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Glasgow Cycle Speedway History Association

John Speirs : An Appreciation

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John Speirs: An Appreciation by Brian Gilliland

First Meeting

I met John Speirs for the first time on one of my early visits to the Mansewood track,sometime in 1957. For the Mansewood youngsters the track had become a regular and popular centre of activity, although many of them took no part in the racing. John had lent me his Cycle Speedway bike for a spin on the track. He was riding on my road bike, which I had inherited from my older brother when he was called up for National Service in the R.A.F. The trouble was he was riding it clockwise - the wrong way! - around the track. The inevitable happened on the back straight. John and Bert Harkins met head-on, resulting in what looked to me like terminal damage to the front wheel of my road

bike. I was distraught, to say the least. I was new to Cycle Speedway and had never seen a wheel in such a state! What would my mother say? Worse still, what would my big brother

say when he found out? John, however, calmed me down and promised to fix the wheel. In the meantime he lent me a wheel to go home with. This was my introduction and the first of

many visits to the famous 'Speirs Hut'. It was also the start of our long, close friendship, which lasted, unbroken, until John died in 1997. John was then the third heat-leader in the Mansewood Lions, along with Pete Christie and Bert Harkins. It was a year when Mansewood were very much the up-and-coming team in the league. He was already a formidable rider. Among my abiding memories of those days were John's very physical battles with Joe Letts of Craigton Eagles, particularly one in an Individual Championship Final. For me, as a young, impressionable, junior rider, this was enough to cast a shadow of doubt in my mind as to whether I had chosen the right sport.It was x-certificate stuffl

The Tactical and the Technical

The riders from the Eastwood area left Mansewood Lions to help create a better-balanced league. They set up a new team called Eastwood Aces and John took over as manager of the Mansewood Club. He became a familiar, but unmistakable, figure, as, bowler-hatted, he rode his track bike through the neighbourhood, spade and rake attached to it with aero-elastics. The track flags were tied to his famous Gladstone bag, which in turn was hooked over the handlebars and the team colours were carried in another bag. This was the start of a managerial and coaching career in Cycle Speedway which,

after years of gathering tactical know-how, reached its pinnacle when Shields Racers won the British National Team Championship in 1971, the only time a Glasgow team has done so.

During our time racing for Scottish Rangers in Edinburgh at weekends, I can vividly remember many midweek nights when John sat on the back door steps of his house, trying to

plot the downfall of our next opponents. He would analyse the other team's strengths and weaknesses, examine their team layout and how ours could be structured to counter their

strengths. He estimated the possible outcome of every heat, even making an alternative plan if we should lose the toss for grid positions. Such a level of tactical awareness and thoroughness was almost unheard of then. John was one of the pioneers who took racing strategy to anew, high level.

Here he is, sounding off at full blast in 'Jim's Jottings' in the 7th of August 1965 edition of 'Smoke Signals - Scotland's Cycle Speedway Magazine'. He wrote his column under the byline 'Jim Spring'. His comments refer to a match between Edinburgh and Manchester.

Team tactics during the match were practically non-existant. There were few attempts to help team partners who were behind. Partly as a result of this Edinburgh riders were only

accredited with a total of ~ bonus points after the twenty heats. When both Edinburgh riders were trailing in the rear there were precious few attempts at ramming or similar attempts to cause an opening for one's partner. Practically anything should be tried as matters can't get any worse.

Also, the line-up at the gate looked pretty chaotic. It looked like first round to the gate took his choice of position and his partner took what was left, surely the better "gater" should get the inside grid, where he can do more damage. It should be the team's score that is more important, not the individual tallies”

John's knowledge of bikes and bike maintenance was also exceptional. Anyone who spent a night in the Speirs Hut, watching John stripping down a cog, or building a wheel from

scratch, would come away dazzled by the technical ability of the man. Many of his team-mates will have memories, always, of trudging back to the pits after a bike failure and hearing

his voice boom out, 'Bad maintenance, bad maintenance!' Most of them got the point andrarely transgressed again. John considered it as a criminal offence if the team lost points

through a lack of maintenance.

The Rider

John was that curious mixture, quite common in Cycle Speedway riders, a placid, easy-going, good-natured person off the track, but a robust, physical rider who neither asked

nor gave quarter when racing. I could count on one hand the number of times I saw John 'lose his cool', unlike his other two Glasgow team-mates in Scottish Rangers!

Although never considered a super star, John was always respected as a very difficult opponent to beat. He won the Glasgow Individual Championship in 1961 and rode in the

World Championship Final in Edinburgh in 1962.

(His abortive trip, with Bert Harkins, to the 1960 World Championship Final is told elsewhere in The History.)

He rode in almost all the Scotland teams of the '60's and '70's and represented both Glasgow and Edinburgh on numerous occasions.

Many would agree that John's great strength was as a team rider. To me he was the epitome of what a good team rider should be - always alert to his partner's position in a race

and always willing to consider the needs of the team before his own personal score.

 

Game for a Laugh

As anyone who spent time in his company will know, another of John's qualities was his truly 'off-the wall' sense of humour. Those who had met his mother, Mrs. Rose Speirs, knew from where he had inherited his sense of fun, but where the eccentric touch came from is anyone's guess.

A not unusual welcome to the Speirs household was for the back door to open slowly, revealing Bruce, the family's aged Alsatian dog dressed in a tartan bunnet, red and white bow

tie, waistcoat and horn-rimmed glasses, opening the door like some elderly retainer,.. 'You rang, sir?' John probably thought that this,was what the well-dressed Mansewood dog should

wear and, to his eternal credit, Bruce seemed to enjoy dressing up. (In the household he was affectionately known as 'the dug'.)

