Bradford Dukes: The Last Speedway in West Yorkshire

By Christian Oldcorn

Recently, the issue of the use of Odsal stadium has come to the forefront of discussion once more.  To be honest, it has rarely been out of the news in the last 35 years.  From the doomed Superdome project in the nineties, through to more recent times where there has been no professional sport played there since September 2019 when Bradford Bulls “left”, it is a constant source of copy for sports writers and local political correspondents.

Of course, Odsal is inextricably linked to Rugby league.  Through the successes of Northern and the Bulls and the international games played there over the years.  And then of course there is the 1953 Rugby League Challenge Cup final replay between Halifax and Warrington, which went down in folklore as the world record attendance at a rugby league match of 102,569.  In fact this was only bettered in 1999. 

There have been a wide variety of other events, sporting and non-sporting at the stadium.  It’s natural bowl gives the feel of an amphitheatre, albeit one with it’s own microclimate, and it’s location outside of the city centre makes it easily accessible, especially since the M606 was built to link to the M62.

Having said all of this, the stadium isn’t really loved by many.  The change to summer rugby in 1996 allowed Odsal to have more appeal, and it was seen as the perfect platform for Super League rugby.  But as the stadium lease agreement took the maintenance of the ground out of the council’s hands, it slowly fell into disrepair and now stands, just about, needing remedial work to allow crowds on the terraces.  There is a history of redevelopment at Odsal, but nothing that has transformed it, or makes it be regarded as a modern stadium facility. The bars and hospitality facilities are a mix of modern and 30 year old Portakabin and the stadium offices are a conversion of the old club house and changing rooms dating back around a hundred years.  Being kind, it can be described as “full of character”.

But I love the place. Many of my happiest memories originate in that old ground. Some of my longest friendships were made in that bowl. And the source of those fond memories is a combination of two sports (It would be three, but as a City fan, I hated our time at Odsal).  The impact of rugby league in our city is well documented as are the successes of Northern and the Bulls.  But for me, the happiest times at Odsal come from the years 1985 to 1997, when Speedway bikes were last seen and heard racing at Odsal.  As we enter 2021, the prospect of speedway returning to Odsal is nearer than at any time since the closure of 1997.  Stock car promoter Steve Rees is well on with his plans for a 2021 return on four wheels at Odsal, and is keen to have speedway make a return.  These therefore are my speedway memories of Odsal, and as my age dictates, it will focus on the 1986-1997 version of the two wheeled shale sport in BD6.

Speedway had a number of incarnations at Odsal between 1945 and 1997.  The Boomerangs, Barons, Tudors, Northern  and Panthers. All of these were relatively short-lived with the Tudors operating from Odsal for 10 years between 1950 and 1960 being the longest that any one team competed.

In the late 1970’s and into the 80’s, if you wanted to see live speedway in West Yorkshire, you had to visit The Shay in Halifax.  They had been operating since the early 1960s.  They had limited success on track, with one championship in 1966, and in the early 80’s, as Speedway began to disappear from the “World of Sport” TV screens, attendance figures at The Shay declined, even though their number one rider was arguably the best rider of his era never to win a World Championship, local hero, Kenny Carter.  At the same time, Wembley would no longer host Speedway and Britain was without a venue to hold the World Championship finals.

In the mid 1980’s Bradford had a regeneration arm of the council, “Bradford Mythbreakers”. Their aim was to try and support the regeneration of Bradford, by promoting the City, and wider metropolitan district  as a place to live, work, and visit.  They sponsored tourism campaigns promoting local attractions and in 1984, the announcement was made that £1 Million would be spent by the council to lay a new speedway track and upgrade the ageing stadium in order that Bradford could host the 1985 World individual speedway final.  In the run up to the final on August 31st, other lesser world events were staged at Odsal as the work was ongoing.  The first of these being on the 12th May 1985 when a World team cup qualifying round was held there. 

The hype around Odsal was growing.  Not only was Britain hosting a World Final in the new “Wembley of the North”, but the British rider with the best prospect of winning the world title was a Yorkshireman who lived just six miles from the venue, Kenny Carter.  Sadly, a crash in the final qualifying round in Vetlanda, Sweden, put paid to Carter’s attempt to win at Odsal, and Kelvin Tatum was the sole British representative in the showpiece event that was eventually won by Dane Erik Gundersen. We will hear more about all three of those riders later in this piece.

