Hi – My name is Alan Lord . In the late 1970’s and early 80’s I was involved in coverage of the sport of Formula 1 stock car racing in the Daily Mirror, mainly in the northern editions. I recently looked on a website and saw an article/thread on that period that contained some inaccuracies about my involvement, so I thought I would tell how it happened and include some memories from those reporting days.
I became a stock car nut when my mate John and his father took me to my first meeting at the old Belle Vue in July 1963. I don’t remember who won but I do recall a hair-raising rollover along the start-finish straight by Jock Campbell. Exciting stuff indeed!
In October ’63 I went again (now under my own steam as I had passed my driving test in the September) and was again thrilled with the excitement of it all.
Any young person vaguely interested in motors who saw the Belle Vue meetings of that era, when there was inside lighting on both bends (that were frequently demolished), and some brave members of the spectators stood only a few feet from the fence, could not have been anything other than excited by the proceedings. Goodness knows what today’s Health and Safety bods would have made of it all!
At that October meeting I bought that month’s edition of Peter Arnold’s ‘Stock Car Racing News’ and from that moment on I was hooked. I remained a subscriber until it’s demise in the late 60’s. I was able to read about the exploits of many of the sports’ top names, most of whom had visited that late season meeting.
Names such as Johnny King, Fred Mitchell, Aubrey Leighton, the Wardroppers, son Alan & father Doug who had just won the world championship and Willie Harrison were all present that night but more importantly I was able to read reports from across the country. I soon became quite knowledgeable thanks to the well written and constructed articles.
I devoured every word and even Formula 2 names became familiar to me, Stan Ingle I remember being a big winner on the Spedeworth circuits, and Johnny Marquand was dominant at the Brisca west country tracks.
So now I was hooked, and from that time on I never missed a Belle Vue meeting, and travelled further afield when my job and apprenticeship monies would permit.
How It Came About
In what seems like a previous lifetime I was a TV engineer and used to call at peoples homes. This was in the days when televisions went faulty and were worth repairing, (average failure rate twice a year). One such call was to a gentleman who I found out was a sub-editor in the sports department at the Daily Mirror in Manchester, and, as he worked nights, he was often in during the day when his set was attended to.
On every visit I used to have a go at him about the lack of coverage of my favourite sport. His response was always that there was not sufficient interest for a national newspaper.
However on a subsequent call he revealed that he had been appointed speedway correspondent, so we had some common ground, ie the shale tracks, and I was able to impress him with stories of the attendances at ‘The Vue and Coventry.
Fortunately the next TV failure was not far away (any old ex tv engineer remember the sets driven by the Thorn 3500 chassis?). And again I was quickly into my favourite topic but this time with a rather different reaction.
It was in the early stock car close season of late 1977. This time the reply was rather more positive.
I was told that there had been a number of calls to the Mirror office (asking for a result, presumably the’77 World Final) but that they had been unable to find anyone to supply them. Believing that there were no qualified journalist’s within the sport, I offered to do the job – not knowing then how much of my life it would take over.
That, he said, would be highly unlikely as all contributors to the Mirror had to be members of the National Union of Journalists. He did however say that he would put it to the local office to see if any existing employee wanted, or knew anyone, who would want the job.
Now can you imagine any well paid journalist wanting to go and get covered in sh….ale on a rainy Saturday night somewhere in Britain. Not surprisingly there were no takers. So, as also there were no objections from the sports department to me doing the job I was on my way.
The remit was to supply all the results from around the country and to provide the odd article of 6-8 paragraphs length. Now, to this point I had always had the Daily Mail delivered to my door, but I immediately changed to the Mirror so that I could study the articles that were published on the smaller sports.
Next I wrote to the Stock Car Supporter and Stock Car magazines telling people that the results were likely to appear and asking them that if they liked the service to write to the Mirror to thank them for getting involved.
Then I had to set up a network of trusty fans to get me the results from meetings I did not attend. I have forgotten who some were, but I do remember the ultra reliable Steve Kilmister who covered the North East for me and after the first year Steve Gill provided the same dependable service in the Midlands. If anyone is in contact with either of these two it would be great to here from them.
By now I was a family man with two young children so travelling was not that easy, but I had enough meetings on my Lancashire doorstep with regular events at Belle Vue, Nelson, White City, Rochdale and new for ’78, Blackburn. Also less than an hour away were the Yorkshire tracks at Odsal and Sheffield. This was the era of clashing meetings on both Saturdays and Sundays that could both attract 60 car entries.
