Saturday 2 February 2013

An Evening with Graeme Obree

My usual reaction when I meet one of my sporting heroes, is one of being let down or even disappointed that they are not actually a Superhero, they're just like me really, normal people doing a job they train hard for and more often than not there's no depth there, no knowledge or experience of anything else other than the sport they take part in.... but last night I had my belief in real life Superheroes restored - stand up Graeme Obree, champion cyclist, holder of the World 1 hour record in 1993 and 1994, World 4000m Pursuit Champion in 1993 and 1995 and winner of countless other Scottish and British cycling championships.

Lakes College in West Cumbria was the unlikely venue for an evening with Graeme Obree, unlikely in as much as we don't usually get such high profile speakers in this part of the country, but thanks to the efforts of sports tutor, Andrew Beattie, the Wild West of Cumbria welcomed him with open arms in a superb venue.

Unlike many talks by sports personalities, this was not a nostalgic recount of his achievements, neither was it an ego boost for a sportsman wanting to remind himself how popular he once was... far from it... this was a talk from the heart, a talk that put us inside the psyche of Graeme Obree, a talk that made us see the world from the point of view of Graeme Obree, a talk that is obviously part of Graeme Obree's own personal therapy, a way that he can put his demons to rest and get his fears off his chest and a talk that actually got me thinking about my own personality traits and why I sometimes act like I do.... 

For anyone who isn't aware of who Graeme Obree is, I suggest you read his autobiography - The Flying Scotsman - , or even watch the film of the same name. Only then will you start to understand what makes this guy tick, his reason for living and the obstacles he has to overcome every day of his life.

The evening began with a short film montage of Graeme's life and cycling career put together by the organiser, Andrew Beattie, who is obviously an admirer of Obree's achievements. This was followed by Graeme's very entertaining talk, which jumped backwards, forwards and sideways probably just as much as Graeme's own thoughts do. We learnt about his lonely childhood in Scotland, the son of the village policeman,  " I was son of the Pig", "Filth", feeling completely isolated and uninterested". How he left school with no qualifications (apart from an O-level in English just to prove his teacher wrong!) and no ambition. His only escape from everyday life was his bicycle, the bicycle that could take him out of the village and over the horizon... We learnt how he first turned up at the local cycling club on a bike from the junkyard and wearing jeans, a parka and Dr Martens boots. 

The talk covered the many sides to Graeme Obree and he wasn't afraid to tell us about his many complex problems... Bipolar disorder, depression... "like having 20 fire sprinklers going off in my head at once", obsessive compulsive disorder, "At the Olympics we had Ziggy Marley playing a free concert for the competitors but I was in my room reading books on micro-biology"...  two suicide attempts, battles with his sexuality, his fear of failure, how even when he had won he would be ashamed that he hadn't done better, his guilt at beating other athletes because he knew how they felt inside..."apart from the guy who peed in my bed... ", his 10 years of therapy, "never mind a gap year, I've had a gap decade!" and his experiences of living in a mental institute, "there's 48kg of lithium inside this body". We even learnt about his feelings and thoughts towards his rivals and team mates and how he could clear his mind to look at bicycle design without any preconceptions. But then he said "anyway, that was all 20 years ago now, you don't want to hear about that"... The final part of his talk introduced us to his new project. His attempt to break the land speed record on a bicycle he is building in his kitchen - The Beastie. 

Graeme Obree with "The Beastie". 
After his talk, Graeme bravely asked the audience for any questions... "don't be shy, don't hold back, if there's something you really want to know, just ask"... "What do you really think of Chris Boardman?" ... "He's a very good cabinet maker - next question please?".... "Should the UCI stand down?" "Emphatically Yes! Get rid of the lot of them, there's too much cronyism and buddyism at every level. For the benefit of cycling the UCI should be disbanded and the sport should start from scratch again". The subject of drugs in sport raised its head too and Graeme was quite open about his experiences.

"I joined a professional team in the 90s, but it was made very obvious that I would have to take drugs. I was introduced to the French guys and the Italian guys ... "Ahh, Monsier Obree, welcome welcome,,, what drugs do you take?" "Er None!", "Pah - amateur!"... I was quickly sacked by my team. I feel I was robbed by those bastards taking drugs. I was surprised how resentful I felt when I watched the Tour De France end in Paris. I let those thoughts live inside me for years and that's something else I've had to talk to my therapist about."

Hinting at the recent Lance Armstrong scandal, Graeme told us that he never took drugs but a large majority of professional cyclists did, even down the system to junior club level, riders taking drugs was rife. He also promised that if he signed a poster or book after the show he could guarantee that it would not be tarnished later. You know what? I believe him. I don't think Graeme Obree is capable of lying, and if he did his personal demons would mean that he would have to come clean and tell the truth afterwards. 

