The Guardian-lehden Speedway artikkeli

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The Guardian-lehden Speedway artikkeli

ViestiKirjoittaja Hancock » 23.03.2019 16:04

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Britanniassa samat ongelmat kuin Suomessa.

Out of time and on the skids: speedway’s struggle for survival

The sport, a relic of its 1970s heyday, is crying out for a Bernie Ecclestone or Barry Hearn to revolutionise it
Giles Richards

Giles Richards

Sat 23 Mar 2019 11.03 GMT
Last modified on Sat 23 Mar 2019 11.05 GMT

In 1976 there were 37 teams across two leagues but now there are only 18 teams in the top two tiers. Photograph: Taylor Lanning

So far has British speedway fallen from public awareness that few might appreciate the sport’s successes. This month the British rider Tai Woffinden was awarded the Torrens Trophy, the Royal Automobile Club’s recognition of outstanding contribution to motorcycling. He deserves it. Last October Woffinden became the first British rider to clinch the world speedway championship for a third time, following titles in 2013 and 2015. His intention is to reach Ivan Mauger and Tony Rickardsson’s mark of six.

Born in Scunthorpe, the 28-year-old grew up in Perth, Australia, where he first rode a speedway bike as a 12-year-old. He was hooked from the off. “When I get on the bike and am riding it, there is no difference from when I was 12 to now,” he says. “When I sit on the bike, holding it wide open through the corners and I know it is going fast, there is no better feeling than that. I will keep doing it until I am either paralysed or I don’t enjoy it any more, they are the only two things that will stop me. The day I stop enjoying it is the day I stop riding.”

Aged 15, when his talent had become clear, Woffinden’s family returned to Scunthorpe to help him pursue his dream, living in a mobile home for three years. Then he rode for Belle Vue Colts, Scunthorpe, Rye House and Wolverhampton, but the landscape of speedway has changed drastically over the past 20 years and Woffinden has won all three of his titles while riding in the Polish and Swedish leagues. The heady days when the world’s speedway stars flocked to Britain are long gone.
Tai Woffinden is the first British rider to win three world titles.

Tai Woffinden is the first British rider to win three world titles. Photograph: Taylor Lanning

It is generally agreed that speedway, imported from Australia in 1928, made its debut at High Beech in Epping Forest and was an almost immediate success. Speedway flourished before and after the second world war. In the 1930s Frank Varey, known as El Diablo Rojo, made enough money to buy a row of terraced houses. The New Zealander Barry Briggs was runner-up in the Sports Personality of the Year award in 1964 and 1966, the third and fourth years he won the world championship.

Tracks sprang up all over the country and crowds in their tens of thousands flocked to watch riders lap the shale ovals, the special single-cylinder bikes sliding through the corners on only one gear and with no brakes. The sport had its golden age in the 1970s, when fans would turn up more than an hour before the first race to reserve their favoured spot in the stadium and it was regularly televised.

In 1976, the year James Hunt won his Formula One world championship and Barry Sheene his first 500cc title, Britain’s Peter Collins was speedway’s world champion and it was more than holding its own. Manchester’s Belle Vue was then regularly attracting 25,000 spectators. That year there were 37 teams across two leagues, but by 1990 it had fallen to 26 and this season there are just 18 teams in the top two tiers. Attendances are drastically smaller, averaging around 1,000.

Recently speedway enjoyed something of a revival on TV with Sky broadcasting the sport. Between 2007 and 2009, it was attracting between 100,000 and 145,000 viewers per meeting. Sky has since pulled out and by the time BT Sport took it on in 2017, the decline was clear. That year the average was 34,000 viewers. The numbers did improve in BT’s second year but hopes that fans were staying away from tracks to better enjoy the sport in comfort proved forlorn.