I tried to get help from Brisca but none was forthcoming other than a pass, I asked for a pit pass but got a full one which was most welcome. But they was no publicity officer to receive information from. Unfortunately if a promoter did not benefit directly at their own track they were rarely interested.
The opposite was true of the BSCDA (the drivers association) whose long serving secretary Derek Holmes gave me unwavering support and was a great asset to me. He did their publicity for them, but more of Derek later.
1978 Season and the Daily Mirror
The opening weekend of the season, March 12th & 13th saw meetings at Long Eaton on the Saturday and Northampton. I attended the Long Eaton meet, so I had those results, and obtained the Northampton ones from Bev Greenhalf.
I phoned them both in at about 7.30pm and was unlucky to get a rather grumpy copy taker who clearly knew he was dealing with an amateur and obviously thought what I was passing on was a load of rubbish. Later I got to know this chaps voice and in the early days my heart always sank a little when I recognised his voice.
As I got more proficient it wasn’t a problem,and as in most walks of life, with one other notable exception, there were some extremely helpful staff at the Mirror and most tolerated me quite happily.
So to that first Monday morning and it was with some trepidation that I opened the inside back page to look in the results section. But they had been true to their word and they were reproduced exactly as I had phoned them in.
The format was: heats, consolation and Grand National first three with town/city where the driver lived and first six in the final. That caused me something of a problem, not knowing where all the drivers, especially any white tops who were new to the scene. There were some inaccurate guesses in those first two weekends.
That was the first of many times that Derek Holmes came to my rescue, providing me with a drivers address list and regular monthly updates from then on.
Final winners at those first meetings were I. Russell (Northants) and at Northampton a certain Mr S. Smith (Rochdale) who was to feature prominently in future results and articles over the five years that I reported for the Mirror.
The second weekends results were also published, so buoyed with a little confidence I sent in a short article about the new tie up between Brisca and NACO, their equivalent promoter’s group in Holland. The article states that Stu Smith and Glyn Pursey were to attend the following weekend’s meeting, with a quote from Smithy about having to change gear ratios for the longer half mile tarmac oval.
That four paragraph article headed ‘New Stock Car Venture’ was printed on Wednesday March 22nd, and I was very proud that I seemed to be getting publicity for a sport that had been devoid of any in the fifteen or so years that I had been a fan.
Unfortunately there was little or no coverage in the English southern editions, presumably because there were fewer tracks in the south and, most importantly, none in the capital at all.
It was about this time that I heard that I was very unpopular with a lady typist at the Northern Mirror office. The fans had done me proud and had written in their hundreds, possibly low thousands, praising the service. This poor lady had been assigned to reply to all the stock car letters. You must remember that it is the days before computers, ie, no copy and paste, and all letters, whether in praise of something or not, had to be individually responded to using a typewriter.
In mid April there was an article about the opening of the new Blackburn track titled, ‘Stuart can ‘crown’ big launching’ and followed two weeks later with a story about the transformation of Odsal Stadium from a rugby ground to stock car stadium titled ‘Big spend to beat caution’.
That rather odd title related to the fact that promoter Stuart Bamforth had spent £7200 pounds on eight identical cars that were to be used for team racing. For the opening meeting he was to put the top eight drivers in a race to determine who was best. I have no recollection of that race or those cars, (It must be my age).
Headlines are nothing to do with the writer, they are decided by the sub editor who has to fit it all in the allocated space. A big favourite of theirs was Mike Close with all the possible connotations of his surname, Close call, Too Close for comfort….. etc. Another was was Len Wolfenden with the ‘Wild Wolf’ scenario
Although space was always at a premium in those days of 28/32 page Daily Mirrors, especially in the football season, the results continued to appear with only the occasional absence. On Monday May 22nd under the heading of Sportscene, a column of sport shorts was a paragraph about Ray Leigh who had broken his ankle seconds after winning his first final in eight years of racing! Graham Blundell had hit him, accidentally, just 20 yards past the flag.
The next day the largest article to date was published, 10-12 paragraphs in length about Andy Stott entitled ‘Crash jinx haunts Andy’. This had come about after telling BSCDA chairman Allan Barker (179) that I wanted to feature a driver who had suffered damage as a result of crashing out. Unfortunately the report named him as Andy Scott
After all the crashes and incidents are what separate this sport from other motor formulas. Allan had no hesitation in pointing me in the direction of Andy, whose tales of woe included hair-raising rollover in a new car, and, after reverting back to his previous model had knocked the back and front axles in successive, subsequent meetings.