As Odsal emerged as a world class facility, seven miles along the A6036, the Shay in Halifax became financially unviable for promoter Eric Boothroyd to keep going.  And for the start of the 1986 British league season, the Halifax Coalite Dukes moved lock, stock and barrel to Odsal, losing some loyal Halifax fans on the way, but picking up two men would figure significantly in Bradford sporting history, and would be huge influences on British speedway in the 80’s and 90’s.   The Ham brothers, Bobby and Allan, had been becoming more involved in speedway as sponsors of Kenny Carter, and also helped broker the sponsorship deal that renamed the Dukes as the “Coalite Dukes” as the building supplies company supported them until they were taken over by Keyline in 1992.

With the Hams onboard, and Mr Boothroyd’s many years of speedway experience as rider, manager, promoter, track curator etc…. They were confident that a move to the new facility would be a success.  The core of the 1985 Halifax team was retained.  Carter was the undoubted number one for club and country, West-Midlander Neil Evitts continued to improve and develop as a second heat leader, Larry Ross and Sean Wilmott offered a wealth of experience, and the loan signing of 1984 world number three, American Lance King from Cradley, meant that the team had the means to improve on Halifax’s 1985 performance.  Add to that the local reserve talent of Gordon Whitaker and Michael Graves, and you could see that there was a solid, medium to long term plan for speedway success in Bradford.

Just two months into the new venture, the events of May 21st 1986, would set that progress back monumentally.     Kenny Carter murdered his wife Pam, and then turned the shotgun on himself.  Bradford Speedway and British Speedway lost it’s best rider. But more importantly, a family lost a son and daughter, and their children lost both their parents.  It was truly tragic.

Immediately, many fans felt that without Kenny, speedway would never be the same and attendances fell.  The use of guest riders hampered on track progress and in all honestly, it would take years for the team, and all those associated with it to truly recover.  There were some crumbs of comfort.  Neil Evitts won the British Championship, that Carter had dominated in the previous two years.  The fact he won it less than two weeks after Carter’s death, and then dedicated his victory to the memory of his team-mate, showed that he was ready to be our number one.  Also in 1986, we had a young number eight rider (a youngster we could call upon from a lower league) who would become our greatest ever rider, Gary Havelock.

The emergence of Havelock was probably one shining light that gave the Hams something to build upon, but this was not without controversy.  In 1988 Bradford Dukes finished bottom of the British League, winning fewer than 25% of their matches. In the late 80’s, most British league teams had at least one, maybe even two, top world riders in their teams.  The very best had three!  Oxford in 1988 had Nielsen, Wigg and Cox.  Cradley had Gundersen, Pedersen and Cross.  We had one up and coming talent in Havelock, and one decent rider in Evitts.  The rest, simply were not good enough to mount a challenge. 

The abiding memory for me of 1988, is that it was the first year, aged 11 that I pretty much went to every home match. The Hams allowed free entry for kids under 12 for the first month of the season.  They then extended it twice more for a month at a time.  They saw that getting new fans through the gate was the only way to make speedway viable.  This initiative got me hooked and I attended pretty much every home meeting, and many away ones, until 1997.  On track, 1988 was the year Havvy really arrived.  He became our top rider, represented GB in tests and at the World Team Cup and thus earned a place at the British League Riders Championship in October.  Sadly, he gave a drugs  sample after that event that showed up positive for Cannabis.  He was ruled out for 1989.  So it was again, one step forward and two back.

The 1989 Dukes team was only marginally better than it’s 1988 counterpart.  As well as the banned Havelock, out went Randy Green, Sean Wilmott, Rob Pfetzing and Tony Hulme, to be replaced by Henrik Kristensen, Antal Kocso, Bryan Larner, Andy Smith, Glenn Doyle and Paul Thorp.  Smith reached his first world final in 1989 and it was a year where he emerged as the genuine talent many had hoped he would become at Belle Vue. But still, no real success in terms of winning trophies.

It is also worth mentioning that as well as the regular Saturday evening fixtures, there was also speedway at Odsal on many Mondays too.  The training school ran most weeks in the summer.  For a small fee, amateur wannabes could mix with seasoned Pros and ride the world famous track.  In 1989, riders that would go on to have good careers, such as Scott Smith and Andre Compton, were regulars, as was a certain Mr Havelock.  On occasions top world riders would arrive at these informal sessions to test new equipment, get fit after an injury absence or just to avoid getting a bit rusty.  One evening in 1989 there were two future World Champions there among the amateurs, as Sam Ermolenko joined Havelock on track.

