Ron Johnson - Fallen Idol....by John Hyam
THE racing career of New Cross speedway star Ron Johnson ended in a terrifying catherine Wheel of bikes and limbs in the dirt of Wimbledon on August 1, 1949.
It was to be another 11 years before Johnno - by then 52 years old - would accept that it was all over. When the accident happened, in heat seven of the second-leg of a London Cup tie, Johnson was at his peak and very much the idol of the Old Kent Road --his home fans at New Cross in south-east London.
He had top-scored for Australia in the third Test against England on his home track and was about to lead his country in the fourth match of the series at Harringay. He had been the season's first challenger for Belle Vue skipper Jack Parker's British Match Race Championship.
At the time of the crash, Johnson was following his New Cross partner Cyril Roger for a 5-1 heat win. But Roger faltered in front of him and Johnson fell.
As he rose to his feet his Wimbledon opponent Cyril Brine ran him down, fracturing his skull. Later, Johnson said that his life was saved by the low protection his helmet gave the back of his neck.
"Otherwise, I would have been killed," he said.
But there could have been another factor. Stretcher bearers are apparently instructed to walk in step when carrying an injured person. According to witnesses, when Johnson's limp form was removed from the scene of the accident, one stretcher bearer was out of step - and the jolting this caused may well have dislodged a blood clot that was threatening to fatally starve his brain of oxygen.
The doctors recommended that Johnson spend six months in hospital, but he went home just before the end of the month and vowed: "I'll ride again in 1950." But his comeback saw him only a shadow of the once all-conquering international star.
In nine league matches in 1950, he scored only 29 points. It was a poor comparison with his post-war league form up to then.
In 1946 he scored 179 points, in 1947 it was 194 points, in 1948 it was 239 points, and up to his 1949 crash he had scored 186 league points. Johnson had also been London Riders' Champion in 1945 and 1946.
The 1951 season saw little improvement in John-son's track fortunes, and after scoring just 13 First Division points for New Cross he moved into the Second Division at Glasgow Ashfield, run by his old friend from the early pioneering days, Johnnie Hoskins. Even then, he managed a mere 35 points.
Johnson conceded that his old skills had deserted him, and early in 1952 he returned to Western Australia.
But he couldn't get racing out of his blood and in the 1954-55 season Johnson made a comeback at the Claremont speedway in Perth,winning the West Australian Solo Championship title.
It inspired him to return to England where, after a battle with officialdom for medical clearance, he made a brief return to the track for West Ham. The old maestro could score only one point in a handful of matches for the East London club.
When he first returned, he had hoped to race again for his beloved New Cross, but the little southeast London citadel closed for speedway in 1953 and its historic circuit was by then being used for stock car racing.
His pitiful on-track performance meant he could not afford the fare home to Australia. Johnno's old pals at 'Speedway News' magazine launched a fund for him which raised enough for his passage home and a bit over.
The Speedway News reported: "He sailed away, tearful and joyful... in the knowledge that his greatest speedway friends were those on the terraces - the ordinary folk who pay their two bobs."
It was a gesture of warmth and affection from the fans to their fallen idol.
In 1960, Johnson heard that Hoskins had reopened New Cross and he was back yet again to make a much-published and glamourised attempt to recapture the old glory at his former stamping ground. The result was a sorry one One race in the second- half, ended in disaster when Johnson crashed after being passed on the inside by junior rider Jim Chalkley.
In a bid to help Johnno get back into speedway, Hoskins sent him to Edinburgh - then being run by his son Ian Hoskins - where he failed to score in five matches. Late in 1960, Johnson had to take a job on the track staff at Belle Vue, and eventually he returned again to Australia and permanent retirement.
Johnson was one of speedway's greatest and most accomplished stylists in a career that had started in the early 1920s. He was a star at Crystal Palace between 1929 and 1933, and moved with them to New Cross in 1934.
Some believe he should never been allowed to race again after his 1949 crash. His racing licence was taken from him in 1951 following a blackout while racing for Ashfield.
In 1953, he spent many months in a West Australian hospital where lumbar punctures were part of the treatment to reduce pressure on the brain which was causing headaches.
And it was, ironically a road accident in Western Australia in 1968 that resulted in the supreme speedway stylist being confined to a wheelchair until his death on February 4, 1983, aged 75 years.
This article first appeared in the South London Press in August 2004.
This article was first published on 8th January 2005
"Reading this article on Ron Johnson reminded me of some of the other greats riding at that time, Tommy Price (Wembley), Vic Duggan (Harringay), Eric Chitty (West Ham) to name just a few. Happy days!"
"Thank you for including the article about Johnno. Some of his old fans can be found each week at Wimbledon, looking at old photo albums etc between races and remembering his past glory. Ron may be gone, but he will certainly never be forgotten."
"Your statement about Ron being confined to a wheel chair from 1969 was false. He was just fine in 1969. Walking, bending and doing mechanical work on his own motorbike and mine. I visited him on a number of occasions until his death and although his age and past injuries kept him using a walking stick, he was very mobile and independent right up to 1981 when I last saw him. It amuses me when I read stories about this speedway idol. Never let the facts get in the way of the reality hey. "
"I readily accept and appreciate your comments regarding Ron Johnson. I am delighted to hear that my observation that he spent his last years confined to a wheelchair is unfounded and that he was active for so many post speedway racing years. My 2004 article in the 'South London Press' was based on extensive research with people in Perth, West Australia, who knew him up to his death. It was from there that I was given the information about him being wheelchair bound. The fact was also confirmed to me with a photo of him in a wheelchair where he was being introduced to Ove Fundin. The same information regarding him being wheelchair bound has been mentioned by others in reference works regarding the last years of his life. For my part, I am very pleased to see he was active virtually up to his death."
"Ron Johnson was my grandfather's cousin, and my dad's idol. My father looked after Ron for many years until his death. I agree with C Blunden. When I saw him at my Dad's second marriage, he was walking fine and did not have a wheelchair, he had a bit of a limp and he was full of life. In fact couldn't keep the old bugger down, he had the time of his life. The London cup he won is in the possession of my brother, because he wanted him to have it. And my brother cherishes it. He may have had his faults, but he was a supreme rider and I hope he eventually gets the recognition he deserves, because he was the best ever.."
"I did some detailed research on Ron Johnson a few years ago. If the family want a copy of my research I will forward it to them. I would say that Ron was treated harshly by the powers to be. In particular, the 1936 ban when he rode in the US. Other riders were not penalised, it would seem the authorities were out to make an example of Ron."
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