History: Remembering success of West Ham Speedway
07:00 09 March 2014
Picture the situation: thousands of fans walking the streets on a cold weekday night on the way to cheer on their beloved team, West Ham.
While the football club might dominate the sporting affections of locals these days, 50 years ago fans would have been turning out to speedway matches in equal measure.
What is speedway?
Speedway matches are raced over a number of heats, each featuring four riders.
Each heat sees two riders from each team race four anti-clockwise laps of a flat oval circuit.
Points for each heat are awarded on a sliding scale, with the winner getting three points and last place receiving none.
The team which accumulates the most points over all the heats wins the match.
The Elite League is the highest of the three British speedway divisions, with Poole Pirates being the current champions.
Teams have a set night for their home matches and will often compete home and away in the same week.
The motorsport returned to the now-demolished West Ham Stadium in April 1964, having previously been home to the West Ham Hammers between 1929 and 1955, with the exception of the Second World War.
Robert Rogers was just 10 on the night speedway returned to the area, the club originally having folded due to a lack of interest.
“My parents had been West Ham fans both before and after the war, so when it was announced speedway would return to West Ham, they took me to the first match,” he said.
“It is said there were 15,000 people there, and I was hooked from the first moment.”
That first home match, against Wimbledon Dons, saw the Hammers win 46-38.
The first rider to win a heat was Swedish rider Bjorn Knutson. The match also featured Wimbledon’s Sverre Harrfeldt who was to become a Hammers legend.
In their heyday, the Hammers were one of the most famous teams in the sport, with their crossed Hammers race jacket one of the more easily recognisable outfits.
“Two teams, Southampton Saints and New Cross Rangers, folded in 1963 and the league wanted another club to return, preferably one with history,” explained Robert, 60. “A deal was struck with the Greyhound Racing Association, who owned the stadium, and the club came back.”
The 1964 return season wasn’t the club’s most successful, coming last in the National League and Britannia Shield, although they did narrowly lose the National Trophy final to the Oxford Cheetahs.
The following year, though, the club won the treble – the British League, the British League Cup and the London Cup, the latter being a three-way competition between the West Ham, Wimbledon and Hackney Hawks.
“There used to be a big rivalry between us and Hackney, because they were so close to us, racing at Hackney Wick,” said Robert, who now drives to Essex to support the Lakeside Hammers.
“The crowds were never segregated, though; home and away fans would mix in the stand like one big speedway family.”
It was this family that led to Robert taking away an unusual piece of speedway memorabilia after one match. “We used to have scarfs with badges on and swap them with fans from other clubs.
“My mum would have all the spare Hammers badges on her scarf. My best swap was with the Russian rider Igor Plechanov, who I traded my badge with for a medal.
“The riders used to mix with the fans, which when you’re young is amazing. You wouldn’t see footballers do that nowadays.”
Sadly, speedway was to leave the Custom House stadium for a second time less than a decade after its return.
In July 1970, the team were travelling in a minibus in Lokeren, Belgium, when they were involved in a horrific accident, hitting two lorries, a petrol tanker and a house.
Four riders, the driver and manager, Phil Bishop, lost their lives, while three other riders and a mechanic suffered injuries. One of the injured riders, Colin Pratt, saw his career ended by the severity of his injuries.
The club never really recovered from the loss of their stars and combined with the sale of the stadium to property developers, they ceased to exist once more in 1971.