The Sad Death of Norwich Speedway
My first experience of Speedway was at The Firs Stadium on the outskirts of Norwich. My Speedway-mad uncle took me there when I was 8/9 years old. From the very beginning I loved everything about it. The riders crouching at the tapes ready to unleash massive engine power, a moment of magic. The noise, the heady smell of methanol when the bikes were being warmed up. The speed, the excitement. I was a country boy from the "sticks" of north Norfolk. There wasn't a great deal to get excited about in my little village. Speedway transformed that daily tranquility. I never imagined that what I fell in love with from the beginning would be taken away from me in a relatively short space of time.
A Speedway track was first established in Norwich in the early 1930's and Speedway became a popular spectator sport. It re-opened after the end of the Second World War and enjoyed boom years in the late 40's with crowds of up to 30,000. Before I was born, my mother and my uncle were regulars at Norwich Speedway. My uncle told me about the riders who had impressed him in those post-war years including one of the last leg-trailers, Bert Spencer. There was also a lively social scene after the racing finished so Speedway at Norwich was a social event as well as a spectator sport.
In 1952 Norwich "Stars" moved up to the then Division 1 for the first time, the same year a certain Raymond Bales, otherwise known as "Billy", joined the team. In the mid-fifties crowds averaged 12-20,000.
In 1955 Norwich's captain and established star, Aub Lawson, persuaded the Norwich management to recruit a young Swedish rider who had impressed him in Australia. His name was Ove Fundin. It would be a defining moment in the history of Norwich Speedway as Ove was destined to outshine his mentor Aub, and indeed almost every other rider in Speedway. Not that Ove got red carpet treatment on arrival. He had to bring his bike to Norwich on the train from Liverpool Street station! The following year, only his second in British Speedway, Ove won the World Championship at Wembley. It was the start of 10 years of domination of world Speedway, and of course in so doing he put Norwich firmly on the Speedway map.
So, by the time I first set foot in the Firs Stadium, Ove was already a superstar and it was only natural that he would become my idol. I've written about Ove elsewhere on Speedway Plus ("When Ian met Ove") but it's worth putting into perspective his importance at that time not just in Norwich, but in Norfolk as a whole, where he was a household name. Difficult to imagine now but Norwich Speedway then was bigger than Norwich City Football Club which languished in the old Third Division South. Norfolk was a rural outpost, a "backwater". You had to go out of your way to get there. We didn't have a lot to shout about. Ove changed all that. Naturally the Norwich supporters idolized him. He may have been Swedish, but as far as we were concerned he was one of "us". We, the people of Norwich and Norfolk, had a World Champion in what was then Britain's second biggest spectator sport.
On the DVD, "Memories of Norwich Speedway," there is grainy footage of racing at the Firs, including Ove's Golden Helmet contests with top riders of the time, Barry Briggs, Peter Craven, Bjorn Knutsson, Nigel Boocock. The big crowds are in evidence. The only thing is the old films are.....silent! So the Memories have a "dream-like quality to them, only for the dream to be shattered by footage from a Golden Helmet race at Belle Vue where the roar of the bikes bursts through. Yes, that's what it was really like. The noise of the bikes reverberated round the Stand as the riders came past on the home straight at The Firs.
Apart from Ove my other hero was Billy Bales. Billy was 5 foot tall. I was also small as a kid and naturally I thought if local lad Billy can be a Speedway rider so can I. In fact Ove has since told me that he was "too tall" for Speedway and that it was better to be Billy's size!
In 1962 a young teenager called Terry Betts joined the "Stars" and had almost instant success. The following year Norwich were allowed to sign a second foreign rider, Ove's compatriot, Olle Nygren. Olle was already a very established rider who had raced all over the world. Not surprisingly perhaps the "Stars" achieved their best result that year coming second only to Belle Vue in the National League. The photo of that successful 1963 Stars team illustrates how much has changed in Speedway. It shows fresh-faced riders in all black leathers and simple race jackets. A contrast with the riders of today who are walking adverts for their sponsors, everything from agricultural machinery to central heating systems. It was a different, more innocent age.
In 1964 the season didn't start well with a dispute between Terry Betts and the Norwich management resulting in Terry not riding at all for the Stars. However a new talent emerged, another youngster who'd impressed in second-half races. This was Trevor Hedge a farmer's son from a village not far from where I lived and a Cycle Speedway champion.
To all intents and purposes that year Norwich was a thriving concern. Crowd attendances were between 7-10,000, some of the best in the country, figures which any Speedway promoter would die for now. There was a thriving social scene at the after match club room, source of the original "Speed-dating". However rumours had already been circulating that developers would take over the stadium. Sadly the gossip-mongers were proved right. I can still remember my sense of shock and disbelief. How could this possibly happen? It was a bereavement.
