Sheffield still shale and hearty

MARCH 30, 1929 and a new era dawned for sport in Sheffield. Spencer 'Smoky' Stratton, Clem Beckett and Jimmy Hindle – operating as Provincial Dirt-Tracks Ltd – had bought land at Owlerton Meadows and started work to build a track to host the latest sport to sweep the country. Speedway had arrived. Steven Penny

It was Beckett who took the first honours at the new stadium, winning the golden helmet in front of 15,000 spectators.

Seventy-five years later and crowds are down to around a fifth of that figure but the sport survives.

It has had its problems, with regular bankruptcies and closures, but for the last 13 years has remained solid and is now one of the country's longest-surviving tracks.

Only Belle Vue, Coventry, Eastbourne and Wolverhampton can claim to have witnessed the sport at their present stadium earlier.

Entertainment tax in the 1950s almost killed off the sport, while the Taylor Report brought speedway to a temporary halt at Sheffield in the 1980s. Thankfully, covenants in the original lease meant plans to bulldoze the stadium and replace it with a supermarket headquarters were thwarted and the Tigers were reborn. The shale sport was back.

Now, under the ownership of A&S Leisure the future looks bright with multi-million pound facilities making the stadium one of the best in the country.

When speedway was first introduced to Sheffield, it was jumping on the bandwagon of a sport swiftly capturing the imagination of those between-War days.

It had arrived from Australia in 1927. Early 'dirt-track' races took place on surfaces as varied as grass, sand, ash and cinders.

High Beech laid claim to the first official meeting in February 1928. Audenshaw, in south Manchester quickly followed by the first Yorkshire meeting at Post Hill, Pudsey two months later.

More tracks were opened across the Broad Acres: Thrum Hall,

Halifax (the first under artificial light, with acetylene flares used); Lundwood, Barnsley; Quarmby Stadium Huddersfield; Middlesbrough and Fullerton Park, Leeds.

By 1929, more than 50 were operational and leagues were formed.

Barnsley had the distinction of hosting the country's first league fixture, losing 36-26 to Leeds. The home team included Denby Dale-born Tommy Allott, the brother of Guy, who is the grandfather of present day Premier League star Adam Allott.

Sheffield were also in the league and among their opening season riders were Arthur Atkinson, Jack Barber, Clem Beckett, Johnny Broughton, Scotty Cumming, Broncho Dixon, Fred Jenkins, Gus Platts, Smoky Stratton, Cliff Watson and Westy Westwood.

Since then hundreds of riders have taken their place in the Owlerton pits to risk life and limb in the pursuit of entertaining the fans and their weekly wage.

Many have slipped from memory but others are still regular topics of conversation on the terraces.

Many will be back at Owlerton on Friday when the 75th anniversary meeting puts the present day Pirtek Tigers up against some of their predecessors (7.15).

Czech Republic star George Stancl, German international Robbie Kessler and his fellow countryman Mirko Wolter are in the line-up, along with Adam Allott, Paul Lee and Simon Cartwright.

Riding at No 1 will be former world champion Billy Hamill.

Although never a team member, the colourful American has guested several times for the Tigers.

The charismatic Californian is widely regarded as one of the most exciting riders in the sport, but missed out on a place in the Elite League this season and has been restricted to continental meetings.

"I'm looking forward to Sheffield, I always have a blast when I go there and I want to come along and put on a great show for the fans," he said from his Swedish base.

Neil Machin has been with the Tigers since the 1960s, first as a supporter on the terraces and now as co-promoter.

"It should be a memorable night and, apart from the anniversary meeting, we feel it's equally important to honour the people who've played a part in our

history," he said.

"I was especially pleased to get Adam Allott to come. His family history is indelibly linked with the history of the stadium.

"This promises to be one of the best matches of the season. The team we have put together in opposition will be one of the best to be seen at Owlerton this season and will give the regular lads the hardest challenge they'll face."

Many of the team's former stars will be in attendance, both as Tigers – and for the 1950 season only, Tars.

Len Williams rode in both race-jackets and is now 82. He still lives in the city. Alan Jay was a Tiger from 1961-66 and will be travelling back 'home' from Spain where he now lives. He will be accompanied by brothers Derek and Wilf, who also represented the team.

While riders from the early days will not be in action, the sound of Rudge and Douglas machines will be heard once again with a demonstration match between the 'Men in Black' and 'Vintage Boys'.

"Speedway in Sheffield has had more than its fair share of ups and downs but the variety is what makes it so wonderful," said Machin.

"The whole evening is going to be a tribute to the people who have made Sheffield speedway what it is –riders, promoters, managers and, of course, the fans."