NEW HOPE

Be a fresh dawn for speedway? Con­tin­ued over

Motorcycle News (UK) - - This Week - By Tony Hoare SPEEDWAY RE­PORTER

The roads are jammed and Starwars char­ac­ters dance joy­fully to a brass band as rac­ing en­thu­si­asts from across Europe gawp in won­der at the new £8m sta­dium that has been built purely for their quirky, down­trod­den sport.

Speedway, the rac­ing dis­ci­pline out­siders love to laugh at, rarely has such an op­por­tu­nity to shine as the grand open­ing of its new Na­tional Sta­dium in Manch­ester.

The sta­dium has been a 10-year labour of love for the Belle Vue Aces club, who per­suaded Manch­ester City Coun­cil to in­vest in an in­ter­na­tional speedway arena as part of re­gen­er­at­ing the east side of the city.

Those Aces, the world’s most fa­mous speedway team who have been in op­er­a­tion since speedway’s pi­o­neer­ing days of 1928, will have the new sta­dium as their home for league matches. It will also host the na­tional in­di­vid­ual cham­pi­onship and this year’s Speedway World Cup fi­nals.

To en­thu­si­asts more ac­cus­tomed to shar­ing a time­worn grey­hound rac­ing sta­dium, the new Na­tional Speedway Sta­dium is noth­ing short of a mir­a­cle.

Its seated grand­stand with glass­fronted cor­po­rate hos­pi­tal­ity boxes looms over the Kirk­man­shulme Lane and glanc­ing through the pas­sage­ways re­veals beau­ti­ful red shale on a brand new track.

The 5500 tick­ets for the meet­ing sold out weeks ago, mak­ing this Bri­tish speedway’s first sell-out for decades.

As brightly-adorned fans pour in and fill the stands, club of­fi­cials talk proudly of their new home. The first spade went into the ground in March 2015 as the Aces em­barked on their last sea­son in the ad­ja­cent Belle Vue grey­hound sta­dium, where they have been bunked-up with the dogs since 1988.

The wait­ing’s over

Belle Vue fans have been wait­ing for this mo­ment since 1987, when the fa­mous Hyde Road sta­dium was sold from un­der­neath the club’s feet for a re­ported £10 mil­lion and de­mol­ished to make way for a car auc­tion site. Prom­ises of a new sta­dium came to noth­ing so they moved into the nearby grey­hound track in time for the 1988 sea­son. They have been there ever since.

It was bet­ter than be­ing home­less, but there was an ever-present sense of sad­ness and yearn­ing for their old home over the road.

En­ter Chris Mor­ton, who’d raced around Hyde Road for 15 sea­sons and re­mained an Ace for their first three years at the dog sta­dium. He took over run­ning the club in 2007 and set about get­ting the Aces their own sta­dium. Today is the day that be­comes a re­al­ity.

Speedway’s com­ing home

“This brings speedway in this coun­try into the 21st cen­tury,” says Mark Lemon, the Aces team man­ager, as he sur­veys the rapidly-fill­ing sta­dium. Lemon sees the mas­sive po­ten­tial ben­e­fit the new venue brings to speedway.

The track, mod­elled on the old Hyde Road cir­cuit, will be avail­able through the week for prac­tice ses­sions to de­velop a gen­er­a­tion of home­grown riders. The idea is to re­duce the 29 Bri­tish speedway clubs’ re­liance on riders com­mut­ing from Scan­di­navia and east­ern Europe.

Lemon says: “This will help bring the next gen­er­a­tion of Bri­tish riders through. Bri­tain is lack­ing a few topqual­ity riders. There have been riders over the years who have made a good start and then not gone on, but now they have a place where they can de­velop prop­erly.

“There are work­shops here, en­gi­neer­ing fa­cil­i­ties and there will be a speedway academy to de­velop riders for the fu­ture and bring them through. In Tai [Woffinden] you’ve got the world speedway cham­pion from Bri­tain and that cre­ates a buzz that can only help.”

Prob­lems sur­face

Two-time world cham­pion Woffinden is among the riders in tonight’s grand open­ing meet­ing, plus an­other eight riders from the Grand Prix se­ries that will de­cide this year’s world champ. Save for the Bri­tish Grand Prix, this is the hottest line-up for an in­di­vid­ual meet­ing in the UK this year.

They’re all rac­ing for the Peter Craven Me­mo­rial Tro­phy, held in mem­ory of the Aces hero who won world ti­tles in 1955 and 1962 be­fore los­ing his life while rac­ing for Belle Vue in 1963.

But the noises emerg­ing from the riders about tonight’s rac­ing sur­face aren’t as pos­i­tive as their com­ments about their won­der­ful new sur­round­ings.

Ru­mours are sweep­ing the pits about the state of the third and fourth turns, a sec­tion of track only laid in the past two-and-a-half weeks be­cause poor weather has set con­struc­tion back.

The riders con­vene pri­vately with the ref­eree for tonight’s meet­ing to dis­cuss

mat­ters then emerge to warm up their en­gines and pull on their dis­tinc­tive Kevlar race suits, boots and steel shoes. So far so nor­mal.

Much is at stake tonight and, with re­spect to the fam­ily of Peter Craven, the des­ti­na­tion of the tro­phy is near the bot­tom of that list. There are 5500 fans crammed into the new sta­dium and ready to watch the dawn of a new era. A sport whose fans are more likely to ac­cuse it of shoot­ing it­self in the foot are watch­ing as it aims for the stars.

