The Tunnel Trophy: Rider reflections

On Sunday 19th May, a group of six young and exciting riders took to the track to represent the Thurrock Hammers for the first time in over two years. This feature focuses on them.

Image Credit: Steve Hone Photography

Back Row: L-R Elliot Kelly, Chris Laidlaw and Jamie Etherington.

Front Row: L-R Luke Harris, Alfie Bowtell and Connor King

The occasion was the latest reprise of the long-standing challenge between the Thurrock Hammers and the Kent Kings, speedway clubs from either side of the Dartford Crossing and it’s been going for so long that it’s called ‘The Tunnel Trophy’, not ‘The (Dartford) Bridge Trophy’!

For the Kent Kings team, which is based at the Old Gun Site track in Iwade, the fixture represented their second meeting back after being saved and reformed by Steve Ribbons. 

The first meeting of their 2024 season had seen the Kings celebrate an exciting – and unexpected to some! – victory over a team representing the Eastbourne Eagles, and they were confident of success over the side from across the Thames.

The Eagles, like the Hammers, are a club ‘on ice’, after the owners of their home track at Arlington Stadium closed the doors to speedway after a previous promotion/management failed to complete the 2021 season.

Rumours abound about the future of all motor sport in Sussex but, for the time being, there’s still hope and plans in place to get the Eagles flying once again.

For the Hammers, the invitation to compete in the meeting was an opportunity to boost its own campaign to get speedway back to the sport’s spiritual home of Essex.

The Arena Essex Raceway, home to speedway clubs nicknamed ‘The Hammers’ between 1984 and 2018, hasn’t heard the full-throated roar of the bikes and the cheers of the crowd for nearly six years. 

Frustratingly, the site still lays dormant, awaiting a decision on its future from the new owners who purchased the site, at considerable cost, in 2023.

Of course, as Thurrock’s most popular team spectator sport, the return of speedway is extremely important to the fans, to diehards and to occasional visitors alike.

However, there is nothing to watch without the stars of the show, the riders who thrill and entertain in equal measure.

So, following an exhilarating 47-43 win that saw the Tunnel Trophy return to Essex, we spoke to three riders about the match; we wanted to know whether they thought riding in the match was important to their personal development, how it felt to represent the Hammers and also what they wanted to achieve in the future. We also asked them why they wanted to see a new track back in Essex.

Firstly, we asked match winner, 15-year-old Jamie Etherington for his recollections:

“Riding for Thurrock Hammers was a massive achievement for me. Riding my 250cc for three sessions, now moving forward on my 500cc, has been a challenging leap, so I was very excited when I was asked to ride in ‘The Tunnel Trophy Clash’ against the Kent Kings.

Image credit: Steve Hone Photography

“This gave me confidence and made me want to challenge myself at Senior Level. I was proud to have scored thirteen points to help the team with their win.

“Building more tracks would benefit local riders to be able to practice and improve local racing and training. This will encourage more riders and spectators.

“My ambitions are to win this year’s 250cc British Championships, and to gain a place in The National League next year.

“I was very happy to be asked to ride for Thurrock Hammers; my Dad was a Junior Hammer when he was fifteen at Arena Essex Raceway, and I’d like to thank the Thurrock Hammers’ management for the opportunity.”

Instagram @Jamie_etherington22

Image Credit: Steve Hone Photography

Next, we spoke to Chris Laidlaw who, after a few years on the local training and amateur scene, made his ‘professional’ debut in front the biggest crowd he had ever experienced during his fledgling speedway career:

Image credit: Steve Hone Photography

“Riding in the meeting was really important for my development because the more time I get to spend on the track, the more skill growth I gain.

The more opportunities I have to ride, the more confident I feel I am able to be. Any rider that can get as much time on the track knows it is a bonus for them, especially racing, so I can see where my weaknesses/challenges and any improvements are to be made, but most of all, the never-ending enjoyment.

“Access to practise and racing is more difficult than ever. Tracks are being demolished, so we need to build more tracks in the local area, which riders as well as supporters are able to fund/support and, ultimately, can help to bring back the ‘elite’ sport speedway has always been to families and communities.

“Over the next couple of years, I plan on doing what I have always done: I will be supporting local teams and tracks, whether its training or racing, building on my skills and helping others along the way. A new track in Essex would make a massive difference to riders at all levels!

“When I was young, the first team I watched were The Hammers, so receiving the opportunity to ride with them was a dream! Just knowing that I had been spotted and asked was enough for me, but to actually ride alongside them in a Hammers team was an honour. 

The skills and individual techniques the other riders had were brilliant and I took on all the advice I could.  Everyone made me feel like I had always been a part of their team, so for me I was truly grateful – definitely a day I will never forget.”

Instagram @chrislaidlaw777

Image Credit: Steve Hone Photography

Finally, we caught up with Hammers’ experienced number one and captain for the day, Alfie Bowtell.

Image credit: Steve Hone Photography

“Riding in a meeting with The Hammers on my bib meant a lot to me, as it’s my local club and my old home club; it would be a dream for me to have The Hammers back in professional league racing.

“A new track in Thurrock would keep speedway going local to London – surely speedway could only benefit from having a track close to the capital?

“Personally, I would like to achieve a Premiership (top league) team spot and see how we go from there. I just love riding my bike, riding fast and entertaining the fans!

“It felt great to ride for The Hammers again. And to seal it with a win in the last race (heat 15) made it even better!”

Instagram @alfiebowtell

Image credit: Steve Hone Photography

Thurrock Hammers exist for one reason. To return our thrilling, family-friendly, community-focused sport to South West Essex, but – without riders of all abilities and ambition – there’s no sport.

Let’s make sure that riders like Jamie, Chris and Alfie and the hundreds of aspiring hopefuls have a place to start their speedway journey, a track on which to improve and a stadium in which to race in the London area.

Image Credit: Steve Hone Photography

We can support, promote or advertise your business via our active and engaging digital channels (Facebook, Twitter and Instagram), and our Club website, which are all brilliant ways for potential customers to find you.

Alternatively, if you’d like to consider supporting Jamie, Chris, Alfie or any other rider, we’ll gladly put you in touch.

We are also building a list of potential suppliers and contractors ahead of the very special day, which we hope is not too far away: the day when we get the green light to return speedway to Thurrock!

Get in touch if you’d like to climb aboard!

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Our thanks to Steve Hone for the use of his images. Click here to view the full meeting gallery