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Riders to Remember....Peter Craven
By Dudley Jones

Peter Craven

Of all the riders who have, down the years, sadly died riding in the sport we love, probably only the death of Tom Farndon might nearly rival the sense of loss and grief felt by so many at the death of Peter Craven in 1963.

I can remember, as if it were yesterday, hearing that Peter was seriously ill in Edinburgh following a track crash at Old Meadowbank in September 1963. I remember also wishing, with all my heart, for Peter's recovery, and the sad news, given to me by a non-speedway supporting neighbour, of his death four days later. They say that many can remember where they were when John Kennedy was shot. I can remember that news, but my memory of hearing of the tragedy of Peter's death is much clearer. It was a warm sunny afternoon and I was standing on the forecourt of my parent's shop at Surlingham, 6 miles from Norwich.

I will tell you why this saddest of events had such an effect upon a 17 year old who had been supporting speedway for little more than a season. My feeling, at that moment, was of myself watching as Peter floated away from us all for ever.

In those days there were only 7 teams in what was then the National League (the elite league of the day).

Consequently, we saw quite a lot of each of the other 6 clubs, none more so than Belle Vue.

1963 was Norwich's best ever year in Division 1, finishing second. Ove Fundin had led the Stars for best part of a decade, Olle Nygren had strengthened the team and the spectacular (some times hair raising in those days) Terry Betts was making his mark.

Fundin was a regular contestant/holder of the Golden Helmet match race championship, and so was Peter Craven of Belle Vue. Challengers were nominated every month or so.

A challenge match between Norwich and Belle Vue, at the Firs on 15th April, was the occasion of a match race challenge by Peter Craven for the helmet held by Fundin. Peter was reigning World Champion (for younger readers this was a truly universal competition, where all got a chance to win on a knock out basis, and you felt that the winner really was the best).

This event was always much anticipated, the large terraces around the track being particularly full.

As most will known Peter was slight of build, only a little taller than Norwich's own 5 foot Billy Bales. He had not been an overnight success at Liverpool, but quickly made his mark at Belle Vue, once he had learned to turn his height to his advantage.

Some would say that the lean blond Swede was a little too tall to be a speedway rider, but several World championships, and countless other honours, said otherwise.

Both Craven and Fundin were 'back markers'. That is to say that they belonged to an elite of just 5 riders who enjoyed the dubious benefit of a 10 yard handicap in league matches. (Briggs, Moore and Knuttssen were the others).

The match race preceded the challenge match. I cannot tell you too much about the starts, as they were invariably forgotten in the action.

The records show that Fundin won the first race between the two, Peter the second, and Fundin the decider (the match was over two legs and Peter subsequently took the Helmet).

Picture if you will these two men, one short, one tall, one bearing the famous 'Ace of clubs' race jacket, the other the much missed yellow star on a green ground.

What made Peter so memorable was twofold. First he had a wonderfully exciting style, secondly he never gave up trying.

Norwich was a biggish, wide track, with plenty of dirt. There was more than one racing line, and track preparation was usually good. It was said not to be too different to the old Belle Vue track at Hyde Road.

Fundin tended to be a white line man, Peter, like other later riders groomed at Hyde Road, was not adverse to sweeps around the outside. Both men could ride almost any line with supreme skill.

The tapes went up and four laps of excitement was guaranteed. Peter tended to sit almost 'between' the frames, often holding the bike up straight, while leaning off, weaving his body to maximise adhesion and speed. If Fundin were in front Peter would be after him and all around him, perhaps inside, perhaps outside, but always harassing with that superb, thrilling, style.

Win or lose, Peter was always the gentleman, always prepared to wave to the crowd.

In that April challenge match Peter scored 10 points from his 4 rides, losing to Fundin in Heat 6, and again in Heat 12 (of the 13 heats). Peter beat Terry Betts and Olle Nygren twice each. In addition Peter qualified for the Top Stars Scratch race, beating Betts and Nygren to do so, but losing to Betts in the final. The result of the match itself was 39 all.

