Keith Blicharski was born at Roma, Queensland in 1925. He grew up in Wallumbilla and joined the Air Force in 1943. He married in 1952. As a speedway rider/driver in the 1950s and 60s he was known as “The Count” and broke many records, some of which still stand. This is his story:
As a child Keith wasn’t too interested in school and his father was persuaded to send him to Toowoomba Grammar School.
“My old man was going to put me into reform school and I had an uncle. He was the fellow that taught me a bit about what was going on. He said “Don’t put him in a reform school, you’ll make a criminal out of him.” And they sent me to the Grammar School in Toowoomba with my brother in 1937. And I only went to the fourth grade and in the grammar school, it’s a secondary school and they made a special class for us fellows from Charleville and Cunnamulla that had never been to school at all. 4A and 4B was the first class, they called us 4C and there was about 20 of us. You’re supposed to finish scholarship before you go to a secondary school and a lot of them didn’t know as much as I did. At least I went to fourth grade and I had some idea what I was doing but there was fellows from Charleville and Cunnamulla, they were 14 and 15 and never been to school in their life. That’s what happened in those days.”
Keith joined the Air Force in 1943.
“Well everybody wanted me to get in the Air Force. I had a mate. He was in Toowoomba at the time I was in Toowoomba, when I waited till I was 18 up there so I could join up. Cause at home I couldn’t join up, there was no place to join up. I done a six month course and become an armourer. And I got on that mustard gas in the finish. I was an armourer fitter at Lithgow, they had a big bomb dump outside Lithgow with thousands of tons of ammunition and bombs and we was looking after that and they asked for a truck driver and I volunteered to be a truck driver then they sent us down to a place just this side of Penrith in the Blue Mountains and it was a mustard gas station in a tunnel. It was the most dangerous place I’ve never been in. I don’t know how we ever got out really because a lot of them got burnt. I’ve had me hands burnt. Me hands and fingers had been burned with mustard gas. I was only there for about six months and the war ended, and but we were lucky to get out of it alive cause a few fellows got badly burnt – even the sergeant. I suppose there was about 10 of us on the place looking after this mustard gas.
“I don’t know where it come from and nobody knows but they reckon the Pommies sent it out here. The funny part of it is that they thought the Japs were going to use it, this is just before the end of the war and the Yanks come out and we had to teach them all about mustard gas and how to handle it and what you had to wear and how to avoid getting problems and what to do when you got burnt with it. Then the war ended just after we taught them about the mustard gas.”
Then Keith’s speedway career began
with racing motor bikes.
“We started riding motor bikes and picking up sheilas and a mate and I went out with two sisters. They said “What are you doing today?” and I said, “Nothing much.” So we went out to Greenmount outside Toowoomba. There was grass track racing on there. Of course the women used to bring a bit of steak and we used to take a bottle of wine and we’d boil the billy and have a little bit of a barbecue, cook a bit of steak and we were sitting around and I said “When are they going to start racing.” And me mate said “They’re racing now. You couldn’t do that.” And that’s how it all started off. If he hadn’t said “You couldn’t do that.” I wouldn’t have been interested in doing it. But we went out to see this grass track racing and that’s how it all started off. I had to show him that I could so then I started grass track racing.
“Nev Dorman and Roy Holcroft, they were mates of mine from the grass track and they’re the ones that talked me into going into Speedway, cause I’d never seen speedway before. And was about the second or third night but here is the thing. I’m the only one in Australia – Tattersall from America was one of the best drivers in America put up ₤100 to anybody that could beat him in a match race and there it is there, cause nobody had done that in Australia anywhere.
“The bike had one cylinder. I ended up making a bike myself and I still hold records in places with it. I had to make a bike that would slide and do what I wanted to do. But it was just the fact that when I started doing this and beating everybody, they said – you should be riding speedway and I never saw speedway down here and never heard of it. I thought that was speedway – grass track racing. So they said we’re going to go there one night and I’ll show you. So we went down one night to see the speedway and they said – you should be doing this cause you’re wasting your time on the grass track. So I ended up – I didn’t want to start here cause I thought I might fail so I went to Sydney and bought a motor bike down there and I was going to start racing in Sydney at the Showgrounds. I got appendicitis about two weeks before and that buggered me up so I had to come home again. I bought a bike down there, that special JAP, that’s a special JAP bike, only a single cylinder that they run at the speedway and I brought it home and I started here at Ipswich, actually. I only rode eight nights and broke a world record. I had four tickets to England and I got tangled up with the Missus and I thought – I can’t leave her. So I ended up getting married and giving it away for a while. Then I come back into it later on.
