It’s that time of the year when those dedicated followers of the people’s motorsport make their pilgrimage across the Severn Bridge to Cardiff for the British Speedway Grand Prix. It’s the sport’s biggest event of the year, 23 heats featuring the cream of the world’s riders at an event that attracts around 50,000 fanatical punters.
British hopes lie with nineteen year-old Tai Woffinden, a hugely talented young rider who, after being born in the UK, grew up in Australia before returning to follow in his late father’s footsteps and forge a career in the UK and Chris Harris, who won here in 2007. But don’t rule out Scott Nicholls, who despite dropping out of the Grand Prix circuit, enters as a wildcard without the pressure of notching up GP points and he’s been in excellent form for club side Ipswich Witches.
You won’t find many motorbikes in the Millennium Stadium car park in this unique gathering of the clans. Speedway fans are more akin to a football crowd, given the domestic league is a team sport, but they come to support their favourite riders as they tackle the man made track against a cacophonous wall of air horns emanating from the raucous beer fuelled stands. It’s a working class crowd, and a bit of a throwback to the sport’s most recent heyday in the 1970’s early 1980s (92,000 people packed Wembley for the 1981 World Final).
There’s a touch of the Seaside Specials to the pre-race entertainment, mullets can still be spotted and the replica Wulfsport riding gear flatters no-one, least of all seventeen stone men from Kings Lynn. But it’s a genuine family night out and they make a beeline for Wales every summer from the sport’s hotbeds; the Black Country, East Anglia, the South Coast and Poland, where the sport is on a par with football in terms of popularity and it’s their legend of the shale, Tomasz Gollob, who leads the GP standings at the moment. Gaunt, wiry and sallow eyed, Gollob wouldn’t look out of place in a vintage horror film, but is widely considered the best rider in the world never to have won the World title. Runner up to World Champion Jason Crump last year, the Polish hero will be supported by thousands of his compatriots in Cardiff and is an exciting, skilful rider, capable of the kind of riding that puts bums on seats.
"Speedway fans are more akin to a football crowd, they come to support their favourite riders as they tackle the man made track against a cacophonous wall of air horns emanating from the raucous beer fuelled stands."
Unfortunately he doesn’t ride in the UK and neither does Jason Crump, Nikki Pedersen or a number of the best riders in the world. It’s commonplace for riders to split allegiance between three clubs in separate countries but many now opt out of the Elite League due to both financial and logistical reasons – teams still play each other four times a season for example in the UK – but the main concern for the future of the sport in this country is facilities. There is virtually nowhere for kids to ride speedway after school, no established youth system for clubs compared to football or the sports hotbeds in Poland and Scandinavia while with a few exceptions facilities at speedway ‘stadiums’ are minimal. At its best, it’s a live spectacle that’s unsurpassed in motorsport.
Up close, on a hot balmy night, the sight of motorsport’s bravest negotiating their machines - wild mustangs devoid of brakes and gears - round a dirt track is a thrilling experience. On the Grand Prix stage, its slicker, and the Millennium Stadium provides an incongruously glorious setting. Grand Prix racing is obviously technically better, there’s no team riding, everyone’s out for themselves and the constant sense of danger – the sport’s main selling point – keeps you on the edge of your seat, or sofa. Sky Sports have championed the GPs for the last fifteen years, while act as title sponsors for the Elite League. With quick-fire minute long heats coming at you it’s the ideal motorsport for TV, and ratings stand up with the more established summer sports.
So tune in if you want a taste of what you’ve been missing, or better still, grab yourself a klaxon horn and get down to the Millennium Stadium. Mullets aren’t compulsory.
British Speedway Grand Prix is on Sky Sports 2 and HD2 from 4.30pm Sat 10th July.