Moving to July 6th 1963 Norwich staged a qualifying round of the World Championship. Peter was at his brilliant best (and I use the term advisedly), scoring a straight 15 point maximum against the likes of Peter Moore, Betts and Gooch. Interestingly, Len Silver, then of Provincial League Exeter, greatly impressed with 10 points.

10 days later Peter was back, for a league match. By this time Peter was still holder of the golden helmet (having seen off Briggs), with Fundin the challenger (these challenges came monthly, usually but not exclusively involving the 'big 5' mentioned above).

On this occasion Peter, again wowing us with his style and speed, won the first heat, with Fundin taking the second and the decider.

In the league match Norwich were on top form, scoring a 46 - 32 win. This does not, however, mean that it was boring. Indeed it was a great contest, keenly fought (Belle Vue were strong that year, being top of the table by mid season). Dick Fisher was the Belle Vue star on the night, with Peter ending on 7 points, which belied his efforts (as I said the Stars were nearly as strong as Belle Vue that year).

If I were able to nominate one great race from the many years I have witnessed, the final heat would be amongst them. I can remember it like it was yesterday.

Craven and Soren Sjosten lined up against Norwich's super Swedes, Fundin & Nygren.

Peter did not always make the gate, but on this occasion he and Sjosten got away and team rode the Stars out of it for the first lap. It should be said that the diminutive Sjosten had learnt much from Peter, and had a similar syle of riding. I digress.

For the first lap the near perfect team riding of these two 'mighty atoms' (as Peter used to be called), held sway. On the second lap, second bend, Nygren took a mighty handful of throttle and got past both Aces around the fence. Fundin trailed last.

At the start of the last lap Fundin was still last, the team riding seemingly impenetrable. However, along the back straight Fundin did what perhaps only he could and, very bravely, simply powered between the two tiny Aces.

Three abreast they tore into the final two bends, but Fundin made it stick and joined Nygren for possibly the hardest won 5 - 1 I have ever seen. In the scratch final in the second half Fundin won from Craven, Fisher and McGregor.

There is one more meeting I will tell you of, and it took place at the Firs on September 28th 1963.

Peter had lost his championship is an incident filled final at Wembley a few weeks before.

The RAC National Trophy Final was a two-legged event, contested that year by Norwich and Belle Vue. Belle Vue had had a great season, and the first leg had already been raced at Hyde Road.

However, since that meeting, the world had changed forever. On 20th September, towards the end of an inter-league friendly at Edinburgh. On the final lap Peter was closing on George Hunter when Hunter's engine seized. Peter took avoiding action, but he was too close, crashing heavily into the fence. On the 24th September, he succumbed to his head injuries, and Britain had lost possibly its greatest ever, but certainly its most spectacular and best-loved and admired rider.

At the Firs on the 28th, it was a dank autumn evening, slightly damp. I went there with mixed feelings, and heavy heart. Norwich were 18 points down from the first leg, and in other circumstances they stood no chance against the 1963 Aces. I didn't know whether, still shocked, I should stay away. In the end I felt that I should go to show my respect and sorrow at the great loss.

This was different, no wizard of balance, no twice World Champion to thrill us all.

Dick Fisher was absent, Bob Duckworth was replaced, but the Aces still had Maidment, Sjosten and McGregor to hold the 18 point advantage. It should have been enough, but these were no ordinary circumstances.

Something much more was missing that night, the fight had gone from Belle Vue. They were a sorry sight, in mourning for the master, the 'mighty atom' himself.

We on the terraces took no pleasure in the Trophy winning 57 - 27 score. Peter had gone, and he was more popular at Norwich, arguably, even than Ove Fundin.

Peter was truly a great. Great rider, a great human being. I have never heard a bad word of him, and tails of his good nature, fair play and kindness are legion. We felt so much for Brenda and their family, but it was a tragedy for the whole sport that he was taken.

