Speedway's Civil War - Part III:
After the effective declaration of hostilities in mid-January when the Provincial League plans for 1964 were thrown out by the Speedway Control Board, the PL promoters were able to concentrate on fine tuning their plans for the forthcoming season and rallying their troops for the battle that appeared to be looming.
The position of the National League promoters was much more difficult. With no seventh (let alone 8th or 9th) league member in sight they had misjudged the willingness of the PL promoters to co-operate in boosting league numbers. Compulsion hadn't worked either.
A week later the NL promoters met and decided that the least worst option was amalgamation, and if that was the case it should be on their terms. Charles Ochiltree (quoted in the Wolverhampton Express & Star (24.1.64) said: "Since Wolves still persist in refusing to go National we are considering this proposal the only safeguard for the future."
The SCB met on 30 January to endorse this approach. The official statement issued straight after the meeting declared:
"At a meeting of the SCB today the Control Board considered the future of speedway racing. The Control Board has decided that it will be in the best interests of speedway racing in general and the public in particular that there should be an amalgamation of both leagues. The new league will be known as the British Speedway League"
The Ochiltree proposal for amalgamation assumed a 17 team league: the six remaining NL teams, the ten PL teams intending to run again, (and in a rare concession to the Provincial League organisation) new applicants Glasgow White City.
In order to satisfy the desire of NL promoters not to weaken their teams, there would be no reallocation of riders to equalize team strengths. Instead the disparity between teams from the two leagues would be overcome by a system of handicapping.
Each track would have three starting gates. PL second strings would go off scratch. NL heatleaders would have to work their way to the front from the back gate, and in between PL heatleaders and NL second strings would start. To help strengthen the ex-PL teams there would be more foreign riders.
This appeared unworkable on many fronts. The proposal for more foreigners would face stiff opposition from the Speedway Riders' Association who had met (on 19 January) and declared that : "The SRA believes that in the best interests of speedway there should be two leagues operating in 1964, but if there is to be an amalgamation, and only one league, then the SRA must seriously consider withdrawing their support of labour permits for all foreign riders"
The PL promoters dismissed the plan raising three principal objections: increased cost, no places for their new tracks, and the inclusion of foreign riders.
A meeting was scheduled for 4 February between the SCB and the PL promoters. In advance of this summit NL promoters seemed complacent, and the PL ones intransigent.
Charles Ochiltree told Speedway Star reporter Howard Jacobi:
"In fact the senior division is now in an almost impossible position for the bartering which is now bound to take place before the obvious amalgamation move takes place.
"CO is to put it mildly, deeply disturbed. The senior promoters recognise that it would be impossible for them to compete against PL teams with sadly depleted teams, their star riders taken away in the interests of levelling up team strengths. Their supporters simply wouldn't stand for it
The proposals met with widespread hostility from the PL promoters. A typical report appeared in the following week's Poole and Dorset Herald under the headline - 'Speedway Bosses Drop Big Merger Bombshell'
'The Provincial promoters feel with some justification that the success of their league is being used to save the remnants of the National League. The Provincial promoters were angrily talking over their next move at the weekend (and are) unlikely to accept the Control Board's proposals.'
The paper went on to speculate that if the PL plan proved unacceptable, leading to a stalemate, this could in turn lead to a 'breakaway' organisation in the sport.
The 4 February meeting was a stormy affair, lasting four and a half hours. The PL promoters were presented with the Ochiltree plan and after attempts to reach a compromise failed they were told to accept the Ochiltree plan or go.
The PL promoters left. Within two hours the SCB announced that all Provincial League track licences had been withdrawn.
The Control Board statement read:
"The Provincial League having refused to comply with a Control Board directive that they should operate in a combined league - the British Speedway League - and having declared their intention to promote speedway racing in its own way, the Control Board by virtue of its regulations declare that those promoters who refuse to comply with the Board will face disqualification and those riders who carry on riding for those promoters will be subject to international suspension.
"In the circumstances the National League will carry on under the authority of the Control Board."
