BRITISH COMICS

(Rover Homepage)

THE SPIDER OF THE SPEEDWAYS

This is the first episode from The Rover issue 1377 November 17th 1951.

KING OF THE SPEEDWAYS

A big black car had halted on the high-road. The two passengers in it looked down the slope towards a scattered circle of motor cycles and people in a nearby field. “Is this the place?” asked the fat one of the two men, pointing with a long cigar. “Yeah!” his lanky companion replied. “The Country Wheelers, they call themselves. Just a bunch o’ speed-crazy kids with hotted-up second-hand bikes, but there might be someone worth picking up. This is what they call their monthly championship.” Jap Lipsey, the fat man, curled his plump lips. He despised anything amateur. To him motor-cycle racing was merely a means of making money. He was the owner of a number of speedway tracks in the big towns. Yellow-skinned, and oily, he owed his name of Jap Lipsey to the slant, half-closed eyes that were now studying the scene before them in speculative fashion. Finally he picked up the speaking-tube and snapped to the chauffeur: “Pug, find the way down to that meeting.” As the great car moved forward, Jap Lipsey lay back on the cushions and growled. “Like as not we’ll get the wheels splashed with mud for nothing, but we’ve got to pick up a couple of good kids from somewhere. You’ve been picking me a punk lot recently, Sam. The riders you’ve brought me don’t last no time at all.” Sam Moxon looked at him shrewdly. “That’s because you push ‘em too hard,” he said. “there was no need to crack up that Bolton kid so soon.” “Aw, he had it coming to him!” drawled Lipsey. “He’d turned awkward, so I told the boys to give him the works. How the crowd loved it! Sensation – that’s all they want, an’ that’s what we give ‘em, Sam!” By the time they had reached the back of the track, Jap Lipsey did not get out of the car. The chauffeur touched a button, and the roof slid back. Lipsey heaved himself upright with effort, then stood on the rear seat, head and shoulders out through the opening, his cigar still stuck between his teeth. Lipsey scowled at the riders. They were all about twenty years of age, and their motor-cycles were ordinary models which they had adapted for racing. The chauffeur returned from making enquiries and told Lipsey this was the final of the main race of the day between the Wheelers and their rivals the Beechcroft Flyers. Four men were fighting it out neck and neck. The home supporters seemed to be mostly shouting for the young fair-haired Wheeler who was up between the two flyers. The crowd yelled frantically as the bunched trio approached the bend. “Jim Radford – come Jim,” yelled the supporters. At the last second the two Flyers prudently slowed, but not so Jim Radford. If anything, he accelerated, and gained two lengths on the corner. Again the home supporters howled delightedly, and the two Flyers made frantic efforts to cut down the youngster’s lead. Radford was riding as though inspired. Again he approached a corner at top speed, but, before he could bank, his machine went into a wobble and swerved towards the outside track. The crowd scattered. It looked like a certain disaster. The Flyers, keeping inside, on the white line, shot past the tight-lipped Radford as he wrestled with his mount. He seemed to scrape the barrier before he got his bike under control and somehow retained his balance. He shot across the track, his heel digging a groove in the turf, then by some miracle of riding-craft he straightened out again, and went roaring down the straight. He was now the last man in the race. The din was deafening. Everyone there knew they were going to see Jim Radford at his reckless best. Grimly he set after the two leaders. Fired by his example, the others were trying some fancy cornering. For a lap more Radford held fourth place, but at each corner he gained a little. He was riding like a demon. At the beginning of the last lap he had come up with the leaders but was on the outside. Down the straight