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The Year of the Champions
By Robert J. Rogers

The Hammers with their Haul

It is 1965, the middle of the Swinging sixties, Newham Council has been formed from the old County Boroughs of East & West Ham, and it's also the year that was to see West Ham's Speedway Team enter the history books!

Following the internal arguments with-in the Sport, it was decided in 1965 to have all teams in one league, the league was to be called the British League, and would see teams from England, Scotland and Wales all racing together.

West Ham were to become the first ever British League Champions, as well as winning the KO cup, speedway's version of the FA Cup, and becoming London Champions, beating both our east London rivals Hackney, who rode close by at Waterden Road, E.15 and Wimbledon.

There had been major changes within West Ham, with some of last year's team either retiring or moved to other tracks.

West Ham team was a mixture of experience and youth.

Our Captain was arguably the most famous of all Scottish Riders, Ken Mckinlay.

Hammers No.2 was Sverre Harrfeldt, the many times Norwegian Champion, who had been signed by West Ham in the close season from Wimbledon.

England Internationals, Norman Hunter & Reg Trott, backed them up.

Our young riders included the likes of Malcolm Simmons, who was to become one of the top English riders and rode in the sport for over twenty years, Ted Ede, Brian Leonard, Tony Clarke, Bob Dugard and Australia's Dave Wills.

The season started on the 6th April. The first match was against the legendary Wimbledon' Dons'. This was the first of many titanic struggles against Wimbledon this season. The hammers won 46-31.

On Easter Monday, West Ham held its Easter Trophy.

It was a chance to see some of the Stars of the old Provincial League, as well as the old National League in action.

The match winner was Australia's Charlie Monk of the Glasgow 'Tigers', although the true match winner for us was Anne Sidney who made a guest appearance as the current Miss World!

The reason for a Monday meeting was because West Ham's next away match was at Long Eaton, and the 'Archers' also rode on a Tuesday.

Our next home match was against the Newport 'Wasp's ' from Wales.

Before the meeting there was controversy, as the Speedway Control Board forced us to lose one of our riders left from the 1964 team, Bob Dugard. Bob had rode for New Cross in 63 and us in 64, but was told he had to go and ride for Wimbledon to boost their team strength.

To this day it still does not make sense, but proved what a crazy world Speedway could be at times.

There was such a fuss kicked up both West Ham Management and the Supporters that a few weeks later no less a person that Mr Nelson Miles Baldwin, Chairman of the SCB, came to see the team and to 'calm the waters' over the forced transfer.

May, saw the first clash between our east London rivals Hackney, since 1937.

Shock, Horror, Hackney beat us both home and away; in fact they were the only team to beat us at home all season.

Hackney were original called the Wolves, but by 1965 they had been re-named the 'Hawks' after West Ham's second team, which won the National League Division Two championship in 1934. The Hawks manager was an ex-West Ham rider Len Silver.

The last match of May saw a re-run of the match against the Coventry 'Bees', the earlier one was abandoned after rain had halted the meeting only just over the halfway through.

The Hammers won 42-36, but the highlight of the match was the Silver Sash Match Race.

Match racing harks back to the original days of Dirt Track riding, where two riders would be 'matched' against each other for a prize.

In this case, Jim Lighfoot of Coventry was the current holder and therefore 'matched' against West Ham Highest scorer of the night, who was Ken McKinlay, Ken had rode for Coventry in 1964.

The winner would either still hold the Sash or pass it to the race winner.

Ken won the race and held on to the Sash for over a month.

Amongst the Holders for 1965 season were all three London Captains as both Colin Pratt of Hackney and Olly Nygren of Wimbledon also at one time had held it.

As I was at school, I was only allowed to go to away matches if they were on a Saturday night, so on the 29th May, we went up to Yorkshire to raced against the Halifax 'Dukes' at the Shay, which was the name of the home ground for the local Rugby Club whose stadium they used.

Halifax promoter was ex-hammers rider Reg Fearman, the Dukes were new to Speedway racing and their race jacket was almost the same as West Ham's, with a white Elephant instead of Hammers, although this team were no 'white elephants'.