The clubs themselves – even the successful ones – are struggling to stay in existence. Despite having won a remarkable treble in the second-tier Championship last season – the league title, the knockout cup and the championship shield – Workington Comets announced in January they were pulling out of the sport for this year after 20 successive seasons at Derwent Park. The owner, Laura Morgan, said she had been “forced to admit defeat”. Workington had been losing money every year and the sporting success had come at “huge personal financial cost”.
Workington Comets riders after their final meeting of the 2018 season with the League Championship, KO Cup and Championship Shield trophies.

Workington Comets riders after their final meeting of the 2018 season with the League Championship, KO Cup and Championship Shield trophies. Photograph: Dave Payne

Few are better placed to assess speedway’s decline than Jeff Scott. After a visit to Reading Racers aged 14 in 1975, he was hooked. Between 2006 and 2014 he wrote 13 books on speedway, attending every club in the country and combining endearing titles such as Shale Britannia, Showered in Shale and Concrete for Breakfast with his love of the sport.

He describes speedway as “a shared experience, a working-class, blue-collar, British sport” and remembers the glory days of the 70s when riders such as Mauger, Ole Olsen, Peter Collins, John Louis and Chris Morton were household names. Since those heady days, he has seen the sport’s appeal in Britain fade, its problems deep-set.

Speedway has a singular financial model. Unlike F1 and MotoGP racers, riders are not hired by teams but are self-employed and paid only when they race. “I have all the expense,” says Woffinden. “If you are not careful, it doesn’t work. There are a lot of speedway riders who finish their career and have absolutely nothing.”

Promoters, meanwhile, rely almost solely on gate income to meet their costs. The clubs largely rent their stadiums, so receive no revenue from concessions. The TV income from Sky ended up largely being spent on riders’ wages. The result is the sport suffers from a chronic lack of investment. What’s more, because of the payment structure, riders no longer race for the same team all year, a blow to the fans’ sense of club loyalty.

Geography and gentrification have taken their toll, too. Reading’s old Smallmead venue was built on disused sludge pits but as the area improved it became clear the council-owned land could be more profitable and was sold.

In the 1960s there were 10 clubs in London alone. Today there are none, and the clubs’ locations are heavily concentrated in the north. Clubs are increasingly staging events on the outskirts of the communities they represent. Out of sight has become out of mind. “Speedway is a difficult pig to put lipstick on,” admits Scott. “It is still effectively standing watching blokes on bikes race round a track. It’s hard to fluff it up. Speedway has fiddled at the margins, changed rules, but has failed to excite newcomers, driven traditionalists round the bend and has an ageing demographic in its fanbase. It’s a long-term problem.”

Ivan Mauger, the winner of the Individual Speedway Championship for the third time in succession, proudly displays his Championship medals in 1971, Four times World Individual Speedway champion, Barry Briggs pictured with his collection of cups, trophies and silverware at home in 1972, A loyal audience at a speedway meeting at Wembley in August 1949, wearing club colours and supporting their heroes. Composite: Popperfoto/Getty; Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty; Getty

Ian Corcoran was seven in 1975 when he succumbed to the lure of Belle Vue Aces. Corcoran grew up admiring Alan Wilkinson, Belle Vue’s captain. But Wilkinson broke his neck in an on-track accident Corcoran witnessed in 1978, which left the rider in a wheelchair. Nearly a decade ago Corcoran took up the task of raising money to help support Wilkinson. He began by auctioning celebrity memorabilia and wrote a biography of his hero. After the publication of From Two Wheels To Four the family were able to fit a new kitchen, modified for Wilkinson’s condition, for the first time in 29 years.

Corcoran describes the camaraderie in the sport as the glue that holds it together but is damning on the reasons for speedway’s decline. “The bikes’ technology has changed but the presentation has not,” he says. “There has been a distinct lack of innovation and investment and it has been a race to the bottom rather than the top. The sport screams out for a Bernie Ecclestone or Barry Hearn character to grab it and run with it.

“There is nobody centrally driving the sport. If you were a potential sponsor from a big brand you wouldn’t have been approached by anybody. Same goes for TV. They have had centrally negotiated TV contracts but they have been pitiful because the guys you are dealing with are, with respect, scrap metal merchants and used-car salesmen.”