Sir Chris Hoy has recently described Graeme Obree much better than I ever could, so I'll leave the last word to that other revered Scottish Cycling Champion...

"Graeme Obree is a genius in the true sense of the word. His uncanny ability to tackle problems from an angle that no-one else could have thought of, makes him a one-off. An original. He sees the world in a different way to us mere mortals and comes up with ideas and solutions which make you laugh, shake your head and say 'why didn't I think of that?!'

"Old Faithful"... On display at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. 
An individual beyond reproach, an innovator, an incredible athlete with an indestructible determination are just some of the elements of Graeme Obree's character. To understand the rest you really need to hear it from the man himself - Graeme Obree is a brilliant speaker with a truly captivating story. He is due to return to Cumbria again on Thursday 16th May to talk at the Keswick Mountain Festival, my ticket is already booked :) 

For more information 
Return of The Flying Scotsman Landspeed Record Attempt.

Wednesday 30 November 2011

Sergei Tarabanko - The 1970s Ice King

Back in the days when Ice Speedway could still be seen on television, commentator Dave Lanning used to call Sergei Tarabanko "Sergei The Sure Guy".This softly spoken PE teacher was ice speedway's equal to Ivan Mauger... totally dominant at his chosen discipline during the 70s and guaranteed a place in the speedway history books. Away from the track, Sergei did not look like the tough guy he was taken for on the track... He was a quiet man who loved fishing and taught PE at a Moscow school for a living, but during the last half of the 70s decade, Sergei ruled the ice racing circuits of Scandinavia and Eastern Europe.
Ready to race... note the cut down tyres to protect his knees.
Tarabanko arrived on the ice racing scene in 1966 and was trained by Russian ice racing ace Gabdrakhman Kadyrov, who had won the World title an amazing six times. Tarabanko hit the headlines in 1975, when he won the World Championship in front of over 100,000 fanatical Russian fans in the Dynamo football stadium in Moscow. It was an emphatic display from the new Russian ace. A combination of talent, skill, nerve and training and technical advice from Kadyrov meant that Tarabanko was never beaten over the two days, racing to 10 straight race wins. It was mighty lift for the Russians, whose previous dominance of the World Ice Racing Championships had been broken in 1974 by Milan Spinka from Czechoslovakia.
In 1976, Tarabanko travelled to Assen in Holland in an attempt to retain his title. On day 1 he was invincible, scoring another maximum fifteen points. On day two, he scored thirteen points, but he was already home and dry by the time he dropped his first points of the meeting.
Sergei Tarabanko warms up his Jawa ice racer in the pits at Eindhoven in 1979
In 1977, the World Championship final was held at Inzell in what was West Germany. Tarabanko's attempt to win his third consecutive title suffered a setback when he had an uncharacteristic crash during the fist days racing, but another immaculate five ride maximum on the second day gave Tarabanko his hat-trick of World titles. Assen in Holland was the venue for the 1978 World final and another fifteen point maximum on the first day put Tarabanko on the way to a fourth title. Day two cemented his place in the history books as thirteen point were enough to give the Russian ace his fourth consecutive title.
Tarabanko leads Vladimir Subotin on his way to World tile No4 at Assen in 1978.
Tarabanko also played his part in the Soviet Union's dominance of the World Ice Racing Team championship, leading them to victory in the first ever competition in 1979 and again in 1980 and 1981.
Tarabanko's Double Over-Head Cam, 2-valve Jawa at Den Hagg in 1980.

(Text adapted from the "On Two Wheels" magazine collection... photos from Speedway Mail archives)

Sunday 5 June 2011

"Bob Mac" McIntyre - the Flying Scotsman (2nd Edition)

Robert McGregor McIntyre was born to race motorcycles, he had all the right qualities to be one of the greatest motorcycle racers of all time, natural ability, clinical logic and outstanding race-craft. He was also a skilled engine tuner, mechanic and machine-builder, but "Bob Mac" was tragically taken from us while still in his prime. The "Flying Scotsman" was only 33 when he was fatally injured racing in the British Championship meeting at Oulton Park on August 6th 1962.
Bob McIntyre wearing his custom-made, one-piece leathers, Italian pattern goggles
and his helmet adorned with the emblem of the Mercury Motor Cycle Club.
Bob McIntyre was born in Scotsoun, a suburb of Glasgow, on November 2nd 1928. (He also had a younger brother, nine years his junior, who never raced bikes and later emigrated to Australia). His father worked on the Clyde in the shipyards and never wanted his son to follow in his footsteps, so when Bob left school at 14 years of age, he went to work in a motor garage in Partick to learn a trade. He started his apprenticeship on his 16th birthday and later bought his first motorcycle, a 1931 Norton 16H, which cost £12. He wasn't interested in racing at all at this time, the bike was nothing more than a means of transport and also something he could rebuild and tinker with. He soon had the bike looking as good as new and after six months he sold for £50 - a tidy profit in the 1940s. With the aid of a loan from his parents, Bob's next bike was a 1935 Ariel Red Hunter, a much faster machine than the Norton and the cause of one or two spills for young Bob. Shortly before his 18th birthday, a motor cycling club was formed in Scotsoun and Bob became one of the first half dozen members. The club was the Mercury Motor Club, whose emblem adorned Bob's crash helmet throughout his career.

