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The war may well have taken the shine off the jewel in the crown of British speedway in 1939 by forcing the cancellation of the World Championship Final. It also ended regular league racing, but it didn’t stop speedway altogether.

One track that never closed throughout the entire 1939-1945 hostilities was Belle Vue where, at the magnificent, late and very much lamented Manchester circuit, the stars came out every Saturday afternoon to keep the sport alive. Night meetings were banned because of the blackout restrictions against air raids. Pictured at one of those famous wartime meetings disputing the wide open spaces of the Hyde Road first turn, with a section of The Bobs – the next door Zoological Gardens’ scenic railway – in the background, are three of the brightest stars of the day.

From the left the emerging Tommy Price, of Wembley, who was destined to go on to become the first Englishman to be crowned World Champion. In the centre Bill Picher, then of Harringay, never a major international star like Price, though he did take part in the historic first World Final in 1936. And on the line the great Australian pioneer Ron Johnson, who rode under the Fred Mockford-Cecil Smith promotional banner at Crystal Palace and New Cross until serious injury effectively ended his top class career in 1949. Colourful and controversial, Johnno was a brilliant team captain, winning a League Championship medal in 1938 and leading the Rangers to another title in 1948.

Though nerves seemed to get the better of him on big individual occasions, he was British Champion briefly in 1933 and London Riders Champion in 1945 and 1946. His most outstanding achievement was his second place to Vic Duggan at Wembley in the 1948 British Championship, the substitute World Championship.

Many riders at those Saturday wartime meetings were able to attend regularly, but on occasions one of them would step down to allow someone who was unable to get there every week to have a ride.  They came from all over the country, if they could get a few hours off from their duties, and made their way there with the hope of getting on the programme. Meetings consisted of individual and best pairs contests plus a few team matches, with a British Championship run on modified World Championship lines, the prime event of each season. Speedway owes a huge debt to Belle Vue, and performers such as Price, Pitcher and Johnson, for keeping the fragile flame of the sport burning thought those dark years.

Belle Vue we never closed

By John Chaplin

Courtesy John Chaplin

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