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Scots speedway sensation takes his seat at sport's top table

Friday�s Local Hero: Bert Harkins took 10 years to become an overnight success, but the globetrotting Glaswegian is set to be honoured by his peers when he assumes the presidency of the World Speedway Riders� Association.

CAMPBELL HUTCHESON Bert Harkins took 10 years to become an overnight success, but the globetrotting Glaswegian and former professional speedway rider is set to be honoured by his peers when he assumes the presidency of the World Speedway Riders' Association.

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Harkins, a sprightly 67-year-old will take up the chain of office from Ivan Mauger - a legend in the the sport and world champion on five occasions - at the association's annual general meeting in Leicester on March 1.

Harkins, an on-track rival of the illustrious New Zealander during the 1960s and 70s, was introduced to speedway and Glasgow Tigers when he was seven years old.

"I grew up in Govan Fire Station, just down the road from the old White City, but within earshot of the old non-silenced JAP engines," he recalls. "My dad was a fireman and used to take me to see the Tigers on a Wednesday night. These were the days of Junior Bainbridge, Tommy Miller and Ken McKinlay, and that's when my love of speedway started."

Harkins developed his racing technique as a cycle speedway rider, but could he take the next step?

It takes a big heart to throw a brakeless 500cc machine into a vicious broadside on a cinder or shale surface.

Since White City was closed to speedway in the early 60s, Harkins had to find second-half rides at Old Meadowbank, then home to Edinburgh Monarchs.

"I bought a very old JAP from Jimmy Tannock for £50, although he felt sorry for me and knocked off another fiver," says Harkins. "I used to take it through to Edinburgh mounted on a platform on a motorcycle and sidecar. I could not get a ride on the programme, so I used to go out after the last race, before the caretaker put out the floodlights."

After the 1967 season in Britain, Harkins sold everything (apart from his bike) and paid his own fare to race in Australia. He won the Victoria State Championship "and came back a much better rider".

When Old Meadowbank closed - it was to be revamped for the 1970 Commonwealth Games - he moved with the Monarchs to Cliftonhill and had two seasons as a Coatbridge Monarch. Then the sale of the team's licence gave Harkins the opportunity to join one of the sport's best-known teams, Wembley Lions.

He enjoyed two seasons whizzing around the Empire Stadium, racing alongside another legendary rider, Sweden's Ove Fundin. "When Ove retired, I was given the captaincy at Wembley and that also helped boost my career," he says. "The name helped speedway attract sponsorship and the atmosphere in the stadium was terrific. It was a difficult track to ride, but I enjoyed it there."

The closest Harkins came to individual glory came, strangely enough, in his native city, when Hampden Park was the venue for the 1971 Nordic-British Final.

As the sole Scot in the 16-rider field, he fancied his chances of qualifying for the European final at Wembley, his home track, and progression to the world final in Gothenburg, Sweden.

His preparations were spoiled, though, when he broke his collarbone six days earlier at Wembley.

"I was strapped up to race and even had my handlebars lowered to ease the pain" he recalls, "but Ray Wilson ran over my leg and brought me down again. It wasn't really his fault, but poor old Ray had to have a police escort out of Glasgow that night . . . "

Harkins continued to ride at the top level for Sheffield Tigers and Wimbledon Dons, before returning to Edinburgh (the Monarchs having moved to Powderhall) and retiring in 1979 after a season with Milton Keynes Knights. Wherever he rode, the saltire on his leathers and tartan trim on his crash helmet signalled Harkins' country of birth.

Having ridden for Scotland as a reserve, heat leader and captain and taken the team manager's role, he follows the late Norrie Isbister and Jimmy Tannock, who were Scottish presidents of the WSRA's founding organisations.

"It is a great honour to be elected president, almost as good as being world champion as a rider," he says. "Yes, I'm the original guy who took 10 years to become an overnight success."

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