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Speedway's Civil War - Part II:
The Winter of Discontent
By Arnie Gibbons

Ian Hoskins

Missed Part One?

 

The closure of Southampton meant that the National League headed into the close season with just six tracks. There was a possibility that this could further diminish as Oxford's position looked precarious. After finishing a distant last in both the 1962 and 1963 campaigns, rumours of a move to the Provincial League surfaced.

There was a consensus that the NL couldn't function with less than seven teams, but really needed eight or more to be a credible competition. Where would the new additions come from?

The first hope was that Southampton could continue at a new venue. According to the programme from Southampton's closing meeting promoter Charles Knott had already investigated at least five potential sites - one near Chandler's Ford just outside the city is singled out as the most promising. By January the focus was on a site at Cadnam in the New Forest, a few miles west of Southampton.

By the time an open licence application for Cadnam was turned down (at the SCB meeting of 14 January) it seemed more likely that Charles Knott would be lining up with the Provincials. The Knott family already had interests in both camps through their ownership of Poole. Knott told Speedway Star:

"The National League is finished, You can't have the same old faces coming around week after week."

"I've told the other promoters that they'll have to meet the Provincial boys eventually...I've never seen speedway better controlled than by the PL people in the whole of my career"

Given the events of 1963 in the Provincial League this is quite a bold statement.

With the timescale making it unlikely that a replacement track could be opened from scratch in the Spring, the remaining NL promoters searched far and wide for a new track. It might be quicker to list those venues that were not considered with almost every track that had staged speedway seemingly under scrutiny.

The most substantial of these were:

  • Birmingham's Alexander Stadium (finally re-opened in 2007). The Wolverhampton Express and Star reported in November that three potential promoter teams had expressed an interest - Doug Ellis/Phil Hart, Reg Fearman, Charles Knott and Charles Foot - but the rent demanded was too high.

  • West Ham - the most persistently mentioned track. With the Custom House stadium under the same ownership as Coventry the obstacles to surmount seemed less challenging than most of the alternatives.

  • Wembley - rumoured to be in the frame in December, and still under consideration in February when Motor Cycling magazine reported that there were real prospects of Wembley returning. The Wembley management had indicated to the SCB that it was keen to re-enter the sport with a mid-May start, Thursday race night, and a Barry Briggs/Bjorn Knutsson spearhead. However future availability looked doubtful due to the planned use of the venue for the 1966 Football World Cup.

  • Reading - uniquely among the potential venues, one with no history of speedway. The difficulty with speedway at the Tilehurst greyhound stadium arose from the presence of a tarmac stockcar circuit. Nonetheless it was still being touted as the answer to the NL promoters' quest in March 1964.

    Other tracks mentioned in the pages of Speedway Star that winter included: Harringay, Walthamstow, Bradford, Rayleigh, Ipswich, Leicester, Plymouth and St Austell. To this list can be added references to unspecified venues, such as the speculation in Motor Cycle News (15/1/64) of a track in the Midlands not used for speedway for 30 years. (Nottingham White City, Birmingham Hall Green, Birmingham Perry Barr (where speedway returned in 1971) and Northampton seem to be the most credible candidates.)

    As lead after lead turned into a dead end the NL promoters looked at alternative ways of augmenting their numbers. Some of these were frankly barking. SCB chairman George Allan suggested the seventh team be an all Swedish one. Another plan proposed three regional teams consisting of leading PL riders based at Wolverhampton, Exeter and Sheffield.

    However the more straightforward option of enticing a PL track to join the NL turned out to be a disaster. Most of the NL promoters efforts were directed at Mike Parker and his tracks. Initially the strategy was to persuade Parker to throw his lot in with the NL promoters, and bring all three of his tracks (Wolverhampton, Newcastle and Hackney) into the senior league. This ploy was based on the assumption that having spent the season in litigation with Reg Fearman, been deposed from his position as chair of the PL Promoters' Association and temporarily seen Wolves expelled from the league he would be only too pleased to defect.

