievement.
"It's like winning the English Premier League football. It's a big deal. It's massive.
"Very few riders actually win the British League.
"They're not lucky enough to be in a winning team."
It was a hectic lifestyle with Ross racing five nights a week, and recalling one time, where he rode in in 22 meets over 20 days
Ross' speedway career is littered with memorable moments.
In 1979, he was part of the New Zealand team, which also included Ivan Mauger, Mitch Shirra, and Bruce Cribb, who won the Speedway World Team Cup in White City, England.
He also rode in eight finals of the World Pairs Championship with Mauger and Shirra. Ross finished second on two occasions, alongside Mauger, in 1978 and 1981, which he reflected on proudly.
"I didn't appreciate it at the time, because he was just a mate.
"I didn't treat him as Ivan Mauger, the superstar.
"When you look back, I was privileged to race with him."
Ross had the honour of riding in the Speedway World Championship at London's Wembley Stadium in 1981.
It was the last time the fabled venue hosted the world final in front of 92,000 fans. Ross ended up 13th overall, but said competing at Wembley remained a highlight of his career.
"Everybody wants to ride at Wembley.
"It's the ultimate. The British crowd is pretty unique. There's something different about them."
Ross' success was not limited to overseas.
He won a record nine New Zealand speedway titles between 1976 and 1990, against stars of the sport like Mauger, Shirra, Barry Briggs, and David Bargh.
New Zealand led the way on the international speedway stage and Ross believed they were blessed with an outstanding array of riders, who all hit their peak at the same time.
He said he would love to see an exciting young New Zealand rider racing professionally in England and doing well in the World Speedway Grand Prix, but was sceptical whether that would happen anytime soon.
"There's no one around at the moment (from New Zealand), who looks like they're going to be a world champion," he said.
"It's not just being able to ride a bike. You have to be able to manage your life and that's quite difficult. You have to become a businessman and be able to get that money and be able to raise it."
Southland schoolboy rider Hayden Sims is tipped for a bright future in the solos, but Ross said it was important not to place too much pressure on him too early, but wait to see how he fared in his first season on a 500cc bike.
Ross has attended every Burt Munro Challenge since its inception in 2006 and hopped back on to his solo for the first time in a year to race last night.
These days, he is kept busy with landscaping and asphalt businesses in Christchurch, and said he always enjoyed heading south to soak up the week-long Burt Munro Challenge festivities. This year, he will also be supporting his son, John, and daughter, Amy, who will feature in the road racing events.
"It brings everyone from not only New Zealand together, but Aussie and even England. It's quite amazing. I think the clubs in other parts of the world would be quite jealous of it," he said.
- The Southland Times