Now then. Hands up! Ever go to see speedway as a kid?
Whether you loved it or hated it – and in my experience, for most people it is a love or hate thing, I bet I can tell you the one thing you remember most about it, whether you visited back in the sport’s ‘Golden Era’ of the late 40s early 50s when huge crowds at speedway meetings, even midweek were commonplace; or the modest revival that was the 1970s, the ‘Doldrum’ 80’s or the ‘Sky TV’ Era ’90s to the present day. Whether you went to see one of the famed clubs like Belle Vue – the ‘Aces’, still going strong or one of the many who fell by the wayside like The Liverpool Chads, Crystal Palace Glaziers, Rochdale Hornets or Yarmouth Bloaters. Perhaps it was to see a world class rider, like ‘Split’ Waterman, Ove Fundin, ‘Briggo’, Ivan Mauger, Peter Collins. Maybe it was a world championship qualifier, Grand Prix or just a second half reserves match.Whether you watched from the terraces, from behind glass, seated at a dining table, or were lucky enough to watch from the pits, I am pretty sure I know what it is that you recall most strongly.
Early Australian Test Team
… But hold on what’s the rush? Why not wait a while as I wax lyrical about what the Poles call ‘The Black Sport’
My first visit was to the unforgettable Shay in Halifax, 1968. I was still black and white in those days, too young to have witnessed the crowds of yesteryear like 1946 for example, when Wembley Lions, who rode at the old stadium, drew such a crowd for their the final meeting of the season, that not only did it result in a lockout, but the match had to be relayed via loudspeakers to a further 20,000 outside. The same season saw 65,000 on May 23 for Wembley v New Cross; 76,000 on June 20 against Belle Vue; 67,000 on July 4 v New Cross again and 85,000 on July 11 against West Ham. There must have been sod-all on TV then.
1945 New Cross
Grand Prix 2009
Still, even in the ‘60s, The Shay on a Saturday night held crowds that to me (aged eight) looked pretty vast. They enveloped me in a genial warm, grey ‘fug’ (it’s like a group hug in which everyone is smoking) while out on the track our heroes: Eric Boocock, Dave Younghusband and Greg Kentwell etc. did battle against the riders from the opposing teams. The crowd was almost always good natured and loud. Riders were talked about and addressed with such familiarity that a newcomer would be forgiven for thinking that they were indeed close friends or relatives. Everyone seemed to have an opinion, which was given; freely and without prejudice – regardless of whether they had ever even sat on a motorcycle, let alone ridden speedway or were conversant with its subtleties and idiosyncrasies (Yes, there is more to it than meets the eye) There can be nothing more disheartening I imagine for a rider going through a phase of poor scores or mechanical ‘gremlins’ that they all suffer from time to time, than taking the long walk back to the pits after an engine failure or fall past the opposing team’s fans:
‘Yeaaaaaah! You’d be better off milking it ….’
Look at the crowd! 1944
Elite League match 2010
But heated debate or ‘rider-baiting’ rarely boiled over into fisticuffs or anything serious. Although when it did – It was always invariably in the pits and usually worth the admission money alone.
The Shay, Halifax
For the uninitiated/uninterested speedway bikes may look pretty basic, but engines are highly tuned power units that on a modern machine produce upwards of 11,000 RPM and will dish out 80+ BHP, (nearer 8,000 RPM and 50 BHP on a late 60’s bike) all of which can be directed to the rear wheel in a split second by dropping the clutch, which is enough to propel bike and rider from 0 – 60 in under 3 seconds, in which time the rider has to control the bike, choose his racing line and prepare to navigate a corner – or plough into the ‘safety’ fence (see below) at full speed. As if that weren’t enough, they have to ride the corner as fast as possible, which means the execution of a broadslide, the ‘Dark Art’ that relies on correct weight distribution, fine throttle control, balance and an intimate knowledge of how to use the track surface and in particular the amount of loose dirt lying on it to one’s own advantage. Oh yes, of course, all done in competition with three other riders, each looking for the same piece of track. So it’s not surprising if things overheat from time to time, be it engine, clutch or rider. They have to trust each other. But nonetheless the race to the first corner is a cut and thrust affair. Not for the faint-hearted.