What is true that Speedway in 1964 was in a difficult situation. The National League was down to only six tracks and there was open warfare between the Speedway Control Board and the "pirate" National League. However a solution was found, resulting in the emergence of an 18 track British League in 1965. It was to prove a solid foundation for Speedway to thrive again in the 70's and 80's. Norwich was well-placed to be part of this healthier future but it was not to be. The explanation? It seems there is only one. The Norwich directors could not resist the temptation of cashing in on their commercially valuable site. But in doing so they deprived Norwich not just of a Speedway track, but also a successful team, a World Champion, and a social meeting place which still attracted healthy crowds.
The last meeting held at the Firs in October 1964 saw the return of many ex- Stars to commemorate Norwich's demise. Sadly Ove was unable to be present so he, and his thousands of fans, were deprived of the opportunity of saying a final farewell. The Stadium was demolished to make way for a housing estate.
A year later a new track opened in the sugar-beet fields just outside King's Lynn. New promoters Maury Littlechild and Cyril Crane bought up what they could from Norwich, including lighting systems and race jackets so "The Stars" with their famous green and yellow emblem were re-born and one Terry Betts was tempted to emerge from his premature "retirement" to ride for the new Stars. He would go on to be Lynn's number one and all-time favourite rider during 13 golden years.
The emergence of King's Lynn was little consolation to me however. I was 12, coming up 13 years old. Lynn was 45 miles away and it took an hour and a half to get there from my village. Even if I got there, how was I going to get back? King's Lynn may have been in Norfolk but as far as I was concerned, and more importantly my parents, it was virtually at the other end of the world at that time.
For Ove the closure of Norwich was a psychological blow and he became from that time on in effect a part-time rider. He returned to the UK for brief periods to "help out" Promoter friends at Long Eaton, Belle Vue and Wembley. Amazingly he won the World Championship again in 1967 despite not being a full-time rider. However his heart was never in it in the same way as during his Norwich days and he's said himself that he was only "guesting" for the other teams.
The other Stars went their separate ways. Olle Nygren who had been racing since 1948 carried on riding for another 10 years, perhaps befittingly ending his nearly 30 years of riding at the top level at King's Lynn. A Mr "Indestructible" and still active in his 90th year.
Trevor Hedge found his way to Wimbledon Dons where he had 11 successful years before also finishing his career at King's Lynn in 1975.
Billy Bales joined the Sheffield Tigers where he saw out his 21 year career. By chance I met a girl from Sheffield in 1966, the start of many trips between Norfolk and Sheffield so I was able to renew my "acquaintance" with my other idol, Billy, at the Owlerton Stadium where he was extremely popular. Like Olle Nygren Billy has recently celebrated his 90th birthday. I have often wondered why Billy never rode for King's Lynn. He spent 5 years travelling from Norwich to Sheffield, a minimum 4 hour trip each way, passing the Saddlebow Road Stadium as he did so. Perhaps someone reading this article can provide the answer to that question?
There have been many attempts to revive Speedway at Norwich and as many false dawns. In 2012 with the backing of Ove, Olle, Terry Betts and Trevor Hedge it seemed there was a real chance of seeing Speedway again in Norwich, but in the end it came to nothing.
The Stars live on. King's Lynn is still serving up top flight Speedway, an achievement in itself for a rural outpost in times when the continued existence of Speedway is under threat. I have made a few pilgrimages there in recent years, the first fittingly with my uncle then 85 years old. I enjoyed it, but nothing can replace the atmosphere in the Firs Stadium when Ove was in his prime.
RIP Norwich Speedway.
This article was written with the assistance of a leading authority on Norwich Speedway, none other than Mr Ove Fundin himself, certainly the best rider Norwich ever had, and probably the greatest rider in the history of the sport.
This article was first published on 30th August 2020
"Ian, interesting reading. Yes 2012 was looking good re the new Norwich Speedway but as you say it came to nothing and as Trevor Hedge stated they missed the best chance to restart since 1965. Ove agreed to ride my JAP as a publicity stunt to promote the start up at any track we could fix it up with. I had arranged Poole, Ipswich and Somerset before plans collapsed. Such a shame.
I liked the older way of speedway, the spotlights on, riders coming out on track looking for their bike as they fastened their helmet, gas goggles down being pushed off by two chaps in boiler suits. the chrome, the noise and smell. I think the promoters stopped all the razamataz because they thought there were too many chaps [all volunteers] from the chap who pushed the bikes out onto track, the helmet colour chap, the pushers off getting in for nothing, Now they ride straight out of the pits, all the razamataz gone."
"Really enjoyed the article. While Terry Betts may have been in dispute with Norwich at the start of 1964 , wasn't he banned for nine months by the SCB for missing meetings at the 1963? This led to a number of approaches from Provincial League teams, including Glasgow, all of which he rejected. Was Ove Fundin considering retiring at he end of 1964 or at least no longer coming to the UK and had he already told Norwich about this? Might have influenced the decision to sell the site as crowds were likely to fall off badly if he didn't return. Still a sad day when The Firs closed. "
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