Triple world champion Erik Gundersen was part of the greatest FIM Speedway rivalry in history with Hans Nielsen as the pair inspired Denmark to a 1980s golden age.

Despite a crash at the 1989 FIM Speedway World Team Cup Final ending his career and almost his life, Erik continues to inspire the next generation of Danish superstars.

As celebrates the sport’s 100th anniversary this year, PAUL BURBIDGE caught up with him as part of our Stars of the Century series.


Firstly Erik, tell us a bit about how your passion for speedway developed …

“It was back in 1971, when Ole Olsen won his first World Final in Gothenburg. I was just a little lad at the time – 11 years old. I watched it on the Danish sports news. We only had one channel on TV in those days.

“It was shown on Sunday night. Normally it was all football, athletics and stuff like that. But the presenter came on and said: ‘Denmark had a new world champion in speedway last night.’ They showed three heats from Gothenburg and that was in the days of black and white TV.

“I just got completely hooked on it like so many kids in Denmark. Ole became my childhood hero.”


After watching Ole Olsen win three FIM Speedway World Finals in 1971, 1975 and 1978, did you ever dream you would win three titles of your own?

“No, but I had this dream that hopefully I could qualify for one World Final. I wouldn’t have minded just finishing 16th – as long as I was in a World Final.

“In 1975, I was at Wembley to see Ole win his second title. I sat up there in the stadium with 92,000 people, watching this drama with 16 riders under the floodlights. The atmosphere at Wembley was unbelievable. I just thought ‘if I could try this one time, I would be happy.’

“That happened in 1981, when I qualified for the World Final with Hans Nielsen, Tommy Knudsen and Ole. That was the biggest experience I have ever had. It was an unbelievable atmosphere, and it was unbelievable to be there at 21 years old.

“It was actually the last World Final at Wembley and although I have beaten many track records all over the world, and many of them have been beaten since, I still hold the track record at Wembley – 66.8 seconds. That will never be beaten.

“Can you imagine being 21 years old, coming in from your second heat at Wembley in your first World Final, and finding out you’ve broken the track record?!

“I was so nervous I could hardly speak that night. But then my brother Preben, my mechanic, tapped me on the shoulder and said ‘Erik, you have just beaten the track record.’ I said, ‘you are kidding me!’ I turned around and saw it up in lights at the end of the stadium – ‘Erik Gundersen – new track record.’ I was so proud I could hardly say anything.

“My Cradley teammate Bruce Penhall won that night on 14 points. I finished in joint fourth place with Kenny Carter on 11.

“I had an engine failure in my easiest ride when I was leading for three laps. My carburettor ran out of fuel, and I had to stop. I could have been on 14 points and in a run-off with Penhall.”


Was there any disappointment that you had to wait until 1984 for your first world title after coming so close at Wembley that night?

“I was not ready for that at all in 1981. I was only a 21-year-old, so thank goodness it didn’t happen. I was happy to finish fourth and build on it. It gave me the appetite to qualify for more World Finals.

“I could also see my career was going in the right direction with my scores in the league and I was growing up. It takes years before you mature, and you are ready to lift the crown. You need to put it all together to become a world champion. It’s not just something you do in a flash.

“That is what happened to me in 1984 when I did eventually win my first World Final in Gothenburg. I was ready for it at that time. That’s not to say I was going to win it, but I felt ready and when you feel that you are ready for it, it’s a different ball game.”


You had Ole Olsen in your pit corner for your first FIM Speedway World Final win in 1984. What did your boyhood hero add to your game?

“Ole was working with me for a year coming into the World Final. His experience and the way he was doing things clicked in my mind. My mindset was completely different to his, but I knew he could point me in the right direction in terms of my self-belief. That’s what we were working on.

“Mentally, physically, mechanically and technically, he prepared me for that year after the World Final of 1983. Ole retired after that and that’s when I asked him if he could help me out.”


It also intensified your rivalry with another Danish legend Hans Nielsen. The two of you get on fine now. But he has mentioned he was not happy about you working so closely with then Danish team manager Ole Olsen. How did you see it at the time?

“It built up a rivalry that had already started. Hans was in many ways a year ahead of the rest of us. He was beating us left, right and centre in Britain. You had to be quick to beat Hans.

