Moore a legend on so many fronts

Ronnie Moore racing in England.
Ronnie Moore racing in England.

Eighty thousand fans saluted Ronnie Moore when the then 21-year-old got his first gold medal at Wembley in London in 1954 despite riding "with a knee broken in five places".

The now 81-year-old received a standing ovation when he was inducted into the Sport Canterbury Legends hall of fame in Christchurch last month.

Guests were struck by Moore's honesty, humility, his earthiness and his lifelong devotion to a sport that still spins his wheels.

MOORE MEMORABILIA: Ronnie Moore at home today with many great memories.
JOHN KIRK-ANDERSON / Fairfax NZ
MOORE MEMORABILIA: Ronnie Moore at home today with many great memories.

Tasmania-born Moore – who won a second world crown in 1959 – just might be Australia's greatest export to New Zealand.

The adopted Kiwi was the senior member of a troika of Canterbury riders who collectively clinched 12 speedway world championship titles between 1953 and 1979. Barry Briggs (four titles) and Ivan Mauger (six) followed in Moore's slipstream.

The trio – dubbed the Kings of Cinders – were the rock stars of Canterbury sport.

As great as Briggs and Mauger were, speedway experts still attest Moore was the best natural rider of his generation.

In 2007, the three speedway greats were granted freedom of the city awards by former Christchurch mayor and self-avowed petrolhead Garry Moore (no relation to Ronnie).

Mauger chose the civic occasion to pay the ultimate accolade to the man who inspired his own career. "If there was no Ronnie Moore, it's very likely there would have been no Briggo or Ivan in speedway."

Mauger once also quipped: "Whenever [Ronnie] came home to New Zealand it was like the arrival of Elvis. He was our Pele, if you like."

Briggs, 79, now divides his time between California and England but he popped in to see Moore at his Sydenham base on a visit home this week. Memories flowed for two proud men who've been mates since cycle speedway days in the late 1940s.

Moore was definitely an early role model for Briggo. "All the girls used to smile at home when he went to school on a motorbike; I thought, 'that's not bad'," Briggs laughed. "When I went to England, Ronnie, Trevor Redmond and Geoff Mardon looked after me.

"Ronnie would get all the points at a meeting on Monday night but he'd be up at 7am on Tuesday to go practising with me. He was very unselfish. I'm sure I would have made it anyway, but it would certainly have taken a lot longer without Ronnie's help."

The two men were team-mates with Wimbledon but were often race rivals, but Briggs said: "You could never really give 110 per cent against Ronnie. I couldn't run into him, he's a mate."

Everyone agrees Ronnie Moore was born to ride. His father, Les, lived and died for motor racing and young Ronnie grew up around the sport.

Les Moore built a "wall of death" circuit in his backyard in Tasmania and later turned it into a business, performing at royal shows around Australia.

Ronnie began riding the wall of death at 13, but got his speedway start "on an old 1932 Rudge" motorbike after the family moved to New Zealand in 1947.

Les Moore had stunned the speedway world by riding the Rudge to a track record in Wellington, beating New Zealand star Bruce Abernethy. He got an offer to help set up a new track in Christchurch so the Moore family shifted south.

Ronnie had to wait till he was 15 – the legal age to get a driver's licence – before he could have his first official ride. He reckoned he could barely touch the footrests on the Rudge when he lined up in a race on a dirt track at Tai Tapu in 1948.

A year later, Moore became the youngest speedway racer in the world when he competed with the big guns on his father's new track in the sandhills at Aranui.

He remembers "counting the trucks as they brought all the dirt from the Lyttelton tunnel" [to create the speedway arena].

Moore says his career "clicked" once he started riding a specialist, second-hand speedway bike his dad bought off Norman Parker, a leading English rider who competed in New Zealand.

Wimbledon promoter Ronnie Greene soon spotted Moore's potential even though he crashed into the wire-mesh safety fence on his first trial ride.

Moore scored a start on Wimbledon's first division team and was team captain two years later. Speedway was "second to football then in people going through the turnstiles" with crowds of up to 15,000 "for just a league match'.'

At 17, Moore was earning £60 a week. He could make "£20 to £22 a night if I went through a meeting unbeaten", but he says it was nothing to "what the top guys are earning now".

Moore raced professionally in England from 1950 to 1963, winning numerous accolades and titles. He captained both Australian and New Zealand teams in test series, declaring his allegiance to his adopted land once there were enough Kiwis on the world circuit to form their own team.