thundered the trio. The fourth man had retired from the race when his machine had broken down. It now lay between the two Flyers and the solitary Wheeler, but at the first corner on that final lap disaster came to one of the Flyers. He went through the barrier into the crowd. There were only two left in the race. “They’re crazy!” snorted the disgusted Sam Moxon. “Don’t they know they can’t corner like that on grass? Do they want to break their necks for a cheap tin-plate cup?” Jap Lipsey said nothing. He was watching every move that Jim Radford made. As the two riders approached the last bend, Lipsey could see that Radford was actually smiling with enjoyment. Flat out, Radford made not the slightest effort to slacken that mad speed. Again he achieved balance at an impossible angle, again he seemed to scrape the grass, then he was round the bend on his own. The Flyer had lost his nerve at the last moment and had dropped back. Jim Radford flashed down the straight to the finishing line an easy winner. “Jim Radford! R-a-d-f-o-r-d!” chanted the home supporters, and Jap Lipsey found that he had bitten into his cigar. He tossed it through the window and growled at his companion: “Get that kid for me! He’s a natural. He won’t need much working on. He’ll be willing to break his neck for us.” Sam Moxon grinned, and got out of the car. “I believe you’re right!” he said, “I’ll try and bring him over when his friends are through clapping him on the back.” Thus, when Jim Radford finally escaped from his admirers, and had handed his machine over to Tom Cruickshank, his mechanic friend, he found himself hailed by a tall, lanky man whose hat was worn at a rakish angle. “Radford,” Sam Moxon said to him, “that sure was a grand race you rode! I wonder if you’d care to have a few words with Mr Lipsey? He’s waiting for you over in the car.” “Is it Mr Lipsey, the speedway owner?” stammered the youngster. “Jap Lipsey who owns the Bromchurch track, and who is backer for the Bromchurch Tigers,” drawled Moxon, watching Radford’s rising colour. “I might tell you, kid, that he’s taken with your riding. He asked me to fetch you over special.” “Well, I-I- That’s very decent of him!” said the bewildered Jim Radford, wiping his hands down his oil-stained trousers. “Thanks, I’ll come over.” Like everyone else who was interested in speedway racing, Jim had heard about Jap Lipsey. He knew Lipsey was the chief backer of the Bromchurch Tigers speedway team, which at the moment topped the Four Counties League. What he did not know was that Jap Lipsey owned all the other teams in the league as well. He did know that Jap Lipsey had invented a fine little racket of his own, and that the Four Counties League was nothing but a sham. He did not know that the Lipsey Speedways were outside the Speedway Association, but nobody had ever told him the reason for this. When he reached the car, Jap Lipsey opened the door and turned on a pleasant smile. He reached forward to grasp Jim’s hand in his. “Radford, I just want to congratulate you on a first-class bit of riding!” he said heartily. “I’ve never seen better.” Jim had always found it difficult to avoid blushing, and now he was the colour of a beetroot. “That’s n-nice of you to say so, Mr Lipsey!” he found himself saying. “I like motor-cycle racing. It’s my one hobby.” “Come inside a moment and sit down, Radford,” invited the fat man, much as a spider might invite a fly into its web. “How are you going back to town?” “Well I-er-I shall be riding back on my machine when my friend’s got her ready for the road,” replied Jim. “I’ll drive you back with me. I want to talk to you about something important,” purred Lipsey. “Couldn’t your friend ride your bike back alone.” “Yes-er-I suppose he could,” agreed the youngster, more flattered than ever at the interest Lipsey was displaying and curious to know what Lipsey wanted to talk about. I’ll go and ask him.” “Do that, and we’ll wait for you,” said Jap Lipsey, and as Jim hurried the fat man winked at Moxon.

