1970 - Speedway Ruined My Toffee Apple
I liked car racing. I can remember watching Graham Hill winning the Monaco Grand Prix in 1969 on black and white television, then being mocked by another boy for being so excited about it the next day at school. The BBC also regularly showed rallycross from Lydden during its Saturday afternoon Grandstand sports programme, and I loved it as the Minis and Escorts bumped and splashed their way around Lydden Hill. What ten year old boy wouldn't love it? We were going to watch some car racing. I'd been out with Dad in Manchester and we'd seen a poster for Belle Vue. A huge coloured billboard depicted cars crashing into each other. One of the cars was standing on its bonnet, such was the violence of the impact. The poster was divided into two, and on the other side was a picture of some men racing motorbikes.
It was on a Saturday night late in April that we drove into the huge cinder car park on Redgate Lane, Longsight. There on the high brick wall across the road was that same dramatic poster of crashing cars and racing motorcycles that we'd seen on another street corner the week before. This was what we had come to see, but oh no, we weren't here to watch the cars. No, no, no, we were here for the bikes. There'd been a misunderstanding. You see my Dad had been a regular watcher of speedway in the 1950s when he was in his early twenties, when he and his friend Peter would watch the veteran Jack Parker and the very young Peter Craven shift the decomposed granite chippings. When he suggested that one night we could go to watch the speedway he was looking at the bikes on the right of the poster, while I was looking at the cars on the left.
F-stand at Belle Vue pitched us high above the track for the perfect view. Engines roared beneath us in the pits as rider warmed up their bikes ahead of the night's racing. Entry was six shillings and sixpence for adults and somewhat less for children, and a programme was a shilling. These were the good seats, right on the bend. Men were coming round selling toffee apples and candy floss. We were in a fairground after all.
Belle Vue was a zoological gardens and amusement park in the once genteel, but by 1970 rundown, Manchester suburb of Longsight. Originally opened as a tea garden, it expanded as a place for Manchester people to go for entertainment that included the zoo, fairgrounds, exhibition and dance halls, and sports grounds. In 1929, after a successful season at the nearby greyhound stadium, a decision was made to build a track for the new sport of speedway racing, utilizing an existing athletics and cycling track adjacent to Hyde Road.
This wide grey track beneath us would within minutes be the scene of a spectacle I could never have imagined. I'd seen scrambling on Grandstand. Men in black racing black motorcycles through black countryside on black and white TV, buzzing like hornets as they bumped up and down black muddy hillsides. But this was very loud, and in full colour. The roar of engines echoed off the back of the old wooden stand, and the pieces of track thrown up stung your face. Anyone eating candy floss or a toffee apple would find it had an unusually gritty texture. This was motor cycle racing, but not as I'd seen it before. They were going sideways. How did they do that? How did they not fall off, but then someone did. And that smell. What was that smell? And then when this race was over there was another, and another.
When time came to gather my thoughts it was explained to me that these men rode motorbikes like no other. They didn't have brakes because brakes were dangerous. What? Sorry, I mean pardon? They ride as fast as they can and to make it more exciting they can't stop? This was crazy. Oh no, you see brakes won't work on a loose slippery surface. If they want to stop in a hurry they deliberately fall off. Blimey. Bring it on.
We were watching something called a World Championship Qualifying Round. There were sixteen riders competing, and over twenty races of four laps everyone would race against everyone else. We even had the World Champion racing, although I didn't hear it announced. My Dad wrote "W/C" next to the name Ivan Mauger in our programme. "Ivan? Must be Russian", I thought. "Morger? Must watch out for him, he might be good."
Ivan the Russian didn't win though. As each heat was completed and the scores totted up it was a rider in blue leathers with big white spots on them that won. Someone called Chris Pusey. "He must be the best rider in the world if he's beaten the World Champion", I thought.
A week later we went again. Saturday at seven o'clock was speedway night at Belle Vue. This time though we were going to watch team speedway. Belle Vue's Aces were about to take on the Bees from Coventry in the British League. The previous week in the programme for the World Championship Qualifying Round (a round that I later learned didn't actually qualify you for the World Championship , but merely the British championship) I had noticed that all the riders had a town next to their names. There were tracks like this all over the country - Sheffield, Wolverhampton, even Wimbledon and Wembley, place names I knew, but for different sports entirely.
