SPEAK ENTERS A NEW RACING CHAPTER
Neil Randon talks to retiring short oval legend and multiple title collector
Rob Speak finished his BRISCA F1 stock car career in much the same way he started it – by planting his arch-rival Frankie Wainman Jr into the Armco on the very first bend.
The 44-year-old had been waiting for the right moment to avenge a Wainman Jr hit that had catapulted him into the Cowdenbeath wall, knocking him unconscious, during the Scottish Championship back in June.
And that moment came during the feature race of the night at the final meeting of the year at Coventry in November. As he and polesitter Wainman Jr accelerated out of turn four for the start of the race, Speak took his chance.
Wainman Jr led into the first corner but didn’t come out the other end, courtesy of the front bumper of Speak. Wainman was out of the race on the spot, while Speak continued on his way, finishing second to Dan Johnson. “It was my parting gift,” Speak says. “I owed him one.”
At the end of the night, however, Speak went over to the Wainman Jr transporter and shook his rival’s hand. “You have to remember at the end of the day it’s only stock car racing,” Speak explains.
The handshake signalled the end of a memorable era for two of the all-time greats of BRISCA F1. Their rivalry had spanned more than 30 years.
Speak started racing in Ministox in 1985, when he was 12. Between them Speak and Wainman Jr dominated the sport, during which time Speak won the National Points and British titles. “It was me and Frankie who won everything,” Speak says. “If we didn’t win, it was because we’d taken each other out of the race.”
When he reached his 16th birthday, Speak opted to race in BRISCA F2s and became the most successful driver in the history of the sport. As a 17-year-old he was the youngest driver to win a World Championship – he would go on to add another seven to his CV – and he added 11 consecutive National Points Championships to his tally.
In just one season Speak won 147 races – a total that’s unlikely ever to be equalled in the future.
He needed a new challenge and it came courtesy of an offer to drive Jamie Davidson’s car in 1999. At the time the car was reputed to be the most expensive and powerful F1 stock car ever built – its Chevy V8 power unit, however, was thought to have too much horsepower for the short ovals.
But with the help of Terry George, who had engineered many of Speak’s F2 cars, Speak harnessed the brute to the confines of the quarter-mile Tarmac tracks, and the sport’s big guns were forced to raise their games.
The period between 1999 and 2001 is regarded as a golden age of BRISCA F1. During that time, while John Lund was winning a seventh World title, it was Wainman Jr and Andy Smith who were the most potent forces in the sport, particularly on Tarmac. But Speak brought with him an aggressive driving style that had not been seen in decades. He was utterly ruthless.
“That period of racing between 1999 and 2001 is my highlight – it was unbelievable,” Speak says. “Me, Frank and Andrew used to knock seven bells out of each other – there wasn’t really anyone else who mattered back then. Stock car racing did not get any better than that.”
Speak won the World Championship at Hednesford in 2001, ahead of Wainman Jr and Smith, to become only the second driver in history to win both F1 and F2 World titles.
“Winning the World Final was fantastic, but the race that stands out for me was a meeting final at Swaffham in 1999. The three of us were all absolutely flying around that track. I ended up putting Frank into a parked car, but I was thinking ‘Smithy’s coming, Smithy’s coming’ and sure enough a couple of laps later Andrew put me into the same parked car I put Wainman in!”
Then near the end of the 2001 season Speak was approached to race in the fledgling ASCAR series.
Initially, he thought the request to drive in the US Automotive Chevrolet owned by Stewart Bassett was a bit of a wind-up.
“I was stood in my scrap yard cutting a car up when the phone rang and it was Warren Taylor,” Speak says. Taylor, a former driver and promoter, sold stock car and ASCAR merchandise. “Now, if you’ve known Warren as long as I have you know more often than not he’s full of s**t!
“Warren said: ‘What are you doing tomorrow? Come to Rockingham and race an ASCAR.’ I thought this is another stupid idea of his. He said, ‘no, no, honestly, there’s a bloke down here who has got a car. Come down, they’ll sort your licence out, just bring your helmet and your overalls and race’.”
Speak arrived at the Rockingham circuit the next morning expecting it to be a waste of time. But he met with Taylor and was introduced to Bassett.
“Stewart was a cracking fella,” says Speak. “A proper gentleman. He went through the procedure for the day and put a headset inside my helmet and suddenly I realised this was really happening. It was all a bit surreal.”
For his MSA test, Speak was driven around the Rockingham oval by former BRISCA F2 rival John Mickel, who had been racing in ASCAR from the series’ inception.
Around the first bend as the pair drove off, Mickel switched his microphone off. Speak wondered what was going on.
“John then turned to me and said: ‘how can I teach you how to drive?’ So we took turns doing a few laps round the track, and then I ended up racing.”
Speak finished fourth at his first ever ASCAR meeting, and spent three years in the series, which included a victory at Rockingham in June 2003.
After taking time out from motorsport to focus on his business, Speak made a much-anticipated return to BRISCA F2 in 2009 and developed an intense rivalry with Scotland’s Gordon Moodie, who had taken over the mantle as the sport’s number one driver in Speak’s absence. Although he won the British Championship during that time, Speak’s main aim was preventing Moodie winning the World Championship – he succeeded.
Speak returned to BRISCA F1 in 2012, resulting in a full-time drive for car owner Davidson, who had both a shale and Tarmac car built for him. It proved a worthwhile investment as Speak went on to win his first National Points Championship in 2014, and a year later his second World title at King’s Lynn, 14 years after his first.
Speak suffered from ‘Gold Roof syndrome’ during the early part of the 2016 season – when engine problems and tyre blow-outs hindered his progress at many events. “I couldn’t win a raffle,” he admits.
But during the second half of the year his luck changed, and after finishing second in the World Final to Wainman Jr at Coventry in September, Speak successfully regained the silver roof, by winning the 10-round National Points Shootout in October. It was a fitting finale to a remarkable career.
The support from Davidson has been a significant factor behind Speak’s success in BRISCA F1. Davidson’s belief in Speak remained unflinching for nearly 20 years, making their partnership one of the most successful in the history of the sport.
“I won three major titles in three consecutive years in Jamie’s cars,” Speak says. “I owe him a lot.”
But ultimately, it is the sport of stock car racing that owes Rob Speak a huge debt of gratitude. It is unlikely there will be a stock car driver quite like him again. ■