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Sunday 2nd July 2017 tapes up 18.00

National League Speedway

STOKE POTTERS 47 (Burnett 12+1 Davey 10)

CRADLEY HEATHENS 43 (Morley 13+1 Perry 9 +2)

Att c400

Entry £13

Programme £1

I have a theory that if Arnold Bennett were writing about the Potteries in the 21st century, he’d have written about the local speedway team rather than the twin football teams of Stoke City and Port Vale. That’s not to disparage those clubs in any way, 99% of the time this blog is about visiting football grounds, but there’s something about Loomer Road in Newcastle-under-Lyme that evokes Bennett.

Of course even a football fanatic like me needs an outlet during the off-season and speedway fulfils that for me and many others. The sport sells this form of motorbike racing as 500cc, methanol, 4 laps, 70 mph and no brakes, and whilst the “Thrills and spills” element does appeal, its the grit, other than the shale track that attracts me more.

Speedway went through a phase of trying to be glamourous, I still shudder at the poster of Bruce Penhall in the bath at Cradley Heath, with just a few bubbles maintaining his modesty. Speedway is friendly, grubby, noisy and the smell of burning methanol is utterly addictive. While else would Robyn and I drive in a hot car from Oxford for a third division meeting? It’s the same thing that appealed to Bennett over a century ago. It’s completely without pretence, 4 riders do battle over 4 laps, 15 times a meeting. They dare, they win, they lose, they dream and sometimes they get hurt.

I have endless respect for anyone with the courage to even try to ride a speedway bike. I’ve seen riders like Hans Nielsen make it look easy, and I’ve seen it all go horribly wrong, with some of the riders of my youth now struggling with life-changing injuries. It should never be forgotten that champions such as Per Jonsson, and Erik Gundersen once glided around the tracks of the world, and still suffered severe spinal injuries.

Gundersen of course rode for the renowned Cradley Heathens club. They went into abeyance when they lost their track in 1995, ironically merging with Stoke in 1996, but the Heathens name was lost a year later. The club was revived in 2010 but have led an itinerant existance since then, staging meetings at Wolverhampton’s Monmore Green and Birmingham’s Perry Barr tracks. It was poignant seeing a “Gert Handberg” programme board in amongst the visiting fans.

Stoke’s Potters can’t claim anything like the Heathens’ history. Formed in the 40’s from Hanley (Yes, Mr Bennett, there are 6 Potteries towns, not 5) they moved to the purpose-built Loomer Road Stadium in Newcastle-under-Lyme in 1973. They’ve never set the speedway world alight, but unlike so many others they’ve survived, albeit taking voluntary demotion to the third, and bottom tier, in 2010.

The move hasn’t seen any great upturn in fortunes for the Potters, this tie saw them win a league tie for only the second time this season in front of a bumper crowd. But for all of their travails, I developed a soft spot for Stoke. Yes, the standard is lower, the riders made more mistakes in 15 heats than I saw Hans Nielsen make in a career, but motor racing is about excitement, and those mistakes saw incident, and that’s what attracts the punters.

But when I’d checked my scorechart, and the cafe finally stopped dispensing trays of chips I strolled back to the car smiling. Because I’d found what I find in so many non-league football clubs. Some call it being friendly, some call it grass-roots, but for me it’s soul, pure and simple. All the best to the Potters.