The sport that Britain left behind

Speedway rider Tommy Price, (foreground), during a practice run on the track at Wembley stadium

1949 World Speedway Champion Tommy Price, (foreground), during a practice run on the track at Wembley stadium - Credit: Getty Images

Why did Britain fall out of love with speedway, and how did Poland take over as the sport’s new spiritual home?

Not so long ago, the start of the British speedway season would have been big news. That wasn't the case this week, when the first of this year’s Covid-delayed league fixtures took place. Speedway was, at one time, reckoned to be Britain’s second most popular sport with its top riders – Ivan Mauger, Barry Briggs, Ole Olsen – recognised beyond the speedway world. Now, the top riders don’t even ride in Britain. Instead, it’s Poland that attracts the world’s best.

Before we explain why, it’s worth clarifying what speedway actually is: four riders on motorbikes, racing around an oval, shale-covered track for four laps. Crucially, they do this without the help of any brakes. Races last around a minute and, at speeds of up 70 miles per hour, the riders display skill and bravery in equal measures. Watch a closely-contested speedway race on a well-prepared track, and it’s one of the most exciting sporting contests around, a heady mix of the visual – riders spinning around you in a mad blur – and the aural – angry, revving engines – with an intoxicating scent of burnt methanol, the fuel used for the bikes.

Speedway had two golden periods in Britain, the first immediately after the Second World War when, in the early 1950s, total annual attendances peaked at 11 million.

The second was in the 1970s on the back of regular coverage on ITV’s World of Sport. Unlike other motorsports whose teams have affiliations with engine manufacturers, speedway clubs were often based in towns which don’t normally get much national prominence, teams like Weymouth, Long Eaton, Ellesmere Port and Boston, all now long gone.

Since the 1980s, the sport has gradually declined. Despite generous initiatives to attract younger fans, British speedway has struggled to bring in a new generation and has an ageing supporter base.

Critics say the sport was late in adapting to the then new world of live television in the late 1980s and early 1990s, something darts and snooker managed 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 own their own tracks meaning they’ve been at the mercy of housebuilders and supermarket chains. Top names, like Coventry, Cradley Heath, Reading and Wimbledon have closed. Swindon and Somerset have dropped out this season.

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Contrast that with Poland, a country where speedway is thriving. This summer, clubs will, once restrictions are lifted, race in front of capacity crowds of more than 17,000 in modern, purpose-built stadia. Clubs receive financial support from their local councils and boast a much younger spectator base which attracts sponsorship from global drinks’ companies, like Monster Energy.

Visit Rybnik, a city of 140,000 near the Czech border and you’ll see young schoolchildren wearing speedway caps and T-shirts. Away fans – now largely an endangered species in British speedway – are visible and vocal in their segregated pens. The atmosphere is intense, much more akin to a football match.

Poland’s rise has been gradual. It ran domestic speedway leagues after the Second World War and enjoyed some international success in the 1960s and 1970s. But it was after the fall of communism in 1989 that the Polish leagues began to open up to foreign riders. Over the last 20 years, it’s become the place where the world’s best riders compete.

Every top league (Ekstraliga) meeting is televised live and the amount of money dwarfs what British clubs get. Canal+ announced in March that they’d extended their current deal until the end of 2025 for nearly £46 million for four years.

British speedway begins a very welcome five year-deal with Eurosport this week which amounts to a fraction of that. Top league clubs in Poland can also benefit from local sponsorships with each likely to receive at least half a million pounds a year from local companies like car dealers, construction and insurance companies and banks, figures the like of which British clubs, whose sponsors tend to be local businesses run by supporters, can only dream. With more money, teams can pay riders much more than in Britain. Tai Woffinden, Britain’s three-time world champion, hasn’t ridden here since 2016.

For many Polish councils, particularly in medium-sized or smaller towns, direct grants to speedway teams are seen as a way of promoting their name nationally. For some clubs in the Ekstraliga, the council funds more than 30% of their budget. They’ve also helped clubs build purpose-built speedway stadia. The MotoArena in Torun is one of the most impressive venues around. Built in 2009, with a capacity of 15,500, it’s used by the local speedway team, KS Torun, as well as for stock cars and concerts. But because playing football matches there would mean putting a pitch over parts of the shale speedway track, that’s not allowed. Speedway takes precedence which rarely happens in multi-use stadia in Britain.

Manchester City Council is the exception. It played a big part in the construction of the National Speedway Stadium for both the Belle Vue club and the Great Britain international team. Otherwise, council association with speedway here generally tends to be limited to turning down planning applications or imposing curfews because of noise and alleged disruption.

Then again, maybe it’s hard to criticise councils for failing to support their local speedway teams after a decade of austerity and with possibly worse to come post-Covid when they’ve been hit by relentless cuts to their budgets and provision for social care. In that environment, helping a local speedway track clearly doesn’t figure as a priority.

But Poland shows what can happen when clubs and cities do work together. In Wroclaw, for example, the city owns the track and grants it to the club in the form of a sponsorship. In Britain, most clubs rent tracks from private owners who don’t have any intention of improving facilities. In time, the land that these tracks sit on becomes so valuable that the landowner sells out to build flats or houses.

Speedway is a working class sport or, as I’ve heard more scathingly, a ‘council house sport’. When Stoke’s promoter tentatively enquired about a new site in the area after his track closed in September 2019 he was told by an estate agent that they wouldn’t want speedway because there were ‘classy’ places like car showrooms there already.

Speedway’s 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. Clubs often share venues with other blue collar sports like 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 last 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’.

It’s important to point out that it’s not just Britain where interest in speedway has fallen away. New Zealand, Ivan Mauger’s birthplace and world champions in 1979, no longer have enough riders to compete at world level.

While league racing continues in both Denmark and Sweden, the crowds, even pre-Covid, were lower than they once were. It’s Poland that dominates – and it knows it as well, having strengthened its hold on world speedway over the last year of lockdown.

Poland’s was the only full league season to take place in 2020, it provided the bulk of the venues for the individual Grand Prix series and hosted the world team championship at the end of the season. Now, wanting to further protect its assets, the Polish speedway authorities have ruled that in order to take part in the Ekstraliga, riders can only compete in one other country. While top British riders like Woffinden and current European champion Robert Lambert, were already unlikely to race in this country, it’s a ruling which makes their return in future even less likely.

Speedway in Britain will survive in some form. There are enough people, riders, promoters supporters and sponsors, to keep it going, certainly past its centenary in this country in 2028. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the original track at High Beech in Essex no longer exists. It’s long been reclaimed by woodland.

ESSEX FIRST

The sport's first appearance in the UK is generally considered to have been on a track behind the King's Oak hotel, at High Beech, in the heart of Epping Forest, on February 18, 1928. It was organised by members of a local motorcycle club and 30,000 people turned up.

However, there were earlier races in 1927 at Camberley, Surrey, and  Droylsden, Greater Manchester, which can stake similar claims. The international roots of the sport are similarly contested. America and Australia both hosted early incarnations of the sport.

While the King's Oak meeting took place on a disused cinder running track, other notable early British speedway venues included the football stadiums of Stamford Bridge and Celtic Park.

Roddy McDougall is is the author of a new book on British speedway, No Breaks, which is published by Pitch Publishing

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