“We got married in ’52 and we come down here. I was buying and selling cars and a mate of mine had a yard out Lutwyche way and I sold him this car and he said “What do you do?” And I said “I’m a panel beater, mechanic.” He said “Well, how’d you like a job here?” and wages were over about ₤12 a week in those days and I was still mucking around for myself. He said “I’ll give you a job, 20 quid a week, you can come and work for me.” So I worked for him for about three months and then the speedway started here in Brisbane and I decided I’d go and look at the speedway and I promised the missus I wouldn’t ride speedway or do anything about it but I went in and this fellow sold me his motor bike. He was retiring, Steve Langton, and I ended up starting to ride motor bikes here. And I rode for about six nights, nearly broke me neck and Col Leagh-Murray, he was looking after things, he said “You’re mad, you’ve got a wife and kid, just bloody get out of it and drive stock cars.” They was starting. He said “You’ll be a lot safer.” And I’ve had all my face smashed up and a broken neck nearly a couple of times. I’ve had me nose broken about five times. And so I started in stock cars. When the stock cars started, we was getting ₤25 appearance money and making another ₤25 and were getting about 50 quid for an ad on the car. I was getting about ₤100 a night with stock car and knocking myself about on a bike for about 15 or 20 quid, you know. So that’s where it all started from. When the stock cars finished, we went back to Toowoomba, the missus and I and of course, old Frank Arthur, he was running the speedway here, he decided that he’d run the speedway in Toowoomba and I started driving up there again. I took off – I was one of the best at it.
then they give it away there and I don’t know how it happened, I got talking
after a couple of years again and this was about, ’56 or ’57 it was, and I’d
give it away for about three or four years and somebody said “Why don’t you go
back into speedway?” “I don’t want to go into speedway.” And they were talking
about these hotrods they were building. They were building the stock cars and
making them into hotrods and I started making these hotrods and a fellow at the
back of me brought me over a pattern they used in America and I built a car and
I was the first one in Australia ever given a lap start down here. And I got
into these hotrods and I cleaned up everything, Sydney everywhere, nobody could
beat me. But I retired out of them and Johnny Stewart and Mark Raymond, he used
to do the announcing on the speedway, all over Australia. They said “What are
you going to do now, you’re retired out of these hotrods.” I said “I’m thinking
of building a speed car and getting somebody else to drive it.” And this Johnny
Stuart, he was one of the best drivers in Australia, he said “You couldn’t drive
it.” And I thought – I’m going to show you mate, how I’m going to bloody do it.
So then I built this car out of the rubbish dump and I won the Queensland title
in it and he was second to me and he had an offer on it – worth about 2000 quid
and this car I built out of the rubbish dump, with a ₤12/10/- motor. I could
build cars. I could do anything with machinery in the finish. And I made this
speed car and then I won the title and done a few other things, and thought –
that’s it, I’m getting out of it. It’s just the fact that what I’ve done,
nobody in the world’s done because I started riding grass track and I still hold
records on the grass track out of bikes I made myself. Then I got on the
speedway, I had eight nights on the speedway and broke a world record. I had
four tickets to England, got married and didn’t go and then I got on to bikes
again and stock cars and hot rods then speed cars. There’s always somebody
who’s had a go at one of them, but I’ve had a go at the lot of them. And I’ve
drove Alfa Romeos on the race track, Leyburne and those places. I would have
went into road racing only I couldn’t afford it, it was too dear. I had an Alfa
Romeo. It cost ₤100 to put one piece in it and I had to give it away. All
these Alfa Romeo parts were too dear – you couldn’t afford them. If you had
money it would have been all right – if I’d had a sponsor, it would have been
good, I could have went through with it. But now the car that I had is worth
about $6 million.”
As a speedway personality, Keith was known as “Count” Blicharski. This is how he adopted that nickname:
“Well, this Col Leagh-Murray, he was an ex-Spitfire pilot and I always used to wear a bow tie and one of those hats. After the war he started racing motor bikes in Europe and this fellow that had his car, kept the car for him, was Count somebody and he said I looked like him. So he started calling me “The Count” – cause I always wore a tie. Years ago when I used to go to the dances this sheila that I was dancing with this night, she said “You’re the only one in this place that’s wearing – dressed sensible – wearing a tie.” She said “I’m going to buy you a bow tie.” And she bought me a bloody bow tie. And that’s how it all started off, I was wearing this bow tie. Still got it! It just clips on like those old cowboy ties and that where it all started with me cause I used to wear this bow tie. And he reckons I look like this Count.”