This time we made a better job of filling in the programme. I had realised the previous Saturday how important it was to keep score. Results for each heat had to be filled in with three points for the winner, two for second and one for third, the man coming last or failing to finish getting none. Not finishing would be marked as "Fell, or "EF" for engine failure. Speedway bikes don't break down, I learned, they have engine failure. An unexplained non-finish would be marked as "Ret" for retired, although often later I did wonder if "not interested" would be more accurate. Once the heat scores had been entered the rider's individual scorecard needed to be completed. This way you could tell who had contributed most to the team's overall score and who, if anyone, had scored a maximum, speedway language for having ridden through the card without being beaten by another rider.
Taking a pen with you was most important. The first time we had had to stop at a newagent's shop in Fallowfield to buy a pen as Dad suddenly remembered how vital it was to have something to write with. Whenever I drove down Birchfields Lane I'd always remember that shop as being the one where my first speedway pen was bought. Years later I discovered that my Gorton born father-in-law supplemented his income as a vendor at the Belle Vue Zoo Park by selling pencils he had bought from a local wholesaler to speedway fans who had arrived writing implement-less.
Ivan Mauger was Belle Vue's maximum man. Indeed if Ivan didn't get a maximum you would wonder what was wrong. He'd had a very rare engine failure the previous week preventing him from winning. Ivan's bikes were the shiniest and best prepared, and had sponsors stickers at a time when most riders still had a day job. I was still a little confused about Ivan's nationality. Dad had brought home a magazine called Speedway Star and News a couple of days before, having picked it up on the news stand at Oxford Road station. Inside was the report of the World Championship Qualifying round telling me that Chris Pusey had been a surprise winner as he was only a "second string". On the cover was a colour photograph of Ivan Mauger and Belle Vue's next best rider, a man called Soren Sjosten (although we learned not to say the S in Sjosten). The caption on the photograph had the names the other way round from the way the riders were standing. It was a few weeks before I realized Ivan Mauger wasn't the short tubby Swedish man in red leathers. Belle Vue dispatched Coventry easily by the score of 49-29, and Ivan scored his maximum. Another bit of speedway folklore was now entering my psyche; that the score always added up to seventy-eight. Thirteen races times six points to be won in each race equals seventy-eight. Heats would be won 5-1, 4-2 or drawn 3-3. If anyone had ever asked me to recite my six times table I'd have known if like the back of my hand. No one ever did. Nor did anyone ever ask me to name the top three in every World Championship final from 1936 onwards, but within weeks of my first speedway meeting I could have told them.
This meeting also had a second half. The teams didn't change ends and ride the other way round. This second half was made up of a mini individual tournament for the star riders, and races for riders who were just starting out called novices. Ivan Mauger won the final for the top men, and a rider called Alan Wilkinson won the Belle Vue Starlets final.
There was no match the following Saturday as the Aces were away at Swindon. I was disappointed. As usual when the Aces were away on a Saturday there was stock car racing at Belle Vue. We didn't go, which seems ironic considering that's what I thought I was going to see in the first place.
Speedway hadn't become a definite fixture on the Harwood family calendar that season. A rain-lashed summer camping holiday in the west of Scotland, and Mum and Dad's social life would have had something to do with that. Hale Players production of Blithe Spirit, with Mum as Madame Arcati, and Dad taking the 4th Bowdon scouts to summer camp took away too many Saturdays. The home match with Swindon was missed, and I missed seeing Barry Briggs ride.
Mum occasionally came with us to the speedway. She still remembers the time that Ivan Mauger put Garry Middleton into the fence. I don't think he did it on purpose, but he did make the track very narrow for him going round the pits bend. Mum didn't like it when people got hurt.
Watching speedway at Belle Vue in the 1970s you never felt far away from it's past. That season gave me my first lesson in speedway history. In 1970 the track record was still held by Peter Craven in a time set twelve years previously in 1958. To see Ivan Mauger equal it was quite a thrill. In the first heat of the match against Newport Ivan equalled Peter Craven's time of 69.8 seconds, remarkable not only for the record but the fact that race times at Belle Vue were rarely in the 70 or 71 second bracket, let alone 69. By coincidence this record equaling took place the week before the Peter Craven Memorial Trophy, a meeting that Ivan Mauger would not be riding in, but by then he would be shown in the programme as joint track record holder.