David Mason’s GM ‘Laydown’ 2010
Steve Buxton’s beautiful Weslake. Still in one piece
Not that I was aware of any of this as I used to stand on the small stool we used to take that allowed me to see right over the safety fence to the starting gate. (It is where the clouds of bike exhaust fumes are left hanging in the air in the picture of the Shay above – at about 1 o’clock. The noise at the starts was deafening. Because there was no sprung safety fence at the Shay (there the fence was made of wood and steel, so I am guessing the word ‘Safety’ was in order to signify the protection it afforded the crowd as opposed to the riders.) it meant you were that much closer to the action: so close in fact, that as riders entered the home straight I could stick my head out over the fence, watch them approach, pulling in just in time as they roared past. I’m not sure I would have done that had I known then about the circumstances of the Le Mans disaster some thirteen years earlier.
Riders who were unlucky enough to inspect the safety fence at close quarters often finished their evening with a visit to the local Infirmary and a decidedly second-hand looking bike. Thankfully however, in all my years watching speedway, although I have seen many, many spectacular accidents none have been fatal while the vast majority resulted in only minor injuries. Speedway is not a ‘widowmaker’ but it can be a very cruel sport all the same.
Again, all of this I am blissfully unaware of as I watch the riders line up for the next race. They to and fro, looking for the best point on their particular gate, the one which will produce maximum traction once the tapes go up and the clutch is dropped. One of them pulls away, seemingly to clear his goggles, which have misted up. Or is he just trying to unsettle his opponents? Astride his bike he tips it over, allowing it to pivot on the long footrest so that he can rest the clutch giving him a free hand with which to make the necessary adjustment. He is unable to use his right, which is the throttle hand, because it risks stalling the machine (and these days is attached to a ‘kill switch’ that cuts out the engine in case of accident.) He grabs the clutch lever and pulling on the bars, plants the rear wheel onto the track again. Helmeted, masks and goggles; it is impossible to see their faces. I wonder what they are thinking? Are they scared? I feel butterflies in my stomach (and I’m only 8 and watching not riding … ) The bikes, and in particular, the spokes sparkle under the floodlights. Shiny, shiny bikes which could in a few seconds time be worthless scrap metal. The start marshall calls them to order, the riders suddenly stiffen, ready and heads swivel to the stretch of starting tapes they see most clearly, throttles are wide open, exhausts billow, clutch held on the verge of biting …
And there it is:
That’s what you remember above all else.
Otherwise known as methyl alcohol or wood alcohol. It is a light, colourless, flammable, liquid is produced naturally in the anaerobic metabolism of many varieties of bacteria and is the fuel used by to power speedway bikes.
Or more correctly, what you remember is its smell – after combustion. That unmistakable, slightly thick and rich almost perfumed smell, with a bit of Castrol R SAE 40 racing oil thrown in for good measure. There’s nothing like it.
Was I right?
Speedway GB Official British Speedway Site
Methanol Press Speedway author Jeff Scott takes his own unique and slightly quirky look at the world of Speedway and the rich variety of people found in it.
Mike Patrick Speedway Photographer
Speedway Star Weekly magazine on line
Speedway Plus Online magazine
Speedway Grand Prix FIM Official GP Site
All Speedway Photos/videos
© Andy Daly 2010
Safety Warning. Methanol: not to be confused with Menthol. I don’t think it will give you the same sort of Fresh Breath Confidence somehow.
Pic credits: 4 and 6: AllSpeedway.tv, 5: Mike Patrick, 8: Speedway Plus, 9: speedwayondisc.blogspot.com, 11: Steve Buxton. All the others: © Andy Daly 2010