Let me take you back to the dirt track

  

Now then. Hands up! Ever go to see speedway as a kid?

Whether you loved it or hated it – and in my experience, for most people it is a love or hate thing, I bet I can tell you the one thing you remember most about it, whether you visited back in the sport’s ‘Golden Era’ of the late 40s early 50s when huge crowds at speedway meetings, even midweek were commonplace; or the modest revival that was the 1970s, the ‘Doldrum’ 80’s or the ‘Sky TV’ Era ’90s to the present day. Whether you went to see one of the famed clubs like Belle Vue – the ‘Aces’, still going strong or one of the many who fell by the wayside like The Liverpool Chads, Crystal Palace Glaziers, Rochdale Hornets or Yarmouth Bloaters. Perhaps it was to see a world class rider, like ‘Split’ Waterman, Ove Fundin, ‘Briggo’, Ivan Mauger, Peter Collins. Maybe it was a world championship qualifier, Grand Prix or just a second half reserves match.Whether you watched from the terraces, from behind glass, seated at a dining table, or were lucky enough to watch from the pits, I am pretty sure I know what it is that you recall most strongly.

 

Early Australian Test Team

…  But hold on what’s the rush? Why not wait a while as I wax lyrical about what the Poles call ‘The Black Sport’

My first visit was to the unforgettable Shay in Halifax, 1968. I was still black and white in those days, too young to have witnessed the crowds of yesteryear like 1946 for example, when Wembley Lions, who rode at the old stadium, drew such a crowd for their the final meeting of the season, that not only did it result in a lockout, but the match had to be relayed via loudspeakers to a further 20,000 outside. The same season saw 65,000 on May 23 for Wembley v New Cross; 76,000 on June 20 against Belle Vue; 67,000 on July 4 v New Cross again and 85,000 on July 11 against West Ham. There must have been sod-all on TV then.

        1945 New Cross

Grand Prix 2009

Still, even in the ‘60s, The Shay on a Saturday night held crowds that to me (aged eight) looked pretty vast. They enveloped me in a genial warm, grey ‘fug’ (it’s like a group hug in which everyone is smoking) while out on the track our heroes: Eric Boocock, Dave Younghusband and Greg Kentwell etc. did battle against the riders from the opposing teams. The crowd was almost always good natured and loud.  Riders were talked about and addressed with such familiarity that a newcomer would be forgiven for thinking that they were indeed close friends or relatives. Everyone seemed to have an opinion, which was given; freely and without prejudice – regardless of whether they had ever even sat on a motorcycle, let alone ridden speedway or were conversant with its subtleties and idiosyncrasies (Yes, there is more to it than meets the eye) There can be nothing  more disheartening I imagine for a rider going through a phase of poor scores or mechanical ‘gremlins’ that they all suffer from time to time, than taking the long walk back to the pits after an engine failure or fall past the opposing team’s fans:

‘Yeaaaaaah! You’d be better off milking it ….’

Look at the crowd! 1944

Elite League match 2010

But heated debate or ‘rider-baiting’ rarely boiled over into fisticuffs or anything serious.  Although when it did – It was always invariably in the pits and  usually worth the admission money alone.

The Shay, Halifax

Eric Boocock

For the uninitiated/uninterested speedway bikes may look pretty basic, but engines are highly tuned power units that on a modern machine produce upwards of 11,000 RPM and will dish out 80+ BHP, (nearer  8,000 RPM and 50 BHP on a late 60’s bike) all of which can be directed to the rear wheel in a split second by dropping the clutch, which is enough to propel bike and rider from 0 – 60 in under 3 seconds, in which time the rider has to control the bike, choose his racing line and prepare to navigate a corner – or plough into the ‘safety’ fence (see below)  at full speed. As if that weren’t enough, they have to ride the corner as fast as possible, which means the execution of a broadslide, the ‘Dark Art’ that relies on correct weight distribution, fine throttle control, balance and an intimate knowledge of how to use the track surface and in particular the amount of loose dirt lying on it to one’s own advantage. Oh yes, of course, all done in competition with three other riders, each looking for the same piece of track. So it’s not surprising if things overheat from time to time, be it engine, clutch or rider. They have to trust each other. But nonetheless the race to the first corner is a cut and thrust affair. Not for the faint-hearted.

