The night speedway came to Yarmouth
PUBLISHED: 16:29 30 July 2018
What a night!
Oh, what a night it was, it really was!
No, nothing to do with Elvis Presley who was still a decade from achieving international super-stardom.
Nothing to do with show business, glamour, celebrities or World Cup football.
Simply, it was the night in 1948, 70 years ago, when speedway was introduced in Great Yarmouth, proving to be an instant success attracting spectators of all ages and both sexes.
Seven decades on, I still remember it well, delighted to be among the 4000 crowd at the Caister Road Stadium enjoying being showered with cinders on the terraces!
That venue was normally the greyhound stadium.
Although speedway has long gone, greyhound racing continues there, a popular attraction.
Speedway attendances once soared as high as 12,000 on Tuesday nights from spring until early autumn.
Gate numbers were remarkable considering only 20 miles away there was competition from well-established Norwich Speedway.
Several Yarmouth Bloaters were former Norwich Stars who had made only occasional appearances but grabbed the chance to prove themselves regularly in red and black with the fishy emblem on their chests.
My vow – and that of many in the stadium that opening night in April - was to be ever present at home fixtures for as long as speedway survived here, although in my case there was the weekly problem of Tuesday night school homework having to be handed in the next morning.
Being a Yarmouth Grammar School pupil gave me the advantage of already owning a red and black scarf for speedway meetings - the Bloaters’ colours on their tabards.
It saved me from unsuccessfully wrangling with my mother about having to buy one solely for speedway.
A felt triangular red and black flag decorated the front mudguard of my bicycle.
Even now, I would wager that older Yarmouthians and Gorlestonians – even those who were never speedway fans – would instantly blurt out the name of “Billy Bales” if anyone mentioned our local dirt-track team.
Diminutive but lion-hearted and skilful, skid-kid Billy – a son of Norfolk - became a local hero, a star who endeared himself to us fans and built up an enviable national reputation while winning points for his team.
He rode on that opening night, but only in a scratch heat during an individual contest for the East Coast Trophy won by Bert Rawlinson.
Billy’s fame was national, his courage legendary, but it was inevitable that he would endure the spills and collisions because in each heat there were four riders - two from each team - jockeying at speed to reach the finishing line first.
I recall a reader telling me that she witnessed Billy Bales “hitting the perimeter and, in fact, nearly hung his bike on it - but luckily he was unhurt.”
But so-called “skid kid” Bales was not always available for team selection because National Service was still compulsory and around 1950 he was enlisted in the Royal Air Force.
Somehow he managed to obtain a leave pass to get to Yarmouth to ride in two or three meetings but was then posted to Egypt where he took the opportunity to try his hand at motor-bike racing on sand.
The following names of other riders will ring figurative bells for those long-ago Yarmouth Bloaters fans: Paddy Hammond, Roy Duke, Ted Rawlinson, Bill Carruthers, Sid Hipperson, Vic Rigeon, Geoff Pymar, Johnny White, Tip Mills, Reg Morgan, Fred Brand, Johnny Chamberlain, Phil Clarke, Bill Codling…
Jockeying for position at speed around tight bends was always fraught with danger and inevitably there were injuries.
For the Bloaters, two proved fatal in that inaugural season: Reg Craven, riding at Poole, and Australian Max Pearce – ironically during the 13th meeting at the Caister Road track, his 13th race in England… on July 13th!
Yarmouth Speedway existed from 1948 till 1953, crippling Government tax forcing its closure.
Although it managed a revival in 1957, it folded once again in 1961.