An interview with....Dave Gifford - Part Two
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You switched from Wolves to Coatbridge during the 1973 season. Did that turn out to be a good move for you?
One door closes, well it does if you kick it hard enough, and another one opens. Neil McFarlane from Coatbridge contacted me as soon as he heard I had become available and we tossed a few figures around until we came up with a deal that suited us both and I became a Tiger. Neil was one of a group of directors that were running Coatbridge at the time, the others hadn't wanted to approach me about riding there as I become 'difficult' to deal with!
Speedway in Scotland has always struggled because of its relative isolation and I always felt that the people running Coatbridge were doing it for the love of the sport more than anything else and I was immediately made to feel welcome and appreciated by everyone there.
There were a few advantages in having a home track like Coatbridge. For a start, the referees had a clear understanding of the fact that the home riders never did anything wrong and that the rulebook at best was only used as a rough guideline for running a meeting. We had one ref there who would bring his fox terrier to the meeting and he would go into the ref's box and rummage round until he found a comfortable corner where he would curl up and fall sound asleep. While he slumbered, the faithful foxy would do a superb job of running the meeting, every bit as good as an English referee!
Okay that story might be stretching the truth a wee bit but there were a lot of riders who thought the dog must have been running things, some of the decisions coming out of the box were so weird at times. They also came up with another novel innovation, they removed the bulbs from the red and blue exclusion lights which I thought was a marvellous idea!
My team mates were a good bunch of guys, no primadonnas, and as fellow Kiwi Rob Adlington was there and Neil McFarlane knew a smattering of English I always had someone to talk to during the meetings. Norwegian rider Kjell Gimre was there too, there had often been Norwegian riders at Scottish tracks going back to the old White City and Meadowbank days. I think that the affinity between the two countries stems from the fact that they are both situated inside the Arctic Circle and they both share a common language!
Kjell arranged for the team to ride at a couple of meetings in Norway at the end of the season, I have no idea where the tracks were, only what they were like. The first meeting was on a school running track which disintegrated into something resembling the Somme after the first heat and the racing was like watching ping pong balls bouncing across a table. I think I fell off six times and each time all my pleas and begging fell on deaf ears and I was made to start in the reruns. The track for the second meeting was made of boulders about the size of a fist but at least it didn't have too many craters in it but I made sure I either made the start or had engine failure, there was no way I was going to follow anybody! Reg Wilson and Doug Wyer from Sheffield came with us on that trip to strengthen the side a bit, both were fine riders and Reg had a wonderful sense of humour which was an absolute necessity on that particular trip.
Coatbridge elected to compete in the second division the following season and to my surprise as much as anyone's I decided to stay there. It was a case of "an offer you can't refuse" really, although the prospect of new tracks to ride on did appeal to me and I had an enjoyable year in the company of good riders and great fans.
You're probably best remembered for your spell at Berwick from 1975 until 1978. What do you recall of those days?
My departure from Coatbridge was a bit of a surprise, a few days before the opening meeting of the season, I think that would have been 1975 or 76, I got a phonecall from Jim Beaton who informed me that Coatbridge could no longer afford to keep me. Neil McFarlane had pulled out of Coatbridge to open his own track at Paisley and I think the rest of the directors found out for the first time how much I had been getting paid the previous season and decided it was too much. I had actually been on a pretty good deal which had included a three figure guarantee for my home meetings and I was probably one of the better paid riders around at that time so I understood their position and we parted company.
A phonecall to Mrs Taylor at Berwick and I had found a new team in the beautiful Border region of Scotland which in many ways reminded me of home. At my first home meeting they gave me a race jacket, a helmet colour, a pair of slippers, a senior citizens bus ticket and a booklet entitled "How To Manage On A Pension". It was pretty laid back at Berwick as you would expect in a smaller town and much of their support came from rural areas where people have a better understanding of reality.