1990 was the dawn of a new decade and a new Dukes team.  A genuine team of three heat leaders in Evitts, the returning Havelock and loan signing Maryvn Cox.  Smith and Thorp providing great, solid back up and Larner and Doyle at reserve.   Mid table finish and a cup final defeat were massive steps in the right direction, and fans were now starting to believe that the club could actually become successful. 1990 also saw the second Odsal World Individual final.  It was widely regarded as the best final in many years and it was won by Sweden’s Per Jonsson after a run-off with Shawn Moran of the USA.

1991 saw Bradford Dukes sign one of the sport’s best riders.  Simon Wigg was at this point a three time world longtrack champion and was the GB team captain.  He was the ultimate professional.  He would go on to win a total of five longtrack championships before his untimely death in 2000, aged just 40.  His immaculate green leathers and bike, and his well spoken, knowledgeable demeanour, was something that had an impact on the other riders in the team and the whole organisation.  The season ended with the Dukes finishing second behind Wolverhampton in the league,and winning the knockout cup. Havelock finished with a 9.89 average meaning he was the fourth best rider in the league.

At this point, every season the club made a step forward in team building and on the track, but attendances still were at just about break even level.  This was the best prepared racing track, in the best speedway stadium in the country, with the best team we had ever had, and still it wasn’t making money.  The Ham promotion were seen as trailblazers in race day presentation, but it didn’t make people flock to Odsal.

The 1992 team, was in my opinion the best Dukes team, and the best year of being a Dukes fan.  But  it was all really about Just one man, Gary Havelock.  He had been British Champion in 1991 and repeated this success the following year, but in 1992 he was not just the best of British, he was the best rider on this planet. He made his debut World final appearance in Wroclaw in 1992, and joined the tiny group of riders to be crowned World Champion on debut.  

The Dukes team that year had a top three of Havelock, Wigg and new signing Kelvin Tatum.  The Hams wanted the best British talent racing at Odsal and his arrival meant that every British champion from 1984-1997 had at some point ridden for the Dukes.

In the early to mid 90’s, the Dukes became the cup kings, winning the Gold Cup, BSPA Cup and the Speedway Star Knockout Cup on numerous occasions.  Allan Ham’s control of the team and managing within points limits was well known as they tried to achieve the Holy Grail of a league win. Riders came and went, but Havelock was the only rider to appear for the Dukes in all 11 seasons that they operated from Odsal.  He was “Mr Bradford Dukes”.  The theme of having top world class stars linking with Havelock and other local or British riders was continued.  Swedish GP rider Jimmy Nilsen spent two years at Odsal and local Yorkshire riders such as Sean Wilson, Andre Compton, Garry Stead and Simon Green all made significant contributions.

In the run up to the 1994 season, Bradford Paid the huge fee (in 90’s speedway terms) of £35,000 for Belle Vue’s Joe Screen.  He would spend four years at Odsal and became our top rider as Havvy’s progress was curtailed by serious injuries.  Joe was probably the most entertaining British rider of his generation, and after Bradford folded he had a long and successful career including being part of the Grand Prix series.  

For the 1997, Allan Ham added Mark Loram to the team giving a three heat leader attack of Havelock, Screen and Loram.  Arguably the best three British riders at that time (although Chris Louis might say differently) and all three riders who would be near on untouchable around Odsal’s wide open spaces.  They were supplemented by solid support from David Walsh, Josh Larsen and Garry Stead in a season that saw six man teams (rather than 7, or even 8 in previous years) and one division in British speedway.

The Dukes finished the season ten points clear of Eastbourne Eagles at the top of the league.  They were league champions for the first time, eleven seasons after the move from Halifax. 

And that was it. 

The mid to late 1990’s were a boom time for professional sport in Bradford. Northern had become the Bulls and Rugby league became a summer sport, with a season that was virtually the same as speedway.  They too won their championship in 1997 and would go on to be hugely successful.  In 1996, Bradford City won promotion to the second tier of English football and would end the decade in the Premier League.  But as with City and the Bulls for every boom, there was a bust.

In order for the stadium to be redeveloped for the growing Bulls fanbase, speedway moved out temporarily at the end of the 1997 season.  The final meeting being the Premier league riders championship. As well as being the home of the Dukes, Odsal was also British speedway’s unofficial national stadium, and it hosted pretty much every possible FIM international meeting on the calendar. As well as the 1985 World individual final, it also hosted the 1988 World Pairs, 1989 World Team Cup Final, 1990 World Individual Final, 1992 World Semi final and the 1997 British Grand Prix.

