Shale of the century: This is speedway…

It used to be as big a sport as football in the seventies then faded away to near total obscurity as property developers bought up the valuable city stadia of struggling teams. It hit the TV screens again in the noughties and staged a notable recovery

We’re trackside, well, start-lineside, to be more accurate. Coventry Bees versus Peterborough Panthers, at home in Peterborough. It rained hard last night and the grass in the infield is moist, to say the least.  Therefore the track  is wet – and very tricky.

This is heat one of a 15-heat event and the tension and expectation is palpable. The packed grandstand locks its eyes onto the grid where two Peterborough riders face-off two Coventry challengers. The tape gate is lowered, riders paddle their bikes forward, the starter lifts both his arms and walks swiftly to the back of the grid. This is it. Revs rise to a valve-bouncing 13,000rpm and, TWANG! They’re off.

Just a few yards in and there’s some contact, elbows, a wobble and BANG! It’s all over as a young German rider pummels into the air fence and his bike cartwheels over the barriers into the crowd. Thankfully, it’s a miss on the crowd front. There’s a lot of running and dodging though.

I know that conditions are tricky because our guide, World Champion and ex-Panthers rider Sam Ermolenko, told us five minutes previously. Wet shale makes the track not only tricky to predict but unless you holeshot each race, it makes visibility nigh-on impossible as riders cop for a face-full of soupy red mud. But I hadn’t expected the first race of the day to be red-flagged after just four seconds.

Speedway is always an explosion of action. I guess that’s its appeal, so why aren’t there more bikers in the audience? We shift our gazes from the paramedics working busily trackside back to the grandstand. There are more women and children in the crowd than men. There’s even an enthusiastic border collie watching all the action and you can bet he doesn’t ride a bike.

“That’s a shame,” says Ermolenko in his Californian drawl. “That kid’s a bit out of his depth I think, I hope he’s OK though.”

Christian Hefenbrock is having a bit of a bad day and isn’t OK. He’s managed to slide under the air fence at 70mph and is taken to hospital with a suspected broken ankle.

“That bike will be wrecked now.” Sam shouts over the din of the reforming grid. “They’re really lightweight frames and are designed to bend and flex so any impact like that will have ruined the chassis.” Make that a really bad day.

These bikes cost around £4000 each. On top of that you’ll probably spend a quarter of that again on a sweet engine build, an up-market clutch assembly and maybe a better ignition unit. Most riders have two bikes each, some three.

That might sound excessive but consider the facts: three of these speedway bikes will still cost less than a pair of Öhlins inverted gas-cartridge forks.

The money in speedway is better, too. Top riders will be trousering a couple of grand from one two-hour race meeting, many race twice in one day. The very top riders are earning upwards of £200,000 a year. A far cry from the £30,000 salaries in the 2010 BSB series.

In heat nine, we’re treated to a stunning four-lap display of standout riding by the Coventry winner Rory Schlein. But Sam sees it differently.

“If I was Coventry’s team manager I’d kick his ass.” Sensing the bemused expression on my face he elaborates; “He rode for himself and himself only. He could have helped his team mate get second rather than gifting those points to the Peterborough rider who finished second. All those people in the grandstand filling in their programmes know that, too.”

Turn the virtual page for more speedway

Speedway is, after all, a team event. One team against another, trying to amass points, over 15 four lap races. Three points for a win, two for second, one for third and nothing for fourth. Back in the seventies it was as big as footie. The legendary Kiwi rider Barry Briggs once said he earned a house a week in his (and the sport’s) prime. Briggo now splits his time between his Californian coast home and his pad in London.

But back then every major town had its own speedway team, usually not far from the town centre. That was before property developers got hold of the land as our overcrowded island demanded more and more housing.

There’s a bit of a resurgence happening now, though, largely thanks to Sky Sports’ unwavering support for the sport. It is, I suppose, much cheaper to cover than road racing as you need less cameras and less staff to televise an event. And the four lap, 15-heat race programme is addictive.

In a brief two-minute break in the programme, Sam takes us onto the track. Nobody bothers us or shouts at us to get off the track because we’re with Sam Ermolenko – speedway royalty. Instead the marshals all just say “Hello Sam” and let us wander around at the apex of turn one.

“See this line,” he says rubbing at a clean, stony base with his foot. “There’s no grip here. The grip is out there in that deep shale. You need your front wheel on this stony stuff and your back wheel out wide in that loose stuff. See how just a few races have pushed the dirt out wide? You’ll see riders experimenting with that in the last few heats.”

He’s spot on. There’s far more overtaking now as riders have more lines to play with but the fastest guys are using the deep shale on the outside of the turns to hook up an immense amount of grip.

The increase in grip is making them wheelie out of the turns. We’ve got a great centrefield viewpoint to see this as the 10psi rear tyres distort under the increased loadings. Riders are using more exaggerated upper body movements as they fight the bikes fighting them. The difference between the good and the not so good becomes even clearer as track conditions become more complex. For what seems such a simple sport, a thinking rider can make a huge difference when the options open up.

It’s all over in the blink of an eye. Two hours of thrills and spills and the delicious nasal assault of castor-based oils and methanol. Peterborough have taken a strong home win and the packed grandstand shouts its approval. The victorious team take a lap in the back of the team pick-up to wave at the crowd.

Back in the pit area we hook up with Michael Lee – twice British Champion (1977 and 1978) and the sport’s youngest ever World Champion in 1980. Michael’s now the Panther’s technical advisor and a respected engine builder.

“I specialize in Jawa motors but there’s not much in it between the GM and Jawa engines. They’re putting out 60-70bhp and run anywhere from 15-17:1 compression to make a good clean burn for the methanol. They’ll rev to 13,000rpm and it’s just valve springs that are the limiting factor. Gassed up and ready to go they weigh 77kgs.” That’s nigh-on 1000bhp per tonne power-to-weight ratio – making it twice as nifty as a 253mph Bugatti Veyron. With no brakes, no rear suspension and an elastic band for front suspension.

And that for me is why people like us – motorcyclists – should be more interested in speedway. The bikes may be technically very basic but it takes a very special talent to ride a bike sideways at 80mph. It takes an even greater talent to run consistently at the front of a rabid pack. Riding appreciation is one thing but the friendly, accessible, all-embracing world of speedway is a polar opposite of National level tarmac circuit racing and, for me, that gives it resounding appeal.

I mean, can you imagine Mick Doohan giving up his day to explain his sport in person to you?