Former Norwich speedway captain dies

Derek James pays tribute to speedway champ Phil Clarke

For more than a dozen glorious years he rode like the wind cheered on by thousands of men, women and children who packed the Fabulous Firs Stadium, week in and week out.

He was a Norwich Star from 1947 until 1959 during which time he scored more points than any other rider – a grand total of 2,162 in no less than 309 matches for his beloved Norwich.

While Phil was never one to shout about his exploits people would always seek him out at various events featuring veteran speedway riders so they could shake his hand...and thank him for the memories.

While other riders looked the part, Phil in his steel-rimmed glasses and with his quiet way, resembled a friendly and gentle professor rather than a dare-devil motorcyle rider.

But once he pulled on his crash helmet, and climbed on his bike...he was feared and respected by other riders all over this country and abroad. He was a class act.

During his speedway career he received offers to ride for other clubs but Phil never seriously considered leaving Norwich. 'It was my team and I was so proud to be a member of it,' he once told me.

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It was way back in the 1930s when young Phil was taken by an uncle and a cousin to watch some crazy men, often wearing jackets and ties and smoking a cigarette, race round a field cheered on by hundreds of fans.

These early speedway meetings attracted big crowds from the city and county and there were plenty of thrills and spills to keep them on their toes.

'I'll never forget watching that first grass track meeting,' said Phil. 'There was something about the smell of the engine fumes, the atmosphere. It fired my imagination.'

The first so-called stadium almost fell apart but then 'mad' Max Grosskreutz arrived from Australia and by 1937 Norwich Speedway was up and running – it would become a way of life for generations of men, women and children from all over Norfolk.

'A few of us local lads got together building our own bikes and Jack Freeman and I built a sort-of, semi-speedway bike,' said Phil.

He and other lads living around The Firs would run errands and clean bikes and Phil got friendly with Dickie Wise who become the manager of the Norwich team.

Then the second world war came along, normal life was put on hold, as the country fought for its freedom.

But when Phil got back from serving with the RAF in India he had decided that he would have a serious stab at becoming a professional speedway rider – not a job for the faint-hearted.

'I put together a bike and got myself a new engine. I stuck with it and finally got into the team,' said Phil.

For the next 13 years he was one of the brightest of all the Norwich Stars...the people loved him and the riders respected and feared him.

He was the backbone of the Norwich team for more than a decade during which time he represented England and also rode at Wembley in the world finals.

'I have been lucky. I have always loved motorcycles and the Firs was the best stadium in the country with the best supporters,' Phil told me.

Over the years many Stars came and went but Phil shone brighter than most and for longer than most. A true Star...and one of our greatest sporting heroes.