“But I also had a feeling that my riding style and the way I was balancing on and working the bike was different to the way Hans did it. My attitude was different. We came from different parts of Denmark. He’s from up north; I am from down south. We had different approaches to the sport. That’s not saying that his way was wrong and mine was the best. We had different ways of thinking.

“I was more into the mechanical and technical side, whereas Hans had a mechanic doing his bikes. I was doing it with my mechanic. I didn’t mind getting my hands dirty and diving into it.

“Going into the World Finals in 1984 and 1985, the press and everybody was building our rivalry. It was said in the press that it would be either Hans or myself winning. But you have to remember there were 14 other riders who had wheels underneath them.

“The rivalry brought the best out of both of us in many ways. When I first came to Britain, I didn’t know Hans. I got to know him, and I felt we were not on the same sort of wavelength. We had different mindsets and different ways of doing things – both on and off the track.

“I was more of a happy-go-lucky guy. I was smiling at a lot of things and using a lot of humour. At times, Hans was pointing fingers and saying: ‘it’s not fair – Ole is here with you.’ But Hans never asked Ole to work with him. He could have asked him like I did. I didn’t know Ole any different or any more than Hans did. But Hans never called him. I called Ole.

“I have always thought about how I would look at it if it was the other way around – a manager for a national team of five riders being in the corner with one of them. But I don’t think I would have noticed it. It wouldn’t have made any difference to the way I did things.”


How was the relationship between you and Hans at the time and how did you eventually put the situation behind you?

“We were travelling a lot together – across Europe for all the different meetings. At times, it was hard to speak about things. We would just look at each other, and it was hard.

“We would say ‘hi’ and ‘bye’ and when we were in the Danish team, we would still work together. But we wouldn’t get too close with what we were doing, and it was hard for people around us I think – friends and mechanics.

“Of course, it was big national news in Denmark. They would call Hans and say ‘Erik has just said this’, and he would say it the other way around. The press were just picking up things that had never been said and just making headlines and stories out of it to create that rivalry.

“But it brought the best out of both of us. If you look back at it, how would things have been without it? It would have been so boring. I am happy now that the press did pick up on the stories like they did. It was probably the reason in the golden era of Danish speedway that Hans and myself won so many titles. It was just unbelievable. I am thankful to the press that they did that.

“Our relationship calmed down a bit after he won his first two world titles in 1986 and 1987. Ole and I finished our relationship coming into the 1986 season. He was still coaching me a little, but I was on my own. I felt I could cope with and carry my own mindset into the bigger meetings.

“At that time, Hans and I were getting on fine. We were talking more, and we were more aware of situations. We knew the talking needed to be done on the track in a professional and respectful manner. We had had our clashes in the years before, riding maybe above our ability at times and riding each other hard. We both knew the risks of the sport and we knew we both had to be able to ride the next day as well. We were getting on a lot better in those days.”


There was still one big battle between you and Hans in 1988. You beat him in a run-off to win the FIM Speedway World Final – the first one ever staged in Denmark – in front of your home fans at Vojens. What are your memories of that night?

“After Hans won in 1986 and 1987, we both had the chance to equal Ole’s three wins that night in Vojens. I was lucky enough to come out on top in that meeting and it was a big day for Danish speedway. It was the first time the individual World Final was held in Denmark. It was usually in Gothenburg, Chorzow or Wembley.

“It was a sell-out capacity crowd at Vojens. It ended in a run-off between Hans and myself and I came out on top. That to me was the biggest emotion – winning in your own back yard – where it had all started 12 years before.

“It was great to stand on that rostrum at Vojens and be crowned world champion. It was unreal.”


Your career came to an abrupt end at the FIM Speedway World Team Cup Final in Bradford on September 17, 1989. You had a crash with three other riders in heat one that ended your career and so nearly your life. How much do you remember about the fall?

“I remember quite a lot of it. All four of us crashed in the first turn and I found myself led there on the track, not able to breathe. I had had crashes before many times, but this time everything was quiet with all of us down.

“I was just laying there looking down at the track, trying to get my breath and I couldn’t. I was trying to scream for help, and I couldn’t do that either. I had swallowed my own tongue.

“My head was completely twisted around to one side. After I don’t know how long, I became unconscious and then I didn’t wake up until a week after in hospital in Pinderfields, Wakefield.