1970 was seven years since Peter Craven had died as a result of injuries sustained in a track crash at Edinburgh. Not that long before, but another age when you are only ten. Since then I've managed to acquire a small collection of Peter Craven memorabilia. I sometimes have to check with myself it's not morbid to have them, but I have the Edinburgh v Belle Vue programme for the match when he crashed and the following night's challenge match at Belle Vue with his name crossed out, the copy of Speedway Star and News that reported the accident, the ones from the following weeks with his obituary and tributes. I have programmes from his 1962 World Final triumph, and from his unsuccessful and injury acquiring defence the following year, just days before his death. To cap it all I have Wright Wood's iconic photo of Peter Craven, the Wizard of Balance, feet up and in full flight on the top bend at Hyde Road, a picture that I bought from the kiosk behind J stand on the pits bend.
That match against Newport Wasps was also notable for a couple of other things, or more accurately people. Norman Strachan had to be the slowest speedway rider I ever saw. He was old (I was ten remember), fat and bald, and scored exactly no points. I couldn't understand why he was in the team. The rest of the Newport team weren't that much better and fell victim to the heaviest defeat I'd seen Belle Vue inflict. The score was 55-22, the 78 point formula only not adding up because Chris Pusey and Alan Knapkin both failed to finish in heat four. The only Newport rider to show passion was Hungarian ex-Ace Sandor Levai who on being excluded from his second-half heat for breaking the tapes refused to leave the track, and once the tapes had been repaired, rode full throttle through the starting gate, disappearing up the other end of the track wreathed in strips of white cotton.
The Peter Craven Memorial Trophy was won by Sheffield's Jim Airey. On the strength of this he was tipped (in writing and placed in a sealed envelope) by my Dad to win the season ending British League Riders' Championship. Needless to say he didn't win it. Barry Briggs did, although I didn't see him do it. Dad took my sister Helen, but I went to a schoolfriend's birthday party instead. Later I would learn to prioritise a little better.
Ivan Mauger didn't ride in the Peter Craven Memorial Trophy because he and Soren Sjosten were racing in the World Championship final in Poland, which Ivan won with a maximum. Fortunately not winning the World Championship Qualifying Round hadn't dented Ivan's chances, although Chris Pusey who did win it didn't qualify. Still with me? By this time I'd realized Ivan was from New Zealand (not Russia or Sweden), and I read in Speedway Star and News that he'd used skill and cunning to defeat the Poles who would surely ride as a team to prevent him winning. Belle Vue were leading the league title race, and my team also had the World Champion. Picking winners seemed easy.
My first season of speedway also got me into print. We ventured one cold wet Sunday afternoon up to Rochdale to watch the Hornets take on Rayleigh Rockets in the second division. That year Belle Vue had moved their successful Colts team to the Rochdale rugby league ground hoping to catch a new audience for speedway and stock cars. The only people that went were people who would have gone to watch them at Belle Vue anyway, only in smaller numbers, and after two seasons they sold the licence to Ellesmere Port. The track was wet and heavy, and made of the same grey granite chippings used at Hyde Road. When it was wet it was just black. Rayleigh didn't want to ride and there's a photo in the Champion's Book of Speedway Number Two of Rockets promoter Len Silver arguing with the referee on the track. In the background you can see the shapes of Helen, Dad and me sitting in the stand. You can't make out the faces so you'll have to take my word for it. The match went ahead and beat the Newport match to the most one sided I had seen. Rochdale won 57-20 with the scores once more not adding up to 78, and the times being the slowest I'd seen. Only one heat (the first) was under 80 seconds. Maybe Len had a point, but it did seem a long way to come and not ride. Rochdale speedway is now a Morrison's supermarket, and Rayleigh a Sainsbury's.
Belle Vue wrapped up the British League title with ease winning all their home matches and ten away. The season ended with the final of the Knock-Out Cup, speedway's equivalent of the FA Cup, but without the TV coverage. I had actually experienced my first taste of speedway on TV earlier that season. I'd read that the World Best Pairs semi-final at Belle Vue was to be shown on ITV, but I didn't watch it because it was to be shown after my bed time. The BBC did however show highlights of the England v New Zealand test match from Wimbledon on Grandstand, just a handful of races squeezed between the horse racing from Newbury and the football half-time scores. Seeing speedway on Grandstand did make it feel like a proper sport, although ever meeting anyone in real life who knew what speedway was seemed like it might never happen. We took one of my schoolfriends with us and his brother thought we were going to watch It's A Knockout.
