It’s classified by the government as an ‘elite’ sport but you’ll struggle to find it mentioned in the national press. The current European champion is a Briton — Robert Lambert — but I’d be surprised if many people reading this have ever heard of him. It was once reckoned to be Britain’s second most popular spectator sport but the weekly numbers attending this summer’s shortened league season will be in the low tens of thousands.
I’m talking about speedway, which has dropped out of national consciousness so much that it’s often necessary to explain what it actually is: motorbikes, four riders, racing four laps around an oval circuit at up to 70mph and, crucially, without any brakes. Catch it on a good day and it’s one of the most exciting sports there is. Each race — which lasts around a minute — is a roaring mix of noise, shale and mud. Riders display skill, quick-wittedness and bravery in equal measure. Go to YouTube and type in the names of the three best riders in the world — Tai Woffinden (Britain’s three-time world champion), BartoszZmarzlik and Fredrik Lindgren – and watch their race from October. The lead changes six times in just 19 seconds. Is there any other sport where this happens?
From immediately after the second world war up until 1981, meetings were often held in front of 90,000 spectators at Wembley. The Duke of Edinburgh was among those invited to present trophies. It’s difficult to imagine the Duchess of Cambridge popping along to King’s Lynn’s Saddlebow Road to do the same today. Backed by regular coverage on ITV’s World of Sport in the 1970s and 1980s, riders such as Ivan Mauger and Barry Briggs were household names. BBC radio and newspapers carried league results giving towns such as Long Eaton, Weymouth and Ellesmere Port a rare moment in the national spotlight.
But since then the number of speedway tracks has steadily diminished and clubs including Coventry, Cradley Heath, Reading and Wimbledon have closed.
Speedway is a working-class sport or, as I’ve heard more scathingly, a ‘council house sport’. Its natural home was near steelworks or car plants, large industrial complexes where workers would look forward to a few hours of exciting and escapist entertainment. Speedway clubs often share venues with other blue-collar sports such as greyhounds and stock cars. All three have, for different reasons, struggled to find their place in 21st-century Britain.
While some towns and cities have benefited over the past 20 years from government-backed expansion of universities or new investment from tech companies or retailers, places like Scunthorpe and Redcar, where the sport survives on cheerless industrial estates, have largely missed out. If those areas are considered ‘left-behind Britain’, then a good case can be made for speedway being Britain’s ‘left-behind sport’.
Nobody has — or is likely to — describe Boris Johnson’s 2019 general election win as the ‘speedway election’, but if you scan the names of those ‘red wall’ seats which changed hands, a clear pattern emerges. Many are either existing or former speedway strongholds: Barrow, Workington, Redcar, Scunthorpe, Stoke, Crewe and Wolverhampton. Even in southern England where fewer seats, just six, moved from Labour to Conservative, it’s striking to note that half of them — Peterborough, Ipswich and Eastbourne — are areas where speedway still takes place. Maybe one of Keir Starmer’s first tasks post-lockdown should be to take in a speedway meeting to find out how to win back those key voters.
British speedway today is a sport in decline, shunned by councils (with the honourable exception of Manchester, which funded the city’s National Speedway Stadium in 2016), generally sponsored by its fans from local businesses and watched by an ageing audience. Redcar surveyed supporters two years ago and discovered that more than half had been going to speedway for at least 40 years, which suggested they were in their fifties and beyond.
Despite generous initiatives for younger fans, British speedway has struggled to attract a new generation. Critics say it was late in adapting to the world of live television sport in the late 1980s and early 1990s, something darts and snooker did successfully. The owners of speedway clubs — promoters — often looked after their own interests rather than those of the sport in general and failed to market it nationally. And, crucially, very few speedway clubs actually own their tracks, meaning they’ve been at the mercy of property developers and supermarket chains.
Yet there are some promising signs. Eurosport — no longer the poor relation of sports broadcasting since being revamped by Discovery — has signed up for five years of live British league coverage. The Great Britain team is in good shape both on the track, with Woffinden, Lambert and a crop of promising young riders, and off it, with national sponsorship deals secured over the past year. There are people who continue to believe in speedway’s future, who put money towards that goal and spend more time than is probably good for them on trying to achieve it. The speedway community, not the wealthiest to start with, goes out of its way to look after its own. The UK Speedway Riders Benevolent Fund is the only charity in the world helping injured and disabled riders.
Speedway has a real heart. Modern sport is often talked about in terms of millions and hundreds of thousands, whether that’s crowds, viewing figures or salaries. Spend any time in the world of British speedway at club level and you’ll quickly discover it’s a sport of hundreds and thousands. But, given what we’ve seen recently with football, perhaps that’s no bad thing.
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