South Australian speedway lost one of its staunchest supporters on Thursday night when longest serving North Arm and Gillman stalwart Bill O’Connell passed away aged 90.
Bill had been actively involved in the motorcycle speedway scene in Adelaide since his son Kevin started riding motocross, short circuit and then speedway as a teenager. In the era before junior speedway, Kevin made a successful transition from motocross to speedway at Rowley Park Speedway in 1978 and won the Speedway Riders’ Association Rookie of the Year award in his first season, which unfortunately was also the last season of the famous Adelaide track.
Two years later, in July 1981, the new purpose built North Arm motorcycle speedway track opened and it was here that the whole O’Connell family made their mark on South Australian Speedway.
As well as being a leading rider at the track, Kevin, and his brother Roy, were the track electricians; Roy was also one of a three-man promoting committee, along with Roy Bitmead and Bruce Mutton, and was later President of the SRA; their mother, Mavis, was the secretary of the SRA and did all the paperwork for the SRA and North Arm; and Bill was without doubt the most dedicated and hardest worker at the track.
As is often the case, workers were hard to come by for the regular working bees, usually only half a dozen people turning up, but the one constant was Bill. He was at every working bee and on more than one occasion he was the only one who turned up! But he didn’t turn around and go home, he stayed at the track all day and did whatever work he could do without help. And away from the track he would be working in his shed at home fabricating items for the speedway.
In the early days North Arm ran twelve months of the year, with night meetings during the summer and afternoon meetings during the winter. The only way Bill could attend the afternoon meetings was to work the night shift, and his regular routine would be to work until 6 a.m., then go straight to the track and work around the venue until the gates opened, then work in the ticket box, and after the meetings he’d be the last one there, doing all the jobs like cleaning the toilets and locking everything away before heading home for some much needed sleep.
Tragedy struck, however, in January 1985 when Kevin was killed in a racing accident at Speedway Park five days short of his 26th birthday. A meeting was scheduled for North Arm the following weekend and the first thought of co-promoter Roy Bitmead was to cancel it, but the O’Connell family insisted it go ahead and still played their part in running it. Ironically the meeting was Kevin’s favourite event, the North Arm Solo Championship, which he was one of the favourites to win, and it was decided to link an annual memorial event to the track championship, with the highest placed SRA members in the championship contesting the memorial event.
With the speedway running 12 months of the year, and with normal 9-5 jobs to hold down as well, the organising committee, not surprising, started to get burnt out and in 1987 suggested suspending that year’s winter season so they could recharge their energy. Rather bizarrely this suggestion was not only rejected but elicited a lot of abuse which resulted in all members of the committee resigning, and most never returned, including Mavis and Roy.
Although Bill also resigned, he couldn’t stay away and after a short break he continued to help whenever and wherever he could.
His forte became fabricating the starting gates, not only for North Arm (and later Gillman) but also tracks around South Australia and from memory I think several interstate.
When North Arm closed and Gillman opened one of the first cars you’d see when arriving was Bill’s, carrying the Jawa 78 (Kevin’s racing number) numberplates. Bill always sat in the same place at Gillman, just in front of the officials’ tower, just a couple of metres from the starting line so he was on hand if there was any malfunction with the starting gates, such as a faulty solenoid which needed replacing.
Despite advancing age and the accompanying ill-health, Bill, with the help of Gillman and Mildura video man Mick Hargreaves, continued to attend every Gillman meeting, and more often than not also went to Mildura with Mick. Even though he was in quite poor health in recent years, with his lung capacity very low, he’d still put his chair near the start/finish line then slowly make his way around turns one and two to the pits to look at the bikes and say hello to old friends before making the slow and often painful walk back to his spectating position.
It was still very rare for Bill to miss a meeting, even if he’d been in hospital the day before, but on those rare occasions he was stuck in hospital he still didn’t miss the racing as Mick Hargreaves would be straight in to see him the next day with a DVD of the meeting.
Despite his age and poor health it was still a shock and very sad to hear on Friday morning of his death, and he will be sadly missed at Gillman next season.
Our thoughts are with his wife of 65 years, Mavis, his son Roy, their extended families, and Bill’s many speedway friends.
Rest in peace Bill.