ROCKET RADFORD

Three minutes later Jim Radford was reclining luxuriously in the car. Within another five minutes, Lipsey had got it out of him, that he lived alone with his widowed mother, and that he worked as a mechanic in Garrard’s Garage, where he earned £4 per week. He had admitted that he had saved for a whole year to buy the machine on which he had raced that afternoon, and that motor-cycle racing with the Wheelers was the only extravagance he allowed himself. Jap Lipsey leaned towards the youngster. “Have you ever thought of taking up racing professionally?” he asked. “You’re much too good to work all your life as a mechanic.” Jim looked surprised. “No, I-No, I’ve never thought of that,” he stammered. “I’ve got a good steady job and am able to look after my mother.” “You could look after her much better for ten quid a week instead of four,” grunted Lipsey. “Ten quid!” gasped Jim Radford.  “That’s what I’m offering you to join the Bromchurch Tigers. I want to make the Tigers the best team in the Midlands, we need new blood. I watched you riding just now, and I said to myself: ‘That kid’s wasted on a grass track with a lot of amateurs. Given good training, one day he’ll become an ace speedway rider earning two hundred quid a week.’ …I can’t offer you that, but I can pay you ten per week with extra money for wins in important matches. Think what you’d be able to do for your mother on that extra money.” He had found the right line of appeal. Ten pounds a week sounded a lot. Jim had never expected to make that much at any time of his life, and now he was only nineteen. “But-But you can’t be serious, Mr Lipsey!” he protested. “I’m not all that good.” “I didn’t say you were, but once you’ve learned the tricks of the trade I bet you’ll have the big crowds roaring for you every time you come out on the track. At the moment, the Tigers are at the top of the league, and I want to keep them there,” went on Lipsey, warmly. “I’m so serious that I want to run you down to my office at the Bromchurch track right now and sign a contract with you for £10 per week. A three years’ guarantee, starting at ten pounds per week and rising to twenty! What about that.” He watched the emotions chase one another across his victim’s face. He knew just how the youngster was feeling. Jim’s brain was in a whirl. He was dizzy with delight, but at the same time he was scared. He had a safe job, and liked it. If he once gave notice and left he would not be able to go back again. Then there was the matter of his mother. She was always nervous when he went racing on his motor-cycle. What would she say if he became a professional, racing three or four times a week? “I would like to talk it over with my mother,” he said. Jap Lipsey looked disappointed. “Opportunity only knocks once, Jim,” he said sternly. “Don’t turn down my offer or it won’t be repeated. I’m leaving Bromchurch in an hour’s time for Norburn, and would like to get that contract settled before I leave. Why not give your mother a pleasant surprise? Better still, why not say nothing about it to her until you bring home your first big pay packet? Then of course I shall be giving you an advance bonus of £30 for your kit. I’ll give you that at the office when you sign.” Jim felt his doubts and resistance fading. “But the garage-I’d have to give Mr Garrard notice,” he gasped. “Do that by letter, and send him four quid in place of a week’s notice. I’ll give you that,” said Lipsey, masterfully. “He won’t mind.” Under his spell, everything seemed so easy. Twenty minutes later, Jim had signed on the dotted line at the Bromchurch Speedway office, and had bound himself to Jap Lipsey. There were many clauses in the contract, but Moxon, who acted as witness, declared they were “just the usual.” When afterwards Jim was about to take up the lengthy document to read it more carefully, six crisp £5 notes were pressed into his hand, and by the time he had put these in his pocket the contract was locked in Lipsey’s safe. Jap Lipsey solemnly shook hands with him, and declared: “You’ll never regret this, Jim. One day I’ll see you riding with the cracks at the Wembley Stadium, and I’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that I gave you your start. Now I’d like Sam here to show you some of the boys. They’re a grand lot, and I know you’ll get on with them. Fred Tarbert, the manager, will tell you when to start.” His head still in a whirl, Jim