In the West Midlands, situated in the village of Brandon in the county of Warwickshire is Coventry Stadium, the spiritual home of most stock car supporters and an integral part of stock car racing's rich heritage.
Stock car racing has been staged here uninterrupted since the launch of the sport in 1954. So, congratulations to all associated with the running of the stadium both past and present as the raceway celebrates its 60th year of racing in 2013.
Looking back, the first ever meeting took place on the 30th June 1954 and was promoted by Ernest Appleby and the Northern Stock Car Company, an organisation that quickly ran out of steam having capitalised on the initial popularity of what then was effectively unlimited banger racing.
Fortunately. Midland Sports Stadiums under the stewardship of Charles Ochiltree was waiting in the wings and took over the promotion, later introducing the sport to the catchment areas of Leicester and West Ham. Known affectionately as, 'The CO', Charles Ochiltree demonstrated time and again a flair and expertise for promoting stock car racing that carried the sport through some dark times, especially in those early formative years when the novelty factor had faded for the viewing public. He was at the helm from 1955 to 1998 before handing the reins over to his son, Martin, who was in control from 1998 to 2003.
Shrewd investment, planning, slick organisation and sheer enthusiasm for the evolving sport of stock car racing kept Coventry popular with the fans and drivers. There were inevitable ups and downs including periodic rumours of pending closure, even a threatened drivers' strike that severely delayed the start of one season but through it all there has only been one place that stock car enthusiasts want to be on the first Saturday of every month during the racing season and that is Coventry International Raceway to feast on real stock car action on the superfast shale oval.
In 2003, Malaysian businessman, Avtar Sandhu, took over ownership and with commercial director, Jeremy Heaver, have continued to keep the stadium at the forefront of the sport even in times of economic recession.
From June 1954 to May 2013, Coventry has held 471 F1 stock car meetings in front of an estimated audience of between 2.5 and 3 million spectators and, in that time, 25 drivers have won 5 or more Final victories totalling 260 Finals out of a possible 471 between them. They are:
- 391 Stu Smith Snr - 40
- 53 John Lund - 25
- 391 Andy Smith - 24
- 515 Frankie Wainman Jnr - 21
- 244 Jim Esau - 12
- 38 Fred Mitchell - 11
- 2 Willie Harrison - 10
- 97 Murray Harrison - 10
- 33 Peter Falding - 9
- 212 Frankie Wainman Snr - 8
- 306 Mick Noden - 8
- 422 Nigel Whorton - 8
- 100 Tony Neal - 7
- 21 Mark Gilbank - 7
- 68 Trevor Frost - 6
- 152 Ron Rogers - 6
- 55 Bert Finnikin - 6
- 128 John Wright - 6
- 471 Bobby Burns - 6
- 245 Alan Wardropper - 5
- 42 Aubrey Leighton - 5
- 104 Ted Pankhurst - 5
- 229 John Hillam - 5
- 304 Dave Mellor - 5
- 4 Dan Johnson - 5
Of the Major Stock Car Championships, Coventry has hosted 12 British Championships and the British Champions crowned at the stadium were:
- 1961 - 37 Don Evans
- 1965 - 3 Ellis Ford
- 1969 - 391 Stu Smith Snr
- 1992 - 515 Frankie Wainman Jnr
- 1995 - 53 John Lund
- 1996 - 33 Peter Falding
- 1998 - 53 John Lund
- 1999 - 515 Frankie Wainman Jnr
- 2001 - 515 Frankie Wainman Jnr
- 2002 - 391 Andy Smith
- 2008 - 390 Stu Smith Jnr
- 2012 - 55 Craig Finnikin
20 World Championship Finals have been held at Coventry. Those ultra special September evenings were always well organised, allowing the packed terraces and grandstand to create the electric atmosphere and the drivers and cars to supply action packed racing, incidents galore, big hits, last bend attacks, surprise results, triumphs and tears - a fund of vivid, unforgettable memories.
