Blunsdon Milestones [Pt. 1]
Renowned speedway author Robert Bamford chronologically wanders through the various landmarks that shaped the first thirty-eight seasons of speedway racing at the Abbey Stadium, culminating in the 1,000th meeting at the venue in 1986.
MEETING No. 1: Robins v. Oxford (Challenge), Saturday 23 July 1949.
THE vision of two gentlemen, Bert Hearse and Nobby Clark, came to fruition after they had been joined by a third person, Reg Witcomb, in 1949.
Construction of a 410-yard, cinder-surfaced, racing strip at Blunsdon soon followed. After trials had been held, it was on the evening of 23 July that Swindon first took to the track in a challenge match against Oxford.
Those present witnessed 19-year-old actress Patricia Dainton cut the tape and declare the stadium open. Some two hours later – despite a battling display against their established league opponents – Swindon had lost the 14-heat encounter by 45 points to 39.
An awe-inspiring performance saw Ginger Nicholls take all the plaudits for the Robins. The Londoner won the first-ever race, established a track record of 82.8 seconds in the process and went on to top-score with 11 points.
Since that special day, the original circuit has been altered on a couple of occasions over the years but, nevertheless, Swindon are one of few teams to have enjoyed continued longevity at one venue.
SWINDON 39 – Ginger Nicholls 11, Reg Lambourne 7+1, Harry Hughes 6+3, Tom Wilson 6+1, Bill Downton 5, Ivor Atkinson 4, Bob Jones 0, Paul Best 0.
OXFORD 45 – Bert Croucher 11, Jim Wright 10+1, Ernie Rawlins 8+1, Dennis Gray 6, Alf Viccary 4, Alf Elliott 3, Oz Osborne 3. NOTE: Oxford tracked only seven riders, with Wright moving up from a reserve berth to replace the absent Bill Kemp.
MEETING No. 100: Robins v. Southampton (Southern League), Saturday 20 September 1952.
A CENTURY of meetings was reached with a league fixture against Southampton and the Robins marked the occasion with a fairly comfortable 13-point success in the end.
They were made to work hard by the determined Saints in the early stages, with the visitors holding the lead through the first two races and then remaining within 4 points of Swindon until heat seven.
Only in the following race did the Robins begin to pull away, with club stalwart Danny Malone taking the chequered flag, whilst Reg Lambourne and Frank Malouf dead-heated for second place after Cliff King, the ACU steward (as referees were then known), had been unable to separate the two riders on the line.
A tally of 10+1 made Frank Evans the leading light for Swindon, with Southampton No. 1 Brian McKeown hitting an 11-point haul to top his side’s score-chart.
Providing great value to those in attendance, a full second-half schedule also included a challenge match-race series between Poole’s Brian Crutcher and Dick Bradley of Bristol, which saw the former take a 2-1 victory.
SWINDON 48.5 – Frank Evans 10+1, Danny Malone 9+2, Ian Williams 9, Bob Jones 7, Bob Wells 6+1, Reg Lambourne 5.5, Buster Brown 1, Ray Ellis 1.
SOUTHAMPTON 35.5 – Brian McKeown 11, Ernie Brecknell 7, Bert Croucher 6+1, Frank Malouf 4.5, Dudley Smith 4+1, Maury Mattingley 2, Mike Tams 1, Jack Vallis 0.
MEETING No. 200: Robins v. Coventry (National League Division Two), Saturday 4 August 1956.
LEAGUE action versus Coventry signalled the double ton of Blunsdon meetings, with the Robins riding high at the head of the Second Division standings.
A 55-40 win kept Swindon on course for their first-ever Championship success, a goal they eventually achieved by the tightest of margins – finishing just 1-point ahead of the eventual runners-up, Southampton, in the final standings.
Following an opening heat 4-2, the Robins were always in command against the Bees, with the dynamic duo of Bob Roger and George White both completing sublime 15-point maximums, while Ian Williams was also paid for the lot, scoring 14+1.