Keith had a skull and crossbones on his helmet and this is the reason:
“This is the speedway bike here and that red scarf with white spots on it. This mate’s wife, his family, they were great people, they made me that scarf to start with. He sent the boy down to get this red and white, and his mother made that scarf up for me and I used that right through the whole thing. She said it was going to bring me good luck. The skull and cross bones started – when I was about seven year old, in Wallumbilla they used to send us to Sunday school and what happened, they made you pass the plate around and then they started singing this hymn, “Put the pennies in the plate, everyone’s for Jesus, he can have them”. After it was finished, I went up to the old school teacher who was doing the Sunday school and said “When’s Jesus coming down to pick these coins up?” And you should have seen the look on her face, that really knocked her. And that was the first lie that I reckon that I was ever told and I was only seven year old and I believed it. So I thought that to find God, somebody said you’ve got to go into the cemetery and stop there till midnight, and where they buried this fella, and God will pick him up. So I went to the cemetery, seven or eight year old and I was a frightened little boy, I tell you it was the most frightening thing I ever done. I went in and sat on the tombstone not very far away from where he was buried. Nothing seemed to be happening and I was about to walk out, and in them days in 1932, the swagmen used to camp in the cemetery, and I didn’t know this. Well, I didn’t think about it at the time, and I was about to walk out and this fellow grabbed me by the arm and I said “Are you God?” He said, “No, I’m not God. What are you doing here?” I said “I’m looking for God.” And he must have been a well-educated fellow. I’d like to remember some of the things he told me because when you’re seven year old and frightened little boy, you sort of can’t remember a lot of things but he said “Now I’m going to give you a bit of advice. Only believe in what you see,” he said and a few other things he told me about.”
Even Keith’s surname was made up:
“I didn’t find this out till later in life. My father’s mother, she was a Dane and she married a German, Beltoff and they were up on the Danish border and the Russians didn’t want anything to do with Germans and he changed his name to this so he could stop up there. And it was only a made up name, as his proper name was Beltoff but it was German and he married this Danish woman. It was a changed name so he could get work on the Russian border and that’s how it all started off. They come out here in about 1890.”
Keith couldn’t resist a challenge.
“Oh, they were all just challenges, more or less. I could be the best at anything I wanted to be. If I decided to do something, I could do it, no matter what. And I could still do it now, only I’m too old. Everything I done was a challenge to be the best at it. I was the first one to go to New South Wales and win a New South Wales title down there actually, Queenslander. That was in about 1963 in the hot rods championship down there. But I nearly got killed in Sydney, actually, in the car. It was the second time I’d been down there and in Sydney, they didn’t like Queenslanders coming down and beating them. And this fellow pushed me up the fence and I went over the fence and hit a light pole. A 4 x 4 RSJ and put a 4-6 foot bend in the light pole, put all the lights out and only for hitting the front of the chassis, if it had hit the cabin, it would have wiped the cabin out and killed me, you know. But it hit the front of the chassis and that saved my life. It would have went in the crowd and killed a lot of people too probably. I never used to wear a shoulder harness. I only used to wear a lap straps and any time anything happened, I used to duck down under the dash panel, and that’s how I saved myself two or three times. I learned to do this in the hell driver’s show and that’s how I learned to do all this. When the hell drivers start smashing cars up you gotta be able to move about but you still got to duck around it and shift yourself and things come through windscreens, going through brick walls and walls of ice. You can’t be strapped in and the ice comes and knock your head off. You’ve got to duck under the dash panel so that it won’t knock your head off. Going through brick walls.
“I’ve had my own hell driving show too. Frank Arthur got us to do a few stunts at the Exhibition ground and I had to go through a brick wall and a wall of ice and roll the car over a couple of times and I thought I might as well start a show myself and do it myself, but it cost me money. I was starting to get a few dollars and I done the bloody lot because I never got enough money out of it. Just to pay you a little bit here and there but it cost money to get it going. I only went in Stanthorpe, Roma and Charleville. I should have brought it down here and I would have got a quid, you know. But I was wanting to develop it before I got it into the big towns and by the time I did that, I didn’t have any money either.
“Smashing cars up for a living – it’s just the fact it was money. I thought I was going to make money out of it. I didn’t. It just went bad. When you know what you’re doing, it’s not nearly as dangerous as it might seem to be. There is a certain amount of danger in anything you do like that but you got to know what you’re doing before you start. We had to go and tip cars over and find out what it was going to do. We used to roll cars over too. We had to roll 36, 39 Fords. We rolled a 35 Ford coupe over 10 times and you could still open and close the doors on it. You try to do that with your car now. Once and it would just fly to pieces. So these old cars, from 36 to 38, that’s what we were using. They were 10 times stronger than these cars that are being made now. It makes me crapped off to think that all these fellows with all their knowledge and stuff putting a car on the road, it’s the most dangerous thing on the road cause they all crumple up.”
The old fellow in the cemetery made a lasting impression on Keith.
“That old swagman, he was a well-educated fella. He told me a lot of things. He just give a direction of how to go through life and not be frightened of anything and only believe in what you see. And that’s how it all started off and it gave me strength of mind to do what I wanted to do and nothing would change it. He said everything’s in your own mind and if you think of something and it’s right, don’t hurt people, that’s the only thing, you know. And that’s what it all come from.”
(Keith Blicharski was interviewed in February 2005).