What’s on this week
The brakeless bikes accelerate as fast as a Formula 1 car and one of the main events – the British Grand Prix– attracts 40,000 spectators. It’s surprising, then, that speedway remains a minority sport, especially after recent achievements.
In October, Tai Woffinden became the first British three-time world champion, while he and Robert Lambert took GB to second in the nations’ cup. At home, the top domestic league is benefiting from regular BT Sport coverage where it rubs shoulders with the World Rally Championship and Indycar. This led Autosport to the Premiership playoff final at the Norfolk Arena to see why speedway is nipping at the heels of leading motorsport series.
Much like top fuel drag racing or a forest rally stage, speedway is something you need to see live to fully appreciate. The compact arena setting amplifies the waspish buzz of the 500cc bikes along with the inimitable whiff of methanol. Speedway is easy to follow and has kept the same basic format since its 1930s naissance. Four riders – two from each team – race over four laps (taking roughly a minute) with three, two and one-point scores awarded to the top three finishers. A typical league fixture is made up of 15 races and the team with the most accumulated points wins.
Because all points count, races are always thrilling. Late-braking lunges in F1 are exciting enough but overtaking in speedway without brakes warrants a totally different level of commitment. Riders need to be powerful, courageous and balletic to master the shale, and as such their skillset is unique.
“One of the reasons I admire them even more than F1 drivers is that speedway riders don’t have the ability of simulation,” says Robin Brundle, Kings Lynn Stars copromoter and brother of Le Mans winner Martin. “It takes a certain skill to do it.
They do 70 mph on a matchstick with no brakes, and to be a millimetre apart from each other is incredible.”
To take this rawness to the next level, speedway is pushing to be more specialised. This year, Kings Lynn partnered with the University of East Anglia to inject an element of sports science into its seven-person squad. The goal is to help condition the riders, most of whom are on the road all week representing multiple clubs in the
UK, Poland, Sweden and elsewhere. The physical strains, which Brundle likens to a 400m sprinter running seven Olympic
“OVERTAKING IN SPEEDWAY WARRANTS A TOTALLY DIFFERENT LEVEL OF COMMITMENT”
finals in one night, are enormous.
“Coming from an F1 background, there’s a lot of sports science there, and speedway was just begging to have some,” says the former Lola director. “There was nothing written
[for speedway] on the dynamics of the bodies, the muscle groups and nutrition. We’ve introduced those elements and it’s one of many ingredients that’s gone into helping the guys have performance and stay as fit as they can.”
In the Premiership final, the Stars were edged 92-88 on aggregate by the Poole Pirates after coming agonisingly close to upending a 16-point first-leg deficit.
All that drama unfolded live on BT Sport and such exposure is vital for speedway’s broader reach. Kings Lynn, for example, had its average attendance triple to 1600 this year. Social media is also being noticed by clubs and proper engagement strategies are being set up.
“It’s about sharing and communicating across all media platforms,” says Brundle. “A contact of mine has educated us on how to leverage social media, what types of message to send and when. It’s paid dividends because we’ve got all sorts of generations hooked in.”
Speedway has always delivered the ontrack goods, but it’s now also developing an off-track blueprint so it can really flourish. And with clubs up and down the country competing in three national leagues, this quirky yet exhilarating form of motorsport couldn’t be more accessible.
BT Sport will be showing 18 British Premiership Speedway meetings again in 2019. For more details go to bt.com/sport
No brakes in speedway means wheel-to-wheel action requires unique skillset
The 500cc bikes can hit 60mph from rest in under three seconds