    The dynamics of the situation changed dramatically when the PL promoters met over the first weekend of November. Parker had obviously concluded that the additional costs of running in the NL (mainly riders' points money) would not be offset by sufficiently large crowd increases, particularly given the limited fixture list the National League would offer. In addition Parker had a long standing distrust of the SCB arising from confrontations in 1959 and 1960 when he was setting up the Provincial League. Consequently the offer to join the NL did not attract Parker.

    At the PL promoters' meeting Parker asked his colleagues to accept him back into the fold. Fearing that they would be seriously weakened by Parker's departure, and with Parker still threatening to throw his lot in with the NL promoters, the PL bosses decided to bury the hatchet.

    Parker made it quite clear that he would not acquiesce to any orders to 'promote' his teams to the NL. Having failed to find any volunteers to join the NL, their promoters and the SCB considered how they might force a track to join them. As the PL champions and one of the best supported clubs Wolverhampton were the obvious candidate.

    The battle lines were hardening in advance of a summit at the RAC on 20 November involving promoters from both leagues, the SCB and the Speedway Riders' Association. Ian Hoskins, Edinburgh promoter, spelt out the Provincial promoters' position in Speedway Star:

    "Some people believe that speedway in Britain begins and ends with the National League - that the Provincial section keeps going simply to nourish the NL. These narrow-minded, outdated attitudes make me sick.

    "The big stick will be out at this meeting, and I anticipate lengthy, heated discussions on the question of 'direction' of our teams into the ailing NL

    "This is something I will oppose most strongly. If any individual promoter wants to break away from the PL and join the NL set-up I say good luck to him, but I can tell you now, that if there is a breath of 'compulsory direction' in the air in the London discussions the PL promoters will stand united in their fight against it"

    The main outcome of the meeting was a decision to have another meeting the following week. Between these two meetings John F Kennedy's assassination took place in Dallas and the BBC broadcast the very first episode of 'Doctor Who'.

    The PL promoters viewed the atmosphere as hostile judging by the reporting in the Wolverhampton Express & Star the day after the first meeting. The second meeting focused on the options for the structure of the speedway leagues in 1964. These included various options for amalgamation. The central proposal for amalgamation into one big league with equalization of teams became known as the 'Parker blueprint'. This was published in the Speedway Star on 21 December.

    Other versions of amalgamation were also discussed, probably one involving handicapping instead of equalization (as floated by Charles Ochiltree), and a two division structure with promotion and relegation. In the weeks following the meetings the tenor of the reporting suggested that the one option not involving amalgamation would be the chosen path - carrying on as before.

    This left the National League to continue its search for new members while the Provincial League moved on to firming up plans for 1964 with a similar set-up to the previous season.

    The Provincial League plans for 1964 were hammered out at the Provincial League Speedway Promoters' Association PLSPA meeting at the Shakespeare Hotel, Stratford over the weekend of the 11/12th January.

    The format would basically be the same as 1963, with St Austell, Stoke and Rayleigh being replaced by Glasgow (White City), Sunderland and a mystery South Wales track (subsequently revealed to be Newport). The Provincial League Riders Championship Final would be held at Belle Vue, an announcement that would have significant ramifications.

    The SCB met the following week (on the 14th), and declined to approve the PL plans. It also decided to 'invite' Wolverhampton to join the National League, exercising its authority under regulation 55 which gave the Board the power 'to review the composition of the leagues.'

    Before the meeting Parker stated:

    "If the Board try and force us into the NL I shall withdraw all my tracks from their jurisdiction." (Wolverhampton Express & Star)

    The Wolverhampton Express & Star reported the SCB meeting the following day with the headline: "It's war" says speedway boss. Although the Wolverhampton local paper's reports reflected a view of the conflict through Parker's eyes they found space for a quote from Control Board Secretary Major Bill Fearnley:

    "They (SCB) feel strongly on this matter and I have written to Mr Parker urging him to re-consider his decision to stay Provincial. He has been given seven days to think again."

     

    Continue to Part III

     

    This article was first published on 9th March 2014


     

  • Doug Nicolson::

    "We're the NL serious about opening Plymouth, St Austell, Rayleigh or Leicester? All had closed in the preceding year, having been unable to make PL racing pay. Surely there was no possibility of any of them making a go of NL racing. I'm interested in Mike Parkers plans for amalgamation and equalization. Do you Have any details of his equalization proposals?"

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