He won his first world crown in 1954 after defying the odds to make the start-line at Wembley. Ten weeks before, Moore broke his left leg in five places in a crash in Denmark. He slid into the safety fence and stopped dead. His leg was bent around the bike's handlebars.

His leg was in plaster from the top of his thigh to the tip of his toes. Danish doctors told him he'd be sidelined for nine months.

But Moore sought a second opinion.

"There was a New Zealand surgeon in Harley St, who made his name during the [World War II] putting fighter pilots back together and getting them flying again. I went to see him and he whipped the plaster off straight away.

"He made up a little cast that went down the back of my leg and put it on with a crepe bandage. I said: 'what the hell' and he said: "your muscles will wither otherwise". A couple of weeks later, I went back and he made a brace which was hinged at the knee, but me leg wouldn't go sideways."

Moore lined up at Wembley but said "everyone wrote me off, because of me leg". I wasn't very bloody keen either myself, but bang ... I had five lovely rides and won it."

At 21, he was the youngest champion in world speedway history. He'd won the title with a maximum score of 15 points - three for each victory. Moore wrote in his autobiography that the gold medal made him forget all about his injured leg, "until the other riders gathered around and gave me the traditional toss in the air".

He was second in 1955 to England's Peter Craven [with Barry Briggs third] and runner-up again in 1956 when Sweden's Flying Fox Ove Fundin won the first of five world titles.

But, at the peak of his powers, Moore found a new motor sport passion – racing Cooper cars on the grand prix circuit for two years, leaving Briggs to win the 1957 and 1958 world speedway titles.

Moore mixed with men like Jack Brabham and Stirling Moss, beating Brabham to pole position at Brands Hatch. He raced in South Africa and was "third on the grid" at the Lady Wigram race in Christchurch where his father Les had won back-to-back titles in his Alfa Romeo in the early 1950s.

But Moore's car racing career stalled after a plea from his wife, Jill, who was in hospital after giving birth to their twin daughters Kim and Lea.

"She asked me if I'd quit. She said: 'you break an arm or a leg in speedway, but you get over that. But three of your friends have been killed [in car racing] this year'."

So Moore swapped four wheels for two and returned to race for Wimbledon in 1958. A year later, he was world champion, again with a maximum 15 points from five rides. Fundin was second and Briggs third.

In a classic Kiwi sporting gesture, Briggs gave up some of his own nitro fuel so Moore could top up his tank before his fifth and final ride.

Moore finished second to Fundin in 1960 but returned home to Christchurch after breaking his leg in 1963. He'd already bought a section in Sydenham and designed a house. The Moores had four daughters and wanted to stop shuttling between New Zealand and England.

Back home, Moore immersed himself in a motorcycle shop business and reactivated the "wall of death" sideshow at fairgrounds around New Zealand.

Templeton had taken over as Christchurch's speedway circuit. The promoters asked Moore to race against world champion Ove Fundin to boost attendances. "They had to hold the meeting up that night because the crowd was still outside trying to get in. That got me keen again."

He resumed "racing for fun" at the Templeton track and won two more New Zealand championships, back-to-back in 1968 and 1969.

Speedway interest was at its peak with the Templeton track drawing $50,000 more gate revenue in the 1973-74 season than the Canterbury Rugby Union garnered at Lancaster Park in 1974.

Later a new track was built at West Melton and named Moore Park in his honour.

"I used to spend two or three days a week out there, building it and grading it, and holding training school on Sundays with the kids."

He coached for "20-odd years", steering some young riders to professional contracts overseas. When he gave up his duties in his mid-70s, five people had to take over Moore's various volunteer roles.

Today, Ronnie Moore, who was awarded a MBE in 1985, is a member of the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame and world speedway's equivalent. But he was quietly chuffed at his Sport Canterbury Legends induction 60 years after he burst on the world stage.

He still meets his speedway mates every Thursday for a quiet beer at the Cashmere Club.

"We don't always talk speedway, just general life, but I get a speedway book sent out each week from England and the boys like to have a flick through that."

While he no longer rides, he still goes to speedway meetings "now and then" and will be back at Moore Park this afternoon.

"I just sit back and watch. I never poke my nose in. If people come up and ask me [for tips], I'll tell them."

Today's riders weren't born when Moore was in his prime, but Ronnie's still revered down at the track.

And the sport's proud patron still has the "Mirac" personalised plate his training school charges bought for his Land Rover.

The Press