29 May 2011, 1700 hrs local, Mildenhall, Suffolk, England: Stationed as I was at RAF Mildenhall from May, 1969, to July, 1972, it came naturally to me to think in military terms as I gazed out over the crowd at the Mildenhall Speedway Stadium, even though the stadium has nothing to do with the base. Going to military bases does that to me, among other things. (Automatic, unstoppable thoughts: “Uniform squared away? Haircut okay? Going TDY today?”) But now, almost four decades after I left the Air Force base a few miles from this bustling speedway track, there is no sign of military anything, apart from a few spectators who look like Air Force types, even in mufti.
I’m here in England to do research for my next novel, and watching this speedway match between the Mildenhall Fen Tigers and the Isle of Wight Islanders has nothing to do with the research. But I can never resist the allure of a dirt-track motorcycle race anywhere I might be. And speedway tops my list of favorite dirt-track events when it involves team racing, as British speedway has almost since its advent in 1928 (or 1927, depending on whose version of the history you believe). The Aussies brought speedway to Britain that year, and everybody agrees that speedway as we know it was an Australian creation of the early 1920s.
When I was here in the Air Force, I was roadracing in the Auto-Cycle Union as a National-class rider on my 350cc Shepherd-Kawasaki. But I got involved with speedway, tangentially, two ways. First, when I went to the Isle of Man in 1970 to race my bike in the Manx Grand Prix’s Junior (350cc) class, I got to know another racer riding a bike fettled by my tuner, Terry Shepherd. Peter Strong was then a sub-editor at the British weekly Motor Cycle News and was doing a story about riding in the Manx Grand Prix aboard a Suzuki “Super Six” production bike turned into a GP bike by Shepherd. My racebike didn’t make it through practice week, due to a failed gearbox, but Peter finished a respectable 30th in the Lightweight and got his story about MGP racing on a budget.
Peter also covered speedway racing for MCN, his reports appearing in a section titled “Speedway Slant.” Being a graphics guy and always on the lookout for a possible link to sponsorship in any form, I asked him in the Island if he’d like me to do a graphic for his page. He did a double-take and asked me for my credentials as an artist. I told him what I did for the Air Force—I was one of two professional illustrators in Base Graphics, with an Air Force Specialty Code of 22351—so he agreed to have a look. After all, it cost him nothing. So, when I got back from the Manx GP, after researching the British speedway scene, I did the graphic you see here, for which he thanked me but never ran in the paper. Peter went on to become editor-in-chief of MCN, and today, he is the chairman of a major British publishing company.
My second link to speedway then was a ferociously quick grass-track racer named Jim Rohn. Jim was an Air Force master sergeant, a supervisory technician working at Mildenhall on Aerospace Ground Equipment. He was on his second tour in England, having been there in the 1950s. Jim helped me and my Thistle Racing Limited teammate, SSGT Dick Tietjen (an air-traffic controller on base), work on our bikes at what we called our “Thetford Works”—a borrowed little one-car garage. Jim was a seasoned AMA amateur racer who’d seemingly done every kind of racing there was as the service moved him hither and yon, even racing a 500 Triumph at Daytona in 1960.
When I knew him in England, Jim drove a fire-engine-red Ford Ranchero with his grass-track bike strapped down in back, and the sight of that Ford used to bring gawks from Brits wherever he went. More importantly, Jim’s riding brought attention from talent scouts looking for pro speedway riders, and Jim was offered a ride for the English team Hackney Wick, which he didn’t accept because he was about to retire from the Air Force. There might well have been other Yanks offered rides in British teams, but I didn’t know of any.
I talked to Jim recently about his speedway experience in England, and in reply to my query about whether his extensive flat-track experience and expertise aided him in speedway, he said, “Absolutely not. If anything, it works against you. In flat-track, you shut off to kick out the rear end before the turn. But on a speedway bike, you keep the throttle wide open and steer with the rear wheel.”
Now in his mid-70s, Jim still loves to ride fast on dirt and still is putting his skill and knowledge of all things mechanical to work as service manager of Golden Suzuki Honda Kawasaki in Odessa, Texas. Listening to him talk about his long racing life and work, I realized that his racer’s mindset is still what we used to call “WFO”—just as you’d expect from a rider who impressed a tough talent scout for a pro team 40 years ago.
Memories of Jim and Peter and British speedway as it once was flicked through my mind as I watched the Fen Tigers take on the Islanders. Their bike technology was vastly different, of course, and the Fen Tigers team itself not even organized until long after I was back in the States. But what happened out there on the track when rider and machine were released by the tapes at the start of every four-lap race was just the same as it always had been in British speedway: ferociously tight racing, amazing skill and rear wheels spewing bits of track into the air, although the roost-shields on the bikes kept it all less dusty than in the old days.
If you’ve never been to a speedway race, you owe it to yourself to experience it. But be warned: Speedway is addictive, especially when you have a home team to root for. And my home team, I realized that beautiful Sunday in Suffolk, was the Mildenhall Fen Tigers.
Oh, yes: That day, they beat the Islanders.