Generous Review by Frank Keating in ‘The Guardian’
Speed thrills with handlebar Hans and leathered Lars
From Peterborough to Poole, an obsessive hardcore follows the mud thrown by
Swedes, Poles, Danes and Brits as they ride round in circles.
The Guardian, October 3, 2006
Fasten your earmuffs. Speedway is screeching down to the wire. Last night,
at Reading, the first leg of the 2006 Elite League play-off final had the
hometown Bulldogs snarling, four turns a lap, at the Peterborough Panthers.
British speedway is alive, noisy, and fondly followed by a small but ardent
hard-core of obsessives.
The sport of the 500s – 500 people watching 500cc engines – remains a
specialist passion in around 30 of Britain’s suburbs. In spite of the din,
it is a seductively homely pastime.The snug, almost secret freemasonry of
1950s soccer crowds (although without the numbers) pervades the sharp,
autumn night air. On the track, techniques, too, are uncomplicated: no
brakes, no gears, just four riders powersliding through successive
hailstorms of shale. Pound for pound, speedway bikes accelerate faster than
formula one cars.
The breakneck daredevils these days are almost exclusively from overseas. Of
the 14 in the two seven-man teams last night, only one reserve, Richard
Hall, was British. Eastbourne, the Elite team fielding most Brits – four out
of seven – failed to qualify for the play-offs. The top riders flit from
country to country and from team to team, and even those assigned to British
sides might make the start line only occasionally – especially this summer
with its grand prix internationals and ever more healthy leagues in Poland,
and Sweden. A new Russian league is even reportedly offering top racers
appearance fees of up to £5,500.
At the end of the month, William Hill announces the shortlist for its sports
book of 2006. If the author Jeff Scott’s impulsively oddball doorstop is not
already in pole position, then it jolly well should be. Showered in Shale
(Methanol Press, £20) is a strikingly hectic labour of love, an urban
odyssey, a bucking, breathless round-Britain whizz in pursuit of his
obsession. To log this dense but irresistible social documentary, last
season Scott travelled more than 10,000 miles to watch 1,100 races at
speedway’s 30-odd tracks. From Glasgow to the Isle of Wight, Newport to
Sittingbourne, Workington to Poole; he talked, obviously, to riders and
fans, but also to promoters, programme-sellers and the bloke running the
hot-dog stand – the last three often one and the same.
I have never been to a meeting, but I’ve got the picture all right after
this captivatingly cranky revelation into one of the most cloistered,
concealed and dimly lit recesses of Britain’s sporting culture. The national
public prints seldom shine the remotest glimmer on speedway but at least
Sky’s skilful, matey and intimately strident coverage has made to a devoted
few all the more heroic these handlebar Hanses, leathered Larses and
intrepid knee-sliding Svens and helped turn speedway, as it claims, into
Britain’s second most popular summer sport.
Mind you, as in any game, old timers yearn for the good old days – in this
case around half a century ago when riders diced in front of sell-out
throngs at Wembley and Belle Vue. As the informed and kindly Australian
legend Neil Street told Scott: “Three-quarters of these modern riders can’t
ride. They get too complicated over technical ratios, clutches and ignitions
when the whole thing is simply about throttle control – and then riding just
like a jockey, feeling everything through their backsides.”
Two Aussies were British speedway’s founding fathers: Keith Mackay and
tearaway Billy Galloway – “the demon broadslider” – were the fabled pioneer
rider-promoters in the 1920s. Thirty thousand turned up to their inaugural
one-off grand prix, ridden on a specially prepared cinder track behind the
King’s Oak pub at High Beech near Epping in Essex on Sunday, February 19,
1928. They advertised it as “dirt-track racing” – the first ever European
championships of “speedway” were run 70 summers ago in France.
I might never have been to a proper speedway meeting, but in February 1998 I
did go to that renowned Epping site – now a forest conservation centre – for
its jubilee party and some memorial laps of honour, organised by the Veteran
Riders’ Association. Heart-warming and noisy: I was privileged to meet five
of those who had ridden in that first 1928 meeting – Vic Tidbury and his
brother Jack, Ron Howes, Nobby Stock and Archie Windmill.
I could tell who they were long before I reached the low little cafe table
at which they were sitting. Each ancient sat dangling a knee so it almost
scraped the floor; and, in turn, each monkey-wrench handshake confirmed