was shown round the deserted stadium. The Bromchurch Speedway was not an elaborate affair. Jap Lipsey did not believe in spending money on refinements. The red shale track was of the regulation size and shape, there was a wire barrier around the outside, and beyond these the tiers of plain wooden seats. Jap Lipsey owned similar tracks at Norburn, Ashbrene, and Kentown, all within a radius 0f fifteen miles, and each of these towns had a speedway team of its own. These four made up the Four-Counties’ League. No really first-class rider would work for Lipsey, but he had no difficulty in recruiting and keeping a number of skilled men whose unsavoury reputations had caused them to be kicked out of the speedway game in Australia and America, as well as some crooked British riders who were willing to play the way he wanted the game played, and to raise no objections. Men of this type formed the backbone of the four teams, but the rest were honest youngsters like Jim Radford, who were found by Lipsey or his scouts at amateur motor-cycle races, in hill climbing tests, or in club scrambles up and down the country. These lads were picked for their enthusiasm and daring, as Jim had been picked, and they were used to provide the “thrills” which Jap Lipsey insisted the public wanted rather than honest contests. Nothing of this was known to Jim Radford when he was taken into the biggest of the sheds and introduced to about a dozen of his future colleagues. The older men, like Split-Second Saunders, Scrum Woodford, Tom Urzetti, and Swag Samson, crowded round him heartily, while the younger men kept their distance and eyed him more doubtfully. Jim did not notice this. He was amazed at the warmth of the reception that he got from the old-timers. He did not know they had instructions to greet all newcomers like this, and to “kid” them along the way they were to go. It was not the old-timers who risked their lives in Jap Lipsey’s teams, but the youngsters who were recruited as fast as others fell out, nerve-shattered or crippled. “Get into some kit and join a practice spin,” said Tarbert, the manager, a squat, expressionless man with the palest face Jim had ever seen. “By the way you’ll have to have a name for the programmes. Jim Radford’s no good. Let me see, we’ll call you Rocket Radford. That’s it –Rocket. We haven’t got anybody called Rocket.” He did not tell Jim Radford that the last one who had been named Rocket in the team was still in hospital, and likely to be a helpless cripple for the rest of his life. Jim would not have to worry even if he had known this, for he was thrilled to be getting into the complete kit of a speedway rider for the first time, with crash-helmet, goggles, visor and face cloth to keep off the flying splinters of stone, leather jacket with reinforced elbows and shoulders, leathers, body-belt, a surcoat with the team’s tiger upon it, gloves, boots, one equipped with a special metal “shoe” for the foot-breaking on the ground cornering. He felt like a knight in armour by the time he was fully equipped and wheeling out the type of machine that it had always been his ambition to ride. Then came his first start behind a real “gate,” and the supreme thrill of roaring round the track with professionals. At the door of the big shed Sam Moxon pushed a fresh piece of gum into his mouth and looked at Fred Tarbert. “What d’you think of him?” he asked when Jim had made half a dozen laps. “He’ll do. What’s the line on him?” growled the manager. “Jap says he’s to be built up in the next few weeks as a new ‘local boy makes good’ type. Make him a hero for the crowd. Tip off the others to give him easy breaks, to see that nothing spoils his nerve, to encourage him to be as reckless as he can be, and to kid him along that he’s the hottest thing that ever wore a crash-helmet. Jap has got some good idea for him in the next league series. By then he wants the kid to be so swell-headed that he’ll do anything he’s dared to do. We might help him along then with a little dope, but none of that yet. Get the idea?” “Yeah!” drawled the other. “With care he might last three months, then it’ll be a case o’ the Rocket goin’ up an’ the stick comin’ down, eh?” They laughed together. Neither of them ever took any risks. Their job was to see that the crowds got the maximum thrills at the expense of the lives and limbs of the raw youngsters who were taken into the team for that purpose.

