Speedway lost one of its finest men this week with the passing of Neil Street. By way of a tribute we publish this extract from Jeff Scott's Showered in Shale Book, recalling the day in 2006 when Jeff met Neil for the first time.
Between the meetings, the legendary Neil 'Bill' Street takes a lot of time and interest in my book and my research questions, while we sit in the welcome shade of the cubbyhole by the pits. He looks surprisingly cool in his trademark [red] jumper, despite the intense heat of the day and the severity of the loss that he's just endured in his capacity as the Newport team manager. He has immense experience and an attitude to life that places him somewhere between Gandalf and Yoda in the speedway world.
Neil chats easily and animatedly about his great-grandchildren one minute or switches seamlessly to his grandson Jason Crump's progress in this season's Grand Prix - notably how difficult it is to be the defending champion, the strain of all the travel on a proud father of a young family, as well as his recent bout with chicken pox ("it's much worse when you get it as an adult"). Neil goes to practically all Jason's Grand Prix meetings to help out in his corner of the pits along with Jason's father and his son-in-law, Phil Crump. Neil travels much less nowadays, especially since he relinquished his responsibilities as the Australian team manager, "it was time to hand over to a younger man". Which it's fair to say, in comparison to Neil, Craig Boyce most definitely is; though as a rider he's already reached 'veteran' status.
Neil has enjoyed the glory years of his management of the Aussie squad with great patriotism, particularly since he'd been so closely involved throughout the decade or so of their rise and dominance in team competitions. "We were so good they even had to change the rules to beat us," he says, but, sadly, in the way of all flesh, the team is ageing and, for Neil, has already past their best until "hopefully the next generation comes through again".
He chats affably with his eyes sparkling and alive but bristles immediately, at my reference to the common description of him as a "legendary figure" within the sport. The frequent repetition of this claim offends his modesty and frustrates him, "I'd like to dispense with all that bullshit about legends, as many people say this. I've done lots of things and made most of the things, as others would have done, I've been very fortunate".
A brief run through his curriculum vitae would find that he followed on from his riding career in Britain to become a successful and very skilled team manager for both club and country, his beloved Australia. He has been particularly successful for his country, where he single-handedly has encouraged and shaped the development of many later generations of riders in the UK. Mostly through his avowed policy to bring over "hordes of blokes" from Australia to gain vital experience here.
Neil has always been keen to develop a lot of young people's talents, which, inevitably, appears to involve "keeping them at my place in Exeter to get them settled in". There is also his widely acknowledged influence upon his son-in-law Phil Crump and his grandson Jason, the current reigning World Champion. And, of course, he revolutionised the equipment used in the sport through its adoption of his invention of the first 4-valve engine into speedway; the "Neil Street Conversion" as it was known, an innovation that he introduced in 1975. As he accurately but modestly notes, in a lifetime, "you do a lot of things!"
Neil came to this country in 1952, on March 2, from Melbourne on a one-way ticket that cost £25. He left behind a large family where, at an early age, he'd had to assume a lot of responsibility as the eldest child of nine who had a father who "was a drunkard". He grew up quickly "milking cows and the like" before he left for England at the age of 21 with no money to his name, to seek a different life. Upon arrival he was "very fortunate" to get to stay with Mrs Weekes in Exeter.The appreciation of good fortune really should be Neil's catch phrase (Neil "very fortunate" Street) since it peppers his conversation throughout and he always acknowledges it with wonder and such genuine sincerity. Mrs Weekes helped Neil find his feet "she looked after me as good as my mother", and eventually helped lead him to think about putting down permanent roots in this country. He was also helped to settle in England by Mrs Morgan, who he went to stay with after five years in the country, and he smiles when he notes, "I'm lucky enough to have had three mothers in my life!"
