Speedway is a sport that doesn't attract the media coverage it used to, but there are still plenty of grass-roots supporters around, especially those here in the Black Country who follow Wolverhampton Speedway, the economic ravages of brown-belt residential development having robbed us of Cradley Heathens and their Dudley Wood track a few years ago.
During recent weeks the Bugle has highlighted many sad incidents in the history of local speedway when riders have tragically been killed on the track. Gerald Hanrahan, Wolverhampton Photographic Society Archivist for the past twenty years, has been following the articles with a keen interest as he is a long-standing staunch supporter of Wolverhampton and a regular visitor to their home track at Monmore Green. But he just had to put pen to paper to describe a moment in his life that occurred in the autumn of 1975, a vivid memory that has stayed with him all these years, when the likeable Wolverhampton speedway rider Gary Peterson was killed whilst competing in the 2nd Leg of the Midland Cup Final.
The years 1970-75 at Monmore Green are known now as the Olsen Era, when the Dane Ole Olsen dominated the track both in Wolverhampton and around the speedway world. He was a Goliath, whose aggregated points total for season after season exceeded anything that had been achieved before. Kiwi Gary Peterson became firm friends with Ole after he joined to become a full time Wolf in 1971. His progress as a rider was so spectacular he was tipped to become a future World Champion, but sadly he would never fulfil his ambitions of speedway glory. In his first season he accumulated a respectable 152 (6.88 average) points to come third in the Wolves riders' standings, and was a virtual ever present the following year.
Wolverhampton had been beset with problems on and off the track during 1975, in particular the determination of Ole Olsen to leave for a fresh challenge elsewhere. But despite all these distractions the team managed to reach the two legged final of the Midland Cup against Oxford. On 5 October they lost a close first leg encounter at Cowley by just 2 points, so both Wolves riders and supporters alike were understandably optimistic of the chances of lifting the cup back at their home track when the second leg was held two weeks later. Gerald was one of the fans cheering the team on during that fateful night, Friday 17 October 1975. He told us:
"Many of us who follow speedway can recall that Autumn evening in 1975 when Wolves rider Gary Peterson received fatal injuries in Heat 11 of the Midland Cup Final 2nd Leg.
"Gary had been suffering from a leg injury and was doubtful as to whether he would take his place in the team at all that night. As fate decreed he decided to ignore any discomfort he felt from his knee and chose to ride. Up to the time of his accident he had raced with confidence, winning Heat 7, which stood him in good stead for his next race in Heat 11. I was standing opposite the third bend, my favourite place, and witnessed Alan Graham pass on Gary's inside coming out of the pits turn to lead into the third bend. Not to be outdone, Gary took a wide line attempting to pass on the outside of the bends, but for some reason which we didn't know at the time, he failed to turn and accelerated towards a robust light column which had no guard and thus no protection for the riders. I'll never forget the noise Gary's bike made on impact. It was similar to steel sheets falling off a roof.
"Afterwards it was suggested that Alan Graham had clipped his wheel, but from the vantage point both myself and dozens of other spectators were enjoying, no such contact was observed. Ole Olsen sped from the pits across the centre green to where Gary lay in a heap. His reaction told everyone in the stadium that things didn't look good. The absence of an ambulance added to the confusion and delay, and it seemed an age before Gary was gingerly removed from the track and sent to the Royal Hospital. The awful incident had knocked the stuffing out of everyone and, for the record, Oxford just shaved the final heats to win the cup by a small margin. But their triumph was immaterial as we all awaited news of Gary's condition, going over the accident in our mind's eye and trying to work out how on earth it happened in the first place. Then the P.A. crackled into life and stadium manager Dan McCormack announced the news that everyone feared; Gary had died from his injuries. At that point the evening's racing was abandoned and a respectful silence descended over Monmore Green. I've no doubt there were a few tears shed as well. We trudged away from the stadium unable to grasp the drama that had unfolded before our eyes.
"The following day, Saturday 18 October, saw the staging of the season's best meeting, the British League Rider's Championship at the Belle Vue Stadium, an event which Ole Olsen was tipped to win. Out of respect for his friend and colleague Gary Peterson, Ole declined to take part. On Friday 11 June 1976 the Gary Peterson Memorial Trophy meeting was held at Monmore Green with Gordon Kennett proving a worthy winner and beating the one and only Ole Olsen on his home track. Nine months had passed since Gary's fatal accident, but he was still held in the highest regard by all Wolves Speedway followers. I suppose you could say he was an unlucky rider, his career having been dogged with injuries which he never seemed to fully recover from. The memorial trophy meeting in 1976 was a fitting send off for one of Wolves' favourite riders during the Ole Olsen era. Perhaps the current Wolves management could revive the memorial meeting for next season, as other teams from the speedway fraternity seem to do who have tragically lost riders in a similar way."