John had a special way of dealing with names. If he had difficulty remembering people's real names, he simply re-christened them with new ones. One example was the

manager of Binningham Lions, Archie Holyoake. We met him occasionally since he was a friend of our Scottish Rangers manager, Ross Gargrave. John had trouble with 'Holyoake'

and decided to call Archie 'Charlie Ochiltree'! Needless to say, the name stuck. Henceforth Archie was known as 'Charlie' to all the Rangers riders. (The real Charlie Ochiltree wrote the editorials in the 'Speedway Star', leading to further

confusion when discussing his articles.)

Then there was young Roy McDowell, an Eastwood lad who had spent an unhappytime in what would now be called a ' Young Offenders' institution. John christened him' Roy the Bad Boy' and that became his name.

Tolworth Told Off

Bert and Mandy Mansbridge were the patrons and organisers of the Hungerford Club.

They were prominent in the administration of Cycle Speedway in England. Bert was, in fact, Chairman of NACSA. They were always treated like royalty when they came to Edinburgh on

holiday. John, of course, always called them 'The Mandies '

During one of their visits, Scottish Rangers arranged a friendly match at the Harrison Park track with Tolworth Tudors, a Surrey team. 'The Mandies' knew most of their riders and

so took on the role of celebrity supporters of Tolworth. At this same time, the Harrison Park track was undergoing a revamp. The Rangers riders felt they needed a concrete footslide on the inside of the bends to bring it up to the

standard of other tracks in the league. Team manager Ross Gargrave, in his usual entrepreneurial manner, set the boys to work. Holes were dug. Ross had arranged for a mixer

lorry to arrive during the following week and pour concrete into the holes - no problem!

Unfortunately, the deal with the lorry fell through. The track was left with gaping trenches on the inside of the bends, although Edinburgh Parks Department's white-line machine was used to lay white lines just outside them, thus marking the inside line of the track.

The match got under way, but after a few heats, it became apparent that the visitors were failing to negotiate the comers as well as the home team, who had already, the previous

week, raced a match under these conditions. As a result, the Tolworth riders failed to finish in a number of races. There was

increasing disquiet and much 'greetin' and groanin" from the Tolworth side of the Pits, together with much head-shaking and 'tut-tutting' from 'The Mandies'. Relations between the

two sides were degenerating towards what might have become a violent interlude, but the situation was defused by a classic 'Speirism'. Confronted by an irate, diminutive Tolworth

captain, who raced wearing a hat that resembled a tea-cosy, John uttered the now legendary reply, 'I don't know what you're complaining about - it's only your team that's going down the holes!'

'Stinky'

John was perhaps the only Glasgow rider whose bike had an official name. It was called 'Stinky'. The reason for this unexpected choice was quite straightforward. John had

decided the bike needed a name. He therefore raided his young brother's' Airfix' model aeroplane kit and found, among the transfers in it, some letters intended for identity markings

on the models. 'Stinky' was the only name he could conjure out of the available letters. Simple! .

When I retired from racing, John was already riding on 'Stinky the Seventeenth' ('Stinky XVII', actually). The number of the final 'Stinky' is a matter of pure speculation. 'Chic' Mackie can tell the story of the demise of one 'Stinky'. It was on a tarmac

track in Cardiff, when John was on a southern tour. According to 'Chic', 'John crashed into one of the upright poles of the starting gate at full speed. His bike was c'Ompletely demolished

and the starting gate didn't fare too well either, but, amazingly, John emerged from the wreckage uninjured'.

John had such a large number of track bikes for one main reason. He was continuallyexperimenting, with frame size and, in fact, with every aspect of bike design, I can recall many Saturday afternoon visits to the 'Barras' to scour the junk stalls for components. (We couldn't spend the kind of money custom-built bikes cost nowadays, but it gave us a lot of

pleasure, when we were both a bit better off, to go to Rattray's cycle shop and order hand- built wheels and other such delicacies.

L.B.L.

John was called 'Little Boy Lost' by his Mansewood team-mates. Bert Harkins explains why. Some of the team, including John, went by train to the Speedway at Motherwell.

After the racing was over, they started out for home, but John was nowhere to be found. He turned up later, all right, on the train, but the nickname, which was based on a hit record of

the time, caught on'.

During his racing years in Edinburgh, the Sighthill Hammers named him' Jim Spring' (The 'Goon Show' was popular at this time). He used this nickname as the byline in the articles he wrote for 'Smoke Signals'.

In later years, the 'Little Boy Lost' tag proved to be a misnomer, for John became a vtraveller, making round-the-world trips to visit his brother George and family. He was also a member of the intrepid quartet, made up by Jim Cobain, Dougie Maxwell and Ross Gargrave, who made regular close-season motoring tours. And this was in the dark days of

the 'Iron Curtain' when travelling in such places was really difficult.

The End

Many people gain the respect of their peers during their careers, but few people are lucky enough to be genuinely liked and admired as John was.

His untimely death came just a couple of years before the first Glasgow Reunion (in 1998). John would have enjoyed it to the full. He was a sociable guy and enjoyed the company of others. The large number of former cycle Speedway riders who attended his funeral was evidence of his respected status and of the many friendships he made during his time in racing.

He is still sorely missed by us all.

 

 

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