There was an interesting occurrence in heat four, when only one rider from each team participated. This came about after Swindon’s Ernie Lessiter and the Bees’ Charlie New had both been injured and ruled out of any further activity in the evening’s first race.
Both reserves, Ron Swaine for the Robins and Eric Hockaday for Coventry, were already programmed in heat four, so there was no alternative than to run the race with just the two riders; Hockaday posting a win in what was the Bees solitary advantage of the entire meeting!
SWINDON 55 – Bob Roger 15, George White 15, Ian Williams 14+1, Al Sparrey 4+2, Ray Harris 4, Ron Swaine 3, Ernie Lessiter 0.
COVENTRY 40 – Jim Lightfoot 11, Bob Mark 10+3, Nick Nicholls 7+2, Reg Duval 6+2, Eric Hockaday 6+1, Charlie New 0, Les Tolley 0.
MEETING No. 300: Robins v. Southampton (Knock-Out Cup first round), Saturday 8 April 1961.
SOUTHAMPTON make their second appearance in this run through the Abbey Stadium’s landmark meetings.
The 1961 season saw the launch of a new competition, the Knock-Out Cup, which initially ran alongside the long-established National Trophy contest. This was run on a sudden-death basis over a single match, so obviously it was advantageous to grab a home draw…or so the Robins’ supporters thought.
Having won their opening match of the season the previous week against Oxford –
46-31 in the Hutchins Trophy – hopes had been high for a decent start on the Knock-Out Cup trail. However, Swindon were humbled by a solid Saints combination, losing 46-32. Future World Champion Bjorn Knutsson led the onslaught, netting a brilliant 12-point full-house for the triumphant visitors from Hampshire.
The Robins conceded a 5-1 in the opening race and, in a woeful performance, trailed 26-10 after heat six, before they collected their first advantage. It was too little, too late, and the match was over by the time they claimed their only 5-1 of the night, courtesy of Neil Street and George White, in heat eleven.
Emphasising just how poor the display was, Swindon provided only four race winners in the 13-heat encounter. Two of them came via Street, who restored a little pride in the home camp by going on to take victory in the second-half, April Scurry, event.
SWINDON 32 – Tadeusz Teodorowicz 9, Neil Street 7, George White 6+1, Ian Williams 5, Brian Brett 3+1, Brian Meredith 2, Bob Roger 0.
SOUTHAMPTON 46 – Bjorn Knutsson 12, Dick Bradley 8+1, Barry Briggs 8+1, Alby Golden 7+1, Chum Taylor 6+1, Cyril Roger 4, Ross Gilbertson 1.
MEETING No. 400: Robins v. Halifax (British League), Friday 1 October 1965.
IN a complete re-vamping of domestic speedway’s set-up, the British League was formed in 1965, with the Robins being one of eighteen founder members.
Swindon’s last, but one, home meeting of the inaugural BL campaign brought them face-to-face with Halifax on an ultra-rare Friday race-night in what was Blunsdon’s 400th speedway event.
The Robins didn’t enjoy a particularly fruitful campaign in the new league, suffering four home defeats and finishing in a lowly fifteenth place. One of those losses occurred in the featured fixture against the Dukes although, in fairness, the match should have resulted in a 40-38 victory instead of the reversal it ended up being.
Swindon trailed from heat four onwards, until hauling themselves in front at 37-35 through a 5-1 from Martin Ashby and Mike Broadbank in heat twelve. And, with Barry Briggs leading the final race, a 2-point victory looked to be in the bag…until a crushing body-blow saw the legendary Kiwi’s machine grind to a halt, handing a match-winning “fiver” to Dave Younghusband and Dennis Gavros.
The Dukes’ completed score-card made remarkable reading, with all seven of their riders recording tallies of between 4 and 7 points (excluding bonus). Meanwhile, for the unlucky Robins, Martin Ashby’s penultimate race success wrapped-up a superb 12-point maximum.
SWINDON 38 – Martin Ashby 12, Barry Briggs 9, Mike Broadbank 8+1, Bob Kilby 4+1, Alan Stapleton 3, Peter Sampson 1, Frank Shuter 1.