There were plenty of Kiwis who rode at Berwick during my stay there including Rob Adlington, Colin 'Biggles' Farquarson, Roger Wright, Mike Fullerton and Wayne Brown who all did their best to lead me astray at one time or another. Graham Jones was also there of course, I always thought he looked like he would be more at home pitchforking hay on to a horsedrawn wagon somewhere in Suffolk but appearances can be deceptive, he had a sharp and ready wit and he was a wonderful team mate both on and off the track.
One of my first meetings for Berwick was back at Coatbridge and I naturally expected a bit of flak from the fans there on my return and my fears weren't misplaced. To get to the pits from the dressing room meant a walk from the grandstand tunnel and down the front straight and even though I was prepared for the worst they still took me by surprise. As soon as I stepped onto the track they began one of those soccer chants - CLAP, CLAP, CLAP, CLAP, CLAP, "GIFFORD'S A REJECT". It was a priceless moment, done without malice and I just burst out laughing. They were good people and had a great sense of humour.
Actually, when I had ridden there the year before I had never gone off any starting gate except four in the second half, the referee couldn't see me as he was unsighted. When the guy in the pits did the draw for the gates with the dominoes in my races there were only three to choose from when he went to the other riders, just a little home track bonus, but when I went back as a Berwick rider the same guy came up to me and said "I suppose you want your usual gate?" So when I said "Yes please" he promptly took the four domino off and then went to the other riders, it was like I hadn't really left at all!
Wayne Brown joined us towards the end of my stay there, he was very shy and very short, I thought he was paying me some sort of misplaced homage by kneeling when I first met him but no, that was as big as he could get! Mind you, he had a wonderful time talking to the pretty Border girls who were all a foot taller than he was! He had a superb meeting at Crayford one time, scored more points than all of us I think, and completely embarrassed us all. Rather than pretend it hadn't happened we decided to treat him like a Rock Star and we would open doors for him, ask him about how we should set our bikes up and fight over who was going to sit next to him in restaurants etc.
Man, he would get so embarrassed, but it served him right for showing us up! I was pleased to hear he went on to great things after I left Britain, I'm sure he would have deserved it.
When Powderhall speedway opened in Edinburgh, promoted by my old 'friend' Bill Bridget, we were invited up there for a challenge match which we won quite comfortably as I recall, but when we went back for a league match I had a spot of bother with Jack Millen who was riding for them at that time. It seemed like Jack was having navigational problems as he kept running in to me. When we got back to the pits I asked him what his problem was and he said "Oh it's not a problem, Bill's promised me a good bonus if I can get rid of you for the night!" Those two deserved each other! Jack died in a fiery car wreck just north of Ayton where I lived, a precursor to his next destination some might have said.
Why did you quit when you did?
I have always been amazed at how small incidents can have such a major influence on the course of history. On one visit to Coatbridge I quite rightly received a hefty fine for doing something that I'm not particularly proud of and the following night at Berwick I asked the announcer Dick Barrie (who bought me a drink once, by the way) to ask if there was anyone who wanted to contribute to a fund to help pay the fine. A rather tough looking individual was let into the pits and he suggested he would like to pay the fine in full for me if that would be okay. I had my doubts, but when he pulled out a thick wad of notes and started peeling them off, they were dispelled immediately. He wanted to talk about sponsorship and how he could help me and we very soon came to a very satisfactory agreement and that is how Dave Fairbairn was introduced to speedway. He would go on to help many of the riders at Berwick and eventually become the promoter there after I returned to New Zealand.
He made his money operating his own fishing trawler out of Dunbar and for a couple of years I worked as a fisherman on his boat the 'Highland Queen' and while this was lucrative it did signal the end of speedway for me. I simply didn't have the time or energy that was required to do speedway properly and I quit and went home, one step ahead of the taxman.
Andy Baillie selected you in his 'Dream Team' and described you as a 'nutter' who was always in trouble with referees. Is that a fair description?