The Provincial League Promoters set out their position in a statement, also issued immediately after the meeting:
"As a result of the meeting of PL and NL promoters, the SCB and representatives of the SRA, the PSLPA are applying to the RAC for an investigating tribunal to enquire into the control of speedway.
"Until such time as the RAC enquiry takes place the PSLPA will carry on the speedway season under the control of its own association and the following tracks will take part: ......"
The National League promoters played down the implications of these statements. Judging by reports in papers local to the National League tracks they were in denial.
Any belief that the NL could continue unaffected were shattered by an astonishing bombshell the following weekend. Although foreshadowed by a headline in the previous week's Speedway Star it seemed hard to believe even when it graduated from a rumour to a fact. Belle Vue, speedway's greatest club were deserting the National League for the Provincial League!
The Manchester club's decision could partly be explained by the atypical set up at the Zoological Gardens. Belle Vue (Manchester) Ltd. (ultimately owned by catering magnate Charles Forte) ran the complex which included a zoo, an amusement park, a concert/exhibition hall and the speedway track. Manager Howard Jackson was the public face of Belle Vue speedway but major strategic decisions were made by the company board.
The board, unaffected by loyalty to the speedway establishment, had seen the Provincial league thrive and prosper. Mike Parker ran his business from Manchester and had competed on the Belle Vue track driving his midget car in the 1950s. The Provincial League Riders Championship Final had been held at the Hyde Road track in both 1962 and 1963 (watched by a reported crowd of 18,000).
Jackson revealed: "We at Belle Vue have for some time considered that the future of the sport was with the PL." (Exeter Express & Echo)
The condition of the National League now looked terminal. With Oxford's future still not settled there were only four definite starters after Belle Vue's defection: Coventry, Wimbledon, Swindon and Norwich.
The PL promoters AGM took place in Stratford-upon-Avon over the weekend of the 8/9th February. The Aces team would comprise mainly of riders who had ridden for them in 1963, but they would lose Gordon McGregor and Cyril Maidment, who would be re-allocated by the PL Rider Control Committee, and foreigner Soren Sjosten. As well as accepting Belle Vue into the league the draw for the knockout cup was made - Belle Vue would ride at home to the new boys of Newport.
The PL promoters elected new officers for the upcoming season. Mike Parker replaced Trevor Redmond as chairman, and Redmond became vice-chairman. Dave Stevens was reappointed as secretary of the Provincial League Speedway Promoters association.
The most important business though centred on the tactics the 'upstart' PL promoters should employ in their dispute with the speedway establishment. They formally decided to ask the Royal Automobile Club (as the ultimate parent body responsible for the oversight of motorsport in the UK) to conduct an inquiry into the Speedway Control Board and its conduct in running the sport
The PL promoters seemed much more focused on winning the battle of hearts and minds than their NL counterparts, and with that in mind they also used the weekend to meet with SRA representatives and elicit support for their demand for an inquiry.
By this stage the PL promoters were making detailed plans for the breakaway. Cradley promoter Maurice Jephcott was quoted in the local press the following week on the mechanics of appointing a new panel of referees, who would be needed as the blacklisting would mean ACU approved officials wouldn't be available.
A round of meetings between promoters and their riders took place. The press report of the meeting involving Cradley riders and promoters revealed two interesting bits of new information. Firstly, that the PL promoters would insist that all riders who took part in any 'black' meetings would not be punished in any way - a statement designed to coax riders into joining the rebellion. Secondly the PL promoters expected the appeal tribunal to be composed of eminent persons. Such as magistrates and lawyers. (At this stage the RAC/ACU had not made any public response about a possible inquiry.)
The rest of the month was taken up with various private meetings to discuss the crisis. Peter Arnold, in his Motor Cycle News column, reported:
Speedway star scribe Danny Carter (one of Eric Linden's many aliases) reported that in his capacity as chairman of the SRA Danny Dunton had attended half a dozen emergency meetings of the Control Board since the New Year.
As February drew to a close uncertainty abounded. The Swindon Evening Advertiser (27 February) reporting on a supporters club meeting the previous evening gave a flavour of how little had been resolved: 'plans for a British Speedway League having met with pretty widespread disfavour, the National and Provincial League's will continue as usual when the new season opens...this is one of the few definite pieces of information available in the present speedway world muddle'.