At 18 Bob was called up for National Service and eventually found himself posted to Suez, where his experience on a motorcycle got him a job as a despatch rider. Once his service was done, Bob returned to Scotland and continued with his apprenticeship. The Mercury Club had grown during his abscence and some of the members were taking part in trials and scrambles. Bob went to watch one of the scrambles at Airdrie, where he was captivated by the legendary Bob Smith on his AJS and decided he'd like to have a go himself. His first ever race meeting was a scramble at Craigend Farm. not far from his home at Scotsoun, where he raced his own Ariel, minus the headlamp. As the months passed by, the Ariel was modified and tuned, and Bob got steadily better. His fascination with tuning motorcycles had grown too, so as soon as he had completed his apprenticeship, he found a job with Valenti Brothers, a motor cycle dealers in Glasgow.

Bob in his first ever official race on the Ariel Red Hunter - a scramble at Craigend Farm.
It was around this time that Bob witnessed his first motorcycle road race too. he went to Kircaldy and thought to himself that he could ride better than most of the guys he was watching, so decided there and then to enter a road race for himself and see how well he could do. Bob's biggest obstacle was not having access to a bike suitable for road racing, but Alan McKenzie, a fellow member of the Mercury Club, offered him the chance to share his BSA 350cc Gold Star at an event at Ballado Airfield near Kinross. The race was held on the old concrete runways, which had seen better days, but Bob's scrambling experience proved invaluable on the loose gravel and he won three events before falling off in his fourth race.

Bob and Alan entered more and more Scottish races on the BSA and Bob did reasonably well in his first season. The Ariel was sold to fund new parts, tyres and entry fees so the two of them would turn up at the races aboard the BSA with their spares and toolkit strapped to their backs.

One of Bob's rivals in those early days was Les Cooper, whose family owned Cooper Bro's of Troon. Les rode a brand new AJS 7R, a proper racing bike. Towards the end of the 1951 season, Sam Cooper, the senor partner of Cooper Bro's, asked Bob if he would like to race their Gold Star BSA in the 1952 Isle Of Man Junior Clubman TT. He also asked Bob if he would like a job, so in the winter of 1951, Bob switched jobs and started to ride his racing bike to and from work, choosing the most demanding routes he could find, just to improve his skills and get a better feel for the bike.

During practice for the event, Bob made an error which almost cost him his chance, He forgot to remove the centre stand and as he descended Hilllberry at speed, the stand hit the ground and threw Bob off, causing the bike some serious cosmetic damage. Sam Cooper was furious and threatened to pack the bike up and return home, but Bob protested and eventually Cooper calmed down and let him take his place on the starting grid, on the promise that Bob would ride with caution! This turned out to be a defining moment in Bob's racing career as he finished 2nd to Eric Houseley and also set a new lap record of 80.09mph, a remarkable feat considering his bike was struggling with carburettor problems, a blown head gasket and young Bob was supposed to be riding cautiously!

In September of that same year he took Cooper's 350cc AJS 7R and Manx Norton to the Isle Of Man. While he was there he was given the chance to ride a works AJS which he rode to victory in the Junior Manx Grand Prix. Two days later he rode  the same bike to 2nd place in the Senior race. This was the beginning of a great career that would see Bob at the top of the road racing game for ten years.

Bob McIntyre took his racing very seriously and set standards that many still strive to achieve today. Not only did he make sure his bikes were always immaculately turned out, but he made sure his body was in peak condition too. He kept fit by playing badminton and swimming and spent the closed season climbing in the Scottish mountains. He was also teetotal, never smoked and watched his diet very carefully. He was equally concerned with his appearance too. He wore a custom-made one-piece leather racing suit which was snug fitting and unpadded. His boots were also custom made with a supple, fine grade leather and soled with rubber to aid quick push starts. His racing kit was supplemented with wrist length gloves, a white helmet featuring the badge of the Mercury Motor Club and a pair of Italian pattern goggles. If nothing else, Bob was always the fittest and smartest racer on the grid.

