SPEEDWAY. An Olympic sport? You think I jest? Why not? We get the Olympics again next year. Stick around, customers. It was while plundering the archives for some delectable morsel of dirt-track antiquity to relate to you that I came across this fascinating prospect.
It was contained in the very first edition of a wonderful magazine called Speedway Echo ('16 pages - illustrated, 6d') which was launched as a monthly 'quality journal' on March 23, 1948. What, you may ask, brought up the subject of speedway and the Olympics? Well, 1948 was the year that speedway was turfed out of the Empire Stadium Wembley for most of the summer season to make way for the last Olympic Games to be held in Britain and, I suppose, it was a hot subject at the time.
The Olympics I mean, not speedway.
Those of you who were around in those days - like me - will recall that the illustrious Wembley Lions had to go all the way to South London to ride most of their fixtures. To Wimbledon, where they were hated so much that, on one infamous occasion, 1949 World Champion Tommy Price was threatened with an iron bar by some locals who had taken exception to the way he had ridden against their precious Dons.
Modern speedway fans are much more civilised, aren't they? Such a thing couldn't happen now, of course. Could it?
It may have been that Dons fans, outraged by the invasion of their Plough Lane citadel, were merely expressing their frustration because, in a report in the same Speedway Echo issue it was pointed out that because the South London enclosure was miniscule compared with the massive Wembley, the arrangement would necessitate admission to Wembley fixtures by ticket-only, and the tickets would be issued only to regular cuckoo-in-the-nest Lions supporters - except for 'a small number which will be reserved for the opposing track'.
And, if you are ready for a wallop in the Gobsmack Department, the demand for space on the 25,000 capacity Wimbledon terraces was expected to be so great that, the magazine said, 'it will be no good for anyone to turn up in the hope of seeing the racing by payment at the turnstiles'.
Incidentally, Wembley had won successive league championships in the two previous seasons plus various cup competitions, as well as having the 1946 British Champion in Mr Price. But, usurped from their traditional home in 1948 they had to play fourth fiddle to New Cross, Harringay and West Ham in the league.
It should be pointed out, though, that they lost skipper Bill Kitchen and international George Wilks to injury early on and had been given special dispensation to ship in the incomparable American Wilbur Lamoreaux to help out.
And Lammy assisted them to snitch the National Trophy and the London Cup just to prove the Lions still had teeth, even though forced to ride nearly all their matches on foreign cinders. Oh, yes, and Wembley's Split Waterman won the London riders Championship as well.
But we don't want this to turn into a Wembley wake, do we?
The reason I was delving back into the early editions of Speedway Echo is that it used to be edited by that speedway chronicler, the very suave and urbane Eric Linden - or Rick Eldon, or Angus Kix, or Merlin Man - take your pick, they were all him.
We will come to his exploits a few paragraphs further on.
Right. So, this Olympic speedway business.
The author of the piece, Alan Page, marshalled his arguments in the following manner: what chance, he wanted to know, did England have of winning an Olympic ski-racing gold medal? 'The number of people in this country able to afford a winter in Switzerland to get any experience in this thrilling pastime is exceedingly small,' reasoned Mr Page.
Obviously he could have had no inkling that, far in the future, England would have not only affordable Len Silver-led package deal skiing holidays to the land of the cuckoo clock, but also an Eddie The Eagle.
And, after all, went on our Mr Page, it had been the habit in the past of countries where the Games had taken place to include sports in which they specialised.
Hence, it was his irrefutable logic that speedway in Britain in 1948 was of far greater importance than, for example, ski-racing or 'several other specialised events'.
Or, if you're Latin: quod erat demonstrandum. Or then again, if you're English: which was to be proved!
He may have had a point, because in the 1948 season an official total of 10,000,000 (yes, ten million) people paid to see speedway racing at 28 league tracks in three divisions - an average of more than 10,000 a meeting.
Another whack in the Gobsmack Department for the way we are now.
But the real stumbling block for our stumbling reporter was that, of course, the Olympics are open solely to amateur competitors, and certainly, he conceded, the majority (of our leading speedway riders) were in the professional class. Then, of course, everyone who took part in the Olympic Games had to swear an oath that they were an amateur - and mean it... in those days they did, anyway.
No problem, insisted our intrepid Mr Page.
Though contemporarily out of the question, he theorised, 'there is no reason why it should not become a definite proposition for the future...there are plenty of amateur (speedway riders) in the country and there is certainly scope for development in a direction which would gain recognition for it'.
It was - and still is - a fact that soccer is not confined only to the big league professionals. The Football Association has control of thousands of amateur clubs, and there was absolutely no reason on earth, quoth our determined Mr Page, why a similar situation should not prevail in respect of speedway racing.
Well, our incorrigible Mr Page was nothing if not the eternal optimist. Maybe a visionary, too. For, ask any modern National League speedway rider or, indeed, some Premier and some Elite League stars, and they will tell you that they are - to all intents and purposes, anyway - amateur performers because they sure as hell don't make money, let alone a living, out of the weekly matter of risking their necks for the sole purpose of our entertainment.
So, as we now have a brand new multi-billion pound Olympic Stadium (reportedly on the very site of the old Hackney speedway) together with an oval shaped athletics track, I've just given you the ammunition with which to lobby the International Olympic Committee for the inclusion of speedway racing in their five-ringed circus next year.
OK. I'll get to the amazing adventures of Eric Linden in a sec.
