Barry Briggs relives his glory days
Barry Briggs' 77-year-old heart valves must have been pounding as he roared around Ruapuna at speeds up to 215kph last weekend.
One of New Zealand's most decorated motorcycle speedway riders, along with fellow Cantabrians and world champions Ivan Mauger and Ronnie Moore, Briggs has never been hindered by fear. But as he prepared to charge around the technical Ruapuna circuit, he acknowledged he was nervous.
At least a decade has passed since he had last opened the throttle so wide – a far cry from the somewhat more sedate spins he takes around the mountains and deserts of California where he now lives.
"As you get older God takes things away from you and I wasn't sure I was up to doing it but once you have done it once or twice the brain accepts it," Briggs later admitted after the Ruapuna ride. "And after that it was okay." It is not as if Briggs lacks experience. During his racing career he amassed a mountain of trophies, including four as the world individual champion between 1957 and 1966, and it was after discovering the sport as a teenager in Christchurch he learned he possessed a love for speed and adrenaline.
Little, it seems, has changed and in Southland this week he will ride in a combination of events in the Burt Munro Challenge which starts today and runs until Sunday.
Briggs' life has been stacked with adventures. Along the way he has taught the late American actor Steve McQueen how to handle a bike and has owned gold and diamond mines in Liberia, west Africa, where he survived illness and coups and lost a multi-million dollar fortune.
Briggs left Christchurch as a 17-year-old determined to make an impact on the British speedway circuit in 1952. Five years later he was crowned world individual champion.
And for all the medals and accolades that have been thrust his way since – he has been awarded a British MBE and featured in a BBC This Is Your Life episode in 1974 and was inducted into the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame in 1990 – he says nothing beats winning that first title.
He has competed at Madison Square Garden and Wembley Stadium, too, although he will be in humbler surrounds this week in the Deep South; but that doesn't change the buzz he gets from travelling at pace. It was something he discovered once again as he raced down Oreti Beach.
"I felt like a 17-year-old kid. You are doing what you can do – it is fun." Inevitably there have been crashes with the most serious resulting in him losing a finger at Wembley when he was mown down by another rider.
The worst one, however, was when his son Tony broke his neck when racing.
"He could only move his eyeballs for four months and has basically just about fully recovered. That was the most serious accident to happen in our family. That's what I felt for all the boys in wheelchairs, it is a tough deal being in a wheelchair." Briggs can also recall some early encounters with Munro, who travelled to the United States for the first time as a 63-year-old in 1962 and a few years later set a record of 295.4kph for an under-1000cc motorbike. A movie later documented his life.