The Swindon Speedway Supporters Club proposed to write to riders, promoters and the Control Board protesting at the mismanagement of sport. More sensationally the supporters present were told that West Ham would be reopening, a full week before either the speedway press or the East London local papers covered the story. (The London Evening News did report on West Ham's return 24 hours later.) In addition the audience heard that Reading remained a strong possibility, and contrary to earlier announcements Belle Vue would be in the National League, but doubts about Oxford remained.
Two significant meetings took place on Sunday 1 March, although they did little to clarify matters. The PL promoters met to discuss tactics and finalise a fixture list that still included Belle Vue - although by this stage no-one seemed to know for certain which league they would participate in.
Meanwhile the SRA met in Coventry. One hundred riders attended a meeting that lasted seven hours. Some reports suggest that the SRA decided that the riders would all go on strike until the dispute was settled, others that the Association could not support riders riding on unlicensed tracks. This illustrated the difficulty of an organisation representing two groups of riders with such diverging interests in the dispute. It was impossible to come up with a coherent position that both NL and PL riders could support.
The SCB met at the beginning of the week and issued a statement on 3 March. In addition to confirming the reopening of West Ham and Belle Vue's continued membership of the sport's senior league it contained one last plea for new members and an ultimatum:
"in addition to the 1963 Provincial League champions, any other potential promoter may apply for a National League track licence. These applications must reach the Control Board by the first post on March 10. After this date the riders will be made aware of the consequences of riding for an unlicensed track."
A sign of desperation, the SCB put a frankly barmy compromise offer to Mike Parker. They told him that licences would be issued to PL tracks only if he agreed to enter Wolves in NL's early season Britannia Shield competition, and that they would be willing to hold a court of inquiry with Wolves having the option of returning to the Provincial League at the end of May!
Unsurprisingly the SCB appeal failed to elicit any response from the PL teams, and the Board met the day after 10 March deadline and suspended the licences of all the Provincial League tracks. Letters would be sent to all riders warning they would lose licence if they rode on 'black' tracks.
At this stage no end of stories were circulating. For example the Poole & Dorset Herald (11 March) referred to the:
"thriving PL and the controllers who want to upset this success... (the PL) promoters who have built a successful competition while the NL has struggled for existence'
While in contrast the Exeter Express & Echo sought to minimise the dispute claiming that it was now 'just' a difference of titles - Provincial League v Division Two, and went on to quote Wally Mawdsley as saying:
"I don't want to trouble the supporters with a lot of politics"
Papers in the locality of National League tracks took a very different view. The Swindon Evening Advertiser claimed that riders in Provincial League teams would damage their international prospects and face suspension, and reported that:
'many will want to ride in the premier competition and so National League clubs are prepared to return to the old system of 8 man teams'
At the Coventry Evening Telegraph columnist 'Broadsider' clearly had the ear of Charles Ochiltree. He pointed out that Provincial League clubs would lose the benefits of being licensed and that the Speedway Riders Association had backed the Control Board to the hilt.
In Norfolk the Norwich Mercury had other matters to report: 'Could it be last year at Firs?' ran their headline. Property developers Garden Estates would be appealing against the refusal of planning permission for 700 homes on the 14 acre Firs stadium site. It later emerged that the stadium owners sold the site in March (presumably conditional on the planning permission).
When their neutrality was questioned Speedway Star defended its reporting:
"We have endeavoured to report the facts, and before last week the NL and the Control Board have been reticent in making comment. The PL have gone the other way and have given out as much publicity as possible. We have a duty to our readers to report what we know. If only one side gives us their full argument then we may have given the impression of being lopsided in our coverage of events."
As the season started they returned to the same theme the following week:
"We will favour no one. Above all we will strive to give the facts of the dispute as they come to us and we will plead again for common sense...."
However common sense seemed to be a scarce commodity, as fans dug out their scarves and programme boards in preparation for the season's start.
This article was first published on 4th January 2015
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