But while the stakes are high for the club, the tragic demise of Craven all those years ago is a per­ti­nent re­minder of what’s on the line for riders. They could see their week-old sea­son, their ca­reer or even their whole fu­ture wrecked in a split sec­ond.

Riders come… and go

The Lord Mayor of Manch­ester hauls his burly chains to the in­field and cuts a tape to of­fi­cially open the sta­dium. The riders walk in uni­son around the new cir­cuit to be in­tro­duced to the ca­pac­ity crowd. Chris Mor­ton makes an emo­tional speech that marks the end of a 10-year fight to give the Aces their own home.

The first gag­gle of riders ride up to the pit gate to join the track, but the start­ing tapes aren’t in the down po­si­tion. This isn’t go­ing to be a race.

In groups of four, the riders emerge to try out the new track, be­fore dis­ap­pear­ing into an­other pri­vate meet­ing with the ref­eree.

The sta­dium sound sys­tem plays a con­tin­u­ous stream of feel­good mu­sic, but the at­mos­phere in the pits is any­thing but. Of­fi­cials are tense and refuse jour­nal­ists ac­cess to the pits.

It’s way past the sched­uled start time be­fore the sup­port­ers start to get rest­less. Years of this kind of treat­ment have left speedway fans in­ured to be­ing left in the dark while de­ci­sions are taken in se­cret. Shouts of ‘what’s go­ing on?’ lead to whis­tles, jeers, boos and in­creas­ingly an­gry shouts.

The sta­dium an­nouncer at­tempts to soothe the wa­ters by fi­nally re­veal­ing the riders are dis­cussing track con­di­tions and the like­li­hood of this meet­ing go­ing ahead.

Riders emerge from their meet­ing with the ref­eree and ges­ture to­wards me­chan­ics with hands across throats. It sig­nals an end to pro­ceed­ings.

‘We’re not sheep’

Chris Mor­ton, the man whose pas­sion has brought this fa­cil­ity from pipe dream to solid re­al­ity, walks sul­lenly to the in­field to an­nounce in per­son to the crowd that the party is over be­fore it’s even be­gun.

He de­serves great credit for fac­ing the pub­lic in hard times, just as he had done for the more up­beat open­ing cer­e­mony an hour ear­lier. But the re­cep­tion matched the tem­per­a­ture of this chilly Manch­ester evening as fans who’d trav­elled for miles and waited for hours vented their frus­tra­tion.

“This is a dis­as­ter for us,” he says. “The riders have been round and they don’t feel it’s fit to race on. We have some of the best riders in the world here and if that’s how they feel then that’s how it is.”

Chris Har­ris, the Bri­tish racer who was due to com­pete tonight, opens the pit gate and runs out to take the mi­cro­phone. “The track is the per­fect shape, but it’s un­race­able,” he an­nounces in an im­promptu speech. “We could fol­low each other around, but we’re rac­ers, not sheep,” he adds.

Whether the rip­ple of ap­plause for Har­ris is for his will­ing­ness to ad­dress them or be­cause they back the riders’ de­ci­sion, it’s clear to see where the sup­port­ers’ sym­pa­thies lie.

Woffy vows to re­turn

Back in the pits, Bri­tish speedway’s poster boy Woffinden and arch GP ri­val Nicki Ped­er­sen are in dis­cus­sion. For once, the two ap­pear to be on the same side. Woffinden tells MCN: “Ev­ery­thing else about this place is pos­i­tive and we all re­ally wanted to race tonight,” he said. “As riders we didn’t want to come here, get the bikes out the van and then just put them back in. One cor­ner is great and the sta­dium is amaz­ing, but the sur­face is dan­ger­ous.

“The truth is that we shouldn’t have been here. There was prac­tice here yes­ter­day and the track wasn’t right, so they should have had this meet­ing on an­other night. We would all be ready to come back an­other time,” he added.

Har­ris, who’d braved the fan fury on the in­field, added: “I felt we would have been cheat­ing the pub­lic if we’d rid­den, as we couldn’t race. We were re­ally keen to ride and we’re as up­set as the fans about what’s hap­pened.

“Speedway has been cry­ing out for a sta­dium like this and we need to sup­port it. We tried to come up with a so­lu­tion tonight, but none of us could. I hope the fans un­der­stand.”

The huge po­ten­tial of the Na­tional Speedway Sta­dium doesn’t dis­ap­pear be­cause of one botched evening. Noone will come round and de­mol­ish the stands, work­shops and en­gi­neer­ing fa­cil­i­ties in a fit of pique. The academy will still be there to shape fu­ture gen­er­a­tions of speedway riders.

The World Cup will still be staged here in July in front of 10,000 peo­ple and praise from riders sug­gests the track shape will make for breath­tak­ing rac­ing once the sur­face is right.

The new sta­dium re­mains an in­cred­i­ble shot in the arm for the sport but this op­por­tu­nity to draw the spot­light to some­thing pos­i­tive about speedway back­fired spec­tac­u­larly.

To set­tle down with Aces cap­tain Ni­cholls World champ Woffinden (right) but not enough on top Too much mois­ture in the base, Pro­moter Chris Mor­ton (right) ex­plains the de­ci­sion to MCN

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