In 1953, Bob was invited to join the AJS works team, but he struggled at first. He had a disappointing TT, failing to finish in any event, but he finally scored his first international victory at the North West 200 where he won the 350cc race on a standard two-valve AJS 7R rather than the 7R3 "triple knocker". He also stood on the podium at the Ulster Grand Prix and recorded his first GP victory at Pau in France. McIntyre appeared to have had his best results on standard machinery and even in the senior class he preferred to ride the production Matchless G45 rather than the works E95 "Porcupine", which he described as "...most horrifying... a camel!"
Bob McIntyre on the AJS 7R3 "Triple Knocker" at Scarborough in 1954.
Despite finishing 2nd in the 350cc race, Bob did not like the 7R3 as much as the production two-valve 7R.
For 1954 Bob stayed with AJS, preferring to ride the standard 7R and G45 whenever he could. Once again, he was frustrated with his results and and had another disappointing TT. The 7R3 let him down in the Junior event and he could only finish 14th on the "Porcupine" in the senior race. AJS pulled out of Grand Prix racing at the end of the 1954 season, so Bob seized the opportunity, went back to his privateer roots, and beagn a famous partnership with Glasgow's ace tuner and sponsor Joe Potts, who provided him with 350cc and 500cc Manx models and also prepared a special 250cc Potts Special Norton.

At the Isle of Man TT Bob rode one of the greatest races of his career. His streamlined Norton had the beating of all the British factory entries and he even beat Surtees on the Moto Guzzi. He actually led the race for the first four laps only to be beaten by Bill Lomas on the last lap. Giulio Carcano was so impressed with his perfomance that he offered him a ride on the factory Moto Guzzi, but Bob stuck with his trusted friend and did not accept the invitation. Despite a brilliant domestic season in 1956, Bob could not repeat his success at the TT, retiring from both the senior and junior races with mechanical problems. 1956 saw the legendary tuner J "Pim" Fleming join the Potts team, adding another dimension to the preparation of Bob Mac's engines.

Bob Mac at speed on the Pim Fleming tuned Potts Norton at Silverstone in 1956.
1957 turned out to be Bob's big year. He was invited to join the Gilera works team and mounted on a 4-cylinder Gilera Arcore, he won both the Junior and Senior races at the Golden Jubillee Isle Of Man TT and also became the first rider to do a 100mph lap on the mountain circuit when he completed his third lap of the senior at 101.03mph. The fourth lap was even faster at 101.13mph! During the extended 8-lap race it is estimated that McIntyre reached speeds of around 160mph, so it came as no surprise that he actually caught and overtook the 1956 World Champion, John Surtees on the 500cc MV Augusta and won the race. It was this success that really cemented his place in history as one of the greatest TT riders of all time.

Bob later described the 1957 junior TT Gilera 350  as "the nicest machine I ever rode... smooth as silk". He also recalled how every time he passed the Guthrie memorial he imagined the fellow Scot urging him on to victory, but during the senior, on that fully streamlined Gilera, he reckoned Jimmy was shaking a finger at him and warning him to slow down!
One of my favourite Motorcycle racing photographs.
Bob McIntyre riding the Gilera Four to victory in the 1957 Junior T.T.
The 1957 World Championship also looked to be within his reach, but a crash in the Dutch TT at Assen put him on the sidelines for a couple of months. His record for the season was still excellent though, with a 2nd place in the 500cc Ulster Grand Prix and victory in the 350cc Nations Grand Prix at Monza. Bob finished 2nd in the 500cc World Championships and also took 3rd place in the 350cc World Championship. At the end of 1957 the Italian team also quit Grand Prix racing, but in November 1957, Gilera invited McIntyre to ride a 350cc racer around the banked Monza circuit in an attempt to break the one hour speed record. He averaged 141 mph on the bumpy Monza surface, a record that was not broken until 1964 when Mike Hailwood lapped Daytona at 144.80mph on an MV Agusta.
Bob McIntyre's 1959 350cc Potts Norton photographed at Knockhill in 1993.
With no works team place for 1958, Bob returned to his roots once again and was back on his trusted Potts Norton and AJS machines, but the TT races ended in disappointment again. He retired from the junior race on the second lap whilst in 2nd place and in the senior, it really looked like McIntyre would become the first racer to lap at over 100mph on a single cylinder bike, but he suffered valve gear problems whilst catching eventual winner Surtees. For the 1959 season Potts prepared a specially tuned 47bhp Norton engine for Bob, which took him to a great victory in the North West 200. He could only manage 5th place in the '59 senior TT and in 1960 it was becoming obvious that the single cylinder British bikes, although still hard to beat in domestic competition, were no longer competitive  against the exotica from Germany, Italy and Japan in the TT or on the International scene.

Bob had a dream of starting his own motorcycle business, building a range of top quality, over-the-counter racing bikes in 250cc, 350cc and 500cc versions. The two smaller machines would be 4-cyclinder models like the Japanese, and the 500cc would be an 8-cylinder job, but partly due to a lack of capital, Bob's dream would remain just that.

