Headlining Speedway

2 The sport that goes round the bend Click the image for a larger view of the cover

WHEN was the last occasion that a major Sunday newspaper devoted six pages of its colour supplement to the sport of dirt track riding?

Could it have been more than three and a half decades ago, in 1978 when British speedway celebrated its Golden Jubilee? In December of that year, the Observer magazine produced an article to mark the occasion under the headline, ‘Speedway - the sport that goes round the bend.’

‘For television to show an interest in speedway is rather like an unsuccessful assassin sending a get-well card to his victim’

Road then asks why newspapers and television pay so little attention to the shale sport, (a question that might seem surprising, given that national press coverage in the 1970s was generous compared with the almost total absence of any mention today). He concludes that the excitement of speedway is difficult to convey in words and pictures. ‘So much depends,’ he says, ‘on the proximity of the riders: the noise, the flying cinders and, not least, the indefinable smell, rather like that of scorched linen.’

The remarkably detailed article outlines a typical scene in the pits, the clothing worn by the riders and the machines themselves. The latter description is accompanied by a set of beautiful illustrations painted by Lewis Allard. There are also photographs of badges from every tack in the British and National Leagues. Of the machines, Road explains, ‘Thanks to their 500cc four-stroke single-cylinder engines, speedway bikes can, and do, accelerate from rest to 60mph in three seconds. It is not unusual for a bike’s front wheel to rear up vertically at the start in a convulsion of uncontrolled power.’ Race tactics, the technique of broadsiding and the challenges faced by riders are all covered.

DOUGLAS

JAP

JAWA

WESLAKE

These beautiful illustrations of four key speedway machines were painted for the article by Lewis Allard. Click on each one for a larger view.

Penned by Alan Road, one of the paper’s feature writers, the item begins with a reference to ITV’s coverage of the Wembley World Final, not shown until a week after the event on World of Sport. ‘Such dilatoriness,’ writes Road, ‘is fairly typical of the media’s commitment to a sport that claims to be the second most popular with British spectators. In any case,’ he adds, ‘for television to show an interest in speedway is rather like an unsuccessful assassin sending a get-well card to his victim. Those involved in the sport’s administration have no hesitation in casting TV as the villain responsible for the decline in attendances since the halcyon post-war days.’

‘... The indefinable smell, rather like that of scorched linen.’ ‘Thanks to faulty public address systems, your speedway announcer frequently sounds as though he is eating tomatoes under water…’

The rough and ready nature of many speedway venues is brought out, too, in particular via his depiction of the announcements so vital in following the progress of a meeting. ‘Thanks to faulty public address systems, your speedway announcer frequently sounds as though he is eating tomatoes under water, but the stewards succeed, nevertheless, in ushering out the correct riders for the first race.’

His descriptions are based on an evening spent at Waterden Road, Hackney’s great Stratford venue now swept into history by the juggernaut of the London Olympics. ‘As the bikes hit the corner, the East End fans begin chanting “Acne! Acne!” It sounds like some defiant celebration of the adolescent condition.’

The Seventies may seem a somewhat premature decade in which to be talking about the decline of the sport since it was then far from the parlous state in which speedway finds itself in 2014, but Road seeks the opinions of two key figures.

Then five times World Champion Ivan Mauger is convinced that ‘speedway’s greatest handicap in its search for greater support and wider coverage is the time-honoured custom of allowing clubs to include guest riders in league competitions.’

Veteran promoter and the virtual inventor of the sport, Johnnie Hoskins, then a spritely 86, belonged to the camp who were convinced that television was the principal problem. ‘TV killed music hall,’ he tells the writer, ‘and it damned near killed speedway.’

Thirty-six years on, the sport is at least still breathing in Britain, albeit ignored by the press and terrestrial television, drawing crowds one tenth of the size that graced its venues in the 70s and handicapped by a rule-book which owes more to It’s A Knockout than to serious sport. If it reaches its centenary in 2028, it seems unlikely that the Sunday supplements of the day will afford it similar tributes.

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