Boldon Stadium was the home of Sunderland Speedway. It was in 1964 that speedway first came to Boldon, and it was the short lived "Sunderland Saints" who took to the track in what proved to be a disastrous introduction to the sport. Then ten years later it once again saw action as the "Sunderland Stars" took to the track. This time speedway lasted for four very eventful seasons.
The team that took to the track in 1971 was not a strong team and they were always going to struggle to survive. But survive they did, thanks mainly to skipper Russ Dent and George Barclay, without them the "Stars" would have gone under.
Boldon Stadium was a very friendly track, it had a sort of homely feel to it. Some say the track was a little on the small side, but at 310 yds long it certainly provided some close meetings. Last heat deciders were quite common, real nail-biters.
Speedway was all new to us supporters, it was thrilling to watch. Even the build up to the racing was all exciting, like watching the riders arrive in a cloud of dust across the dusty car park. Phil Crump and his mates, Crump was a big name during that season for Crewe, one of the top riders in the league!
I remember that meeting with Crewe very well. We started the meeting with a surprise first heat defeat as Crump and Millen took the honours for Crewe, 1-5..not good! After 8 heats Sunderland were still behind 21-27. Then Sunderland turned it around with two 5-1's in heats 9 and 10. First it was George Barclay and John Lynch and then Russ Dent and Alan Mackie who put the "Stars" in the lead for the first time.
Nail-biting time in the very next heat as Crewe hit back with a 4-2 to level the scores once again thanks to the Crump/Millen combination. Dent/Lynch put Sunderland back in the lead with the last heat still to come, and what a great cheer when George Barclay and Pete Wrathall held on to take a share of the points, 3-3. Sunderland won the meeting 40-38.
Phil Crump went through the card that day with a 12 point maximum, then to round things off he also won the Rider Of The Night Final.
Russ Dent posted the fastest time of the season, 65.8, on the 9th of May v Rayleigh.
In 1972 the "Stars" were strengthened when Jack Millen and Graeme Smith came to give much needed respite to a side that had relied heavily on Dent/Barclay the previous season. Sunderland also won the annual Four team Tournament in 1972, with Berwick, Teesside and Workington taking part.
Millen rode again for Sunderland in 1973 along with the fast emerging Jim Wells and Dave Gatenby. This was the season that Berwick promoter Liz Taylor took over at Boldon after two seasons with Len Silver in charge. It was in those two seasons (72/73) that Sunderland saw what I believe to be Millen at his best. He took hold of speedway and gave it a kick up the backside! The atmosphere in the stadium when "Crazy Jack" was around was just electric. Russ Dent won the Northern Star Championship that year, after Dave Baugh had won it in 71 and 72.
1974 was a disaster from the very start. Under new promoters the team was very weak. A string of defeats both home and away saw Sunderland (now known as the Gladiators) lurking at the bottom of the league. Dent and Barclay were still there, but this time their magic was not enough. Brian Havelock was "coming on a ton" as was Jim Wells, but that disastrous start had sealed their fate. The second half of the season saw a big improvement as Andy Meldrum and Tim Swales were drafted in.
Dave Baugh, Dave Gifford and Jim Wells all claimed the track record, and just when Wells looked like holding on to it with a time of 63.4, Bimingham's John Hart stole it from him by scorching around in 63.2, and on the same day he also took the 3 lap record with a time of 48 sec. These records stand today!
Another memorable meeting was against Boston in July 74. Sunderland had started to pull themselves together when Liz Taylor came to their rescue after the previous promoters had pulled out in mid season. The Boston meeting was a hard fought battle with Sunderland emerging with a lot of credit from it. Tim Swales was the hero for the "Gladiators", riding at no 6 he produced a match winning performance by scoring 14pts from five rides, only losing out to Carl Glover in the last heat. He also went on to win the Rider Of The Night Final to send the fans home happy. Sunderland 42 Boston 36.
The Stars/Gladiators only ran for four seasons, but what memories! Like the time Barry Wallace the track announcer wrote in his programme column, it was concerning an incident in the previous weeks meeting with Berwick, it goes like this...."Only 'Iron Man' Millen could have survived such a fearsome pile-up in the tenth heat and then come bouncing back like a rubber ball to win the twelfth heat some five minutes later.
The thought of it would have frightened most riders off for weeks! Here is a replay...
"Jack and Willie Templeton were both on a maximum when they lined up in heat ten, Willie got the drop on Jack at the gate and led for three quarters of a lap before Jack drove hard inside the Bandit on the fourth bend to take the lead, but Jack had over cooked it a bit, clouting the fence, bouncing back off again and clinging on to the bucking bike for a few yards, clouting the fence again before parting company with his bike, which just beat Jack over the finishing line as it sailed through the air. The starting marshall hastily looked for a white flag to hold up in surrender! The stretcher went back to the pits unused as the skipper, still with his leg in plaster from a previous misfortune, hobbled away to the cheers of admiration from the fans. What a man, and what an inspiration to a team as he gamely turned out with Russ Dent against the still unbeaten Willie Templeton and Andy Meldrum two heats later. It was a vital heat as the Stars led by just 34-31 pts There was no need to worry though as our boys overtook Willie to clinch the match with a 5-1 heat win".
Yes those were the days! .
There was a strange atmosphere in the stadium when Sunderland entertained Stoke on 13th September 1974, the fans sensed that this was to be the last time that they would see speedway at Boldon. Sadly it turned out to be just that, so as Brian Havelock won the last ever race (in the Rider of the Night Final) Sunderland did at least go out with a win.
It was all over.
So all we are left with are memories, of Russ Dent's records..Most meetings, most rides, most points, most maximums and winner of the most Rider of the Night Finals.
Dent/ Barclay's heroics, (the only riders to compete in all four seasons)
Jack Millen on the rampage! His highest average for a Sunderland rider, 9.74
The silky smooth Graeme Smith.
Mr team men, Peter Wrathall and John Robson.
From novice to heat leaders.Brian Havelock, Dave Gatenby and Jim Wells
The promising Terry Barclay
That "Lovely lad" Vic Harding, he would go on to become a really good rider before tragedy struck him down.
This article was first published on 28th October 2005
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