On major difference was the track; it was banked which was unusual for a Speedway track. The reason for this was because the stadium was built between two hills!

At first the riders had a bit of difficulty with the track, but once they got used to it, they begun to enjoy themselves, and the final score was 39-38 to the Dukes.

The reason for the odd score was because in heat 5 both the Halifax riders failed to finish and Ken led Sverre home for a rare 0-5 heat result.

By June, the Hammers were mid way in the league and slowly moving up, when tragedy struck.

On the 23rd June, West Ham raced against Belle Vue (Manchester), the match it self went well with the Hammers beating the 'Aces' 44-34.

The second half of the meeting was mixture of solo events and a junior team event to help the younger riders of both West ham and Hackney.

In the first heat, Dave Wills fell from his bike and was struck by another bike.

Lying injured on the track, the call went out over the stadium Loud Speaker System, 'Number 33 to the pits', we knew this was no ordinary accident; the Track Doctor had been called for. Soon the ambulance was called on to the track and Dave was lifted in to it, and away it went.

An attempt was made to continue the meeting, but our hearts were not in it, the rest of the night's races were abandoned.

Dave died in St Mary's Hospital, Stratford, later that night.

I was standing less than 5 yards from where Dave crashed.

He was interned at the City of London cemetery in Manor Park on the14th July.

Five years later on the same date, the Hammers flag flew at half-mast again, when five members of the team were killed in a road crash in Belgium, returning from a mini racing tour of Holland.

The team was at a low point, and so were the fans, but the show must go on.

July, August, September, the Hammers slowly piled on the victories.

The 23rd of July saw us on the way to Edinburgh in Scotland for a match against the 'Monarchs'.

The match was on the 24th, and as we left London on the Friday night by coach, it started raining.

It rained all the way there, it rained all the time we were there, so no chance of sightseeing (in fact we spent the afternoon in a cinema trying to dry off!) and by the time the match was due to start, the track was waterlogged.

The match was cancelled, and we journeyed all the way home in the same wet clothing, arriving back on Sunday 25th. This was not helped by the fact that the Hammers were racing at Newcastle on the Monday against the 'Diamonds', and the coach was partly stripped out to carry two spare bikes, racing spares, and even a spare mechanic, so on the way back at 02-00 hrs on the Sunday morning, we helped to unload these at the Brough Park Stadium, Newcastle, now that's what you call team loyalty! (By the way, we lost 46-32)

On the 27th July we were treated to the site of Australian Banked Chair racing.

Banked Chairs were a form of three-wheeled Speedway bike which third wheel was banked at an angle and carried a passenger like sidecar racing.

The biggest difference was that they raced Clockwise on the track as apposed from Speedway, which was anti-clockwise. Although very spectacular, it never caught on, as on smaller tracks it was almost impossible to pass.

August was an interesting month, my twelve birthday and three major matches.

First, KO cup, Quarter Final, and guess what, we drew those Dons from Wimbledon at home. Trailing for most of the match, Ken & Sverre snatched a 5-1 Victory in the 14th Heat (KO matches were raced on a 16 heat format as apposed from the league 13 heat).

The Dons then got a 4-2 result in heat 15 and we went into the last heat 45-45.

Olly Nygren, Wimbledon's Swedish captain (and it later years to become West Ham's) sped into the lead and despite the best efforts of the Hammers, the final result was 3-3-heat result and a 48-48 draw.

It now meant we had to go to Plough lane, to face the Dons on their home track.

God must have been a West Ham fan that night, the result went backwards and forwards as first Wimbledon, then West Ham took the lead.

With one heat to go, the score was the same as at West Ham, 45-45.

I think my throat is still sore, 50 years later, as we shouted our support in that last heat to spur the lads on, the Hammers got a 4-2 victory and we were in to the semi-final.

On the 10th August we took on the Vargana Wolves from Stockholm in Sweden in an International Challenge Match. Another fantastic nights racing saw us draw with Vargana, who were the top team in the Swedish Speedway league.

West Ham was chosen to hold the British Final of the World Speedway Championship. The meeting was due on the 24 August, but our old enemy, rain, defeated us! The meeting was re-run on the 31st, with Barry Briggs of New Zealand and Swindon who was the current World Champion winning it, just beating Ken Mckinlay in to 2nd place.

