Right. Speedway. What’s that about then?
Four motorbikes race around an oval track? Gotcha. Sounds simple enough, kind of like Days of Thunder on two wheels.
And they hit 70mph on the straights..? Ok, that’s fast. They’ll need to brake pretty hard when they go round the bends, I’m guessing.
Any spurious aspiration I might have had to try the sport is dashed as it turns out Speedway bikes have NO brakes. It’s at this point that I’m starting to think that this hasn’t been thought through very well and/or it’s a sport for the self-destructively inclined. Once you actually watch Speedway though (and you really, really should), you’ll see that somehow it all just works, in a strangely effective combination of awesome acceleration and a whole lot of sliding.
That’s how you solve the ‘no brakes’ conundrum, you see. Riders appear to be doing a kind of controlled skid around the whole course and races are seemingly won and lost on the back of risk taking, AKA how long a rider waits to take his foot off the pedal at the end of each straight.
There are crashes of course, as you’d expect. Most are due to wheels clipping each other as riders come round each bend. I was lucky enough to have my first taste of Speedway recently and one of the more heart-in-mouth moments came when a bike got clipped and its front wheel wobbled around crazily as the rider fought to regain control, reminiscent of an angler trying to hold on to an electric eel, while at the same time sliding on some loose gravel at high speed. This time the rider brought his steed back in line in time to avoid a fall, but there were a few who weren’t so lucky, spinning out on corners and into the barriers.
I’m no petrolhead. I don’t watch Formula One a lot, rallying, or many motorsports in fact, but back in July I went to the British Speedway Grand Prix in Cardiff’s Principality Stadium, something a bit different and new. I’ve lived in the city for years and seen (from a distance) the noisy, colourful crowds that fill the streets of the city when the Speedway comes to town. Of course, I’ve seen up close the hysteria associated with Wales playing rugby at home in the Six Nations, with its sea of pure red, replete with the rampant roaring of spontaneous singing.
This was in the same vein, but with an international flavour. It’s fair to say that Eastern Europeans, and the Polish particularly, REALLY like their Speedway. The fervour for it among their fans matched anything I’d seen in rugby crowds. The numbers were smaller, but those coming from Poland, Russia, Slovenia and across the UK are really dedicated and more than passionate about their sport. I never used to know what the attraction was, but now I do, and am so glad I took the time to immerse myself in this strange new world.
Though the Speedway itself started at 5pm, the vuvuzelas and chanting filled the air for hours before and the streets around the Principality Stadium were full of oversized flags and novelty wigs as far as the eye can see. There is a varied crowd too, with plenty of families and children in the mix, which meant that the atmosphere was boisterous, while feeling friendly and safe. Even as a newcomer, I felt drawn into the occasion before I’d even entered the stadium.
As we went in, I still had my doubts about the sport itself though. I didn’t know the rules and I didn’t know the riders. I’d been put off some motorsport racing partly by the length of the races, so when I heard there were 20 heats, my heart sank. But this is part of what makes Speedway so watchable. Every race is short and concentrated, and you’re never left waiting long for the next one. And having a lot of races means you start by fairly arbitrarily backing riders based on skill and daring exhibited over the qualifying heats, forming temporary emotional bonds with previously unknown Eastern European sportsmen.
Two-time World Champion Tai Woffinden is interviewed before the races start
The rules are simple. The track is simple. There’s little to learn. You’re left to simply pick your rider and urge them on to victory, to cut their corners as fine as possible, push the limits and just collectively revel in the intensity of it all.
So, you don’t need to be a motorsport fan to enjoy Speedway. You can enjoy the energy, noise and excitement without prior knowledge and age ain’t a barrier either (the family sat in front of me ranged from three to fifty-three).
The Grand Prix will be back in Cardiff next summer and I urge you to give it a go – you might well just fall a little in love with it as I did, and crave another dose.