David Mason’s GM ‘Laydown’ 2010

Steve Buxton’s beautiful Weslake. Still in one piece

Not that I was aware of  any of this as I used to stand on the small stool we used to take that allowed me to see right over  the safety fence  to the starting gate. (It is where the clouds of bike exhaust fumes  are left hanging  in the air in the picture of the Shay above – at about 1 o’clock. The noise at the starts was deafening. Because there was no sprung safety fence at the Shay (there the fence was made of wood and steel, so I am guessing the word ‘Safety’  was in order to signify the protection it afforded the  crowd as opposed to the riders.) it meant you were that much closer to the action: so close in fact, that as riders entered the home straight I could stick my head out over the fence, watch them approach, pulling in  just  in time as  they roared past. I’m not sure I would have done that had I known then about the circumstances of the Le Mans disaster some thirteen years earlier.

Riders who were unlucky enough to inspect the safety fence at close quarters often finished their evening with a visit to the local Infirmary and a decidedly second-hand looking bike. Thankfully however, in all my years watching speedway, although I have seen many, many spectacular accidents none have been fatal while the vast majority resulted in only  minor injuries. Speedway is not a ‘widowmaker’ but it can be a very cruel sport all the same.

Again, all of this I am blissfully unaware of as I watch the riders line up for the next race. They to and fro, looking for the best point on their particular gate, the one which will produce maximum traction once the tapes go up and the clutch is dropped. One of them pulls away, seemingly to clear his goggles, which have misted up. Or is he just trying to unsettle his opponents?  Astride his bike he tips it over, allowing it to pivot on the long footrest so that he can rest the clutch giving him a free hand with which to make the necessary adjustment. He is unable to use his right, which is the throttle hand, because it risks stalling the machine (and these days is attached to a ‘kill switch’ that cuts out the engine in case of accident.) He grabs the clutch lever and pulling on the bars, plants the rear wheel onto the track again. Helmeted, masks and goggles; it is impossible to see their faces. I wonder what they are thinking? Are they scared? I feel butterflies in my stomach (and I’m only 8 and watching not riding … ) The bikes, and in particular, the spokes sparkle under the floodlights. Shiny, shiny bikes which could in a few seconds time be worthless scrap metal. The start marshall calls them to order, the riders suddenly stiffen, ready and heads swivel to the stretch of starting tapes they see most clearly, throttles are wide open, exhausts billow, clutch held on the verge of biting …

And there it is:

CH3OH.

That’s what you remember above all else.

Methanol.

Otherwise known as methyl alcohol or wood alcohol. It is a light, colourless, flammable, liquid is produced naturally in the anaerobic metabolism of many varieties of bacteria and is the fuel used by to power speedway bikes.

Or more correctly, what you remember is its smell – after combustion. That unmistakable, slightly thick and rich almost perfumed smell, with a bit of Castrol R SAE 40 racing oil thrown in for good measure. There’s nothing like it.

Was I right?

 

Links:

Speedway GB Official British Speedway Site

Methanol Press Speedway author Jeff Scott takes his own unique and slightly quirky look at the world of Speedway and the rich variety of people found in it.

Mike Patrick Speedway Photographer

Speedway Star Weekly magazine on line

Speedway Plus Online magazine

Speedway Grand Prix FIM Official GP Site

All Speedway Photos/videos

© Andy Daly  2010

Safety Warning. Methanol: not to be confused with Menthol. I don’t think it will give you the same sort of Fresh Breath Confidence somehow.

 

 

Pic credits: 4 and 6: AllSpeedway.tv, 5: Mike Patrick, 8: Speedway Plus, 9: speedwayondisc.blogspot.com,  11: Steve Buxton. All the others: © Andy Daly  2010

 

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10 thoughts on “Let me take you back to the dirt track

  1. Very, very nice.
    Yes of course it was the smell!
    And the noise.
    And the dirt being flung out of the corners.
    And the lights (strung over the track before neons).
    And the speed, and the excitement of the racing.
    Great posting – sent chills down my spine.

  2. Andy,
    Brilliant words about speedway. I also went to the shay from the early 1970’s until they
    moved to Odsal. As a kid it meant everything to me and now I’m well into middle age
    the memories of those happy days will never leave me.

    Thanks Andy for capturing those memories so well. I’m back at the shay and stood
    by the starting gate. It’s 7.30pm Saturday Night, heat 1 !

    • Thanks Tim, that’s very kind. I’d be willing to bet we saw some of the same meetings: Russian vs Polish teams 1973 – I think, the Spring Bank Holiday match against Cradley, Booey’s testimonial….
      I love your site and your work … I was an Art and Design teacher for many years. Where did you train?

      Andy

  3. I am self trained, I’ve always loved to draw and paint. Booey’s testimonial sticks in my mind as the crowd was huge. I remember Peter Collins having to drive his car in through the main entrance,down the banking and under the main stand towards the pits as the pit entrance was blocked with so many cars. HAPPY DAYS !

