Reaching a Half Century
Philip Dalling reflects on fifty years as a fan, journalist and author.
The contrast between the two venues could hardly have been more pronounced.
The County Ground in Exeter presented a scene of animation, with several thousand enthusiastic Devonian fans enjoying home speedway success on a balmy August evening.
Fast forward almost exactly one month and the enveloping gloom of autumn in drab suburban Leicester seemed to emphasise the feelings of desperation at Blackbird Road, as the Young Hunters fell to another home defeat in front of a crowd struggling to reach four figures.
The only link between the two meetings in 1962 (apart from the fact that both venues have since fallen victim to housing developments) is a personal one. Those two evenings half a century ago represented my introduction to the frequent joys and occasional sadness of speedway racing.
To be perfectly accurate, the Provincial League Riders Championship meeting at Exeter on Monday August 20 1962 was my first fully conscious experience of speedway. I had been taken to Station Road, Long Eaton a full decade earlier (around my fifth birthday) to watch the Archers ride against Exeter, but have little recollection of the proceedings, apart from the noise and the size of the crowd.
Resisting the temptation to claim a diamond celebration, I am happy to mark the PLRC round at Exeter on that never-to-be-forgotten evening as my personal speedway jubilee.
I was on holiday in North Devon, staying with an uncle and aunt in a centuries-old thatched cottage where virtually the only sound to disturb the tranquillity was the occasional hiss and clank of steam trains on the former Great Western Railway line at the bottom of the orchard.
On the evening in question a neighbouring farmer invited my uncle and I to accompany him to the County Ground. Exeter attracted a good following from the rural areas in those days, and many people from North Devon were happy to accept a round trip of more than 100 miles to see some speedway.
We stood by the start line, on the terracing beneath the County Ground grandstand. I was instantly captivated by the colour and excitement, the sounds and the smells of speedway, and the pre-health and safety experience of being able to virtually lean on the solid safety fence added to the attraction.
The meeting itself was a triumph for the Falcons, with the first two places being taken by home stars Len Silver (a 15 point maximum) and Pete Lansdale (13), with Wayne Briggs of Edinburgh finishing third on 11 points.
I stayed in North Devon that summer for the best part of five weeks, with its attractions hugely enhanced by the pretty, dark haired Devon maid who lived further down the lane from my aunt and uncle. She didn't come to that first meeting, but I am happy to say she is now a speedway enthusiast.
Although that was my only visit to the County Ground, I was hooked on speedway. On the Friday of my first week at the local FE college I persuaded the deputy principal to allow me to leave early to catch a train to Leicester to watch the Young Hunters race Neath in the Provincial League.
She seemed a bit dubious (I doubt she had even heard of the sport) but relented when I made it clear that this was probably my last chance for a speedway fix for several months.
I met an Archers fan from the early 50s on the platform of the now long-vanished Trent Junction station to catch a diesel railcar to Leicester. A bus ride and a brisk walk through the failing evening light brought us to Blackbird Road.
I have vivid recollections of squeezing through a very narrow turnstile and entering what seemed, when compared to the County Ground, to be a cavernous (and virtually empty) stadium. Again, the chosen spectating position was in front of the grandstand.
The feeling, detectable even as a 15-year-old, that speedway was a family (and quite a small one in many ways) was enhanced by the fact that several of the riders who had thrilled me at Exeter were again in evidence. Leicester skipper Vic White and his team-mate Norman Hunter had been at the County Ground a month earlier, as had Jon Erskine from the Neath Dragons side.
The evening was a bit of a disaster for Leicester. Vic White was injured in the first heat, and was unable to take any further part in the meeting, which Leicester lost 44-32. The 'Young' Hunters had quite a Norwich feel that night, with veteran Harry Edwards, Derek Strutt and Trevor Hedge in the side.
The return rail journey to Trent was also fairly disastrous, as the railcar hit a cow on the line and we sat for a couple of hours at Barrow on Trent while the line was cleared. I was spectacularly late home, which didn't go down too well.
My next experience of speedway was on my own doorstep. Although I was unaware of it at the time, discussions about reviving the Archers at Station Road were already in progress when I visited Leicester.
The start of the 1963 season meant I had my own team to watch, within walking distance of home. On parade at the first meeting against St Austell were many familiar faces. Vic White was now an Archer, and the ex-Neath riders Erskine and Charlie Monk joined him in the Long Eaton side. Trevor Redmond, who had scored a paid maximum at Blackbird Road, reprised his rider/promoter role for the Cornish Gulls, and successfully plotted their narrow away win.
The result that night hardly mattered. I now felt I was a fully-fledged member of the speedway family, rather than a newcomer. A couple of years later I was no longer just a terrace fan but an aspiring journalist, with access to the pits.
Although work and other factors have meant there have been seasons when I have not been able to watch a great deal of speedway, my enthusiasm has never really declined, and it has been a pleasure to write three books on the sport, and countless articles for magazines and websites.
It is difficult to make accurate and fair comparisons of different eras in any aspect of life. If pressed about speedway likes and dislikes, I would probably admit to a preference for black leathers and one-off World Championship finals, a distaste for the ludicrous prancings of the start-line females and the rantings of some of the more ridiculous meeting 'presenters'.
The virtual anonymity of many (perhaps most) promoters during meetings is also a puzzle to anyone brought up on the experience of watching the old masters such as Reg Fearman, Ian Hoskins and Len Silver whipping up the crowd via the centre green microphone. Promoting, in the truest sense, used to be an essential part of marketing speedway.
Overall, I think the standard of racing today is excellent, and there are still plenty of characters in the sport. Closely-fought meetings are commonplace and away victories frequent. The days when sides like Long Eaton were absolutely steamrollered in most of their away meetings (remember 63-15 at Wimbledon?) have gone. The great sadness is watching enormously exciting meetings, with plenty of overtaking, watched by such sparse crowds.
Personally, the next target is to be still around when the sport celebrates its centenary.
This article was first published on 19th August 2012
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