A tribute to the longest running stock car stadium.
Compiled May 2013 and updated Dec 2015, Aug 2016, Sept 2016 & Feb 2017
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 celebrated its 60th year of racing in 2013 and holding its 500th race meeting during 2015.
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 Stadium 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 Nov 2016, Coventry has held 510 F1 stock car meetings in front of an estimated audience of between 2.5 and 3 million spectators and, in that time, 31 drivers have won 5 or more Final victories totalling 302 Finals out of a possible 510 between them. They are:
- 391 Stu Smith Snr - 40
- 53 John Lund - 25
- 391 Andy Smith - 23
- 515 Frankie Wainman Jnr - 22
- 244 Jim Esau - 12
- 38 Fred Mitchell - 11
- 97 Murray Harrison - 10
- 2 Willie Harrison - 9
- 33 Peter Falding - 9
- 21 Mark Gilbank - 9
- 212 Frankie Wainman Snr - 8
- 306 Mick Noden - 8
- 422 Nigel Whorton - 8
- 4 - Dan Johnson - 8
- 100 Tony Neal - 7
- 68 Trevor Frost - 6
- 152 Ron Rogers - 6
- 55 Bert Finnikin - 6
- 128 John Wright - 6
- 471 Bobby Burns - 6
- 55 Craig Finnikin - 6
- 2 Paul Harrison - 6
- 390 Stuart Smith Jnr - 6
- 245 Alan Wardropper - 5
- 42 Aubrey Leighton - 5
- 104 Ted Pankhurst - 5
- 229 John Hillam - 5
- 304 Dave Mellor - 5
- 335 Mark Woodhull - 5
- 84 Tom Harris - 5
- 16 Mat Newson - 5
- 150 Mick Sworder -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
22 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 the World Final winning cars at Coventry between 1960 and 2016 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.
2014: 55 Craig Finnikin
2016: 515 Frankie Wainman Jnr
This was FWJ's 3rd World Championship victory, the previous ones being in 1998 and 2005.
In 2013, to celebrate the 60th year of staging stock car racing, the stadium highlighted the sport's heritage by devoting each meeting to a particular decade of racing. This included 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 were invited as special guests - a generous and much appreciated gesture that gives the fans a chance to acknowledge them on their laps of honour.
With the sport having celebrated 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 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, UK Modifieds 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.
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 bungee 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 when the late, great Stuart Smith Snr came out of retirement to win a race full of existing and former Champions - the only time he ever raced against both his sons, Andy and Stuart Jnr.
Walking round the pits as the atmosphere builds before a meeting.
Peering through a dust storm on hot summer evenings as the track staff battle the perennial problem of track watering.
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!
As the saying goes - 'All good things come to an end'. It has always been known that the Stadium is situated on prime land for commercial or residential development and recent investment plans announced by the stadium owners suggest that such an unthinkable eventuality is not only possible but likely in 2016. There is talk of a new stadium within the Coventry catchment area but the plans are at a delicate stage and understandably under wraps.
HOWEVER, the latest news in August 2016 suggests that stock car racing at Coventry will continue in 2017 and possibly beyond thanks to an agreement brokered by the local Council Leader with the purchasers of the stadium and surrounding land. In the meantime the search for a new stadium site continues with options under consideration. It has already been announced that the F2 stock car world championship will take place here in 2017 - a first for the stadium, even after 63 years! (SEE UPDATE AT THE END DATED FEB 2017)
What does seem highly likely is that the 22nd staging of the World Championship held on 3rd September at this iconic of venues will indeed be the last. Around 175 F1 stock cars raced over two days and while the weather did its best to ruin World Final day on the Saturday, the rain did stop for the big race and 515 Frankie Wainman Jnr's 3rd Championship victory.
The whole occasion perhaps lacked the edge that marks out a truly stunning meeting but the fans turned out in their thousands and, as always, created an atmosphere, along with the drivers, that will remain long in the memory albeit tinged with the sadness of knowing it will probably be the last such F1 event at this stock car shrine.
Congratulations to everybody associated with Coventry Stadium again on 63 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. Let all stock car fans be thankful for the interim delay in closure and hope that the future for F1 stock car racing in the Coventry area beyond this time can be secured.
UPDATE FEB 2017: In November 2016, after the racing season finished, and blamed on a breakdown in communications between various parties, fixtures and fittings including the race-fence and the shale on the track were removed from the stadium. A local councillor brokered a subsequent agreement in December that included the stadium being restored to allow stock car racing (and speedway) to continue in 2017 and beyond. However, with no restoration work yet underway and the stock car promotor postponing the April and May 2017 fixtures, the situation is beginning to look increasingly terminal. There is still no legally binding agreement between the stadium owners and those wanting to promote stock cars (and speedway) for three more years despite the sterling efforts of the local councillor.
BUT NOTHING CAN DETRACT FROM 63 YEARS OF INDELIBLE MEMORIES ENJOYED AT THIS UNFORGETTABLE MECCA OF OVAL RACING