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The great Vic Duggan was the man who in the 1940s took the art of speedway, refined it, perfected it and then elevated it to new heights of excellence and achievement.

At the age of 91 he died of natural causes following a seizure in a hospital in Queensland on March 24the 2007. His death was not generally known until  November because, in keeping with the reclusive way he had chosen to live for more than half a century since he left the sport, he stipulated to his family that he wanted ‘no fuss,’ no funeral service and specifically that nothing be released to the Press.

I discovered that he had died because when my annual birthday card to him was returned to me I began to make inquiries. Confirmation of his death came from his son John who released details to me and my colleague, Australian speedway historian Jim Shepherd.

The modern fan can have little or no concept of the impact that Duggan’s phenomenal success had on the sport in the late 1940s. Brought up on the likes of Moore, Briggs, Fundin, Mauger, Penhall, Nielsen, Rickardsson and Hancock – all multi – World Champions – the fact that Duggan never won the world crown means that his influence on the game and the era he graced is given scant credence by speedway archivists. But it was incalculable, in setting the highest standards and in technical advancement.

Born in the very cradle of speedway at West Maitland in 1915 he and his younger brother Ray grew up in Sydney. Vic held a variety of jobs before taking to the track. But, says his only son John: ‘Motorcycle racing is what young men did in those days.’ Vic first rode at Sydney Royale in 1936, first as a leg trailer. But he said he could never get on with a style that nearly all speedway riders were using then.

Encouraged by Australian international Dick Case to come to England in 1937 and join him at Hackney, Vic made rapid progress, first at Bristol in 1938 and then at Wimbledon in 1939, when he really hit the big time with outstanding performances in the Tests against England and qualifying for the doomed World Final never held because of the outbreak of war.

When Harringay reopened in 1947, Vic, Ray and Frank Dolan joined the north London side. Such had been his form in Australia that he returned ranked number one in the world and it was a season in which Vic became something of a superman.

His scoring was phenomenal. Out of 348 starts, he had 297 firsts, 39 seconds, three thirds, one last place, eight non finishes. His average was 11.46 out of a possible maximum of 12 and it was estimated that he earned in a 20 week season £4,000 – equal in today’s values to £96,000.

He won the London Riders Championship and took away the Golden Helmet British Match Race Championship from Jack Parker who had made it virtually his own property. Vic reached the final of the British Championship, which temporarily replaced the World Championship, without dropping a point in his four qualifiers. But an uncharacteristic fall at the Wembley final saw Parker take the title. The following season he made no mistake and won it. He seemed to be fated when it came to the World Championship. Favourite in 1949 a mid-season crash at New Cross which damaged a shoulder put him out of the qualifiers.

Duggan’s remarkable success was in no small measure due to the super lightweight frame he made out of aircraft tubing. It made the heavier bikes that were a carry over from the pre-war years obsolete and took the technology of speedway machinery to a new plane.

He forecast that it would take two years for everyone else to catch up with him. He was fairly accurate.

Then, in January 1950, Ray was killed along with Norman Clay, a brilliant young rider on the brink of world stardom, in a racing crash at the Sydney Sports Ground. It is the sport’s only double fatality.

His brother’s death had a profound effect on Vic, and the rest of the family. John Duggan revealed that Vic’s sister Josie blamed him for Ray’s death and it caused a rift that lasted for years.

Vic returned to England for the 1950 season, reaching that year’s World Final but he scored a mere four points, and that was it. He quit to eventually become a virtual recluse in Queensland at a place quaintly named Tin Can Bay. Some years ago I visited him and we spent two hours talking about his speedway career.

But, he insisted, ‘it was such a long time ago’.

Indeed, it was. More than half a century, but as Basil Storey, the editor of the hugely influential Speedway Gazette in the immediate post war years, wrote: ‘Once to every generation in every sphere of sport a giant crosses the stage and leaves a memory which no successor can erase from the minds of those who witnessed the performance.’

Duggan was much more than a mere giant. ‘Vic Duggan takes his place among the immortals of the cinders game.’ Storey continued. ‘He has fired the public’s imagination as has no other rider. It would be impossible for him to rise to greater heights. No man in the history of the sport has more completely fulfilled a promise.’

But, in the end, the surgically efficient, precise and fiercely focused racing brain that was Vic Duggan was laid low by Alzheimers Disease. His son told me: ‘He died a happy man. But he said he wished that he had gone sooner.’

Vic Duggan – an obituary by John Chaplin

Photo courtesy John Chaplin

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