September arrived, and we had drawn Glasgow away in the Semi-final of the KO Cup.

With just two heats to go, the score was 42 points each, the tide tuned in our favour in heat 15 with a freak 0-3 to the Hammers, with Sverre Harrfeldt being the only rider to finish.

World Championship time, this was a solo event for the best riders in the world. Held at the Empire Stadium, London, which had been the home of the Wembley 'Lions' Speedway team (which our manager Tommy Price, who was the first English World Champion in 1949, had been the captain of), had a special interest for us.

As well as our captain Ken McKinlay, amongst the riders were three ex members of the 1964 team, Bjorn Knutsson (Sweden), who had been our captain, Bengt Jannson (Sweden) and Reg Luckhurst (England).

Bjorn won the world crown with 14 out of a possible 15 points, and as West Ham was his last team he had rode for in England, we claimed him as a our 3rd World Champion, joining Australia's Bluey Wilkinson and Jack Young.

Another Saturday night, 25th September saw two coaches of Fans travelling up to Manchester, to ride against the Belle Vue 'Aces'. Now the matches against Belle Vue were always good as both tracks are very much alike, West Ham was 415 Yards, Belle Vue was 418 yards, and so both teams felt at home.

Belle Vue had one major advantage over West Ham, the Hyde Road track was a part of the Manchester Zoo Park, and it had a giant Funfair.

So after the match that we won 47-30, the fans and the riders all went off to the funfair. Now I can claim to have raced against the1965 champions, at BUMPER CARS, there was some unofficial challenge match, Riders vs Supporters, do not think there was a winner.

Sverre Harrfeldt won the London Riders Championship at Hackney with a 15 pt Maximum, which at the time was considered one of the most important Solo Trophies, second only to the World Championship.

Ken Mckinlay won the Brandonapolis at Coventry which was another major solo trophy.

October 1965, a month never to be forgotten.

We had reached the Final of the KO cup, and in a two-leg event against Exeter; we won at Exeter and took a 6-point lead in to our home leg.

We beat the 'Falcons' by 30 clear points, and the first bit of Silverware was on the shelf.

The last home match was a London Cup match against Wimbledon.

As Hackney had been beaten by both of us at home, we needed to win against the Dons, for our second trophy. In another closely fought match, we beat them and added the London Cup to our shelves.

The season ended with a spectacular Fireworks display.

Now for the big one, although the home season had been completed, we had one more match, away to the Cradley Heath 'Heathens' from Dudley in the West Midlands.

We took 30 coaches of supporters to the match on the 23rd, but it was not that straight forward.

Owing to heavy fog in Birmingham our coaches got lost, and we ended up with two groups of coaches passing each other in the opposite direction down a clearway!

Our lead coach driver pulled in to a garage to get directions and we were lucky to find a Police car in there filling up with petrol.

A quick explanation to a slightly bemused West Midlands's Police Officer, the might of the force spring in to action. A Police car was sent to collect the other group of coaches we had passed, and then we were escorted one police car in front, and one behind straight into the stadium.

I dread to think what the Cradley fans must have been thinking as a mob of London's east end Speedway fans arrived with a police escort!

To win the league we had to beat Cradley, if not guess who would be Champions?

That's it's, those Dons from Wimbledon. Sadly neither West Ham nor Wimbledon (or Cradley) still has speedway teams today, but when the old fans of these two great rivals meet, you can guess what year always crops up.

The Hammers won 31-47, History was made, we were the Triple Crown Champions!

The great Sverre Harrfeldt scored a 12-point maximum, and if not for a problem in Heat one where Ken Mckinlay was a non-starter after a disagreement with the Referee, Ken was also unbeaten.

They were backed up by the rest of the team, nine points from Malcolm Simmons, eight from Norman Hunter, five from Brian Leonard and two points each from Reg Trott and Tony Clark.

And as Max Boyce would say, I WAS THERE!

Happy Hammers Fans Head Home from Cradley Heath.
Robert is top right.

 

This article was first published on 20th December 2015

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