Penhall - Simply Too Good for Speedway
It is only in the last year or so that I have really started to read this brilliant website in any depth. I am sad to say that my relationship with speedway is, at best, a love/hate one. Or putting it another way I am a very grumpy old man.
We are all aware of the potential and ultimate spectator appeal of the sport of speedway. There remained a genuine reason for West Ham being known as "The Sixty Thousand Club". Well into the seventies Bristol were still pulling 30,000 crowds for a league meeting. But, for what I feel are very identifiable reasons even then, the sport continued to decline.
I feel that god looked down upon the world and immediately felt that a disaster of such proportions had to be addressed. He sent the world of speedway Bruce Penhall.
I recall the arrival of Penhall and Cradley Heath, one summers evening, at Waterden Road (Friday at eight-don't be late). It was round about 1980. For the first time in my life I witnessed a huge group of uniformed, semi-hysterical, school girls clamouring at the wire fence of the pits with their autograph books. Penhall spent some considerable time with them as they continued to push their books through the holes of the fence, for his attention.
To a humble Essex boy who had spent most of his life, thus far, lingering around the scrambles tracks of East Anglia it was obvious that this guy was another Elvis or another James Dean. If heaven had sent him to ambassadorial any other sport he would be, as I write, a global icon. From Pele to Lionel Messi the world of football can produce them. David Beckham would never win any of "The Greatest" awards within his sport but from a South American slum, to an inner city tenement, to an African mud hut, kids emulate him.
Can you imagine what Barry Hearn would have made of Penhall if his chosen sport had been snooker? Even if Penhall had joined the Saturday afternoon, town hall, knock about brigade (it was called All-In Wrestling) he would have been a household name. But predictably speedway or, more precisely, the administrators of it totally failed Penhall and the global fan-base.
Add other various factors such as the vitriolic and continual abuse that he and his likeable patriots had to withstand from a foul mouthed creature by the name of Kenny Carter and I was very pleased to see Bruce go. He was simply too good for speedway. I wished him all of the luck in the world.
Sadly the next time that I saw Bruce was at Billy Sanders Suffolk funeral. Amongst his many attributes Penhall had respect. This was a lad from a privileged background. He was not hungry. There was no need, apart from emotional ones, to enter into a pursuit that could kill him, cripple him and/or disfigure his Adonis looks for life. His story was everything from Roy of the Rovers stuff to a fairy tale.
If there ever remained any lingering doubt in my mind about my opinions on all of this they were confirmed for me a few years later. I think that it is perhaps understandable that my memory has become poor regarding speedway but it was in the days when the BLRC had been moved from Belle Vue to Blunsdon. On the occasion that I refer to it was programmed as a Sunday afternoon meeting.
I decided to go and commenced the drive from near Colchester in Essex to Swindon. Several sharp down pours of rain were experienced on the way but it was a drying day and they past as quickly as they came.
Upon my arrival I found a few dozen fans lingering by the gates of the securely locked stadium. The side had been ripped from a cardboard box and threaded onto a piece of course string. Written on the cardboard, in black felt-tip, which was suspended on the gate with the string, was "Meeting postponed".
Myself and a few other guys climbed the gates to look at the track. It was of course rideable. It was unforgiveable but totally consistent with those promoting British Speedway. I know much more but I would never dare write it. There and then I vowed that I would never attend speedway again.
This article was first published on 28th February 2016
"Very well put, all the years I have followed speedway, it seems to have the knack of shooting itself in the foot! But I will keep going, untill its last breath, or mine....."
"Good one John. The reason I was not keen on Bruce was because he was to good looking. As a rider, up there with the best."
"John, this is from Bruce Penhall;
"Interesting in two ways. Your view of speedway & the "cowboys" who run it, is absolutely right. The truth is, it is the long suffering fans like you & I that are too good for speedway, not the likes of Penhall. There were plenty of household names before he turned up - Briggo, Ivan & PC to name three. Penhall was many things, too good for speedway wasn't one. His infamous throwing of a race in 82, his total lack of respect for the Cradley fans who adored him - a love that was clearly one way as he messed the club around for a long period in 82, before his famous rostrum speech in LA. Penhall was many things, but wronged & let down by speedway, he was not."
"Granted, the sport's not what it once was. There's still good racing to be had, though. I'd never miss it on TV."
"Yes Bruce was a matinee idol, but also a fabulous rider. And to top it all he was a great guy to work with. His time was too short but he was fabulous for speedway."
"I'm with GED, I'll not give up on speedway til the day one of us is dead, its always been my passion and always will be (even if I sometimes get fed up defending the indefensible or the downright stupid!!) As for Bruce, he remains the best rider I've seen in 52 years watching our magnificent sport, and, if proof of his greatness were ever needed it was proven in 1989 at Landshut on World Final Eve when He broke the existing track record on a bog standard 4 valve in the Golden Greats meeting! Needless to say they then stopped announcing times as it was "unfair to compare!" SEVEN years after retiring BP broke their track record - WOW!!! I will forever be grateful speedway had BP but even more grateful he was a Cradley Heathen."
