Where are they now? John Langfield | Columns | Gassit Garage
John Langfield epitomised the golden era of speedway
I grew up in Manly and didn’t know much about motorcycles.
Rugby league fans will know Brookvale Oval, but back then it was the Brookvale Showground, and that’s where I rode horses in gymkhanas. There was a farrier in Harbord Road, and I took one of my horses down to get shod, and out the back there was this 1948 Douglas Dragonfly, a 350cc horizontally opposed twin. I got hold of it, and that was the start of my love affair with bikes.
It was the era of The Wild One and rock’n’roll. It was a magical time to be a young bloke. We wore leather jackets and the girls wore long skirts, bobby socks and tight sweaters.
I started road racing in 1964 on a Triumph 650 in production races at Bathurst and Oran Park. I also raced short circuit [dirt track].
I made the A-grade final at Dubbo one time, and some of us got tangled in the starting bend. I led the first five laps, then on the last lap I got black-flagged. The steward of the meeting, Peter Cutting, was the president of my club, Manly-Warringah MCC, and I asked him, “What’s that for?” He reckoned I’d jumped the start. I said, “What do you mean I jumped the start?” He started to walk off and I said, “Don’t you turn your back on me.” He kept walking so I snotted him! Ninety-five percent of the carry-on in Speedway is theatre, but that was real. I went before the ACU tribunal and copped a two-year ban.
A bit later, I went out to Sydney Showground and I stood right on the fence and watched the solo riders throwing it sideways. It was one of the most amazing sights I’d ever seen – I didn’t think they’d make the corner.
I tried to get a speedway licence, but the application had to be co-signed by the ACU so I had to sit out my suspension.
I eventually got my speedway licence in 1966 and turned up to Sydney Showground to get a ride. In those days, when you were a novice you hung around and waited for someone to fall off. I finally got the call-up and started my first race off scratch with a 130-metre handicap for the top riders. I tore away from the start and headed into the turn like a gun, then every bike passed me! That was a massive wake-up call.
Riding a low-slung bike with no brakes was a bit weird at the beginning, but I soon clicked with the whole thing and wondered why I waited until 26 years old to race speedway.
In speedway I was guaranteed between $100 and $600, and I never paid for a flight racing in Australia or overseas – the promoters did that. I was a tiler by trade and got into concreting and building, but I was earning five times that in speedway.
I never won the Australian championship. My best chance came when I won the first five races at my favourite track at Claremont in Perth. Just before the sixth race I discovered my rear tyre was flat and put another tyre on that wasn’t suitable. When I checked the good tyre, there was a screwdriver-shaped cut in the tyre and the tube. That made me very sad.
I won a few Australian Masters and I led the Aussies to victory over the Swedes at the Sydney Showground in ’74. Anders Michanek was the reigning world champion; he was a great bloke and a good friend. I’d won every race that night, and in the last one I was up against Anders and beat him handily. After the race, he said, “John, I could’ve passed you at any time.” I said, “Yeah, right, Anders!”
I also beat other world champions: Ivan Mauger, Barry Briggs, Ole Olsen and Ronnie Moore, either here or overseas.
I was on the board of the ACU (NSW) and its speedway commission for many years. I was known as a bit of stirrer, but I always had the best interests of the sport and the riders at heart.
I raced right up until 1998 when I was 58, but I had a massive crash in an international race that included the current world champion, on an over-watered long track at Dubbo. Halfway through a turn I was filled in by another rider. Because my goggles were muddied, I thought I was on the back straight but I was only halfway through the turn when I went for my tear off and rode into the fence. I broke some ribs and my femoral artery was severed. It was very touch and go whether I’d make it; the doctors told my wife Pauline I’d be dead by the morning.
We moved to Cowra, where my family comes from. I still work as an FIM steward and do track inspections – we did 12 the other week. I also drive a bus three nights a week, and I’m in the middle of a writing a book on my six decades in this wonderful sport. And I’ve also got a little Yamaha XT250, which I love.
By Darryl Flack