It may seem that the sporting “star” is a phenomenon of our time – almost any sports person thought to merit a mention in the media seems to be dubbed a “star”. We may think it wasn’t like that in the old days, but in speedway at least it just might have been.
This article looks at some of the media coverage of speedway in South Wales during the pioneer years of the late 1920s and early 1930s, and suggests riders of that era were receiving the kind of attention which made them real sporting stars.
“The sight of a generation of young men on their flying machines, rigged out like mediaeval jousting knights of old, captured public imagination in a revolutionary, hero-worshiping way that pre-dated bobbysoxers, beat music and Beatlemania,” writes Dave Lanning in Speedway and Short Track Racing (Hamlyn, London, 1973).
One reason for this star status was professionalism. As Jack Williams notes in his 1999 Sportspages lecture, speedway in Britain was always a commercial venture, and amateur speedway was virtually non-existent. Even at its humblest levels, riders raced for cash prizes, Williams states.
Although South Wales could be seen as slightly removed from the speedway mainstream (there was no league team until Cardiff joined the Provincial League of 1936 – and folded mid-season), there was still plenty of money on offer.
At the start of the 1930 season, for instance, the Cardiff management, Welsh Speedways Ltd, offered £200 (a small fortune then) to any team which could beat the Cardiff at its White City stadium.
Although there were professionals in other sports, this kind of brash commercialism set speedway apart from other sports at this time – with the possible exception of greyhound racing, with which it often shared venues.
The media played a key role in generating interest in speedway and in building the celebrity status of the riders. At Cardiff’s earliest meetings in late 1928 and early 1929, the riders already had nicknames – among them “Champ” Upham, “Hurricane” Hampson (“the Cardiff Cinder Shifter”), “Lightning” Luke and “Whirlwind” Baker.
These names seem to have been created by the promoters with the media’s compliance, while the riders had little say. In April 1929, Cardiff rider Jack Luke told The Western Mail columnist “Cyntrax” that he had reluctantly accepted the title “Lightning” in preference to alternatives of “lurid” and “Lively”. However, if he could choose, “he would rather remain as just J.H.”.
Later that year, another Welsh rider, Cliff “Champ” Upham, had star status conferred on him by becoming the subject of a “Cinder Celebrities” interview in The Auto Motor Journal. He acquired some of the trappings of celebrity, too, in the shape of a speedboat – with “CHAMP” signwritten in large capitals on the side.
Upham took a South Wales Echo reporter on a high-speed dash to England – completing the 10-mile crossing from Penarth to Weston-Super-Mare in 26 minutes.
“The craft came out of the water twice,” reported the journalist. “And it was touch and go whether she would capsize”.
A follow-up attempt, this time with his fiancee, Jessie Barnett, shaved a minute off the previous time, and made the pages of the London-based Daily Express, as the first time a woman had crossed the Bristol Channel in an outboard speedboat.
Pratt fuel company capitalised on its association with this star and his achievement by running press ads headlined “Big Outboard Achievement on Pratts in Bristol Channel” and concluding “This fine performance was made with an Evinrude engine fuelled with Pratt High Test Petrol”.
This all suggests that Champ, Lightning and the rest were “stars” every bit as much as today’s sporting celebrities. Perhaps the big difference is the brave men who risked their lives on Britain’s first dirt tracks may actually have deserved the title.
This is adapted from an article by Andrew Weltch in The Speedway Researcher, Vol 7, No 2, September 2004. Andrew Weltch is senior consultant at Weltch Media and author of Speedway in Wales (Tempus, Stroud, 2002).