Speedway was and still is a working class, family sport with very loyal supporters, possibly hooked as much by the heady sweet smell of pure methanol used by the riders to fuel their engines as by the treat of cheering their favourite riders every week.
This is the unashamed story of teenage fanboy worship. Picture an early 70s around the time of the three day working week when there were still just two or three TV channels (shutting down at the end of the evening), no computers, electronic games and certainly no social media.
Speedway, a sport that is now largely ignored by the mainstream media was actually the second most popular spectator sport at the time, behind football, based on weekly attendance figures across its 40 or so stadia nationwide. Its 70s stars – helped hugely by the exposure given by World of Sport and Dickie Davies on ITV – had become household names – Kiwis Barry Briggs and Ivan Mauger and Yorkshire tyke Nigel Boocock were known by many casual sports fans and also featured regularly in columns in the newspapers.
The Coventry Bees (my local team as a Leamington boy) were regarded by those in the know as the Manchester United of speedway, staging weekly British League meetings at their Brandon stadium which could hold up to around 20,000 at capacity for internationals and British Finals. Most league meetings in those days, although given little media coverage beyond the Coventry Evening Telegraph still attracted at least 5000 and several Midland Red buses and supporters coaches were seen in the car park.
As an impressionable young teenager, I made damned sure I was at Brandon on a Saturday night, week in, week out along with a floating possé of friends. In the early 70s myself and Al, Rob, Paul, Buzz, Ali, Jim, Mick and others would usually stand in the middle of the back straight in the days before the erection of high safety mesh fencing obscured our view. The fans were allowed close to the track (although not as close as tracks such as Exeter and Halifax where you could actually lean over and touch the riders as they flew past at 70mph) and the action was fast and furious over four laps, riders throwing their bikes sideways into a full broadside around the two 180 degree bends.
Speedway was and still is a working class, family sport with very loyal supporters, possibly hooked as much by the heady sweet smell of pure methanol used by the riders to fuel their engines as by the treat of seeing their favourite riders every week. The bikes are quick-fire, lightweight 500cc power machines with no brakes and one gear. It was harum-scarum and intoxicating.
It’s hard to find the words to describe the thrill and excitement of standing on the terraces taking in the action of the thirteen Heats that made up a league match between two sides of seven riders each. Rivalry was intense but I’ve never seen a fight at speedway, at least not between fans – there has always been a strong sense of speedway family even with today’s diminished spectator numbers and ageing demographic.
The stickers you could buy from the track shop said ‘Happiness is 40-38’ which signified a narrow home win. I’d argue that ‘Heaven is 38-40’ if Bees won away. It didn’t take long for this keen intrepid supporter to start following the Bees away from home, even if it meant hitch hiking to Hull or Wimbledon if I couldnt afford 50p for Queenie's coach and then cadging a lift back on the official supporters coach (or Queenie's), often getting into Coventry's Pool Meadow bus station at 2.30am, followed by a further hitch hike back to Leamington in time for daybreak. Such was the life of a 16 year old...
Ironically the day I met up with one of the heros of my teenage years (and his son Mark) in the extensive environs of his golf club just outside Solihull on the outskirts of Birmingham was the day that will probably be remembered historically as marking the end of the institution that is Brandon Stadium, already earmarked for housing development after being sold off quickly and surreptitiously by its previous owner Avtar Sandhu. After talking to John I swung by the stadium only to see its fixtures and fittings being removed by Sandhu’s staff, with a crowd of concerned onlookers outside the gates, all despite the political smokescreen that has been ongoing for the last few years which suggested that racing could continue there until a new track location was found. In actuality, the prospect of the return of speedway and stock car now seems remote despite its unparalleled track record of continuity since opening in 1928 up until the end of 2016.
So John Harrhy... what is the story of the speedway star who never made it to the top but could have gone all the way if it hadn’t have been for a nasty injury sustained in a high speed crash in May 1973 which finished the career of his team mate Les Owen? For me, it’s interesting to hear the man, now in his mid 70s, and born within yards of the stadium reflecting back on his career.
"I started with cycle speedway at 12. I was born opposite first entrance to the stadium on Rugby Rd. went to farm at Brandon and we were all interested in the sport. After some second halves at Coventry, I went to Ipswich in 1969 as a reserve and ended up top scorer, within four months I had captained the Young England team, twice 69 and 70 – alongside English stars John Louis and Dave Jessup.
"My first rides were at Brandon then Kings Lynn and Rye House. I bought my first bike off Booey (Nigel Boocock) for £30. I had a few rides at reserve Bees in 69."