Honda had always wanted to add McIntyre to their stable of talented works riders and they finally got their man when he signed to ride for the Japanese factory for the 1961 season. In the 1961 Isle of Man Lightweight TT Bob raised the lap record to over 99.58 mph but lost his lead when his engine seized. He did finish 2nd in the Senior TT, albeit on on a Potts Norton, becoming the first rider to lap the TT course at over 100mph on a single cylinder engine. Bob also rode 350cc Grand Prix races on Bianchi machines during 1961, gracing the podium in Holland, Sweden and East Germany. He had also breifly led the Junior TT on a Bianchi before engine problems forced him to retire.
Racing the 250cc Honda. (photo by J.M.Fyfe, Alloa)
During 1962 McIntyre was blessed with full works machinery from Honda. He finished 2nd in the Spanish, French, Dutch and German 250cc Grands Prix but had little luck at the Isle Of Man TT with a non-start in the Senior TT and mechanical problems in both the 250cc and 350cc events. His best perfomance of 1962 was probably the Belgium 250cc GP at Spa-Francorchamps, which he won in front of 100,000 spectators. A week later he finished 2nd to Jim Redman in the 250cc GP in West Germany and finished a credible 4th on a rare outing in the 125cc GP.
Bob McIntyre launches the 285cc Honda over BallaughTT during the 1962 Junior TT.
Then it was back to Britain for the British Championship meeting at Oulton Park over August Bank Holiday. Bob had already won the 250cc event and had briefly led the 350cc race on the 285cc Honda before it packed up on him. He entered the 500cc race on his Manx Norton and after a bad start in wet conditions, he fought his way up to 2nd place and was chasing leader Derek Minter at Clay Hill Corner when the bike appeared to go straight into the bank with Bob still on it! The front wheel hit a ditch and Bob was catapulted into the trees. He was taken to Chester Royal Infimary where he remained unconcious for nine days and eventually died from serious head injuries. Nobody was ever sure what caused the fatal crash, there was talk of a gearbox failure at the time, but when Pim Fleming stripped the bike nothing was wrong. Bob seldom made mistakes either, so we can only assume that the bike must have aquaplaned on the surface water

Earlier in the year, during the Isle Of Man TT, Bernard Howard had sat with Bob discussing his future plans. It was the day that Bob was attempting to take on the 500cc machines in the senior TT aboard a 285cc Honda. Things weren't going Bob's way that day, but he still wore his heart on his sleeve and gave it everything he'd got. Bernard asked Bob why he kept on racing, especially as his wife was expecting their first child and he'd achieved just about everything there was to achieve. Bob replied... "I may think of quitting at the end of the season". He never got the chance to quit. Bob passed away on August 15th 1962 having never regained consciousness. He left a widow, Joyce and a three month old baby daughter, Eleanor.
"Now you can brake" - (photo by Peter Roberts).

Saturday 12 March 2011

Harry Skirrow - "The One-Armed Lakeland Wonder"

"Perhaps the least known and most underrated racing car constructor in this country". That is how author Derek Bridgett described Henry (Harry) Skirrow in his book "Midget Car Speedway". That statement is very true. Without a doubt, it was Harry's skill, drive and initiative that produced the UK's most successful midget speedway cars, but there was so much more to this great man than has ever been published before.
Born in Bradford in 1906, Harry was raised in Westmorland (now part of Cumbria). Harry began his working life as a banker, but he soon became bored with the mundane occupation and opened his own motor garage on Lake Road in Ambleside, close to the shore of Windermere in England's Lake District.

During their teenage years, the brothers had both been bitten by the motorcycle bug and competed in sand races, speed trials and grass track events and they were both founder members of the reformed Westmorland Motor Club. Harry and Geoffrey were pioneer speedway riders too. Harry had finished 2nd to his brother in the 350cc event at the first Whitehaven meeting in July 1930 and they were both winners of the Silver Goblet and Silver Rose Bowl at Barrow-In-Furness speedway during the same year. At one stage Harry was a promising novice at the Preston speedway track, but then he lost his left arm in a shooting accident and everyone presumed his motorcycle racing days were over - everyone except Harry that is! With the aid of an artificial forearm and a hook, Harry started riding again and even amused himself by riding speedway again, albeit behind closed doors at the famous Belle Vue track in Manchester. He was such a fan of the sport that he would drive down to Manchester to watch the "Aces" most weeks and it was here that he first saw Midget Car Speedway. On May 16th 1935, Belle Vue Speedway presented an "All Car Meeting", which was reported as a failure, but it obviously caught the imagination of some and fired a new enthusiasm in Harry Skirrow.

