By Robert J Rogers
Legend Reborn-Speedway Returns. In the early 1960’s Speedway Racing had reached a point were the sport was in decline, which had came to a head at the end of the 1963 season when both New Cross in London and Southampton closed down. The search was on to find at least one new team to add to the National League or it would possible cease to exist.
Amongst the old tracks looked at was West Ham’s Custom House Stadium. The sport had closed down in 1955, but the remains of the track were still there, on the inside of the Greyhound Racing Track, although in a very poor condition.
After long discussions with the GRA (Greyhound Racing Association) who owned the stadium, it was agreed that the `Hammers` would return to the sport and `save the day`.
Although the track condition was poor, with the full support of the Stadium owners, it was more or less rebuilt to a good racing standard.
The Management team at Coventry was to act as promoters; the team was to be made up partly by riders from both the old Southampton and New Cross teams.
The search was then on for a Team Manager, they wanted somebody who was a big name in the sport, and you could not get bigger than Tommy `Tom-Tom` Price, one of only two Englishmen at the time to have won the World Championship.
The Captain was to be the Swedish international star Bjorn Knutsson, and backed up by fellow ex-Southampton riders, Reg Luckhurst and Stan Stevens.
My parents had been West Ham fans, both before and after World War Two, so when it was announced that Speedway would return to West Ham; they took me to the first match.
I was hooked from the first moments, and over forty years later, can still remember the wonderful times we had with the West Ham Speedway team.
What with the Lights, the Noise, the Bikes, the Colours, the Crowds, the Riders, the Speed and even the Smell, I was in a magical world to a 10 year old East End Kid.
Although all new to me, I did not take long to understand the wonders of the sport and was soon shouting my support along with all the other fans.
It is said there was 15,000 people there on the first night in a very cold April in 1964.
In the programme notes for the second match, our Team Manager Tommy Price said;
“I was impressed by the many youngsters who came to our Arena to whom Speedway is a new experience”, he was right, and what an experience!
Because of a few problems with-in the sport, West Ham was not up to full strength, so for the first few matches, ‘Guest` riders were used.
I was soon to learn that only the best were considered good enough to Guest for West Ham and wear the famous Crossed Hammers Race Jacket.
In the first match, a New Zealand rider called Barry Briggs rode for us. Barry was to become the World Solo Speedway Champion that year, one of his four World Championships.
The Team consisted of Bjorn Knutsson (Sweden), Ray Cresp (Australia), Reg Luckhurst, Stan Stevens, Norman Hunter, Malcolm Simmons, Bob Dugard & Alf Hagon, all of England, with a second Swedish rider, Bengt Jansson joining the team later in June.
So nine years after it closed down, Speedway return to West Ham on the 7th April in a match against London rivals Wimbledon, the Hammers won by 46 points to 38.
A legend was reborn.
The first rider to win a heat at West Ham was Bjorn Knutsson (see his photo on the front of the match programme); I had found a Sporting Hero!
The other riders in that first heat was Sverre Harrfeldt, riding for Wimbledon, but was later to become a Hammers Legend, Roy Trigg, who was to become a Hackney Rider, and a thorn in the side of the Hammers in many matches, and finally` Mr West Ham`, Stan Stevens, a local lad from Ilford, who was to be a main stay of many a West Ham Team through the years, ending up as the Captain of the West Ham Bombers, a short lived 2nd Division team in 1972.
The league consisted of seven teams, Belle Vue (Manchester), Coventry, Norwich, Oxford, Swindon, Wimbledon and West Ham.
The main event was the National League, but also we rode in Britannia Shield matches, as well as the National Trophy and the London Cup. The Wimbledon match was not the first that the Hammers had raced this season; we had already ridden away matches at Norwich and Oxford (where our Guest had been Ove Fundin). The matches against Norwich Stars was always big events as Sweden’s Ove `the Fox` Fundin, who was the 1963 World Champion, a multiple World Champion and quite possible the worlds Greatest Speedway rider rode for them, and he was Bjorn Knutsson’s greatest rival. Although we had not done well in the Britannia Shield, (we came last) we were more at Home with the National Trophy matches which were all two-legged Home and Away matches.
The first team we took on was Coventry, we lost by just two points at Coventry 41-43 but the home leg had seen as beat the Bees 45-39, giving us an 86-82 victory.
The semi final saw us against Swindon Robins. The first leg was at Home, but controversy at the start of match saw the referee refusing to allow one of the Swindon riders to take part in the match, reducing them to seven riders. Worst was to come when in Heat 14 Swindon’s Polish rider Tad Teodorowicz crashed on the forth bend and was seriously injured. He was taken to Hospital with suspected concussion that turned out to be a fractured scull; he sadly died 142 days later.
West Ham won the match 51-33, and in the second leg at Swindon, we lost by just two points 41-43, giving us a 92-76 victory.
The final saw us against the Oxford Cheaters.
In a thrilling two leg final we lost by just two points, 83-85.
We were not so successful in the National League, coming last and winning the `Wooden Spoon`.
The last time we had done that was in 1936, and we won the League the following year, would History repeat itself in 1965?
In the London Cup, again a two-leg event, we went down 81-87 to the Dons of Wimbledon.
In July, the Vargana Wolves of Sweden came to visit the Hammers as a part of their British Tour. Now there was a small problem, both Bjorn and Bengt rode for them in Sweden, and to make it worse, Bjorn was their Captain, so what were we to do?
In a `Gentleman’s Agreement`, Bjorn rode for us, Bengt rode for them, but it made no difference, we still lost 36-42!
July saw the Embassy Best Pairs Trophy at West Ham. Sponsored by WD & HO Wills, the makers of Embassy Cigarettes, the trophy was won by Wimbledon’s Gote Nordin and Sverre Harrfeldt.
The strangest thing was that in the world of today where smoking is banned from most places, Free Cigarettes were given away at the match to encourage you to smoke!
The last match of the season was a Solo Event, the London Riders Championship, considered by some to be the second most important trophy to the World Championship.
It was won by Mike Broadbanks (who started his career at Wembley), he was know as the `Red Devil` because of his red leathers, Bengt Jansson was 2nd, losing by just one point.
At the end of the match, there was a spectacular firework display.
Well that was the end of the season; it would be a long winter waiting for the new season, although the Supporters Club holding various events during the winter months helped to speed it up, but as it turned out, it would be well worth the wait.
(See the Item. Fans of West Ham Speedway 1965.)