In 1971 Harrhy made the cut and rode the whole year for Bees. In 1972, veteran Ron Mountford started the season leaving no room for John in the team so he was loaned to second tier team Peterborough where he quickly became top rider. Mountford quit mid-season, retiring from the sport
Harrhy was recalled to the Bees line-up at the peak of his form. He was quickly adopted as a hero at Brandon and nicknamed ‘the flying farmer’ at the time he was working long shifts to maintain Elmhurst Farm in Withybrook after moving from Kimcote Farm near Lutterworth so Harrhy was a true local. Resplendent in new golden leathers (when most riders were still in black) on his day Harrhy was flying – a good second or two faster than most. I well remember John breaking the track record in a home match against Hackney in 1972, only to have Swede Bengt Jansson take it back off him three races later. “I was leading went ride and scraped the fence which slowed me right down – I was a full bend in front of Jansson – he broke the track record so my name never went on the records.” (Checking the scorecard at http://www.speedwayresearcher.org.uk/coventry1972.pdf September 9th reveals that Harrhy actually scored a maximum in that meeting – his first for Bees and Jansson’s record breaking ride was actually against Rick France)
Harrhy was well known for his spectacular outside line bursts around the boards. He recalls “I used to make a lot of second half finals, I always went off Gate 4, under instructions from above! Charles Ochiltree (the legendary Coventry promoter for several decades) used to like to see me off 4 and get into the first turn first. It was good for the fans”
“In one second half against Belle Vue, I led Ivan Mauger until the last lap when he was world champ – the crowd booed him out of the stadium, he cut me up, didn’t he. I never got on very well with Ivan but I still play golf with Briggo.
“Nigel Boocock was very helpful. We only went to see him a couple of years ago just before he passed away. He never recovered from losing his son, Darren. When we first knew him, Darren was just a babe in arms.
"He was a bit of a one off, Nigel.. but I didn’t model my style on him...
Favourite tracks? I always did well at Wolverhampton. Peterborough was my favourite track – Ipswich and Poole too. I never liked Exeter and Oxford, a trick track, I didn’t get on with.
"Overall I enjoyed my speedway, I had to run the farm as well so it wasn’t easy. One week we got there after start time at 7.40 and luckily I wasn’t in til Heat 4
"I got on brilliantly with the CO (Ochiltree). Some didn’t see eye to eye with him, I never had a cross word with him, he always good to me.. always successful” In the programme notes for Harrhy’s farewell meeting in October 1976, Ochiltree described him as a “salt of the earth team man”
Those who were at Brandon on May 16th 1973 for the Midland Cup match with Cradley will never forget Harrhy’s horrifying crash. It happened in Heat 3. I asked John what his recollections were of the third bend high speed pile up.. “I can remember it right until today even though it’s such a long while ago. I put a new frame in the bike that night... I was racing Jim McMillan, Les Owen and Bruce Cribb. I was on the outside in last position...as I was going around the first bend I was thinking that the bike was handling nicely and I picked up drive down the back straight, I got it lined up and I was going to do the big thing and hopefully pass all three in one go and Les came out into me and we went straight over the fence. But there was room - when I went to pass him, there was room…when I got there, there wasn’t. I was conscious through the whole thing… I remember it all. I was out of action for the rest of the year.. I didn’t think of quitting because I was enjoying my speedway at the time.. when you get a lot of points, you enjoy it.” (John was on a highly impressive 8.50 average at the time and being tipped as one of the riders of the year by Speedway Star columnist Martin Rogers)
Looking back with hindsight, there was every chance that our man could have led from the front in 73 season, such as his start to the season. It would almost certainly have been a big breakthrough year and catapulted him into international class. Instead, a rueful Harrhy had to sit out the entire season with arm and ankle injuries as well as broken fifth cervical in his neck.
Amazingly, he was back on a bike less than a year later but unsurprisingly, his comeback was a little tentative at the start though he soon snapped back into form. “It takes a bit of getting back into, speedway’s a bit like jumping off a cliff – once you set off from the start you’ve got to go. You go into that first bend flat out and if you back off, you don’t get there first. Convincing yourself to make sure you’re there first isn’t easy.”
“I might have been tentative on a sub-conscious level, I felt really good in 74”
I reminded John of some of the scraps that wound the fans up – in his favour of course! “I remember Norman Hunter against Swindon - I rubbed him up the wrong way and then there there was the Newport lads – Aussies Phil Crump and Neil Street…they ganged up on me, didn’t they!