TIGERS v. JETS

Jim had been ordered to turn out for the Wednesday night meeting, when there was to be a match between the home team and the Norburn Jets. He was to be one of the two reserves, and all that day he had been in a fever of expectation. He had been unable to keep his new job a secret from his mother, and the only thing that bothered him when he went to the track that evening was the worried expression on his mother’s face when he had left. He was surprised to find the changed mood of his team-mates. No longer did they joke and laugh amongst themselves. The older men were grim and silent. The younger ones were inclined to be noisy and quarrelsome. Jim had already made a friend of young Ron Savage, who was about a year older than himself, and who had been with the team four months. Ron was usually pale and quite, one of the most retiring members of the team, but this evening he was flushed, his eyes had an unnatural sparkle, and his voice was shrill. When Jim was balanced on one leg pulling on his long boot, he stumbled and accidently crashed into Ron Savage. Instantly the other gave a shriek of rage, and drove his fist at Jim’s face. Fortunately Jim saw the blow coming and ducked, catching the blow on the forehead, but it rocked him to his heels. He was so surprised that he merely stood there staring at Ron whilst his team-mate screeched: “Keep out of my way! Keep out of my way, here and on the track, or I’ll run you over the barrier! D’you hear me, Rocket?” “Yes, but there’s no need to go off the deep-end like that,” protested Jim, feeling his anger rise. “It was an accident. Keep your hands to yourself another time, or-“ Ron Savage was advancing on him with blazing eyes, and Jim was horrified to see froth on his lips. He realised that Savage was ill in some way. Just what would have happened it was hard to say, but Swag Samson, the scarred-faced Australian, stepped in between them and clasped Ron Savage affectionately by the shoulders. “Come on, Ron, don’t waste breath talking to that cub! He’ll learn who’s ace in this team.” He favoured Jim with a wink, and Jim understood he was humouring Savage to soothe him down. “We’re all reckoning on you breaking a record to-night, Ron. You’ll show ‘em!” “Of course I’ll show ‘em!” shrilled Ron Savage, with a vicious glance at Jim. “But tell him to keep out of my way.” “Yes, yes, everybody’ll keep out o’ your way, Ron!” drawled the Aussie, and led the excited Ron to the side of the shed. Jim gazed after them in consternation. He saw big Tom Urzetti watching him strangely, and asked: “What’s the matter with Savage? Is he all right? Is he fit for the race? “Of course he’s fit!” grinned Urzetti. “Sure, he’s fit. Just a little high strung before the race, that’s all. Best to keep out o’ his way another time.” But the incident worried Jim. He did not like the look in Ron Savage’s eyes. Jim soon forgot his worries as the league match began. One of those in the first heat was Ron Savage, and his name leapt to the lips of many in the crowd as soon as the first bend was reached, for Ron Savage seemed to have gone mad. The four riders had been on top of one another when they had reached the bend, but Savage was still accelerating as he flattened out, with a screeching of tyres. Somehow he got round, and shot away nearly three lengths ahead. But that was only the beginning. He was not content with that lead, but did the same thing at the next corner, and the next. Each time he went closer to the ground, and seemed to take the bend faster. Each time the crowd held their breath, then shouted as he emerged from the cloud of dust with an even bigger lead. It was mad, reckless riding. At the end of three laps he had a six length lead then the inevitable happened. As he lay over for yet another reckless turn, his wheels skidded from under him, and he went sliding along the track on one shoulder. As the stretcher-bearers rushed out, he staggered up, grabbed his fallen machine, and ran it back to the track to mount and take up pursuit. Blood was running down his face, but it was impossible to tell what injuries he had suffered, for he pulled up his face cloth again and hid his hurts. Taking the next two corners in precisely the same reckless fashion, he actually came in second. As his team mate had come in first, it meant five points to the Tigers and only one, for third place, to Jets. Jim was amongst those who met Ron Savage as he came in. He put out a hand to help steady the injured rider, but Savage pushed him aside, roaring: “It’s nothing-nothing, I tell you! Leave me alone. Wait till my next heat!” His leathers were torn from shoulder to elbow, one ear-flap had been torn off his crash-helmet, and his face cloth was wet with blood, but when he had staggered away from his machine he indignantly refused all offers of help. Jim had no time to worry further about Ron Savage. It was now time for one of the heats in which Jim was to ride. Already he was being pushed out on to the track by his handler, and it was his turn to take from the box the ball that decided the position he would hold at the start. To his delight he found he had the inside position, next the white line, which was the best of all. The four motor-cyclists made their preliminary circuit of the track. Then they were round at the back of the starting-gate. They were in line now. Jim’s team-mate in the heat was Tom Urzetti. One of the rival team was a youngster, even younger than Jim, but the other was showing grey streaks in his hair. Jim had not noticed the meaning glance that passed between this man and Tom Urzetti. According to instructions, they were to see that Jim won the heat. It was all part of the “build up” which Rocket Radford was being given at the beginning of his career. It was Jap Lipsey’s orders, and part of his preparation for future thrills. The only ones who were going to ride honestly in that race were Jim Radford and the other youngster. They were signaled on to the “plate,” the light changed to green and the tapes flashed up. Rocket Radford was away on the first professional race of his life.

© D. C. Thomson & Co Ltd 

Vic Whittle 2004