From my model collection, I have brought together all 20 World Final winning cars at Coventry between 1960 and 2010 and they are pictured below:
1960: 103 Johnny Brise - 1964: 68 Trevor Frost - 1968: 100 Tony Neal
1971: 396 Doug Cronshaw - 1974: 252 Dave Chisholm - 1977: 199 Mike Close
1980: 1/391 Stu Smith Snr - 1983: 1/391 Stu Smith Snr
1986: 33 Peter Falding - 1989: 85 Ray Tyldesley
1993: 33 Peter Falding - 1996: 53 John Lund
1998: 515 Frankie Wainman Jnr - 1999: 97 Murray Harrison
2000: 53 John Lund - 2002: 53 John Lund - 2003: 1/33 Peter Falding
2004: 1/33 Peter Falding - 2006: 391 Andy Smith - 2010: 1/391 Andy Smith
Andy Smith's 2010 World Final victory was his third in succession and he became only the third driver ever to achieve this remarkable feat. The first was 252 Dave Chisholm in 1973, 1974 and 1975 and the second was Andy's father, the legendary 391 Stu Smith Snr in 1983, 1984 and 1985.
In 2013, to celebrate the 6oth year of staging stock car racing, the stadium is highlighting the sport's heritage by devoting each meeting to a particular decade of racing. This includes a vintage style programme and website. Below are pictures of the April and May programmes that celebrated the 50s and 60s:
At each meeting, drivers who raced at the stadium in those decades are being invited as special guests - a generous and much appreciated gesture that gives the fans a chance to acknowledge them on their laps of honour. Have a look at the Stadium's website at www.coventrystox.com
With the sport about to celebrate its Diamond Jubilee in 2014, the future looks bright but with the persisting economic recession putting restraints on the way people spend their hard earned cash, comes the need for compromise. Diehard fans will have to accept the need to change with the times and recognise the economic rationale for back up formulas such as Unlimited Bangers, V8 Hot Stox, F2 Stock Cars, Mini Stox, Saloon Stox and Rebels Racing increasingly sharing the bill with the F1 Stock Cars if promoters, such as Coventry Stadium, are to make ends meet and ensure the sport continues to thrive. Let's not forget that the site on which Coventry Stadium is situated must be a prime location for commercial or residential development. The current investment plans announced by the stadium owners suggest that such an unthinkable eventuality is hopefully a long way off but stock car fans can help with their continued loyal support and whenever possible introducing others to the exciting experience of F1 stock car racing.
For so much of the sport's history the drivers and promoters have had an uneasy relationship beset with difficulties and disagreements that have threatened the very future of stock car racing. The opportunities for fans to make a considered input were limited to letters to magazines. These days the internet gives the fans more of a voice and provided the feedback is sensible, constructive and pertinent it can provide promoters with valuable information and, of course, a means by which they can tackle misunderstandings.
I've been going to Coventry Stadium for nearly 40 years and seldom gone away disappointed. Most stock car fans will have their own Coventry memories; these are just some of my immediate recollections:
The 1977 World Final meeting when 268 Jim Saunders took 391 Stu Smith Snr into the fence, ripping out his rear axle. The crowd went wild and Stu, ever the showman and resplendent in silver overalls, milked his notoriety as only he could.
The 1986 World Final when 33 Peter Falding became the youngest ever World Champion when odds on favourite and leader Stu Smith Snr was baulked by out of control New Zealand driver, Russell Joblin.
Watching 213 Des Chandler complete a 150 foot bungy jump as part of the pre meeting entertainment at the 1993 World Final.
The 1999 World Final when 391 Andy Smith pushed leader 1/515 Frankie Wainman Jnr out to the fence on the penultimate lap, collecting 53 John Lund as well, leaving 97 Murray Harrison to claim a surprise victory. This incident is the subject of a Michael Turner painting.
In September 2010, seeing 391 Stu Smith Snr, his son 391 Andy Smith and 252 Dave Chisholm photographed in front of the grandstand as the only three drivers to achieve three World Final victories in succession.
At the two day Golden Helmet meeting in October 2010 a substantial hole appeared on turn one. What could have been a potential disaster was managed well by the Coventry team and the altered racing line caused by the hole led to some spectacular racing incidents. Crisis Management in action and an excellent two days of highly competitive racing in the end.
Being present at the testimonial meeting for 33 Peter Falding in June 2008.
Walking round the pits as the atmosphere builds before a meeting.
The accessibility of cars and drivers to the fans.
Watching cars arrive and queue for access to the pits, while sat in the car park waiting for the stadium gates to open.
The highly entertaining end of season firework displays - second to none! Also the chance for the stadium to invite local residents and their children in to watch the display.
And the list could go on and on!
Congratulations again on 60 continuous years of stock car promotion and providing a venue for countless tens of thousands of fans to experience that essential monthly high of drama, excitement and expectation that accompanies action-packed stock car racing.