Now this is food for thought. Especially as British speedway is having - shall we say - a somewhat turbulent time over all sorts of questions. In this same first edition of Speedway Echo I also came across a little panel headlined 'Distinguished Neutral'. The story underneath was quite illuminating. It read:
'There is a possibility that a former Hackney favourite Morian Hansen, the Great Dane (this is decades before Olsen, Gundersen, Nielsen and Pedersen remember!), may return to English tracks this season. Morian is in the veteran stage, but we have no doubt still capable of making the cinders fly, and he is credited with having expressed a desire to have another session here.
'The entry (and this is the significant bit) of foreigners to England for speedway racing is, of course, barred, but there will not be any objection in his case. And we should think not, either.'
The gist of it was that Morian had joined the RAF during the war and been decorated for his heroism - a Distinguished Flying Cross and a George Medal. Indeed, Phil 'Tiger' Hart, the charismatic Birmingham captain just after the war and an old admirer and friend of the Dane, used to tell the story of how Morian 'stole' a Messerschmitt 109 fighter plane from right under the Nazis' noses on or about the day World War II ended, and went on to start a very successful flying training school with it.
The important bit of that story is - as I pointed out - that foreigners were 'barred'. It is a 'Final Solution' that the speedway authorities have perpetrated variously down the years and it has never worked.
There was an attempt in 1948 but it soon went out of the window because, as we have seen, Wembley, in dire injury trouble, were given permission to bring back Wilbur Lamoreaux whose elegant skills had graced British speedway with Wimbledon before the war.
He made a dramatic and emotional return, ironically to that Lions' side evacuated to Plough Lane, demonstrating his wizardry by picking his way from last to first in his opening ride against visiting Belle Vue - and then later getting fined �2 for looking behind during a race. Which was something else that was barred then.
But the great Lammy had been allowed back only after an emergency decision by the Speedway Riders Association (the riders' union) with the approval of the Speedway Control Board, with the dire parting warning: 'This must not be regarded as a precedent for using other foreign riders'.
Yes, yes. I'm coming to the Eric Linden bit.
In a later edition of Speedway Echo there was another incredibly riveting tale. A story by the distinguished editor, Tom 'Broadsider' Morgan, about a speedway star's death, the reports of which - like Mark Twain's - had been an exaggeration, an exaggeration, an exaggeration and an exaggeration.
Well, the repetition was necessary because, unlike Twain's, his death had been reported not once, not twice, not three, but four times.
It was about the man with speedway's most magnificent name. There has, neither before no since, ever been a name to match it - Maximilian Octavius Grosskreutz (not strictly true, his name was simply Max, but you don't let the facts get in the way of a good story - not in my profession anyway).
Max had come over from his native Australia in the very early days and ridden for Lea Bridge, soon moving to the team of all the talents, the all-conquering Belle Vue Aces of the middle Thirties. Just before the war, he had quit top class racing to promote at Norwich, but in 1947 he returned to Britain to ride for Bradford and was back to his spectacular best.
Then, in 1948, a bad accident at, ironically, Hyde Road, the scene of his many pre-war triumphs with the Aces, ended his racing career. It was while announcing that Max was to finally retire that Tom Morgan revealed he was the man who was 'dead but wouldn't lie down'.
Max said: 'I was first reported dead in 1928. I was riding at Lea Bridge when I fell and broke a wrist. Somehow the story went around that I'd been killed, and the newspapers back home in Australia billed my death all over the continent.
'Then I was supposed to have died in 1930. I went out to ride in the Argentine. I suppose I must have stayed on in Buenos Aires longer than the others and I was the last to turn up back at Belle Vue. When I arrived I found I was being mourned as dead.
'But the best of the lot was in 1931. I went home to Australia while as usual the Manchester riders went off to the Argentine again. While I was having a comfortable time at home, news somehow reached them in the Argentine that I had been killed. Ernie Evans, a fellow Australian, wrote a letter home instructing his relatives to place a wreath on my grave.
'On the last occasion I saw my family off on a journey across Australia, but a couple of days later they burst in on me at home. They produced a newspaper which reported that I had been seriously hurt in a road accident and so they had chased back across the country expecting to find the worst.
'But so long as I could read about my own death, I could afford to have a good laugh.'
Right. It's Eric Linden time.
Well, one of the first of his bylines that I noticed, as I trawled the yellowing Echo pages, was his account, in an issue dated April 16, 1949, of how Harringay's Vic Duggan had been along to Madame Tussaud's waxworks in the Marylebone Road to unveil his own effigy.
They used to do that for speedway champions in those days. Tussauds had displayed waxwork figures of the 1938 World Champion Bluey Wilkinson and Wembley's Tommy Price when he'd won the British Championship in 1946. Funny, but as far as I recall no wax model of Jack Parker ever appeared at Tussauds following his Wembley win in 1947.
No matter. Eric reported: 'As Duggan took his place among the great personalities of the world, Tommy Price had to pay a visit to the melting pot. Vic joins the ranks of the waxen immortals and for the benefit of Harringay fans, he was considered the perfect model - wonderfully co-operative and with such a characteristic face.
'And they placed Vic right next to Mahatma Gandhi.'
Well, waxwork companions come no more illustrious than that.
The remarkable thing about Eric's progress was that within a short time he was being bylined as Assistant Editor. Then, because of 'pressure of work', Tom Morgan quit and Eric was Editor before the year was out.
An overnight sensation, or what?
This article was first published on 24th March 2011
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