Motorsport broadcaster and journalist Larry Carter recalls the day a lad from Eaglescliffe sensationally won the World Speedway Championship in 1992.

CAST your minds back nearly 30 years to when the Conservatives under John Major were returned to power for a fourth successive term in the General Election, Team GB won a miserly five golds at the Barcelona Olympics, Benny Hill and Frankie Howerd died within a day of each other and Queen Elizabeth II declared it her "annus horribilis".

In contrast to Her Majesty’s rather difficult year, 1992 was a particularly good one in motorsport circles as Nigel Mansell lifted the Formula One drivers’ crown and on two wheels, Gary Havelock took on and beat the best at the World Speedway Championship final in Poland.

Not many suspected the 23-year-old from the banks of the River Tees could beat the likes of established world stars including the experienced Dane Tommy Knudsen, American Sam Ermolenko and Swedish stars Toni Rickardsson, the runner up in 1991, and his compatriot Per Jonsson, who had taken the crown two years earlier at Bradford’s Odsal Stadium, especially as ‘Havvy’ was making his world final debut.

Darlington and Stockton Times:

Arriving at the Olympic Stadium in Wroclaw, Havelock was riding in the British League for Bradford Dukes at the time, where he’d moved to from his local Middlesbrough Tigers team which was managed by his father Brian, himself a very successful speedway and grass track rider in his time.

But as ever with Havelock, nothing was straight forward. An altercation with authorities had seen him miss the entire 1989 season and then at the world final, he caused another stir when he rocked up sporting a Rastafarian dreadlock hairstyle, the likes of which the sport had never seen before.

In front of 35,000 fans roasting in 100 degree-plus September heat, including a good proportion of Brits who had made the trip to western Poland to support Havelock and team-mate Kelvin Tatum, things got off to a great start as Gary won his opening heat ahead of American Ronnie Correy and fancied Swede Henrik Gustafsson.

But it was in his second heat that things nearly went very wrong for Havvy as he was involved in a nasty crash. Jimmy Nilson collided with Czech rider Zdenek Tesar which also brought down local hero Slawomir ‘Slammer’ Drabik on the first lap, whereby the Pole’s riderless bike careered into Havelock’s leg. The Brit, in obvious pain, slumped from his bike in the centre green as medics rushed to his aid.

An ambulance was also scrambled to attend to the stricken star, who looked like he had sustained a broken leg, but after lengthy treatment and in true maverick style, he dragged himself to his feet and with the aid of two mechanics, limped back to the pits with a badly cut knee the eventual diagnosis.

The race was then re-run over an hour later due to an intense downpour which flooded the track and necessitated the local fire brigade to pump the excess water away before the riders lined up again. This time, the Poles went mad as their only rider of the 16-strong final, Drabik, got the drop over a battered Havelock at the opening turn and with his mud-splattered vision impaired, Gary couldn’t get past. As it turned out, it was Havelock’s only defeat of the meeting and his only dropped point all evening.

By the time of the third heat, Havelock’s knee had swollen hugely, but it didn’t affect him as he put on one of the greatest performances in the history of the sport. In heat three, one of the biggest of the evening, he beat USA’s Rick Miller, Ermolenko and Knudsen, to tie the lead with Denmark’s Gert Handberg on eight points at the halfway stage.

Havvy knew he had to win the fourth and penultimate heat he contested as it was in this race that he was up against Handberg and whoever got the upper hand would hold the advantage in the final heat. In yet another masterful performance, Havelock smashed it and claimed his third win of the night, defeating his Danish rival whilst Tatum came home third. He was on the brink of one of the most sensational victories in Speedway history knowing victory in his final heat would guarantee him the crown.

The pain of the wrecked knee aside, Gary lined up in the blue helmet colours (which determines the place on the starting grid), the same as had seen him suffer his only defeat of the evening. To his left in red was Dane John Jorgenson and to his right were Kiwi Mitch Shirra and the dangerous Rickardsson. But he needn’t have worried as he romped to a start to finish victory and in doing so, became only the fifth Brit to win the crown and the first British rider to land the title since Michael Lee in 1980.

Darlington and Stockton Times:

The crowd went wild, especially the element waving the Union Flags, as the enormity sunk in and Gary did his lap of honour before being swamped by his team including his dad. He had won it by an unprecedented three points and in doing so, had beaten the world’s very best at his first attempt. And he’d done it injured…

“I’m so emotional, this is the best day of my life,” he said when interviewed at the stadium. “I’ve worked so hard for this all my life and British speedway needed a tonic so hopefully this will do that. I thought I’d broken my leg in the crash, but I would have still ridden even if I had done, I was so determined to win!”

It turned out to be the highlight of Gary’s career although he did achieve much success, including seven national titles, both before and indeed afterwards. He couldn’t retain his world title the following year in Germany where he finished sixth and then he was seriously injured in 1996 representing England in a match against Australia at Poole. Further serious injuries in 2012, whilst riding for Redcar Bears, saw him announce his retirement in 2013 before going on to manage Coventry Bees and most recently Poole Pirates.

But no one will ever forget the day the local lad from Eaglescliffe took on and obliterated the best in the Speedway world, dreadlocks and all.

  • Thanks to Trevor Copping and Sarah Hall for the help with this feature.