Next we move to June 20th and the first time rising star Bert Finnikin was to be featured. (I had been a fan of his father Charlie when he raced in the sixties). The story was headed ‘Crash did Bert good turn’ and related how Bert had had to re-chassis his car after hitting a Northampton fence post. The re-built car handled better than ever.
The next article a week later again had Bert in the headline, having just failed to make superstar, but the main theme of ‘Bert so close to super grade’ was the ups and downs of the new grading list that had been acquired from Derek Holmes in advance of its publication.
A feature on July 4th saw a preview of the new, Derek Holmes inspired BSCDA championship, that was to use the eight heat format with each driver racing in three, with their points total determining their grid position. The article headed ‘Smiths in triple scrap’ focused on Stuart, Harry and Huddersfield’s Phil, who had won the first two Odsal finals of the season.
The following week the headline was ‘Smashing Way To Do Good Deed’ which was a feature on the Drivers Benevolent Race where the top 20 drivers were to compete for the Brian Wallace Trophy at Sheffield.
During July we had our best coverage to date with weekly items of between 8-12 paragraphs and bigger headlines.
The next effort, ‘Dutch Ace All Set For Euro Double Crunch’ focused on the first ever European Championship and featured Dutch driver Lambert Keulen who had competed at a recent Long Eaton. The event was staged over two days opening at the Nottingham track on Saturday, concluding at Rochdale the following day.
I quoted Keulen saying ‘It was as I expected, there was a lot more contact than at home where our tracks are larger. We are taking this visit seriously and hope to have a couple of English-style cars ready for the event’
Completing our best month to date was a preview entitled ‘Bid To End Jinx’ of the forthcoming Hartlepool world championship semi-final where Stuart Smith was hoping to end his run of failing to qualify for the big final.
I used to get a fair amount of criticism of how often Smithy was the centre of any article, but quite simply he was at the core of so much of what happened at that time. If he didn’t feature in any of the meeting results whether a person was a 391 fan or not, the first question I was always asked was ‘what happened to Smithy’.
It was a full four weeks before the next write-up I think I was probably away for a couple of weeks.The results continued though, I had a very tolerant wife, (I’ve still got her) who put up with me searching for a telephone box, usually on a Sunday day out or holiday. My friend Paul Richards, who went on to race F2’s under the number 37, filled in for me on the odd occasion. I was determined that if a result was not published, it would not be my fault.
‘Topping Clincher by Bert’ on August 25th announced the inevitable rise to superstar of Leek’s Bert Finnikin. It was a smaller report than recent with only five short paragraphs and the top ten list. Also given a brief mention was Steve Wade from Halifax who had returned to star grade.
Into the World Final month of September there was an opportunity to feature drivers at the lower end of monthly points list with a preview of the Novice of the Year. The intriguing title of ‘Bernard Out To follow Bernard’ related the story of 1977 novice winner Bernard Poyser, who in ’78 had broken his leg in a racing accident. That article had a heading running across the top of the page exclaiming top ALWAYS OUT IN FRONT FOR SPEEDWAY AND STOCK CAR RACING.
During his enforced lay-off Poyser had lent his car to his brother-in-law Bernard Higginson who had some outstanding drives in the borrowed car.
The results printed on Saturday 16th of September tell me that the race was won by ‘the other’ John Lund from Gisburn who was to get a sponsorship deal later in the year. For anyone unaware John had a more famous and successful namesake who had hit the headlines a few years earlier.
The following week I wrote what was to become one of my favourites. It was published Wednesday 20th September and was a preview of the following Saturdays1978 World Championship Final at Belle Vue and included a picture of a smiling Stuart Smith leaning out of his cab.
‘Stu Chasing ‘Gold Topper’ related the troubles Stu had in winning the gold since his Belle Vue victories in ’69 and ’72, he had dominated the sport in general and was almost unbeatable at the shale Manchester track, but world glory had eluded him. The reason I was so fond of this article was not just its size and prominence, but also that I stuck my neck out with a prediction.
I wrote: If Smith hits trouble expect third row starter Dave Mellor to be in the right place to grab the title. I considered it to be a brave prediction because Mellor had not won a final at Belle Vue up to that point, but he had gone well at the previous meeting and had won the British Championship on a track of similar length, (although tarmac), at Bradford.
