Picture courtesy of Steve Dixon
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By Derek Barclay
Challenge or individual meetings are just run of the mill fixtures, not taken seriously was how one fan recently described end of season events on social media. The 12 riders who took part in The Kent Laurels had clearly not read the memo then; as the racing served up on the last night of the 2018 season at Central Park Stadium on Monday evening (8th October) was as good if not better than those that had gone before.
The racing was fast and furious throughout with the format building towards a grand finale with the top 8 proceeding to the crucial semi finals and in the sudden death denouncement and at the end it was the name of Coventry Bees' evergreen Jon Armstrong that became the latest to be engraved onto the fantastic WJ Cearns Memorial Shield, joining the name of the late great Ronnie Moore, who sadly passed away earlier this summer, among with other greats of the sport. In terms of success on track Jon will never be mentioned in the same breath as Moore or Ivan Mauger and their like, but in his testimonial year the hugely popular racer from Manchester's contribution to National League racing will surely never go unrecognised.
There was, however, intrigue throughout the evening, none more so than the comebacks of three riders. Former Kent rider Luke Clifton (out injured since June 2017), Kyle Hughes (who's not raced regularly since 2015) and Rob Ledwith (who had remarkably not raced League Speedway since the mid 1990s) all took to the track and it was the last of this, trio Ledwith who made jaws drops - reeling off a hat trick of wins in the qualifying heats, his first impressively over Kent duo Jack Thomas and Anders Rowe in Heat 6.
The action started in the opening race when Thomas made the gate and looked nailed on to win before carburettor problems saw him come to a sudden stop, all credit to Plymouth Devils rider Richard Andrews who narrowly avoided the Kent skipper (and many observers' ante post favourite for the title) to take the win.
Other notable race in the qualifiers were heats 3 and 8. Heat 3 pitched Armstrong with Kent reserve Alex Spooner and the comeback duo of Hughes and Ledwith. Out of the start it was Spooner who made the running, before being passed by Armstrong; then coming into the first turn on the penultimate lap Hughes and Ledwith went one either side of a stunned Spooner to take the minor places. Heat 8 also saw Ledwith involved in a thrilling race of passing and re-passing on almost every lap with Plymouth skipper Andrews - with Ledwith taking the win off the last bend.
The semis were just as thrilling. The first was a cracking race with all the riders in the mix and no inches were given as if the quartet were battling for a World title. It was the visiting pair of Andrews and the now dialled-in Armstrong who took the top two places to clinch their places in the final. The second semi saw four riders who have the hearts of the Central Park faithful line up go into battle - established favourites Nathan Stoneman and Danno Verge, taking on Dan Gilkes and Rob Ledwith who had won the fans over. Ledwith's fairytale comeback ended though with a tumble, as home favourrite Stoneman kept hopes alive of a Kings' victory on the night along with prodigious teenager Gilkes taking the last spots in the final.
That final was another great race as Nathan Stoneman made the start but Jon Armstrong called on his 22 years of experience to power around Kent's welsh wizard - The Mighty Atom took the spoils ahead of Stoneman with young Dan Gilkes in third.
They'd been a number of teens in the event aiming to be the youngest ever winner of this famous championship; in the end it was 44 year old Armstrong achieving the distinction of the oldest rider to get his hands on the iconic WJ Cearns Shield, which almost seemed as large as himself! Talking of age, it's no barrier to success as Ledwith also proved and the Kent-based GB Veterans Champion is now pencilled in for a comeback proper as a member of the Kings' squad for 2019.
This closed the season for the Kings, another season in which the Kings (sponsored for a final year by SLYDE - to whom thanks go out for their four years of terrific support) once again reached the Play Offs and made the Semi Finals of the Knock Out Cup and will be back once again to do it all over again in Easter 2019 - the countdown begins!
J.Armstrong 3 1 3 3 10
R.Ledwith 1 3 3 3 10
A.Rowe 2 1 3 3 9
D.Gilkes 2 3 2 2 9
R.Andrews 3 0 2 2 7
N.Stoneman 3 2 X 1 6
J.Thomas R 2 2 2 6
D.Verge 0 3 0 1 4
L.Clifton 1 2 1 - 4
K.Hughes 2 1 1 0 4
T.Hampshire 1 X 1 0 2
A.Spooner 0 0 0 1 1
J.Laker (res) 0 - - - 0
1. Andrews, Gilkes, Hampshire, Thomas (ret), 60.2
2. (re-run) Stoneman, Rowe, Clifton, Verge, 59.6
3. (re-run) Armstrong, Hughes, Ledwith, Spooner, 59.9
4. Gilkes, Stoneman, Armstrong, Andrews, 58.9
5. (awarded) Verge, Clifton, Hughes, Hampshire, no time
6. (re-run) Ledwith, Thomas, Rowe, Spooner, 61.0
7. Armstrong, Gilkes, Clifton, Spooner, 59.1
8. (re-run) Ledwith, Andrews, Hampshire, Stoneman (f.exc), 60.7
9. Rowe, Thomas, Hughes, Verge, 59.4
10. Ledwith, Gilkes, Verge, Hampshire, 60.4
11. Rowe, Andrews, Spooner, Laker, 59.3
12. Armstrong, Thomas, Stoneman, Hughes, 59.5
Semi final: Andrews, Armstrong, Rowe, Thomas, 60.0
Semi final: Stoneman, Gilkes, Verge, Ledwith (f) 60.4
Final: Armstrong, Stoneman, Gilkes, Andrews, 60.01