It says a lot about British Speedway that the 1989 World Team Final at Odsal was the last time Britain won this title. It was a memorable meeting for all the wrong reasons.  In the very first heat, there was a crash that left all four riders; Jimmy Nilsen, Lance King, Simon Cross and Erik Gundersen unable to continue.  It in fact ended the career, and almost the life of Gundersen, who was saved by the swift actions of the Odsal St John’s Ambulance and medical staff.  He suffered life changing spinal injuries at the venue where only four years earlier he had won the second of his three world championships.

During the lockdown of 2020, I had time to re-engage a little more with speedway, having only sporadically attended Sheffield and Belle Vue since Odsal closed.  I found that podcasts were a great way to reminisce about one’s youth, and found myself listening to speedway podcasts where ex riders told their tales of the tracks.  It has been brilliant looking back and hearing about the days when life just seemed simpler, less complicated and more fun.

One of the best was an episode of Ian Brannan’s “Humans of speedway” podcast, where he interviewed Gary Havleock. He was asked, like Ian’s other guests to choose his fantasy speedway meeting; any track, in any stadium, with and riders etc…  He chose Bradford, echoing the sentiment    he stated in a previous Sky Sports interview.  “It had the best track, the best pits, the best stadium the best fans and the best showers.  It was the best speedway track in the world”.

Here’s hoping that Steve Rees gets his venture off the ground, and that in 2022 speedway can return once more to Bradford.  It has been a long wait.  

Photo credits

  1. Kenny Carter, 1985 Overseas Final, Odsal. Photo courtesy John Somerville Collection
  2. Kenny Carter Crashes out of 1985 World championship, Vetlanda. Photo courtesy Mike Patrick
  3. Heat 12 gets underway.  1985 World Final.  Photo courtesy John Somerville Collection
  4. 1985 World Final rider parade. Photo courtesy John Somerville Collection
  5. 1985 World Champion Erik Gundsersen, runner up Hans Nielsen and 3rd placed Sam Ermolenko. Photo courtesy John Somerville Collection
  6. Bobby and Allan Ham. Photo courtesy John Somerville Collection
  7. 1986 British Champion, Neil Evitts, Brandon Stadium, Coventry. Photo courtesy John Somerville Collection
  8. Gary Havelock in action for GB Lions, 1991. Photo courtesy John Somerville Collection
  9. 1990 World Champion Per Jonsson, Runner up (on the night)Shawn Moran and 3rd placed Todd Wiltshire. Odsal. Photo courtesy John Somerville Collection
  10. Gary Havelock in full flight on the way to his 1992 World Championship.  Wroclaw, Poland. Photo courtesy of Dukes Facebook page collection.
  11. Gary Havelock returns to Odsal with the FIM World Speedway Championship trophy, 1992, Odsal. Photo courtesy of Dukes Facebook page collection.
  12. 1992 World Champion Gary Havelock with runner up Per Jonsson and 3rd placed Gert Handberg. Photo courtesy of Dukes Facebook page collection.
  13. 1992 Keyline Dukes, Kelvin Tatum and Simon Wigg. Photo courtesy of Dukes Facebook page collection.
  14. Joseph Screen, 1995. Photo courtesy John Somerville Collection
  15. Champion winning heat leaders, Havelock, Screen and Loram.  1997. Photo courtesy of Dukes Facebook page collection.
  16. The Dukes 2 Champion sides: Halifax 1966 and Bradford 1997. Photo courtesy of Dukes Facebook page collection.
  17. Andy Smith Leads Hans Nielsen into turn one.  British GP, Odsal, 1997. Photo courtesy John Somerville Collection

Christian Oldcorn was born, raised and still lives in Bradford where he is a secondary school teacher and father of four sons. An avid follower of Football, Speedway and Rugby League since his childhood, when he lived in South Bradford, a short bike ride from Odsal, and a bus ride (plus a long walk) from Valley Parade. Still making those trips to this day!

Future planned articles on VINCIT will feature variously Bradford’s England rugby internationals of the nineteenth century; the history of sports journalism in Bradford; the politics of Odsal Stadium; the history of Bradford sports grounds and the history of crowd violence in Bradford.    

Contributions to VINCIT are welcome. We are code agnostic and feature any sport or club with a Bradford heritage. Links from the drop down menu above. Thanks for visiting!