So Andy Baillie put me in his Dream Team because I was a 'nutter' did he? I take it this would be the Andy Baillie of 17 Killmuckle Road, Glasgow? Ye see laddie, ye can run but ye cannae hide! And who knows, one dark and stormy night there just might be a tapping on your door...
Actually I was quite flattered to be included, the only other dream team I'm in is my own one which has just me and the Dallas Cowboy's Cheerleaders in it. Of course Andy is entitled to his opinions, it is his team after all, but I was a bit saddened to find that because of one tiny indiscretion, alright, two or three tiny indiscretions, certainly not more than ten at the most, I go down in history as a nutter. It seems a bit harsh to me. Perhaps it's time to tell my side of the story and reveal the truth after all these years.
Now it's true that on occasions I did appear to transgress, sometimes at the starting gate for instance, a sudden puff of wind would blow the tapes against my front wheel and it would be obvious that I would be blamed for breaking them. Other times, owing to a manufacturing flaw in the tapes, they would snap, right in front of me, at the precise moment the referee pushed the button to start the race. Now when these things happened, what shall we call them, acts of God, someone had to be accountable and it was often me who unselfishly accepted the exclusion from the race and withdrew to the pits but there were also times when the referee got things dreadfully wrong. I knew it was not easy being a referee, stuck in a glass box all night with nothing more than a cup of tea and a sticky bun and having to make life or death decisions so if I thought the referee was having trouble coming to the right conclusion I was always prepared to help if I could. After all, I would have been much closer to the incident and would have had a much better view of what really transpired which I would relay to the referee so he could make the right decision. If, after all my help, they still came to the wrong conclusion then I would gently chide them for their lack of trust in me. Now it is true that as far as I can remember no referee ever thanked me for my input, an oversight I expect, but at least I always got the warm inner glow that you feel when you've tried to help someone far less fortunate than yourself!
What have you been doing since you retired?
I returned to New Zealand in 1979 and went back to live in New Plymouth where I had grown up and went back in to engineering. Before I left Britain I made sure the temptation to ride again in New Zealand was removed by selling off or giving away all my equipment, all I kept was my helmet. I did build two speedway cars but both were bought off me before I had a chance to race them and by this time the last sort of withdrawal symptoms had gone.
Besides, my Kelso born wife Joyce and I had two sons to bring up and it was time to stop being selfish and care more about my family. Both our sons took up B.M.X racing at an early age and both did very well and won many major titles including national championships and for about ten years I was involved with nothing but B.M.X.
Our local speedway at the Waiwakaiho Showgrounds had closed down in 1970 to make way for industrial development and a few years ago it dawned on me that very little had been done to preserve anything from the old days so I started banging on doors and collecting what material I could and out of these efforts a local Historic Speedway Association was formed and now has over a hundred members. I am currently restoring an old midget car built in 1947 and which won a New Zealand Championship back in 1951. Among our members are ex Glasgow riders BruceOvenden and Joe Hicks as well as former Edinburgh promoter Ian Hoskins who now lives twelve miles away at Waitara, the town where his father Johnnie was born over a hundred years ago.
Ian broke an arm a few months ago playing golf and I couldn't let the chance slip by without a bit of a dig. When he explained to me how he'd done it and how much it had hurt I said "Yes Ian, but it is only one arm isn't it, you should still be able to play next week shouldn't you?". A reminder of how much sympathy we used to get off promoters!
This is also the town where Ivan promotes the final round of the World Long Track Grand Prix Series which is great because it brings many old friends to town for the weekend, many of whom I would rarely see otherwise.
Well that's about it, there are some people who suggest I spend too much time in the past and perhaps they're right. But maybe it's a past worth spending time in. It's a past when the airwaves carried the sounds of Buddy, Elvis and the Beatles, a past of travel, freedom and adventure full of wonderful highs and inconsolable lows, of success and failure, but above all it is a past full of people, speedway people, and I wouldn't swap a moment of it for a million tomorrows!!
This article was first published on 29th January 2005
"I knew Giffy in NZ before he went to England and he was pretty mischievous then but a beaut bloke."
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