Friday 18th July 19.30
British Elite League
COVENTRY BEES 52 (Andersen 12+1 Jepson Jensen 11+1)
BELLE VUE ACES 39 (Zagar 10 Nielsen 9)
In another life I could have easily become a speedway hopper, the Oxford Cheetahs’ Sandy Lane track was a cycle ride away during my youth, and once one of us learned to drive there was the likes of the Reading Racers, the Milton Keynes Knights, the Cradley Heathens, Swindon Robins, Wolverhampton Wolves, and Poole Pirates all within a reasonably straightforward drive. But if you wanted a match at a big stadium with a sense of history you went to Brandon Stadium. My hey-day was the late eighties and nineties I suppose, but times change.
For a start so many of the clubs no longer exist. From my former stamping ground the clubs at Oxford, Reading, Milton Keynes and Cradley are defunct, and recently the Birmingham Brummies folded. They were the track that nurtured the talents of for me the greatest rider I ever saw turn a wheel, Dane Hans Nielsen. Watching him collect a 21 point maximum riding for Oxford at Reading in a 46-44 defeat was spell-binding. The Reading team forwent their victory parade to allow the great man to take the applause from the crowd, it was that remarkable an achievement.
But maybe you aren’t a speedway fan, so what is it all about? A league meeting consists of 2 teams of 7 riders completing over 15 heats (races) over 4 laps, with 2 riders from each team in each heat. Points are awarded, 3 for a win, 2 for second and 1 for third. The bikes are 500cc, methanol powered, single geared, and most significantly, have NO BRAKES. A bike can accelerate from 0-60mph in 2.5 seconds and reach 85mph. The riders power-slide through the bends, and the compression from the highly-tuned engines is the only way to slow down. It’s a tough, bruising, yet friendly sport, and since the teams are promotions, rather like boxing, clubs to tend to lurch from crisis to crisis.
Not that the two clubs in this meeting are noted for being fly-by-night. The Bees and the Aces are two of the sport’s most durable and I for one cannot imagine the sport without them. But how had things changed since my last visit to speedway?
The answer was not a lot in truth, the introduction of double points tactical rides means the final score doesn’t always add up to 90, that used to be my method of checking my maths when filling out the scorechart in the centre pages of the programme. There’s the dirt deflectors, small brushes fixed behind the rear wheel of the bikes that allows supporters to stand behind the turns without being showered with shale!
But the methanol and shale cocktail still smells the same, mixed as it is with the odour of trays of chips from the burger van on the second bend. That smell is addictive and maybe that’s why Peter York still announces the action. There’s that wonderful feeling of timelessness, even if the promoter’s notes in the programme are an erudite departure from promoting legend Charles Ochiltree’s mangled phraseology of years past.
It goes without saying that I loved it and so did my 79-year-old father, and he helped to convert the Oxford track from cinders to shale in 1949! Of course if the meeting had been a little less one-sided it would have been a better spectacle, the Mancunians were poor, with track specialist and former British champion Scott Nicholls only winning once, and marquee signing Slovenian Grand Prix rider Matej Zagar looking both mechanically and emotionally unhappy.
But as the sun set on the meeting I helped Dad back to the car, then glanced across as we headed back to Oxford. He was smiling, and that wasn’t a bad reflection on our evening.
Postscript. You may wonder what the +1 is by a rider’s score. Most riders are paid by the point scored, and to encourage team-work a bonus point is paid on if a rider finishes behind a team mate. For example finishing second behind a team mate gives you 2 points plus one bonus point.