Harry returned to Ambleside and built his own midget racer based on the wreck of an old BSA Scout. He returned to Belle Vue as a competitor and despite having the fastest car around the Manchester track, he was still not satisfied. With the help of Walter Mackereth, a blacksmith from Kendal, they built a new car and took it to Flookburgh Sands for testing. They experimented with front wheel drive, rear wheel drive and different wheelbases until they eventually produced a car that they were both satisfied with and turned their attentions to domination of the UK midget speedway car scene.
The fully developed "Skirrow Special" from 1936
(Photo courtesy of Malcolm Skirrow)
I have a copy of a letter drafted by Harry on various scraps of paper and intended to be sent to Michael Ware at the National Motor Museum in Beaulieu that tells the story of how the famous Skirrow Special developed...

In the letter Harry describes how, with more enthusiasm than judgement, he sold his garage at Ambleside and put all his resources into producing a car that fulfilled the rules of midget car racing in the USA. He then relocated to London and rented a workshop from Victor Martin in Tottenham. Harry had asked the neighbouring firm of J.A.Prestwich to produce a 1000cc air-cooled v-twin engine based on two 500cc speedway J.A.P. units. The two cylinders were mated to a common crankcase and each cylinder had its own twin monobloc Amal carburettor and ran on methanol. This engine became known as the 996cc J.A.P. 8/80. The chassis and pressed steel disc wheels were produced by Rubery Owen and Harry also persuaded John Bull to produce special tyres using the same tread pattern and compounds as the larger 20" speedway bike tyres.
996cc J.A.P. 8/80 engine.
A cutaway showing the 4-wheel drive chassis of the Skirrow.
By the Spring of 1936 Harry had produced his first few complete cars and presented them to Eric Spence at Belle Vue Speedway. At first he wasn't interested as he wanted to produce his own cars based on the American Elto design, so Harry became a partner in Liverpool Speedway which allowed him to race and demonstrate his cars to his hearts content. It wasn't long before the Skirrow was recognised as the best car for the job and Harry eventually joined forces with Jim Baxter and the Belle Vue management to form a national midget car racing league with Harry and his wife promoting their own tracks at Lea Bridge in London and at Coventry in the Midlands.
Action from Coventry in 1937.
Ginger Pashley in an Elto leads Walter Mackereth in a Skirrow.
Not only was Harry a talented designer, fabricator and a budding businessman, he was also an exceptional driver. In his book "Coventry's Two Speedways", author Colin Parker describes how Harry managed to turn his car onto its side during a meeting at Wembley. He scrambled out, pushed it back onto four wheels with his single arm and carried on racing. The same book also describes how the cars had to be transported from their Tottenham workshops to the Brandon track at Coventry, either on the back of a truck or being towed behind it, with the "driver" exposed to the elements in all kinds of British weather.
Harry sitting at the wheel of the final development of the Skirrow Special.
(Photo courtesy of Malcolm Skirrow)
In his letter Harry continues to describe the diffficulties he faced. Despite being totally under capitalised and running into severe financial difficulties during the recession of the 1930s, Harry did not give up on his dream and persevered with developing his Skirrow Special and promoting racing or "Doodle Dicing" as it had become known, at more venues. He had plans to introduce his "Doodle Bugs" to the Moorville Speedway in Carlisle in partnership with Roland Stobbart and Jimmy Baxter, but the venue never recovered from the financial disaster of its one and only motorcycle speedway meeting and the proposed project never materialised. 
Coventry driver Frank Chiswell in his Skirrow No 77.
(Photo courtesy of Roy Chiswell)
Walter Mackereth and his Coventry team were crowned League Champions in 1938 and Harry was just beginning to reap the rewards of his dogged determination. Crowds were increasing and Harry had been invited to tour Australia over the winter of 1939/1940, but the events that followed were completely out of Harry's hands. Poor summer weather in 1939 had caused a lot of meetings to be rained off and combined with gathering war clouds, the midget car league was abandoned in July 1939. Consequently, the trip to Australia was also cancelled. Fate dealt another blow in 1940 when Harry's house was completely demolished during an air raid, destroying all of Harry's records, drawings, photographs and press cuttings. At this point Harry sold his business to Victor Martin, paid off his debts and relocated back to the North West to join his son Malcolm, who had already been evacuated from London and was living with an Aunt in Bowness-On-Windermere. The family eventually settled into a house just south of Lancaster and Harry turned his attentions to producing aircraft parts for the war effort. He joined forces with William "pops" Kitchen, a former partner of his at Liverpool speedway and the father of Belle Vue speedway star Bill Kitchen, in a small factory unit in the village of Galgate.