"Thank you to everyone who has taken time to comment on my article about Bruce Penhall and the decline of speedway. I must first start by making it very clear that I never ever penned it as an article. It was written as a comment to an article first submitted by the very knowledgeable Tracy Holmes, at least a couple of years ago. This was due to the fact that I did not really find and start reading this wonderful website, in any depth, until last year. So much of what Tracy wrote echoed my sentiments about the man and the hugely significant roll that he played within the last halcyon era of the sport.
The decision to publish it, as a stand-alone article, was made by Allan the webmaster/editor/proprietor of the site. I was nervous about the decision as I am, of course, aware of how passionate lovers of speedway can be and I have no wish to upset anyone.
Dave's comments particularly saddened me and I would never contest any of them. I remain more than aware of how easily highly accurate and confidential information can, within the world of speedway, fall into the hands of a bystander. I can also imagine how emotional the Cradley faithful must have felt upon receiving the news of Bruce's retirement. Dave's reference to 1982 is of course paramount. It was a watershed year for the world of speedway and Bruce's retirement was a very pivotal part of that.
The infamous L.A. World Final was perhaps more significant than it appeared. As tribute to and in endorsement of Penhall's contribution to the sport, up until that moment, perhaps it is worth considering how many British Speedway Promoters, of that time, actually attended? I am sure that Bruce will know. And secondly, although hurt and jilted by his departure, surely the loyal Cradely fans must acknowledge that it was Bruce's legacy that sent them "Billy The bullet" and "The Grin"; and in doing so perpetuating the World Champion production line of the famous old club?
It was heartwarming to read a note of thanks from Bruce himself, but I think that the bigger statement here is the fact that the guy still has the sport within his soul. Thank you Bruce.
And finally Stephen like you if it is on the telly I do try and watch it. But I do miss Thomas Gollob. Interestingly did you see that BT Sport have signed Suzy Perry? Amongst one or two things they said that they wanted her for her previous speedway experience. Could this mean that we may see speedway on BT Sport this year? "
"J ust to answer John Stock's query, I believe I was the only British promoter to attend the 1982 World Final in LA. My feeling was it was a hugely significant occasion not to be missed, the involvement of my Leicester skipper Les Collins notwithstanding. Malmo 1961 - the first World Final away from Wembley - was historic too, but a final in the US did signal the possibility of the sport going global. And the Coliseum was the first real one-off purpose-built track, in and out in a few days. The Ivan/Briggo/Harry Oxley team did a great jobwith that, incidentally. Sadly and surprisingly other British promoters displayed a remarkable lack of curiosity. As regards who did and didn't go, I did hear a suggestion the late Bill Dore of Reading went, but I didn't come across him. Jan Andersson might know."
"Having lived through this era and getting hooked on the Cradley Team of the late 70s I an say that without a doubt that this article gives a good reflection of the events of that magical period in the existence of Cradley Speedway. I am not articulate enough to write an article in the same style, but the I don't have to as John Stock has done an excellent job. Thanks for publishing this and I will continue to marvel at the skill of Bruce Penhall even as I used to as an 18 year old Black Country kid, who had never been out of Tipton! The authorities missed the opportunity that Bruce gave, and as one of those Cradley fans who he showed a 'lack of respect to' I'm over it and can see the bigger picture!"
"Thank you for that Martin. I was fully aware that you were the only active British Promoter in attendance that day. At the time, rightly or wrongly, I recall thinking what a dreadful endorsement of the sport it was from the men in Britain who, at that time, were responsible for running the most active speedway nation in the World.
I too felt that it was a hugely significant occasion, although I believe that it was not terribly well supported by the American public. Immediately upon your return I recall reading one of your super articles (I cannot recall in which publication but at the time I think that I was still reading Speedway Mail) entitled "Thank you America we had a nice day". It was a wonderfully poignant summary of the occasion and I could not help thinking, at the time, that contained within it was an underlying message to the other promoters of the day whose priorities laid elsewhere. I suspect that somewhere, amongst my massive pile of speedway literature, I may still possess it.
Over the years both yourself and Peter Oakes provided me with some immensely rich speedway reading material. I will never forget reading in one of your Kings Lynn programme notes (I believe that it was one of your Sunday afternoon "Sunshine Speedway" meetings), with very mixed feelings, "No longer will I stand at the gates of Kings Lynn Speedway waiting for Michael Lee to turn up". I am also certain that for a while you worked in my part of the World for Essex Newspapers?
With further reference to the events of the day in L.A. perhaps you may be able to confirm something else? I recall a story, but from where I cannot say, that on the night before your wife dreamt that Les Collins won the event. Is that true? We both of course know that if Mr. Kittleson had excluded both Penhall and Carter, as some at the time felt should have happened, Les would indeed have been World Champion.
Thanks again for your response Martin and lastly am I correct in thinking that you now live in Australia?"
"Hi John Stock, I am not sure that a Penhall tribute article should become a forum for a self-indulgent series of personal reminiscences from me, but suffice to say ... 1 - I was a sports editor with the Essex Chronicle Series in Chelmsford before scaling back those commitments when I became general manager at King's Lynn, and then went into promoting full-time in 1980 ... 2 - it's true my wife Lin 'visualised' Les on the rostrum ... 3. Yes, we live on the Gold Coast in Queensland. Always happy to engage with speedway folk, and if you or anybody else want to expand on any topic then please feel free to send a private message via Facebook or by email "
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