A 3,000 mile journey to check out Classic Speedway Venues
Journalist and author PHILIP DALLING visited almost all of Britain's currently operating speedway tracks, completing a marathon 3,000-mile trek from Eastbourne to Edinburgh and Poole to Peterborough. He has combined his highly personal impressions of today's 29 venues with his memories of an equal number of former tracks. The end result is a new hardback book, Classic Speedway Venues Past & Present (Halsgrove £19.99) which will be available in mid-October 2013, from bookshops and Amazon.
American presidents famously deliver an annual State of the Union address which, depending upon its contents, can either stimulate a sense of renewed pride or provoke immense depression among the citizens of the USA.
A 3,000-mile plus tour of the United Kingdom, mostly in April, May and June 2013, visiting the vast majority of current speedway venues, not only provided much of the necessary research backcloth for my new book, Classic Speedway Venues Past & Present, but also offered an opportunity to gain a first-hand impression of the overall health of the domestic game.
My travels took me from the South Coast to the Firth of Forth, and from Dorset to East Anglia, and from the windy Somerset levels on the edge of the Bristol Channel to the lofty heights of the home of the Buxton Hitmen, 1,800 feet up on the rocky wastes of Axe Edge in the Peak District.
The journey confirmed the tremendous diversity of Britain's current speedway venues, ranging from the magnificence of the Millennium Stadium (what a shame that it is a once-a-year experience or, on the other hand, is it the rarity value which makes it such a special occasion?), to the rural splendour of some of the newer outposts such as the Oak Tree Arena and the Hi-Edge Raceway.
Britain's speedway tracks are to be found in the heart of the inner city, tucked away behind warehousing on industrial estates, on an agricultural showground, or in places miles from anywhere, surrounded by woods or the black earth of fenland.
The spectator can be pampered with a panoramic view from a refurbished grandstand, enjoy a drink in the warmth of a track-view bar (quite an attraction in a damp and cheerless early spring) or alternatively, provide themselves with a picnic chair, a blanket and a flask of something warm when the only choice is uncovered grass banking on a chilly evening.
What did I learn from my speedway odyssey? First of all, I came away from the experience wondering just how promoters avoid ulcers. Although (miraculously) only one of the 20 or so meetings I planned to attend was completely lost to the elements, the vast majority were weather-affected to some degree or other - at best raced on rain-affected tracks and at worst abandoned with heats remaining.
Waking up on some 20 mornings and spending an entire day watching the skies for signs of rain is a tense business even for the spectator, let alone the man or woman with a financial interest in the sport.
A pleasant outcome of the trip was the opportunity it provided to nail the long-standing accusation that promoters are failing to invest in spectator facilities. I saw many instances around the country of new or improved stands and other amenities, all provided despite the pressures caused by falling attendances and rising costs.
The 58 tracks featured in the book are presented by category - stadia of national importance (including Wembley and Hampden Park), the legendary London arenas, provincial greyhound stadia, football (and rugby) grounds, arenas purpose-built for speedway, and finally a small group of tracks that can only really be classified as multi-purpose venues.
Each of the featured tracks is illustrated, with at least one, usually two and sometimes three photographs.
How would I sum up the state of British speedway in 2013? Despite visiting the tracks and talking in many cases at some length to owners and promoters, that remains a tricky question.
On a dismal evening, after watching racing in a run-down stadium where the relationship between the landlords and the speedway management was obviously far from perfect, I went back to my hotel in a pessimistic mood.
A couple of nights later, on a (rare) sunny evening, spent in a refurbished arena and in the company of highly motivated and highly competent new promoters, proud of the fact that they had increased crowd levels, my own enthusiasm was re-kindled.
There is little doubt that speedway is currently at a crossroads (and I wonder how often that phrase has been used in the last 80-odd years?).
The real plus-points I was able to record include the plans for a National Speedway Stadium in Manchester, the queues of fans waiting to gain admission to Perry Barr Greyhound Stadium on the fine May evening when the Grand Prix exploits of Tai Woffinden added extra spice to a Brummies-Wolves local derby, the impressive development of the Norfolk Arena and the continuing rural success story of Somerset's Oak Tree Arena.
Set against these positive points were the meetings I attended where the crowd was worryingly thin, and where there appeared to be little attempt at innovative marketing or promotion. Going through the motions was the phrase that sprung to mind.
On my return from my travels the speedway media reported on new challenges for promoters, including the FIM ruling that air (or foam) fences were to become compulsory. The safety aspect of the ruling is unarguable, but the additional burden on tracks which have so far not invested in the new technology could mean the difference between viability and closure.
Will all the venues I visited in the spring of this year still be operating in 2014?
If the answer to the question depended solely upon the enthusiasm of the fans that have stayed loyal to speedway, and the obvious determination of the owners and promoters to keep the sport alive despite the heavy odds they face, then I would have no hesitation in giving a positive response.
It has to be faced, however, that speedway cannot survive on loyalty and enthusiasm alone.
The opportunity to talk frankly to owners, promoters and officials revealed just how tight the line often is between viability and ruin.
(Classic Speedway Venues Past & Present (Halsgrove £19.99 - to be published in October 2013).
This article was first published on 4th August 2013
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