HALIFAX 40 – Dave Younghusband 7, Eric Boocock 7, Bryan Elliott 6+2, Eric Boothroyd 6+1, Dennis Gavros 5+3, Bert Kingston 5+2, Bob Jameson 4.
MEETING No. 500: Robins v. West Ham (British League Division One), Saturday 4 October 1969.
SWINDON’S very last home meeting of 1969 saw the Abbey Stadium clock-up another big milestone, as the Robins entertained West Ham in a league match.
Again, the club hadn’t enjoyed the best of times and were to finish tenth in the 19-team First Division. As has often been the case over the years, home form was the side’s Achilles’ heel, as three matches at Blunsdon ended in defeat, against Coatbridge, Glasgow and Poole. Having said that, away victories were gained at Coventry, Exeter and Hackney, but in winning exactly half of their allotted fixtures, the Robins ended up 17 points adrift of the champions, Poole, in the final standings.
At least they concluded their league fixtures in style by dispatching West Ham easily, 57-20, with a series of trademark fast-starts taking Bob Kilby to an impressive 15-point maximum. He was backed superbly by four times former World Champion Barry Briggs, who dropped his only point in five outings, when surprisingly defeated by Tony Clarke in heat four – these being the London-born rider’s only contribution to his side’s scoring.
With the rider replacement facility in operation for late-season capture Jon Odegaard, there was good scoring throughout the Swindon team. The same could not be said of the hapless Hammers, though, with Australian John Langfield carding their only other race win in a twice re-started heat eleven, on his way to topping their score-chart on 8 points.
SWINDON 57 – Bob Kilby 15, Barry Briggs 14, Barry Duke 9+2, Pete Munday 7+3, Mike Keen 6+2, Clive Hitch 6+2, Mac Woolford (No. 8) DNR, Jon Odegaard R/R.
WEST HAM 20 – John Langfield 8, Stan Stevens 6, Tony Clarke 3, Ken McKinlay 2, Barry Crowson 1, Olle Nygren 0, Dave Jessup 0.
MEETING No. 600: Robins v. Oxford (British League Division One), Saturday 11 August 1973.
RIVALRY between Swindon and Oxford had always existed since the opening event at Blunsdon in 1949; and it was certainly no different for the 600th meeting at the venue on 11 August 1973, when the two sides met on league business.
Like many others that supporters may well recall, this local derby was a hard-fought affair and provided much in the way of cracking entertainment. Eventually, it was the Robins who just prevailed, winning 40-38, thanks largely to the brilliance of Martin Ashby, who reeled off a stellar 12-point full-house.
Swindon led 28-20 after heat eight and appeared to be edging to a comfortable victory, but astute team management from Oxford boss Sid Knibbs saw the then nicknamed Rebels drag themselves back into contention. Firstly, they recorded a 4-2 through Hasse Holmqvist (taking a tactical substitute ride) and Malcolm Ballard in heat nine, before – two races later – super guest Jim McMillan and Ballard (on a TS ride) combined for a 5-1.
That reduced the Robins’ advantage to 2 points, but a maximum-clinching win from Ashby in a drawn penultimate heat, followed by Norman Hunter and Ed Stangeland sharing the final race behind McMillan, was sufficient to seal the slim victory.
SWINDON 40 – Martin Ashby 12, Norman Hunter 8, Ed Stangeland 6+2, Geoff Bouchard 6+2, Mick Handley 5, Brian Leonard 3+1, David Ashby 0.
OXFORD 38 – Hasse Holmqvist 13, Jim McMillan (guest) 12+1, Malcolm Ballard 7+3, John Dews 3+1, Roger Johns 3, Gordon Kennett 0, Rick Timmo 0.
MEETING No. 700: Robins v. Cradley Heath (Gulf Oil British League), Saturday 7 May 1977.
EXACTLY one month before the start of The Queen’s Silver Jubilee celebrations, the Abbey Stadium played host to its 700th speedway meeting.