Alex Harkess’s love of the sport is no less strident. The president of British Speedway, and a promoter at Edinburgh Monarchs for almost 30 years, he insists the British Speedway Promotors’ Association has spent money on marketing and going after sponsors but to no avail. He is honest about the sport’s grim situation. “I am worried about the future of the sport, make no mistake,” he says. “Everyone in the BSPA is. Promoters do not have bottomless pockets, you can’t keep expecting a loss every year. Most are doing very well to have survived.”

Of real concern is the fact that he sees no solution to addressing the decline. “If I had the answers I would be a hero,” he says. “I don’t have the answers.”

Clearly, these are tough times for speedway and it is hard to shake the fear that no amount of passion from the fans will be enough to keep it afloat. For now, however, they are keeping the faith.
Tai Woffinden's speedway triumph is uplifting tale for a sport on the wane

“Speedway has an element of surviving changes,” says Scott. “Whether political, cultural or economic cycles and just carrying on. It might be tattier than it was but it is still a robust vessel, worth sailing in.”
The vicar’s the star: Retired cleric spreading the speedway gospel

The Reverend Michael Whawell has been described as the only “speedway bike-owning vicar”. From choirboy to chaplain, the 80-year-old’s cleric’s faith has always gone hand in hand with his passion for speedway. It was the sport that caught his eye before the church.

“My school friends and I talked endlessly about it and had great playground arguments over the merits of our favourite riders.” he says. “Just after the war people needed heroes and in those days the top speedway riders were heroes.
Michael Whawell saw his first race in 1948 and has been ‘smitten’ since.

“I was absolutely smitten,” he adds. “The tapes go up and there is a mighty roar and those four chaps hit the first bend and it is breathtaking. They are within inches of each other going sideways at 60mph, it demands a great degree of fitness, skill and bravery. Any time their career could be ended in a split second. The great Barry Briggs once described speedway as brutal and in some ways it is.”

Whawell was born 10 years after speedway made its debut in Britain in 1928 and saw his first race at Poole Pirates in 1948. Since then he has watched the sport through all its ups and downs and while now a retired Anglican vicar, is still honorary chaplain of the World Speedway Riders’ Association and at Peterborough Speedway and he indulged himself by buying his own bike in 1990.

Throughout the 1950s and 60s Whawell recalls brimming stadiums where rivalries were only good-natured and a camaraderie that persists to this day. It was not until 2000, however, until he was encouraged to take over as chaplain at the riders’ association and he found the role fulfilling enough to extend it to include Peterborough after he retired in 2003.

“It involves certain functions and officiating,” he explains “Once a year I do a memorial service. We have a garden at Paradise Wildlife Park in Hertfordshire, where the speedway museum is now situated. We also have a memorial garden there where plaques are kept to honour riders and speedway people.”

Whawell has a pleasingly simple interpretation of how he sees his role. “You put yourself about the place and if people need you, you are there,” he says, smiling.
Cyril Roger, Aub Lawson, Tommy Price, and Graham Warren pull away from the line at the start of a Heat 3 of the England v Australia Test meeting at New Cross in July 1949. England won 62-46.

He is acutely aware of speedway’s decline but is sure that among fans the enthusiasm is as strong as ever. “There is a great groundswell of support from dyed-in-the-wool speedway fans who can’t believe there is life without it,” he says. “Speedway fans are a stoical bunch, they love their sport and aren’t too bothered that nobody else does.”

It is a situation he would dearly like to see rectified, his desire to spread the gospel of speedway as strong as ever. “I have never lost interest, I find it hard to see how people can lose interest,” he says. “The appeal to me is the same as when I first saw it, I still get that buzz. Just hearing the bikes starting up that’s an incredible moment, when I hear the bikes in the pits that’s brilliant. a snap and a snarl from the exhaust and I think: ‘Yeah, here we go again. It’s addictive.’”
Danny King (Ipswitch Witches) "Only way to get better in speedway is ride with someone who is better. Chase someone who is better than you".
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