Two days later on the Friday a short piece was published ‘Jamie faces a Time Battle’. This explained that American Jamie Pfeifer and five other foreign entrants would clash in a two lap time trial to determine their world final grid positions.
The big race unfolded exactly as per my suggested senario, Smithy got tangled up early on and Mellor took the lead off Glyn Pusey on lap six and held it to the end.
I thought now is the right time to blow my own trumpet so I rang the Daily Mirror office and told editor Allan Ridgill of my success. But I don’t think he quite had my enthusiasm!
‘Crowning Glory For Dave With World Win’ was how paper haedlined the race report with five paragraphs plus the full results ‘Mirror’ style, not bad for a Monday in the football season.
At that Belle Vue meeting I met Steve Gill, who was a young journalist for a Nottingham newspaper, for the first time. He was celebrating ‘his mans’ victory in the Mellor transporter. An amusing note from that interview was when the victor was washing his face he complained ‘What, has a world champion got to wash in cold water’!
The next coverage was Thursday October 12 when I covered the shock news that Rob Bradsell had bought the Dave Chisholm world final winning car. It was a complete change for the man from Burnage who had previously raced on a very modest budget.
If there was a story that I would have liked an exclusive on it was this. It would have been great to tell the story before the car hit the Blackburn track at the Thursday 5th meeting. ‘Rob’s Drive Gets Big Boost’ was how the paper reported the startling news.
Rob scored a creditable sixth place in the high quality meeting final that included the names of Berresford,Wainmain, Wolfenden and Close ahead of him.
The last paragraph announced a march that evening, protesting against the closure of Nelson Stadium.The following day a single paragraph reported that Pendle Council had voted 21-12 in favour of another season for the popular Lancashire track.
Those midweek meetings were the biggest challenge to get the results in to the paper. To make the first edition that went to the north east I had to phone in by 8.50 pm. That presented quit a challenge and relied on the co-operation of the local promoter,
Blackburn was done from the race control office where if the grand national was not in progress there was often a driver complaining about the result. Bradford was a dash up the hill to a noisy, draughty, corridor.Sheffield was quite good as I was permitted the use of an office, only problem was it was sometimes locked! The Belle Vue bank holiday meeting was from the relative comfort of manager Roy Carter’s office.
The task would be a lot easier to do today with our modern communications. I can imagine standing on the terraces texting or emailing with my smartphone. If only!
The final article of the ’78 season proper,’John Welds Hot Challenge’ on November 3rd, reported that Novice of the Year John Lund had received sponsorship from local business man Colin Townson, who had been forced to retire due to the pressures of work. The support was a reward for the work that Lund had put in on the Townson car throughout the last 12 months.
‘Len Has To Prove Point Over Again’ was the lead for a preview of the Boxing Day and New Year holiday events. The agreement between Silsden’s Frankie Wainman, who had sponsored Len Wolfenden from Nelson, was coming to an end. The Yorkshireman had said he would continue the arrangement if The ‘Wild Wolf’ was sufficiently successful over the four holiday meetings.
Presumably Len did. enough as the sponsorship continued and was featured in the following season reports.
A close season article ‘Lunds At The Double’ followed on from the final report of the season. Colin Townson had also agreed to sponsor John Lund the successful star grade man as well as his namesake by providing him with a new 454 Chevy engine.
And that concluded the first year of what was to be five years of my coverage in the Daily Mirror. I think it is fair to say that it was more successful than I had hoped and the letters written to the offices undoubtedly helped.
I was told by my Mirror contact that I was in a unique position, writing a column in a national newspaper, not being a member of the NUJ.
I found out in a conversation with photographer Ray Liddy that the coverage had been discussed at a local union meeting where he had been quizzed about it. He said ‘I didn’t burst the bubble’, which I took to mean he didn’t approve but as a stock car fan he did not want to spoil anything.
We were talking because I found out that he had a picture of the first Stu Smith rollover for several years. He had sent it directly to the Mirror but it had not been published. I said it would really have to been better to have been arranged by, or with me as I was planning the coverage.
I got the impression from that conversation that Ray did not want to work with me and I could fully appreciate his position. He was on both sides of the fence, being a professional photographer and a stock car fan. We never spoke again.
That concludes the first year, where do we go from here? My long time stock car friend Les Cotton, who sells DVD’s of early stock cars from about this period at www.stoxdvds.co.uk. He tells me there is still alot of interest in this period.
If that is the case I will write the other years up and maybe copy and link the actual articles to the text.
I can be contacted on this email – firstname.lastname@example.org