DVD Review: Heathens Heroes
It's been almost a quarter of a century since the famous Cradley Heathens had a stadium to call their own. They were evicted from their Dudley Wood home at the end of the 1995 season, just a few years short of the 50th anniversary of the first meeting at the track. In recent years the die-hard Heathens fans have had to content themselves with lower league racing, sharing a home with local rivals Wolverhampton Wolves.
Despite the enforced absence from their heartland, they have maintained a strong and enthusiastic following, carrying a support that's considerably larger than many a club in the higher leagues.
These loyal fans will be delighted to learn of a new double-DVD from Retro Speedway that's dedicated entirely to their club and the many legends who have pulled on the red and green body-colours.
The first thirty minutes of the production are given over to a potted history of the club, from the first meetings in the forties, through the happy provincial league days, a short-lived rebranding as Cradley United and then into the 80s and 90s when the club threw off its unfashionable image and became something of a glamour club. There are lots of interesting clips shown in this section, including some rare cine footage that you're unlikely to have seen before.
Thereafter we're into three and half hours of non-stop Heathens action, starting in 1979 and continuing right through to the very last race at Dudley Wood.
Season by season we see some of the very best races that the cameras were present to capture. Bruce Penhall was very much the main man for the Heathens between 1979 and 1982, the Californian golden boy giving up his comfortable life in the sun to move to the Midlands in order to pursue his track ambitions. Even after 40 years it's startling just how different he seems from the other riders. Always immaculately turned out, beautifully stylish on a bike and sparklingly charismatic whenever interviewed.
Thankfully ITV were taking a keen interest in the sport during Penhall's era, so there's plenty of quality footage of him in action for the Heathens.
Having achieved his ambitions he gave up the sport in 1982 to take up acting, leaving a hole in the Heathens side that should have been impossible to fill. Thanks to good long term planning the Cradley side had another world class youngster just waiting to step up and fill the gap. That man was Erik Gundersen who would go on to eclipse Penhall by winning three world titles before the 80s were out.
Seeing him in action again is a reminder of just how good a rider he actually was, always very tidy on the bike and a strong will to win.
He was ably backed up by characters like Simon Wigg, Phil Collins, Alan Grahame and Simon Cross. All home-grown stars who served the Heathens well and provided great entertainment.
Gundersen's career was tragically cut-short by a track crash at Bradford in 1989, one again leaving the Heathens with the unenviable task of replacing the one of the best riders in the world.
This time they were able to turn to Jan O Pedersen, a rider who had already twice made the rostrum in a world final. He had honed his skills under Gundersen's shadow and was ready to be the new star of the Heathens' side.
Pedersen was one of those diminutive riders who made their weight advantage count. Handicapped slightly by some inconsistency at the starts, he was a hugely entertaining rider and fantastic to watch. On these DVDs we're also reminded that he was also a chirpy character and very likeable guy.
The same "chirpy" accusation could never be levelled at Colin Pratt, the Heathens manager for much of the 80s and a real tower of strength for the club. His cameo appearances on these DVDs are good value, whether he's being interviewed or tearing a strip off the referee from the pits phone.
Pedersen's career was also truncated after a serious injury and the Heathens were once more able to turn to upcoming youngsters to lead their side. The double-threat of Greg Hancock and Billy Hamill emerged during the early 90s and the duo brought back a bit of the Californian glamour that was very reminiscent of Penhall.
It's fitting that Greg Hancock wins the final race at Dudley Wood, part of a meeting between two sides led by the Americans. It wasn't absolutely certain that would be the last race when it took place, though the post-race celebrations show that most feared it would be. Few present would have believed that Greg himself would still be going strong 24 years later.
We've concentrated on the very biggest stars in this piece, but there were many other popular Heathens that are on the DVD too. The likes of Scott Smith, Bruce Cribb, Lance King, Andy Grahame, David Walsh, Gert Handberg and the late Wayne Garratt will all be fondly remembered in Cradley Heath.
After the introductory piece, the action is left to speak for itself and there are many brilliant races shown, from both Dudley Wood and from the Heathens' travels to place such as Coventry, Halifax, Belle Vue, Rye House and Middlesbrough.
There also a good number of contemporary interviews with the riders, often capturing their comments on incidents we've just seen.
Like all of these fabulous DVDs from Retro Speedway, there's enough in here for every speedway fan to enjoy, but for Cradley fans this will immediately be given pride of place on the DVD shelf.
Watch a trailer for the DVD
How To Order
By Phone : 01708 734 502
By Post : Send a cheque for £16 (payable to Retro Speedway) (add £2.50 if outside UK) to:
9 Nursery Close
Online : At Retro-Speedway.com
This article was first published on 7th April 2019
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