Swindon were pretty formidable on their own circuit during the 1977 season, with only Reading winning at Blunsdon, although Exeter forced a last-heat draw on 17 September, when top man Martin Ashby was missing through injury.
On the flip side of their noteworthy home form, the Robins managed just one victory on their travels – ironically at Cradley Heath – and this culminated in a final finishing position of eleventh.
The encounter with the Heathens was eventful enough, with much of the pre-meeting debate pertaining to the absence of Bernt Persson in the visiting line-up and whether the rider replacement facility would adequately cover for the prolific Swede.
As it was, another Swedish superstar came up trumps for the Black Country side, with Anders Michanek romping to a jaw-dropping 20-point haul from seven outings, his only loss occurring in heat one, when he was out-paced by his opposite No. 1, Martin Ashby.
Cradley manager Bob Wasley marshalled his troops superbly, so much so that they gained 11 points from Persson’s four programmed rides but, despite this and Michanek’s heroics, it was the Robins who emerged triumphant by a 41-37 score-line. Indeed, Swindon were never headed and merited the win due to a greater strength in depth – particularly in the reserve berths, where Soren Karlsson and David Ashby (the younger brother of Martin) excelled with respective tallies of 6+2 and 6+1 points.
SWINDON 41 – Martin Ashby 11, Bob Kilby 7, Soren Karlsson 6+2, David Ashby 6+1, Bobby McNeil 5+1, Jan Andersson 4+1, Geoff Bouchard 2+1.
CRADLEY HEATH 37 – Anders Michanek 20, Arthur Price 5+1, Steve Bastable 5, Bruce Cribb 4, Dave Perks 2+2, Bob Valentine 1, Nigel Wasley (No. 8) DNR, Bernt Persson R/R.
MEETING No. 800: Artdeans Knock-Out Trophy, Saturday 14 June 1980.
INDIVIDUAL fare marked the 800th Blunsdon meeting, with the staging of the Artdeans Knock-Out Trophy. This featured a dozen competitors, plus a reserve rider and, despite the ambiguous title, it was actually the top four scorers who progressed to the showdown final.
Coincidentally, just like the Robins, event sponsors Artdeans had also been established in 1949. The company first got involved in speedway sponsorship in 1973, when they backed former Swindon rider Brian Leonard. They were to go on and provide valued backing to the club and several of its riders for a considerable time span.
The meeting saw Robins’ favourites Phil Crump and Scott Autrey joined in the final by Gordon Kennett of Eastbourne and Wimbledon’s Larry Ross. This was actually Crump’s first UK meeting of the campaign, as he had been attending to business commitments Down Under. However, the Aussie ace rode as if he’d never been away, winning heat one by a country mile, before becoming the first home rider to inflict defeat on Kennett in 10 races at the Abbey.
However, in the final, the unfancied Ross made a lightning getaway and the fast-riding Kiwi could not be caught. Kennett held second place throughout, while Crump finished in third spot after Autrey had retired on the initial lap.
ARTDEANS KNOCK-OUT TROPHY: (QUALIFYING SCORES) Gordon Kennett 12, Phil Crump 10, Larry Ross 10, Scott Autrey 9, Peter Prinsloo 9, Bobby Schwartz 8, Malcolm Holloway 8, Steen Mastrup 5, Steve Gresham 4, Danny Kennedy 4, Roger Johns 4, Edward Jancarz 3, Martin Hewlett (reserve) 2. (FINAL) 1st Ross, 2nd Kennett, 3rd Crump, 4th Autrey. NOTE: Autrey qualified for the final ahead of Prinsloo by virtue of recording a faster winning time.
MEETING No. 900: Robins v. Belle Vue (British League), Sunday 12 June 1983.
TO put it frankly, Swindon endured a ghastly campaign in 1983, with the Abbey’s 900th meeting versus Belle Vue being an example of the sustained suffering that the club and its loyal supporters went through.