    • Re: Bike racing commentators -’The Carbon Fibre’s in the Kitty Litter again’
      I thought it would be a good idea to mark the opening of the World Superbikes, Moto GP and Speedway seasons and the imminent kick-start of the British Superbikes circus next month, to revisit this post from last year. In which we take a cheeky look at the work of 3 of our motorycle/Speedway commentary Pairings. In addition you can catch up with the latest ‘Words of Whitham’ which features a new collection of ‘on air’ nuggets as supplied by Our Hero. Nos 1, 2, 3 have thus far got no further than an obsession with Marco Melandri’s missus.

      Take a look at ‘The Carbon Fibre’s in the Kitty Litter!’ If nothing else it should make you giggle.

      Here’s wishing everyone – spectators: trackside and armchair, commentators, teams/mechanics and most of all, riders an exciting, rewarding and safe season’s racing. May battle commence!

      http://wp.me/pMUy3-Sv

  4. Woah – excellent words man – you say you’re no author but that post summed up my introduction to the shale sport beautifully. I loved the Shay, went there in 79 to see Cradley ride there, Alan Grahame was on fire for the Heathens and had a few bust ups along the way with a very young Kenny Carter and Mike Lohmann. The Dukes won 40-38 and we had a very long journey back to the Black Country. Ironically one of my school mates ended up riding for Halifax before they moved to Bradford – Neil Evitts, another hard nut who gave no quarter. Aaaah the Shay – black dust, freebie views from the bus station and that fence!! It was breathtaking standing on the first bend literally inches away from the bikes on the track with only sheet steel and a few wooden posts seperating us.

    • I remember Evitts; and you’re right he was hard as nails. And that fence – legendary! Railway sleepers down the straights and, as you say sheet steel (always a material with plenty of ‘give’ I find) on the corners: which is just I would imagine where the riders wanted it most! Carter at his peak (tho’ I was long gone from W. Yorkshire by then, I only ever saw him race in London) was something else. Sheer grit.

    • Re: ’The Carbon Fibre’s in the Kitty Litter again’
      I thought it would be a good idea to mark the opening of the World Superbikes, Moto GP and Speedway seasons and the imminent kick-start of the British Superbikes circus next month, to revisit this post from last year. In which we take a cheeky look at the work of 3 of our motorycle/Speedway commentary Pairings. In addition you can catch up with the latest ‘Words of Whitham’ which features a new collection of ‘on air’ nuggets as supplied by Our Hero. Nos 1, 2, 3 have thus far got no further than an obsession with Marco Melandri’s missus.

      Take a look at ‘The Carbon Fibre’s in the Kitty Litter!’ If nothing else it should make you giggle.

      Here’s wishing everyone – spectators: trackside and armchair, commentators, teams/mechanics and most of all, riders an exciting, rewarding and safe season’s racing. May battle commence!

      http://wp.me/pMUy3-Sv

  5. shame you had to spoil a great article andy . k.C. AN ARSEHOLE,? he was the best thing to happen to halifax speedway,in fact speedway in general at the time. we followed him nationwide (and abroad for world finals) and loved the way he used to wind up away fans. I agree his personal life was turbulent and ultimately tragic,but i prefer to remember him for his track craft and bravery. i will never forget him going full pelt into the 3rd bend at the shay and suddenly switching his weight on the bike ,nearly touching the fence and blasting round the opposition.

    • Fair point and I totally agree with you about his bravery. I guess what I was trying to say in an admittedly throw away comment (and I have thought a lot about this since reading your reply) is that I am STILL angry with him, for being the best English rider of his generation, a great advert for the sport in this country. Grit and determination by the shedload: basically everything that English Speedway was crying out for in the eighties, all in one brilliant package. And he went and literally blew it away.

      Unfair, I know. I remember folllowing his 1984 World Championship campaign via the national press – that says enough in itself – in awe at his strength of character. I was working in London and wasn’t always able to get to either Hackney or Wimbledon. Indeed by then it would have been a good 6 or 7 years since my last visit to The Shay – the family had moved away – so I never got to see K C at Halifax, I only ever saw him when he was riding down ‘The Smoke’, when work commitments allowed. Oh, and once at Brough Park.

      It’s only tonight, as I have really put this under the microscope that I realise that is what is behind it. Maybe it’s time I forgave the poor lad, and as you say forget about his off-track faults and instead celebrate his skill, guts and determination.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment Steve

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