SpeedwayFiction Speedway like it used to be! Home Too dangerous for what? The question without an answer

IN its edition for November 7, 2015, Speedway Star’s Brian Burford posed once again the perennial question, 'Is Speedway Too Dangerous?'

It's a question that has never been answered and can never be answered in that form, except by another question:

Too dangerous for what?

Too dangerous to be televised live? Too dangerous for children to watch? Too dangerous without vastly improved protective clothing for participants? Or just too dangerous for insurance companies to consider it a viable risk?

When Mr Burford puts the unqualified question to a number of figures in the sport, the answers he gets are predictably varied. 'No,' says rider Scott Nichols, 'I wouldn't say it's any more dangerous now than it was.' Australia manager Mark Lemon suggests that one reason for the number of crashes and injuries is that many modern riders have grown up with air-cushion fences which afford an 'artificial perception of protection'. Edward Kennett, another rider, disagrees. He tells the Star, that air-fences haven't made any difference to the way people ride.

Of course, insurance companies wouldn't be interested in their opinions. They operate on costs and probabilities. They might calculate the risk to a rider simply as the likelihood of a certain type of accident occurring multiplied by the cost of such an event. The total risk for speedway might then be the sum of all such risks for each different type of injury.

Riders can still get insurance so evidently the insurance companies don't consider the risks to be prohibitive. But what about the viewing public? Pick up a programme and you are unlikely to feel that the sport is any more dangerous than it ever was. A Berwick Speedway programme from their second year of operation, 1969, carries the simple but stark warning, 'Motorsports are dangerous and spectators attending this meeting do so entirely at their own risk.' Forty-six years later, the wording in the Bandits' brochure is almost identical – but with one additional note. 'Flying shale is dangerous, especially to unprotected eyes. Eye protection can be purchased at the track shop.'

In earlier decades, of course, speedway programmes typically contained no warnings at all.

Mr Burford, during his wide-ranging research, also talks to Danish Grand Prix rider Hans Andersen who, choosing his words with great care to avoid offending fellow riders or promoters, nevertheless pinpoints a problem with track preparation which is particularly acute in Britain. The creation of a grippy outside 'berm', as he terms it, together with a slick and unusable inside line forces riders to go closer and closer to the fence if they want to overtake. The tracks in Britain being narrow, if the bike lifts, the rider finds himself crashing into the fence.You can, of course, argue yourself around in circles if you canvass a sufficient number of opinions, so we thought it might be instructive to go back further than Mr Burford was prepared to. To the 1952 season, in fact.

The figures are useful because they were prepared by the insurance broker George Burrows, who covered thirty-one British tracks. He records a total of 174 injuries, (a fall of 10 percent on the previous year), of which twenty-two were head injuries. Mr Burford's worst-case scenario was 113 injuries in 2015, twenty of those involving head or neck damage.

While the Speedway Star breaks down its injury toll into the nature of the damage: legs, wrists, shoulders, etc., the figures provided by George Burrows & Company are analysed in terms of the causes. 31.5 percent of the accidents in 1952 were collisions. Over-slides and falls accounted for a fifth of the injuries. Falling and being struck by a following rider produced 9 percent of the casualties; taking avoiding action, 7.5 percent; hitting a fallen rider, one percent; rearing at the gate, three percent; 5.5 percent were due to bumpy tracks; and a further 5.5 percent were caused by other 'miscellaneous' events. Cradley Heath, the report adds, got through the season with no injuries of any kind.

In his report to the Speedway Control Board, Mr Burrows concludes: 'From a close study of the claims coupled with certain unofficial reports it does appear that the accident ratio need not have been so heavy – safety fences on occasions were not as safe as they might have been, several surfaces were too slick and, in a few cases, riders' machines were at fault.'

If conclusions about the rate of attrition in 2015 were published today, would they sound significantly different?

SpeedwayFiction Not a matter of opinion Looking back to 1952 An insurer’s conclusion