“I woke up to the sound of the ventilator by the side of my bed and I was just led there looking down at myself. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t move my arms, my hands or my legs. I was completely paralysed from the neck down. My wife Helle was there comforting me and telling me everything would be fine and that I had had a crash. Then it all dawned on me.

“I had been put in a medical coma for my body to adjust and adapt to the situation I was in. I couldn’t even breathe on my own. All the functions from the neck down were out – gone.

“I was in intensive care for four weeks and then I was moved on to a ward at Pinderfields. That’s when I realised how bad a situation I was in really.

“I was in traction. I had a metal ring around my skull and a 3.5kg weight keeping the fracture apart in my neck. I was like that for seven weeks.”


You suffered spinal injuries in the crash. Can you give us some idea how serious they were?

“Luckily enough for me, it was an incomplete fracture to my C1 and C2 vertebrae, which are right below the skull. Normally you die from that. Had it been a complete fracture, I would have died.

“But it was incomplete, which meant that after I came out of traction, I had some feeling in my left side. I weighed 45kg – I lost all my muscle; everything was gone. I was skin and bone. It was a shock, being in a bed for so long and being in a hospital for so long.

“The people in Wakefield were unbelievable. The nurses, the doctors and the way I was treated by the Yorkshire people was amazing. It was a hard time, but I had a lot of love and care surrounding me.

“I was in a ward with 33 beds. I had never experienced anything like it before. But that warmth and kindness we were met with was second to none. It was unbelievable, and it carried me through.

“I was mentally prepared for the fact I would be living with a disability coming out of there. I was lucky to be able to walk out after six months. I walked out of that spinal unit and in the period I was there, I was the only person who actually did walk out of there. It was unbelievable. I was lucky.

“I had a heavy limp. I was dragging my right leg after me. But I walked out of there and walked out into a new life, trying to adapt and understand that this was to be the biggest race of my life to overcome this accident.

“I was lucky my mindset was in sport, and I wanted to win. I wanted to win this race. It became clear after a couple of months in hospital that I would never be able to sit on a speedway bike again. Everyone around me knew that from the word ‘go.’ But I had a belief that ‘oh no, I will be back on a bike again.’ That wasn’t to happen.”


Do you ever feel bitter that your career was taken away from you?

“I never feel any kind of bitterness – never ever. I have been lucky. I look around me and there is always someone who is worse off than yourself.

“Of course, I do have difficulties with a lot of things. I can’t use my right arm and my right leg is not very good. I walk with a stick and a walking trolley. I have a mobility scooter that I use when I am out.

“I have all these things, but every morning I look in the mirror, I tell myself ‘let’s have a good day.’ Even if it’s raining or overcast, the sun is always shining above the clouds, and I try to have a positive mindset. I want to have a smile on my face because I am here anyway, so why not? Why use the hours you are awake to think in a negative way?

“I have no bitterness whatsoever towards the sport – whatever happened with my accident. I would race my career all over again. I would jump on the ferry to the UK like I did in 1979 and go across to Harwich. The only thing I wouldn’t do again is go to Bradford on September 17, 1989. I would stay in my bed that day! Apart from that, I would do it all over again.”


These days you still play a crucial part in the sport by coaching the next generation of Danish speedway riders. How much do you enjoy this role? 

“I was the national coach for 10 years, but then I wore out my left knee and had to stop for a while. I was in and out of hospital for over a year.

“Then I started to study to work with kids. I was approached by Team Denmark in 2007. The DMU asked if I would like to come and work with them again to look after the youth academy. I said I would love to do that. I started working with the 85cc riders and later the 250cc group in Denmark. I also worked with some of the 500cc under-21 riders at that time.

“I was looking after the youth riders, coaching and arranging practices. I was holding one-to-one practices, and I have been there ever since. I won’t stop until I can’t do it anymore physically.

“I have just had a new hip. The old one was worn out last year. It’s only over the last month that I have felt okay.

“It has been hard. It’s a big operation to have a new hip on the left side, especially when I can’t put any weight on my right side.

“It has been a challenge, but I love my work and I am happy I was asked if I would take on the job. It has brought me so much happiness and it’s still bringing me so much happiness.”


Thanks very much for sharing your inspirational story, Erik!