1975 was a very mixed season for John, in his words a "bad" season, with a few highlights juxtaposed with poor performances. Even before the season started local newspaper columnist Mike Malyon led with a scare story at new year that Harrhy may have to hang up his leathers for unexplained “personal reasons”. He was thought to be reorganising his personal life with a new partner, Janet after departing the farm in Withybrook.
He says “We were in the process of trying new bikes. In ‘76 I had the first 4-valve at Coventry. I never got that going either- it was either good or rubbish, nothing in between, if the track was good and grippy there was nothing better but I was very inconsistent, I just couldn’t get it right, I’d had enough of it by the end of the season, I was 32 or 33 then (In fact he was slightly older) but then I look at Greg Hancock…”
In 1976, John’s last year in Bees colours, it was all change under a new skipper and star great Dane Ole Olsen who swept in from Wolves and revitalised Bees fortunes. In his last season at Brandon John only played a bit part.
“Olsen changed speedway at Coventry. He was a great rider and a nice bloke, but he was perhaps a bit selfish. He wanted all the dirt taken off the track and he didn’t want any grip for any of us outside boys to pass him, you know, he wanted it smooth. Taking the dirt off the track probably ruined speedway. All you’ve got now is the guys getting out the gate and winning by half a lap. You need some grip or you’re not going to get any speedway.
“When I first watched in early 50s and the likes of Johnny Reason and Bob Fletcher and Lionel Levy and Les Hewitt – they were all exciting riders.”
Does Harrhy still keep up his interest? He used to be spotted at Brandon in the restaurant every week and would sponsor riders and races every week. “I used to go regularly. Over a period of ten years I put £30000 in and when the new people took over, I wasn’t listed on the gate any more to get in. I paid to go in for a while but then lost interest.. I did look at buying the stadium.. it was either build this golf club or buy the stadium.. one of the people who convinced me not to do it was Briggo (Barry Briggs), he said you’ve got 30 meetings a year, you’ve got 365 days of the year here (at his golf club).. he’s right really. The council were always quite negative about other things happening on the site, they had car auctions for a while, the ideal spot really.
It would be a shame to see Brandon go, though.. my grandfather used to graze his sheep on that car park”
Harrhy never quite scaled the heights of individual honours though he fondly remembers winning the 1972 World Championship round at Barrow with a 15 point maximum as a highlight. “At Sheffield in the 1972 semis I won my first ride coming from last to first and was coming second in the next race and the bike seized. We found out afterwards it has been sabotaged. Someone had undone the oil pump and a sliver of metal had been put in which stopped the oil going into the big end.”
After a year in retirement from speedway, Harrhy was tempted back for a year with second division Stoke in 1978. “I went there for one season. I’d been off setting up a project on the farm. At the end of the first year I’d only got an 8 point average and that wasn’t good enough for a No1, so I quit. I won my last ever race, at Workington in the second half final.”
Life after speedway has been very successful for Harrhy as far as business has gone, converting a semi derelict Allesley Windmill Hotel B&B into a 100 room hotel and golf course that turned over £3.5m annually before going on to replicate the golf club formula in Solihull.
“When we bought The Windmill, we were there twenty years, turning a derelict farm into a golf club, a leisure club and 100 bedroom hotel. We bought it as farm – it was a ten bedroom and we had six rooms B&B and found we could legally do 6 rooms B&B and make more from the B&B than from farming. We wanted to demolish all the farm buildings as they were all falling down but they were all listed so we couldn’t so we developed them into chalet-type rooms and then expanded with another 50 rooms. In 20 years years we took it from being a derelict farm to a business taking over £3m a year. “
So, what memories remain now of the speed years?
“I had ten good years. No regrets. I don’t really feel my injuries. Sure, I have aches and pains, everyone gets them, my neck doesn’t bother me at all really. That boy at Ipswich John Simmons had the same neck injury – he’s in a wheelchair so I’m lucky. I still have a pin in my arm. When I was 14 or 15 I looked forward with hope and ambition, now past 70 I look back at the memories, not just speedway, we’ve done some good deals, buying and selling land.
“I’m still working seven days a week, up at 6am every morning, we go to Tenerife once a year, play golf twice a week, I’ve got my own buggy with doors and a heater in it.”
On the way out I notice his car registration - JH 3333. Now was a scorechart he managed on more than one occasion. Last word from his good friend and speedway legend Barry Briggs “Whenever I went to Brandon the hardest rider to beat was John Harrhy”
A legend for me and others, a man who never totally fulfilled his huge potential on track but had Coventry Speedway in his blood.