When you speak with Neil, you recognize and feel his love of people and his essential humanity. He believes his journey to England was a great eye opener and formative experience for him. When Neil says, "it's been a wonderful life", you believe him since it somehow doesn't sound clichéd or trite. He arrived with no money "you learned to mix with people" with "lots of different nationalities" and through this process he gained a respect for common humanity. It's an experience he passionately believes that all young Australian men, who "luckily" (that word again) have talent for riding a speedway bike, should seek out. When they arrive in England and travel throughout Europe, they can "learn a broad outlook on human nature" and through "mixing with a variety of people" they can have experiences that teach them "to become more tolerant" of themselves and other people. He believes it "opens their eyes" and is "much better" than the formal education provided by University because it opens them up to experience life by transplanting them to the other side of the world away from the comfort of their "usual expectations".
Through Neil's eyes, people experience the same issues and concerns the world over, because there's an underlying, shared "common bond". He encourages every young rider he meets to gain this experience, as he "hates to see young people missing opportunities". Neil has intense pride in his family and also in his workmanship "I've built four houses, two in Victoria and two here, with my own hands". However, when push comes to shove you have absolutely no difficulty to believe that he's "not interested in material possessions" and that really "it's all about living".
For Neil a little of the brotherhood of man goes a long way, "deep down everyone is just people and the best thing you can do is just experience life". He looks at it philosophically, if the young Aussies who come over to Britain "don't make it as a speedway rider, they've still really experienced something special in their life". It's definitely something that Neil encourages, since he says he encounters "more whingeing Aussies over here than Brits".
It's also a sad fact that many young men, of whatever nationality, who set out to be speedway riders just won't ever make the grade. In Neil's experience, "three quarters of the riders can't ride". It's a blunt analysis, but he believes way too many riders get obsessed with details that are ultimately irrelevant to their performance; "they get too complicated" and obsess about comparatively minor technical matters - such as clutches, gear ratios and ignitions - when really "it's all about throttle control!" In an ideal world they should ride their bikes "like a jockey, feeling everything through your backside - what the tyres are doing and the surface - and riding the bike using their throttle accordingly". This skill is beyond many riders ability and consequently hampers their performance.
If Neil has any regrets about the sport, it's the impact of the necessary but inexorable rise of "professionalism" that you find throughout the sport in Poland, Sweden and England. It hasn't become "too stupid for words over money" like football but, Neil worries, that it's heading that way. Speedway was a "family concern that's now too professional", even the fans no longer mix with the riders in the bar afterwards, as they used to do in the past. The sport has definitely along the way lost this innate fraternity between the riders and the fans, probably inevitably so, with many riders' intense travel schedules that takes them throughout Europe for League racing and the Grand Prix's. "Speedway fans want to feel that they're part of the family" but "as money comes into it, they [the riders] lose identity with the fans", it's not as bad as football, but it still "makes me bloody mad".
I could listen for hours to this kindly, informed and most humane of men but since he has already missed the first couple of races of the Conference League meeting, Neil just can't bear to miss the chance to watch the next generation of riders any longer. He heads off to the steps of the pits metal viewing platform, just like any other keen fan of the sport, to catch up on the detail of the races he's missed and complete his programme correctly with the help of another fan.
Jeff met Neil on other occasions and you can read about those on Jeff's Blog
This article was first published on 6th October 2011
"My wife,Julie, and I met Neil on a number of occasions, most noteably at Peterborough after a meeting. He talked to us about track preparation and tyres in a way that showed his depth of knowledge of speedway and his concern for the sport and riders. A true gentleman of whom we can say that we feel the better for having known him."
"I met Neil many years ago and as a Weymouth supported was over the moon when he was made manager, he brought over a rider named Terry Tulloch who lived with me for 3 seasons hence to say Neil spent a lot of time at my house and we travelled a lot together going to meetings, I found him a true gent and very knowlegable about life and told me how he first arrived in England, we used to do the track at Weymouth after the meeting with me driving the tractor and Neil working the grader are freindship continued when he moved to Poole, I learnt so much from him, a great man sadly missed."
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