Only a year or so ago Bruce Blanchflower, who kindly gave me a Norwich programme from the date of my birth, and whose family were connected with the speedway, related to me how Peter used to call at his house on his visits, and pay more than generously to have his leathers cleaned.

If ever there was a better man in speedway, in every sense, then I never heard of him.

There are not too many benefits in growing older, but a compensation that I cherish is that, if I shut my eyes, I can still see Peter Craven spectacularly riding the great Firs track (in colour and high definition!) Perhaps, somewhere up there, Peter and Soren are still team riding. Thank you so much Peter, for indelible memories of your magic.

The Firs itself had only one more season. I wonder, on a still September night can the faint roar of a JAP be forever heard around the green in the middle of the housing estate that now occupies the site? Who knows, if Peter had been permitted to join Norwich earlier that year, he might yet have been with us.

 

We want to feature similar articles on riders from any era of the sport's rich history. If you'd like to contribute a piece then email us at speedwayplus@hotmail.com or fill out our form here.

 

This article was first published on 11th February 2010


 

  • Barry Wainwright:

    "This young man, perhaps only twice as old as me at the time, was the best ever rider that I have ever seen. He really did know what balance was all about, as he very rarely touched his foot in the dirt. He didnt need to. "

  • Michael Noke:

    "Reading the Peter Craven article brought back many memories of the Hyde Road track and Peter himself. I was born next to the old stadium and my early years were infused with the noise and smell of those Saturday nights. I started watching the Aces on a serious basis in 1963 and of course Peter's death overshadowed a wonderful season. What a team that was. Fond memories indeed!!"

  • Anonymous:

    "My friends and I started watching speedway at Belle Vue in 1960 and watched them regularlly until Peter's death in 1963. I well remember a visit to the pits after the match one Saturday night which became a very special night to me because having chatted with Peter for some time and telling him of my involvement in cycle speedway, he actually gave me his number 1 ace of spades breastplate which I wore on many of my tracking occassions. Thanks again Pete. "

  • Dave Oates:

    "What a great article, how it brought back the memories from all those years ago, watching the Aces at hyde road, Saturday nights have never been bettered! After the meeting the gang would go into the pits and meet the stars close up, and always Pete had the biggest crowd round him, he was probably totally knackered and wanting to get home but he never showed it, he would chat to all the kids sign all the autographs until the last fan had gone a true gentleman a real superstar! As written in the article I too remember that terrible day, my dad could hardly bear to tell me of Pete's death, I walked down the main road and my best mate Trev was walking up, we did not speak we just hugged each other and cried, two 15 year old kids, our hero gone forever but never forgotten. Peter Craven, quite simply the best!"

  • Jack Ormrod:

    "Peter Craven is a true legend and one of the all time greats. I watched him at Belle Vue for 3 years as a teenager and rode the sport myself to appreciate his wonderful talent . Magnficient, magical, graceful and with great humanity broke my heart when he lost his life at this exciting and dangerous sport. Regards and love to his family."

  • Clive Bradley Matthews:

    "Tuesday night was speedway night at Southampton and it was a very special one when the 'Aces' were in town. I particularly remember peering over the pit fence at Peter Craven, I was just nine years old in 1955 and full of awe at the World champion. Peter's bike seemed to be tied together with bits of wire and his twist grip was wrapped in sticky insulating tape, it must be remembered that riders equipment and bikes have changed quite a bit since those days!

    Charlie Knott was the promoter and owner of Bannister Court Stadium and he was always there on the centre green, smartly dressed in his suit or black overcoat, complimented by his trilby hat, he was the perfect showman and Peter inevitably started the off track frolics by turning the water hose on Charlie & running off with his hat! We never knew if Charlie Knott was really mad at Peter or whether it was all in good humour.

    Peter was well loved at Southampton as he was wherever he went. Saints supporters were saddened to hear of his accident at Meadowbank in 1963 and as a previous writer has mentioned, he can remember where he was on learning of Peter's death, I too can recall that moment. Peter Craven will always be in my memory even after all this time."

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