After the war had ended there was no immediate resumption of midget car racing and Harry found that he had lost touch with his associates and his cars. More importantly, Harry wasn't willing to take any more financial risks having lost everything in the 1940 air-raids. Bill Kitchen and his brother Jack were due to be demobbed from the Army and would be returning to the family business, so Harry decided it was time to move on again, this time to Devon.

The family bought a house in Maidencombe, just outside of Torquay and Harry persuaded his brother Geoffrey to join them. The two brothers bought a market garden and then sold it for a hefty profit in 1947. Their next venture was to buy the Loughton Motor Company in London together with some war surplus Nissan huts, which were erected next to the garage and rented out as storage.

Harry had managed to recover three badly damaged Skirrow cars from the remains of his garage at the bombed out house in London and had taken them to Devon where he rebuilt two and sold them. The third chassis became a donor for a single-seat sports car that Harry built in order to travel to London and back whilst overseeing his business. The car was described as looking like a miniature Allard. It used the same 996cc 8/80 J.A.P. engine as the midget racers with the addition of a 4-speed motorcycle gearbox, which Harry modified to give the car a reverse gear. Unlike the racing cars, this road legal Skirrow was front wheel drive, ran on petrol and could return 70mpg at a steady 60mph.
Harry with his home-made sports car, which he drove to London and back on a regular basis.
Eventually a compulsory purchase order was put on the garage to allow for the construction of a new road and harry and Geoffrey were out of a job. Geoffrey found some part-time work helping out at the local service station at Chudleigh and Harry spent most of his time indulging in his new hobby - sailing, but they both became bored without regular work and bought the Maidencombe Service Station in 1952.

Harry sailed a 14 feet redwing yacht with the Babbacombe Corinthian Sailing Club, where he built and installed a motorised winch to haul the boats up the beach and also built trailers for other club members. Harry still had a strong competitive streak too and was awarded the prestigious Sir Reginald Leeds Trophy in 1959 after nine consecutive race wins in the Torbay Regatta and two race wins at Falmouth.
Harry out sailing in 1953.
(Photo coutesy of Malcolm Skirrow)
When Geoffrey died, Harry sold the garage and gave half the proceeds to his widow. He then went to work for his son Malcolm at his garage in Babbacombe, travelling to work and back every day on a 90cc Honda Cub. Even though Harry always said he never wanted to retire, his Doctor had other ideas and in 1984 Harry finally went home for a rest aged 77 and eventually passed away in 1991 at the age of 84.

He was once asked in a newspaper if having only one arm had made life difficult... "Oh no" he said, "If I had another arm I just wouldn't know what to do with it, I can do most jobs and if I'm beaten I just ask for help. With this hook I can hold a welding rod right down to the last bit without burning my fingers, but there are some things that are on the official list of things I can't manage, like the washing up".

Shortly before he died Harry said to his wife... "I think I've done just about everything in life that I wanted to", to which his wife replied... "Yes - You bloody well have!".

But what became of the Skirrow cars? Victor Martin continued to provide service and spares after the war under the name of "Skirrow Special Cars Ltd" and his friend and colleague Walter Mackereth continued to race with great success in Hamburg and Paris. Most of the remaining cars were purchased by David Hughes, a midget car racing enthusiast from the East Midlands, who had built his own racing track in 1949 at Brafield in Northamptonshire. Hughes then took the Skirrows on tour in 1950 followed by the formation of  the Midlands Midget Speedway Car League in late 1951. Sadly, the league featuring teams from Birmingham, Cradley Heath, Coventry and Leicester was short lived and was abandoned before the year was out. By the end of the 1950s the cars were beginning to wear out and Victor Martin was no longer able to provide back-up. Some of the cars were cannibalised to keep others going but Hughes eventually had to admit defeat. Thankfully a few Skirrows have survived and are now in the hands of enthusiasts and collectors who acknowledge the historical importance of the Skirrow Special.
A preserved 1938 Skirrow Midget Speedway Car. Originally from Canada, this car was recently sold at auction and is now in Australia. Although not completely original, it does represent Harry's later development of the Skirrow vey well. This particular car has been discussed at length on Midget Car Panorama (see link at foot of page).
Massive thanks to Harry's son Malcolm Skirrow for letting me have copies of Harry's letters, photographs and giving me a potted history of Harr'y life. Thanks also go to Derek Bridgett, Colin Parker and Roy Chiswell, and also to Percy Duff and the late Bernard Crabtree for sharing their memories of Harry.

Midget Car Panorama - A Forum for Midget Car Racing.
Midget Car Speedway by Derek Bridgett
Coventry's Two Speedways by Colin Parker
and various Stock Car Racing articles by John Hyam.

