The day King's Lynn's Michael Lee conquered the world
For Lynn speedway supporters of long standing, Friday, September 5th, 1980, is asignificant date – when Michael Lee became world champion.
Tomorrow marks the day when it will be exactly 40 years on since the Lynn Stars rider’s magnificent triumph in the World Final at the Ullevi Stadium in Gothenburg.
From his five rides, Lee dropped only one point to finish on 14 points and take top place on the podium, two points ahead of team-mate Dave Jessup who claimed second place after a run-off with Ipswich rider Billy Sanders.
Back then, the one-off world championship was fraught with danger for the finalists. An engine failure, a snapped chain, a puncture or a fall would almost certainly end the dream of glory.
But on that warm night in the Swedish city, Lee hardly put a wheel out of line as the precocious talent he had always shown in his short professional career on a speedway bike came to the fore and he took the crown with skill and determination.
In front of a crowd of 33,000, Lee rode to the crown on a Jawa, using the same bike throughout the meeting having decided to stay loyal to the Czech concern after the previous day’s practice session.
Two of his potential challengers, Bruce Penhall of the USA and Sweden’s Jan Andersson, opened the meeting with wins in heats 1 and 2 respectively on the slick Ullevi circuit.
Heat 3 saw Lee off gate three against English rivals Jessup, who was on the favoured inside gate, and Peter Collins, along with Finland’s Kai Niemi. As they settled into the race Jessup opened up an advantage ahead of Collins and Lee and it didn’t look good for Lee.
Despite all his experience, Collins, the Belle Vue rider and a previous title holder, made a mistake on the last lap. He tried to get round Jessup on the outside, but there was no grip on the track and he left a gap which Lee exploited to squeeze through into second place.
Lee was out again in heat 5 where he faced three riders who had each won their opening races – Penhall, Sanders and Andersson. Penhall made the gate and Lee cut across from the outside into second place.
They were locked in a terrific duel which Lee eventually won when he dived under Penhall on the second bend of the third lap.
Lee said afterwards: “Penhall bumped me a couple of times, but I got him back. It was a hard race, but you expect that in a world final when no-one wants to give an inch.”
Jessup’s chances were hit in heat six when he reared at the start which allowed the Dane, Finn Thomsen, to race into the lead and the three points, with Jessup having to settle for second.
After each rider had completed two races, the quartet of Penhall, Lee, Jessup and Thomsen led the way each on five points.
Penhall had a disastrous heat 9, coming third off the rogue gate three, and Collins, having won that race and the earlier heat 7 was looking ominously dangerous.
Lee made his best start of the night in heat 11, getting a real flyer to race well clear of Ales Dryml and Thomsen who was back in third spot.
Heat 12, the last before the interval, saw Jessup on gate three and this time he managed a good second place behind Sanders.
With three heats now completed by each rider, Lee was the undisputed leader on eight points, followed by Jessup, Collins and Sanders on seven. However, Lee clearly had the easier rides in the second half, so his opposition could not afford to make and mistakes.
Chris Morton did Lee a favour in heat 13 when recording his only win of the meeting and with Niemi second, the hopes of Penhall (third) and Thomsen (last) were severely dented.
In heat 14, John Davis gained his first win and he was the ninth race winner from the inside gate – and just to show how open the championship was, Davis became the eleventh different rider to win a race.
The white helmet jinx continued for Jessup in heat 15 when he missed the gate and was last going into the first bend.
He weaved his way past the two outsiders, Plech and Ondrasik, but race leader Andersson was way ahead.
So Lee had seen his three closest rivals drop points and his next ride in heat 16 was against the likes of Muller, Nielsen and Stancl who were all way down the field. It looked from the start to be his easiest ride and so it proved as he smoothly opened up a comfortable lead and stayed in control.
Now the overall picture was Lee on eleven points, Jessup and Sanders on nine apiece, Andersson and Collins on eight.
Jessup’s superb victory over Penhall in heat 17 put him on 12 points and he was back to that smooth winning style which had been missing since his first outing.
In heat 18 all eyes were on Lee and he had the advantage of the inside gate, but it was Davis, next to him, who took the lead. Lee stayed in close contention, however, and was in the right position to swoop on the inside when the Reading favourite left a gap on the third lap.
Going into his final lap Lee held a clear lead of some ten yards and only an engine failure could stop him – that didn’t happen and as he crossed the finish line he raised his left arm up high to acknowledge the deafening cheers from the English fans.
There was pandemonium in the pits area as he coasted back to his team and the smooth running of the meeting was interrupted as the celebrations continued for several minutes on the track.
The official result finally came over the loud speaker: “Race 16, the winner Michael Lee of England, the new champion of the world.”
The dream had come true for Mike the Bike.