Ole Olsen and Coventry Bees : The Glory Days
Between 1973 and 1984 I lived in Coventry, not far from Brandon stadium, the home of Coventry "Bees". I was already hooked on Speedway, from the age of 8 years old, (See my article on Ove Fundin, "When Ian met Ove"), so it was only natural that my wife and I should become regulars at Brandon.
In the early 70's Nigel Boocock ("Little Boy Blue") was still Number One rider at Brandon. We witnessed Nigel's last ride in Coventry colours before his retirement and emigration to Australia. Except Nigel didn't retire and came back to ride for another two or three year in British speedway although not with Coventry.
My wife was then a medical social worker at Coventry hospital so she got to see the downside of Speedway when riders came in to be treated for their injuries. There was a horrific crash in 1973 involving local favourites John Harrhy and Les Owen. John, a farmer, was known for his fence-scraping and swashbuckling style. Les, also a local lad was extremely popular. Sadly Les ended up with some brain damage and partial paralysis so his career was ended. John Harrhy got back to riding after a year out, but this accident proved that there are fewer more precarious ways of earning a living than speedway riding.
The then Promoter at Coventry was Charles Ochiltree, a legend in Speedway himself. He promoted Speedway for 40 years until his death in 1998. He was old-fashioned. He looked like a bank-manager but he certainly knew how to run a Speedway track.
Looking back now it all seems very kitsch. At the beginning of every meeting Starting Marshalls, officials, St John's Ambulance people, riders, all marched in step out onto the track to military style music, followed by presentations and then "The Flight of the Bumble Bee" by Rimsky-Korsakov. If Rimsky could have been a time-traveller and fast-forwarded himself to the West Midlands I'm sure he would have been astounded,not just by Speedway, but by music from one of his operas being used at such an event!
In 1976 Charles Ochiltree tried to lure Ole Olsen from Wolverhampton to ride at Coventry. Ole, the "Great Dane", was a world-class rider who had already won the World Championship twice. However the Speedway Control Board had "allocated" him to ride at Hull. This is a perennial problem in Speedway. The SCB wanted to ensure competitive teams, an entirely laudable aim, except that it meant an annual musical chairs of riders moving from track to track. Riders were often sent to places they didn't want to go to. But worse, it meant Clubs and riders couldn't really establish a rapport with their fans. There were exceptions, like Nigel at Coventry, Peter Collins at Belle Vue, Terry Betts at King's Lynn etc but they were in the minority.
There then developed an arm-wrestling match between Ole/Ochiltree and the SCB. Ole said if he couldn't ride for Coventry he wouldn't ride anywhere in the UK. And the winners were............ Ole and Charles Ochiltree. Ochiltree had to pay 30,000 pounds to Hull, but this proved to be the shrewdest investment he ever made, and fortunately for us supporters at the time, Ole brought 7 glory years to Coventry Speedway. Brandon Stadium had big crowds and the "Bees" won two championships in 78 and 79, the second being decided by a 42-36 home win for Coventry against Hull in front of a huge crowd.
Not only was Ole a great individual rider, he was also brilliant tactically. What endeared him particularly to the fans was that he was adept at team-riding. He'd invariably get out of the second bend in front slowing down just enough to allow his less able team-mate to come up on the outside whilst at the same time blocking the opposing heat-leader from getting past. Ole would then shepherd his partner for the rest of the race, taking care to continue blocking the opposition, to pass the tapes first and second for Coventry. That takes skill. It must have been infuriating for the away team, although they must have been aware of what was likely to happen.
Thanks largely to Ole there was a great atmosphere at the Stadium. We introduced many friends to the sport and we enjoyed the chat and the banter with other supporters.
One night in 1975 Olle Nygren was riding in his last year for King's Lynn. I had seen Olle ride for Norwich in the early 60's so that year Olle was already 46 years old. He had been racing since 1948, an amazing career of over 25 years at top level Speedway. In one race coming out of the starting gate Olle was determined to hit the first bend in front so he stuck out his left boot in exaggerated fashion to prevent his opponent on his inside from getting into his normal cornering position. Perhaps not an entirely fair racing tactic. We chatted about this incident after the race with another spectator who said" Ah well that's Olle Nygren for you, he would chop up his own grandmother if necessary!" Quite! That summed up Olle nicely. He is still going strong at 90 years old, commuting regularly between the UK and his native Sweden. These speedway riders are made of tough stuff.
Back to the other Ole, Olsen, he stayed with Coventry until his retirement in 1983. He was a great ambassador not just for Coventry but for Speedway in general. He was articulate in his second language, more so than many riders were in their first. At his farewell meeting 20,000 fans turned up on a wet night to wish him goodbye, remarkable testimony to his popularity. Like Ochiltree he has since shown he has organizational ability, setting up a Speedway Centre, and helping to produce subsequent Danish World Champions like Hans Neilsen. He is a national hero in Denmark.
In 1984 I moved away from Coventry. The Bees continued to have success in the 80's so these were great days not only for Coventry but for British speedway in general. It was a "Golden Age". Contrast that with now. In 2017 Brandon Stadium failed to open, having fallen into the hands of prospective property developers. So Coventry Bees, a team that had been in existence since 1928, dropped out of the league. Brandon Stadium, for so long a mecca of speedway, is now derelict and vandalized. There have been campaigns to reinstate Speedway but so far they have come to nothing. There's probably no better symbol of Speedway's decline. Speaking in 2017, Ole Olsen said British speedway was going downhill and that he feared for its future, criticizing the lack of investment in the sport. Just as in his riding days Ole's analysis is spot on.
This article was first published on 5th January 2020
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