Sunday 27 February 2011

Barrow Speedway - A (very) brief illustrated history

The origins of speedway and dirt-track racing on the Furness peninsular can be traced back to he beach races organised by Barrow & District Motor Club in the 1920s. The club later held a grass track meeting at the Little Park Rugby Ground in Roose on May 26th 1928. The winner of the unlimited races at this meeting was local hero and future Belle Vue and Wembley star Frank Charles , who literally lived over the road from the stadium on North Row, Roose. In 1930, the Northern Motor Sports Club introduced Speedway racing to the Holker Street football stadium. A track made of rolled ashes from Vickers Shipyard was laid around the football pitch and a total of seven meetings were held before the Football club needed to re-turf their pitch in readiness for the new season. The winner of the opening meeting on 12th June 1930 was Eric Airey from Lancaster and over 7000 spectators watched the final meeting on July 28th.
Frank Charles and Eric Airey get ready for a match race at Holker Street in 1930
Not sure of the rider in the white jersey, but the other 2 riders are Roland Stobbart and Frank Burgess.
 A rare action shot from Holker Street in June 1930
During the 1950s, Cliff Hindle, a local motorcycle enthusiast, built his own private circuit where he and several other enthusiasts could practice prior to riding at Belle Vue and Sheffield, but it wasn't until 1972 that speedway racing returned to Barrow-In-Furness. A new track was constructed around the pitch at Holker Street and Barrow enjoyed three unsettled seasons of league racing at the football stadium, firstly with the Barrow "Happy Faces" who finished 9th in the 1972 second division, and then the Barrow "Bombers" who finished around mid-table in the 1973 and 74 seasons. The football and speedway clubs were uneasy partners though and talks broke down right on the eve of the 1975 season and Holker Street closed its doors to speedway again.
Mike Watkin - 1972
Bob Coles - 1972
Local rider Ian Hindle - 1972
Tom Owen - 1973
Terry Kelly - 1973/74
(Photos above all by R.Spencer-Oliver)
Sid Sheldrick in action at Holker Street 1974.
(Photo by Roy Dixon)
Chris Pusey of Belle Vue leads Chris Roynon at Holker Street in 1974
(Photo by Roy Dixon)
Cliff Hindle enters the scene again in 1977 by building a brand new track and stadium at Park Lane on the outskirts of Barrow. After a season of challenge matches, the "Furness Flyers" entered the 1978 National League, but a weak team finished bottom of the league with only 18 points to their credit and the track did not reopen in 1979. Speedway did make a brief return to Park Lane in 1981 when the temporarily homeless Berwick "Bandits" used the track for 5 league matches and 1 KO Cup match.
Chris Roynon and Andy Reid - 1978
(Photo by R.Spencer-Oliver)
Geoff Pusey - 1978
Chris Robins - 1978
 In 1983, Chris Roynon purchased the derelict stadium from Cliff Hindle and rebuilt it. Throughout the year he ran monthly stock car meetings and occasional speedway training sessions. A series of seven "open" meetings were then staged in 1984, four of the matches featured the Barrow "Blackhawks" racing in challenge matches and another featured the Barrow "Braves", a team comprised of junior riders. The "Blackhawks also competed in one away fixture at Edinburgh. The Barrow "Blackhawks" entered the 1985 National League, but this was possibly the weakest team ever seen in National League speedway and they were expelled from the league in May. Roynon continued to promote challenge matches and individual trophy meetings at an intermediate level, culminating in the Cumbrian Open Championship on Sept 24th 1985. The last ever speedway meeting to be held at the venue. Stock meetings continued until 1987 when the track was covered over with a greyhound track. Prior to demolition in 1994, local motorcycle dealer Martin Crooks and teenage prospect Grant McDonald used the old track for practice session, but the bikes have remained quiet ever since.
Rob Grant of Berwick leads Kevin Armitage and Gary O'Hare - Park Road 6th May 1985
Jim Mcmillan and Rob Grant lead Gary O'Hare and Paul Price - Park Road 1985
A Fabulous view out into Morecambe Bay too
Eric Broadbelt, Rob Grant, Bernie Collier, Bruce Cribb - Park Road 1985
(Park Road photos by Philip Haynes)

Update; February 2013: Due to the feverish enthusiasm of Barrovian John Earnshaw, Barrow "Bombers" will return to the track in 2013. On Sunday September 8th at 2pm, the new Barrow "Bombers" will take to the track in an amateur challenge match at Northside Speedway, Workington. John has designed a new bib for the grand occasion and the team has already booked Rob Shuttleworth from Askam to represent his local team.

The new race bib for the 2013 Barrow Bombers... 
This is the first step towards his ultimate goal of bringing speedway back to Barrow-In-Furness. Check out the Barrow Speedway website or take a look at the facebook page for more information and nostalgia.  

About Me

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Whitehaven, Cumbria, United Kingdom
Disenchanted City Boy who rode out of the fast lane and into the back lanes! Life on Two Wheels is so much fun.