Speedway had made a rather shocking appearance on the tea-time news that summer. A minibus carrying a party of young West Ham riders had crashed near the Belgian town of Lokeren. Five of the occupants, including the West Ham team manager and former rider Phil Bishop had died. The news showed the cover of the programme for that night and announced that the match had been cancelled. Later that season they held a Lokeren Memorial trophy and it was won by Ivan Mauger with a maximum. The only other time I can remember speedway making the television news was when Kenny Carter died.
Belle Vue needed to win the second leg of the Knock Out Cup final by sixteen points, a tall order against a Wimbledon team that had won it the two previous years. As it turned out the Aces couldn't rack up enough points and succumbed to a five point aggregate defeat. My disappointment is etched all over the programme. It was the only one that season I doodled on. I commented that "the best men won", and wrote 80-75 in a big hand across the two pages of the race card. A door was closed on history in this meeting as Ivan Mauger finally took Peter Craven's track record away, shaving one fifth of a second off his time. Sixty-nine and three fifths would remain the track record at Belle Vue for a further five years, until a new PC was King of Belle Vue.
This article was first published on 18th August 2013
"What an excellent and evocative article. Shades of my first trip to West Ham in 1964 when I was 9. Belle Vue was 3 yards longer than West Ham, 418 yards as opposed to 415. I often wonder what the track record at Custom House would be now, as 70 seconds was never broken on the downside. Thank you Ian for making me feel like a schoolboy again."
"Brilliant story Ian, many thanks for sharing it. Our first meeting memories are oh so similar. The smell, noise, riders on funny looking bikes with no brakes going sideways !!! Thrills and spills, dirt covered hotdogs and Chris Pusey too. I took my Champions Book of Speedway number 2, [I bought it before school the very next day], and found the snap of you in the stand. Well, which ever one you are ! Great fun mate, Cheers !!!"
"This was my era too, I could close my eyes and be there at any given time, Some of the best memories I have, The excitement for a ten year old, I can barely remember anything else about the early 70s apart from holidays, A really excellent read ...."
"Fantastic article, really giving a great insight from the angle of a lad totally new to the sport, and the thoughts he had."
"A really good read. Capturing speedway and what it's really like to a young boy looking over the fence and being sprayed with dirt. I'm 50, two years younger than Ian Harwood. Unfortunately I never got to go to the old Belle Vue. The Sydney Showground was the place where my father took me each week. Much of Ian's story runs parallel to my own, as it does with so many of us who were lucky enough to have been kids at the speedway in the '60s."
"Really enjoyed reading this. I was a regular follower of Halifax Dukes from 1965-68 and, occasionally, in the early 70s. I can still remember vividly the teams and riders of those days. Many seemed to have unusual and, to a young boy, quite exotic names - Ronnie Genz, Jimmy Squibb, Gordon Guasco and your own Cyril Maidment to name just a few. Great days. There's recently been talk of resurrecting a Bradford/Halifax team at Odsal. I won't hold my breath but it would be good if it happened."
"This was a fantastic nostalgia trip for me Ian. I went to my first Belle Vue meeting in 1969 when I was 12, and like yourself soon got hooked on Speedway.You captured the whole spirit of the thing really well, I also remember the old scenic railway racing round as well and the Belle Vue amusements after the meetings, fantastic nights.The track was terrific back then and some of the action was breathtaking.The first meeting I attended was against Leicester Lions and Ivan Mauger won the first heat by a mile, I remember thinking has he got a different machine from the rest of them because he was so far ahead of everyone.Like you say there was Soren Sjosten and the skipper that season was Tommy Roper.The other riders were Ken Eyre, Mike Hiftle, Dave Hemus and Chris Pusey maybe a young Eric Broadbelt as well? I also sat in the old F block over the pits right at the back and it looked fantastic when the track lights were on.It was heartbreaking when the Hyde Road track was demolished but at least the fabulous memories still remain.Thanks again for a great article."
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