Speedway's Civil War: Part One:
This week marks the 50th anniversary of one of the events that kicked off Speedway's bitter civil war that saw the blacklisting of the Provincial League in 1964.
Speedway quietly died in Southampton on a miserable and depressing night on the first day of October 1963. It commenced with a two minutes silence for the recently deceased Peter Craven. Torrential rain meant the meeting took place on an absolutely sodden track; it produced winning times between 71 and 78 seconds on a track with a sub 60 second track record. Barry Briggs won the final race to complete a paid maximum in a 43-35 victory over Wimbledon. Bjorn Knutsson, who twelve months earlier had combined with Briggs to form the spearhead that had delivered the Saints their only National League title, missed the final meeting.
Banister Court was purpose built for speedway and greyhound racing in 1928 by Charles Knott Snr. Thirty five years later he was still in charge at Southampton. Rumours of its closure intensified during the season and confirmation that Banister Court would close for re-development came in September. This was a tragedy, not just for Southampton fans, but for the whole of the National League. Already down to just seven teams, speedway's senior league could ill afford to lose another one. The final programme indicated that a site between Southampton and Chandler's Ford was under scrutiny as a replacement; but nothing came of it or Charles Knott Snr's plans for a track at Cadnam (to the west of the city).
It was the National League's response to this state of affairs that sparked speedway's civil war.
The 1951 season started with 37 tracks in three divisions of the National League. By 1958 just ten teams remained in a single division. Tracks fell by the wayside as attendances steadily declined. This trend did not confine itself to speedway. Soccer attendances fell for eight consecutive seasons from 1948/49 to 1956/57. In the bottom two divisions of the Football League where the scale of the undertaking was closer to speedway's the fall between 1948/49 and 1964/65 registered at 45%.
A greater range of alternative leisure opportunities (aided by the growth of car ownership) and the introduction of television meant most sports faced similar threats.
Speedway had some specific challenges, notably punitive levels of entertainment tax, and a culture of promoters taking the profits out of the sport rather than reinvesting them. In addition the legalisation of off track betting at the start of the sixties threatened the financial viability of greyhound tracks, many of whom also hosted speedway circuits.
The abolition of entertainment tax in 1957 gave the sport a breathing space. However those National League promoters who had weathered the storm and kept the sport going through the lean years felt they should be the principal beneficiaries in the new tax-free environment. Established promoters put considerable obstacles in the way of new promoters, for example at Liverpool where Reg Duval attempted to run in 1957. Despite this the level of activity outside the National League picked up and in 1959 Mike Parker arrived on the scene.
Parker moved from racing midget cars to promoting them, which introduced him to speedway. In 1959 Parker ran unlicensed composite (speedway, sidecars and midget cars) meetings at Bradford and Liverpool. (There was also an unlicensed meeting at Cradley Heath.) The Speedway Control Board (SCB) refused to licence these 'mixed' meetings because they contained an insufficient number of speedway heats (typically 12 to 14).
During the Autumn meetings took place in London with the SCB chairman Lt Colonel Vernon Brook with a view to bringing Parker's tracks under the jurisdiction of the SCB by forming a new league. Representatives of the Southern Area League (an amateur league mainly racing on Sundays) also took part in these discussions. Out of this a ten team Provincial League was formed. All ten tracks had been part of the National League a decade earlier. The competition received the blessing of the SCB.
The Provincial League started with a mix of veterans (including pre-war riders Wal Morton and Geoff Pymar), raw novices (George Hunter and Tommy Roper both started their league careers in the 1960 Provincial League), and many riders who had tried to break into the sport during the fifties, but found opportunities limited as the sport contracted (for example Ivor Brown, Clive Featherby, Ross Gilbertson and the Templeton brothers). Initially the standard was somewhat rudimentary compared to the National League. Pay rates were initially agreed at 12/6d a point. Over the next three years the Provincial League expanded, and its standard improved.
By 1963 the league had grown to 13 teams, and despite its 'Provincial' identity, had acquired a London presence with the re-opening of Hackney (and briefly New Cross). Most tracks reported healthy crowds: Cradley 5,000, Sheffield 6,000, Wolverhampton 6,000 and Edinburgh 8,000. (All of these figures come from various issues of Speedway Star over the 1963/4 winter and should be accompanied by the usual health warning that quoted speedway crowd figures merit.)
In contrast the National League continued its slide into oblivion. At the end of 1961 New Cross closed and Leicester opted for the Provincial League. Then in July 1962 Ipswich pulled out of the competition. This left just seven tracks going into the 1963 season. Fans complained of lack of variety, and riders complained about lack of bookings. In June Leicester re-opened for a series of open meetings specifically to provide more meetings for National League riders. Spearheaded by Allan Sanderson (principal shareholder in Midland Sports Stadiums Ltd, the company who ran Coventry speedway), the venture did not fare well - only four meetings were run.
The long running tension between the SCB and the Speedway Riders' Association (SRA) over foreign riders continued to simmer. With so few teams the National League became very vulnerable to teams threatening to withdraw if they didn't get their way. One instance of this occurred in April 1963 when the SRA wouldn't allow Norwich to track two foreigners - Ove Fundin and Olle Nygren. The SRA backed down and the Stars kept their Swedish spearhead intact.
Quite a few people were reaching the conclusion that amalgamation of the two leagues was becoming inevitable. Prolific speedway journalist Eric Linden concluded in the first Speedway Star of 1963: "the writing is on the wall...I can see only one future - and that is with only one league." Linden would return to this theme several times over the next few months.
In April Peter Oakes predicted that: "the future of British speedway undoubtedly lies in the hands of these 'junior' promoters who are helping bring speedway back into its rightful place..." In the same issue of Speedway Star (6 April 1963) the merits of the two leagues were debated between Provincial League fan Brian Buck (instrumental in Birmingham's 21st century revival) and National League advocate Martin Rogers (then a young journalist on the Speedway Star). The exchange, in which Buck claims the Provincial League provides more exciting racing and Rogers cites the more skilled riders on show in the National League was little different in substance from that which takes place nowadays between Elite and Premier League fans.
There were some strong opponents of amalgamation, notably National League Coventry's promoter Charles Ochiltree and Provincial League kingpin Mike Parker.
So with the loss of Southampton reducing the National League to just six likely starters for 1964 the desperate search for reinforcements began. By the time a solution had been found the Provincial League had made its unilateral declaration of independence and the ACU was preparing to blacklist the Provincial League, its promoters and riders.
Part II will cover the build up to the conflict between the National and Provincial League during the winter of 1963-64.
This article was first published on 29th September 2013
"Fascinating article and look forward to parts two and three, as it was a few years after that I began going regularly as a kid and heard plenty about these years, but never knew too much of the details. Dare I suggest I can see similarities between 50 years ago and now and just wonder if history is about to repeat itself once again?"
"Fabulous background detail to a period of the sport I know little about. I wonder how much modern speedway owes to Mike Parker?"
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