British Speedway : When did it start to decline?
I was nearly 40 years old and planning my first trip to Belle Vue Speedway. I was looking forward to it for two reasons. First of all, since being a kid I had always been intrigued by Belle Vue. When the "Mighty Aces" came to my home track, Norwich, in the early 60's it was always an enticing prospect. They were pretty much the team to beat. Then there was the mouth-watering anticipation of the Golden Helmet match races between my idol, Ove Fundin, and the legendary Peter Craven. There was their French name, the fact that they had reputedly one of the best tracks in the country at Hyde Road and there was a zoo next door! Yes Belle Vue, operating continuously since 1928 were, and still are, the most glamorous and famous club in the history of British Speedway. Some 30 years on from those days at the Firs, having moved to near Manchester, I was getting the opportunity to visit Belle Vue Speedway.
The second reason was it would be my 10 year old daughter's introduction to the delights of Speedway. The year was 1991, by which time the Aces had moved away from Hyde Road and taken up residence at the Greyhound Stadium on Kirkmanshulme Lane.
It was a pleasant summer's evening. Getting into the Stadium I was immediately struck by how down at heel it seemed. It wasn't the Belle Vue of my childhood imagination that's for sure. That wasn't mega-serious but there was something more disturbing, something more important than the physical surroundings, and that was the lack of a vital ingredient, "Atmosphere". By my estimation the crowd was somewhere between 1500 and 2000. It was my first visit to Speedway for 7 years since I had left Coventry. The contrast was striking between this and a Brandon Stadium which was in good nick under Charles Ochiltree, a place usually pretty buzzing during the Ole Olsen years. The racing too that night wasn't particularly close, so I left the meeting in disappointment.
However Belle Vue had at least one satisfied customer that night, my daughter. She liked Speedway and has been a fan ever since. Quizzed on her memories of the experience nearly 30 years later she recalled the noise, the smell, being able to stay up late, and eating fish and chips on the way home!
It was only a long time afterwards that I realized what I had witnessed that evening was not just a contrast between two Speedway stadiums but probably a bigger phenomenon, the fact that attendances at British Speedway had started to decline. It's not a new subject but it seems something significant had occurred in the late 80's.
British Speedway had had its problems well before this time. After the post war boom years the National League was down to 6 tracks in 1964. Then the merger with the "pirate" Provincial League saw the formation of an 18 track British League which was to prove a solid foundation for a golden era in the 70's and 80's. Something that definitely had occurred in the mid 80's was the loss of Speedway on mainstream television. ITV's "World of Sport" and its legendary commentator, Dave Lanning, had helped to popularize Speedway over 20 years but its transmissions stopped in 1985. Up until this time Speedway could consider itself a "mainstream" sport. If I'm right in my analysis, generalizing from the particular, what had gone wrong and why? The subject for a future article maybe.
In the meantime, next year I'll be approaching my 70th year and, Covid permitting, I'm planning another visit to Belle Vue, this time to visit its new venue. The reports are good. It seems like a great place to watch Speedway, although its capacity of 6500 for a "National" stadium seems to show the limit of Speedway's ambition in 2020. This time however, I hope I shan't leave disappointed.
This article was first published on 15th November 2020
"I quite liked Kirkmanshume Lane, although by the time I paid my first visit the backstraight spectator accommodation had been demolished and, yes, some parts of the remaining facilities were certainly down at heel.
It is a couple of years since I visited the new National Stadium. It is magnificent and the racing, whether seen live or on television, is excellent. But I missed the ability to drift around the stadium, which has usually been permitted at speedway tracks. It was possible to stand on the bends or the back straight and still get full access to the grandstant bars. These were a meeting place for a significant number of former Belle Vue riders (and riders from other tracks). I had the pleasure of meeting Bill Powell, Arthur Wright, Peter Williams, Jim Yacobi, Roy Pecock and others. "
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