Following a fraught close season, the team, taken over by Wally Mawdsley’s partner-cum-accountant Richard Vowles, was woefully weak. Added to that, injuries and the loss of form of several riders severely hindered the hard-working Vowles’ efforts to track a winning combination. As such, virtually nothing went right for the Robins, who finished rock bottom in the final league standings, having gleaned just 14 points from their 28-match programme.
The only shining light was consistent captain Phil Crump, who often fought a lone battle for the team. The durable Aussie remained ever-present throughout the league schedule to yield 324 points and a 9.85 average – figures which, under the circumstances, were remarkable returns.
With new signing Phil Herne making his home debut, the match against the world-famous Aces unfortunately went the way of seven other home league fixtures, resulting in defeat. Trailing since the opening race, the patched-up Robins (who included two guests and National League loanee Paul Bosley) made a sterling effort to get on terms in the latter stages, with successive 4-2s in heats ten and eleven bringing them back to within 4 points of the Manchester outfit.
Then, Crump and guest Kevin Jolly looked to be heading for a 5-1 in heat twelve, which would have levelled the scores at 36 points apiece. However, on a slick surface, Jolly lost control and went to the back of the pack….before Crump’s engine seized on the last bend, causing him to lay down his steed. That left Peter Collins and Peter Carr to sew up victory with a gift 5-1 and, compounding the issue, Belle Vue subsequently gained a last heat 4-2 to seal a 44-34 win.
SWINDON 34 – Phil Crump 11, Kevin Jolly (guest) 8, Andy Grahame (guest) 6+1, Phil Herne 5+2, Alf Busk 4, Paul Bosley 0, Steen Mastrup 0.
BELLE VUE 44 – Peter Collins 11, Chris Morton 10+1, Larry Ross 9, Peter Carr 6+1, Kenny McKinna 6+1, Louis Carr 2, Andy Smith 0.
MEETING No. 1,000: Robins v. Cradley Heath (British League), Saturday 20 September 1986.
TOWARDS the end of the 1986 campaign, a British League encounter versus Cradley Heath on 20 September signified the Swindon Millennium at the Abbey Stadium – a feat that had taken a little over 37 years to achieve.
Following concerns over crowd levels, the season had seen the departure of Richard Vowles as promoter in August. This had resulted in the team going back to then stadium owners BCA (British Car Auctions) and, for a brief but worrying week, Swindon Speedway effectively closed down, whilst the ownership of the licence was ironed out. Ultimately, though, with BCA at the helm, it meant that Ted Nelson and Bill Chandler returned to look after speedway matters.
The match against the Heathens was memorable and saw the Robins produce a tremendous rearguard action to overcome an 8-point deficit and force a 39-39 draw. Indeed, Swindon appeared down and out when they trailed 34-26, with just three races remaining but, they very nearly conjured a win from the jaws of defeat.
Phil Crump and Dave Jessup linked together for a super 5-1 in heat eleven, prior to a twice re-run penultimate race that eventually ended in a 4-2 to the Robins. The first staging had seen Jimmy Nilsen exert so much pressure on the previously unbeaten Erik Gundersen that the brilliant Dane fell and was excluded. Although Nilsen regrettably touched the tapes in the re-run, justice was done at the final time of asking, when Richard Hellsen and Rob Fortune, respectively, were able to finish either side of Simon Cross.
The expectant crowd collectively held its breath, as Crump and Jessup jetted clear and were on the way to replicating their heat eleven endeavours in the final race. Had it stayed that way, Swindon would have claimed an unlikely 40-38 success – but the lively Phil Collins ensured that the honours ended even, when he utilised Blunsdon’s wide-open spaces to charge around the outside of Jessup.
SWINDON 39 – Phil Crump 9, Jimmy Nilsen 8, Richard Hellsen 8, Dave Jessup 6+1, Rob Fortune 3+2, Finn Thomsen 3+1, Brian Karger 2.
CRADLEY HEATH 39 – Phil Collins 10, Erik Gundersen 9, Simon Cross 6+2, Steve Bastable 6, Paul Fry 4, Jan O. Pedersen 3+1, Nigel Leaver 1.