Saluting a sporting hero

GOING out on top – it’s the happy ending everyone wants, isn’t it?


For me personally, the final episode of Friends is indelibly etched in my memory. Come on, don’t pretend you didn’t shed a little tear when Rachel and Ross finally got together.
I was out, suited and booted, at a football awards bash when it was screened but I simply had to phone home to find out what happened, even though I was recording it to watch later.
It was a wonderful way to end the long-running screen story of our favourite TV pals.
And it happens in real life too.
We methanolheads of a certain age will recall Bruce Penhall’s legendary “I quit” moment on the rostrum after winning his second world title before a proud and passionate home crowd at the LA Coliseum, the ink barely dry on his Hollywood contract.
And no doubt you also recall robo-rower Steve Redgrave’s farewell after an incredible fifth Olympic gold medal in Sydney, 16 years after his first and four years after he told the British public they could shoot him if he ever went near a boat again.
And more recently there was Henry Cecil’s super-horse Frankel, now retired and earning its owners a mint for having fun with the fillies after winning his 14th consecutive race at Ascot last summer.
Yes, we all love a glorious goodbye.
But it doesn’t always happen that way. Ask Gary Havelock.
Almost a year after suffering multiple injuries in a horrifying track crash, the long-serving Bears skipper has faced up to the sadly inevitable fact that he’ll never race a speedway bike competitively again.
In the statement that accompanied his decision to officially retire from racing, he admitted it wasn’t the way he’s planned to go out.
Too right it wasn’t. He deserved better than that.
The first time I realised this Havelock lad was something special was at the Grand Slam meeting held at Arena Essex in 1986.
It was by and large a mind-numbingly dull meeting on a baking hot day.
I was working on a paper in Basildon and I’d rather ambitiously dragged the work experience girl along in the hope of impressing her. It didn’t work.
On top of that England were playing Argentina in the World Cup that evening and I was starting to have serious doubts I’d be back home in front of my telly for kick-off.
In the event I was – but, for me, June 22, 1986 wasn’t as memorable for Diego Maradona’s infamous Hand of God goal as it was for the performance of the young lad from Teesside at Arena Essex.
On a day when most of his opponents couldn’t even pass water, he produced a breath-taking ride to pick off all of those ahead of him to win an eight-man, eight-lap final from the second row of the grid.
I followed his career closely after that and my work for Speedway Mail magazine gave me plenty of chances to chart his progress both at home and abroad.
Havvy went on to win shedloads of major honours, including the World Championship in 1992.
Again I was lucky enough to be in the stands, notebook in hand, to watch another famous Havvy triumph.
For me, August 29, 1992, was memorable for all sorts of reasons.
I’d controversially jetted off to Wroclaw in Poland while my wife was eight-and-a-half months pregnant for a start. I’m still living that one down.
The travel company my fellow Speedway Mail scribes and I had gone with laid on a “tour of the city” on the morning of the meeting which lasted approximately 20 minutes, 10 of those on a dual carriageway, before the guide announced “It is a beautiful day in Wroclaw, let’s drink beer” and led us to a bar in the main square. That was it. Tour over. My kind of tour if I’m honest, though.
The meeting was preceded by a grand opening ceremony which involved chariots and galloping horses.
One such horse I remember came a cropper in a fairly spectacular way in front of the main stand.
When any of us tells the tale now, it leads on to how the poor nag was unceremoniously shot, there and then on the track and loaded onto a truck bound – though we weren’t to know it at the time – for a frozen lasagne factory.
Maybe it was the effect of that strong Polish beer, perhaps the mists of time have clouded our memories and that last bit never actually happened at all, I don’t know. But it’s a good story.
I also recall the sudden and ferocious downpour that flooded the track and led to the meeting being held up.
But by far and away the greatest memory I have from that day – and indeed from my entire career as a sports journo – is of a dreadlocked Havvy, trophy in hand, standing on the top step of the podium as the strains of God Save the Queen reverberated around a packed Olympic Stadium. I’ve got goosebumps thinking about it.
So for Havvy’s retirement to come as it has, nearly 12 months after his last ride and with a left arm he can’t use or feel from the first few inches downwards is unjust in the extreme.
I had a ticket to see The Stranglers the night Havvy had what is now referred to as “his crash” but I passed it up to watch the Bears versus Edinburgh. I’m still not sure whether it was the right decision or not, truth be told.
We didn’t know at the time how serious Havvy’s injuries were, but there was no doubt it was a bad one.
When I turned on my phone the next morning I had a text from team boss Jitendra Duffill detailing Havvy’s injuries. I was numb after reading it. I couldn’t believe it.
When I went into the Gazette’s daily editorial conference, they asked “what have you got in Sport” so I told them. The room fell silent until someone looked up and said “we’d better have that on the front page”.
As you would expect, Havvy has approached his recovery with the same determination as he did when he was racing. He’ll win this one too.
Havvy is a top bloke, a journalist’s dream to deal with and a sporting legend.
His retirement is a sad day for the sport but the legend lives on! Like thousands of others I wish him all the very best for the future. I’m sure speedway hasn’t heard the last of him.
If you’d like to pay tribute to Havvy or share memories of The Master, please do so in the comments box below.
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