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Ever Decreasing Circles
By Ken Nicholson

"Speedway is getting faster - you can barely recognise the sport nowadays." I have heard this so many times. It is the kind of thing you believe must be true because it is said so often.

Many of us know of the old speedway bikes only thanks to the 'Men in Black' - those gentlemen who do a great job entertaining us and who are an obvious attraction at any speedway meeting. However, they would be the first to admit that they are not world champions at the peak of the game. Nor are their bikes factory-fresh; they are lovingly restored classics. So just how much faster is speedway now than it used to be?

Since the early days of speedway, we have seen many changes to the bikes. Indeed, it is fair to say the bikes look entirely different now to what they once did. Over time, we have become accustomed to these differences and think of them as being normal. Four-valve (and lay-down) engines, leading forks, magic boxes, wheel spoilers and high technology clutches, to name but a few, are all normal now and have been introduced to make the bikes faster. Perhaps other developments have caused a reduction in speed, such as of the introduction of dirt-deflectors and types of silencer. While other factors, such as the type of tyre and the amount of dirt on the track (or rather lack of it) could work either way.

If you look at track records, they can only be lowered over time. However, a couple stand out. The most notable is probably Hans Nielsen's record at Oxford, which has stood for 20 years. Not only has this time never been beaten, no one has come even close to it. So much so, that there has been speculation, that the time was written down incorrectly or the timekeeper forgot to start his stopwatch. At least we can hope that an opportunity to break Nielsen's record will be possible in the not too distant future at Oxford. Not far away, Reading's track record is a whisker older than Nielsen's and sadly that is set to remain. So, speedway did not necessarily get faster over the last 20 years, at these tracks at least. There are no prizes for guessing that Leigh Adams is the track record holder down at Swindon. Yet Leigh's time is only half a second faster than Gary Allen's track record set back in 1993. This is less than 1% faster and I defy anyone to be able to notice the difference.

Of course, comparing track records does not tell you how fast the riders are going, it only tells you how long it has taken them to ride around four laps. Riders that are 'bouncing around the boards' are covering a much greater distance than those hugging the white line. But since no one really knows the distances covered by a rider, a track record seems as good a measure of speed as any. So buoyed with this, I started checking some past track records.

Ivan Mauger was scorching around Brough Park in 71 seconds in 1966. At first, I was shocked that this was almost 9 seconds longer than Kenneth Bjerre's track record in 2003. But after checking the track length, I found that it had shrunk by about 10% over the years. The respective speeds by Ivan and Kenneth are 41.6 and 43.5mph. So speedway has got faster at Newcastle, but not so much that you would notice. Going back even further in time, Frank Hodgson was the track record holder there in 1951 with an average speed of 40.7 mph. This was far faster than I expected.

If you look at current track record speeds, they are mostly in the range from a little under 40 to a little over 50 mph. The larger the track, the faster the average speed. However, even back in 1974, Mitch Graham's average track record speed around Berwick was 49.2 mph (the value is 51.6 mph today and once again the track has shrunk over time). Going back to 1951, Bob Leverenz flew around the Firs in Norwich at an average speed of 48.8 mph, so high speeds are nothing new.

So how does this work out? Well the diagram below shows a mixture of track record speeds for different years. I have included a single point in this, which shows 'Wee Geordie' Newton's 1938 New Cross track record. It is a case of spot the difference (deliberately so) and it is in there amongst the 2008 ones (clue: it was a tiny track).

So, while the diagram shows that average speeds have increased (mostly) on tracks of comparable lengths over the years, most tracks are typically shorter today (and some have actually shrunk over the years). Consequently, the average speeds are pretty much the same. So, speedway is not necessarily 'getting faster' and this no doubt explains why it is and always has been exciting entertainment.

Where there probably has been a noticeable increase in speed however, is in the rush to the first bend. This is largely thanks to improved bike technology (especially clutches). But does it make speedway more exciting? Not in my mind. All it does as far as I am concerned is put more emphasis on gating and that is not the entertaining part.

I cannot think why tracks have been made smaller over the years. For those on the same site, this means the inside line has come in (but not necessarily the fence). However, who am I to question why the circles are ever decreasing. I just wonder if they carry on, where will they end up disappearing?


This article was first published on 30th April 2009


  • Glen Cable:

    "Ken makes a very good argument for the 'speed' in Speedway these days. However my observation would tend to say that bikes have a lot more power these days and therefore the power has to go somewhere. If you look at old time footage of meetings - say 1950's or 60's World finals you will see riders not necessarily fully skidding the bikes like they do today - it was more like a gentle slide and probably due to the deeper grippier tracks then. They would keep the bike straighter thus maintaining their speed rather than 'stopping' like they do today with exagerated slidding.

    So my comment would be that today's riders are far more 'spectacular' riding wise but probably are losing that extra horsepower through the slicker tracks etc. Otherwise I'm convinced we would see a lot more crashes on grippy tracks - especially the young inexperienced riders that seem to dominate teams today - again rather than yesteryear when it would take you 5 years just to learn to ride a bike - much less race the thing !!"

  • Ian Manley:

    "Very interesting piece. I seem to remember Barry Meeks being in the Guiness Book of Records back in the early 70s with an average speed at Crewe of around 54mph. Crewe was a very long fast track with banking (around 440 yds when the record was set) so the riders didn't get into that much of a slide to rub off the speed in the corners. I think Ivan Mauger got close with the track record at Exeter, a similar sort of fast banked track. (But there again, I might be making it all up!!)"

  • Tom Fall:

    "Very interesting article. It's a significant point that the inside lines have come in, making the official track sizes shorter. However, due to the speeds of the bikes and the need to keep the wheels as in line as possible, modern riders often tend to race much closer to the fence, covering a far greater distance than the track measurement, and hence travelling at a much faster actual average speed."

  • Geoff Langley:

    "The other factor to be thrown into the equation is that frame design has improved over recent years so that more of the power produced gets transmitted to the track. This makes it even harder to understand why speeds have apparently not increased as much in practice as one would expect in theory. I think in part this is due to slicker tracks, as has already been mentioned and also in part due to the fact that the faster you go the more effort it takes to gain a smaller improvement. Some of the big tracks in Europe have track records that have stood for 8 or 10 years, and this is clearly due to less dirt on the track but the discrepancy between the theory and practice is curious. When the new noise limits come in, which I think is next year, the new silencers will cause a drop in engine power and it will be interesting to see what, if any, effect that has on race times."

  • Norman Chadwick:

    "Crewe was originally 470 yeards round and went around a cricket pitch belonging to British Rail. The main stand was actually the cricket pavillion/clubhouse. What made it more awesome was a "safety" fence made from old railway sleepers. Now it's a housing estate!"

  • Paul Mitchell:

    "As Ken says, we don't really know the distances covered by a rider, but the following should give some idea of the effect of "riding the boards". Let's say you have a track which measures 400yds around the inside with a 4-lap race time of 60 seconds. This works out at an average speed of roughly 55mph, but this assumes the rider rides round the white line. If our rider rides 10yds out from the white line on the bends, the lap distance he actually covers is 476yds and for the same 60 second race time his average speed becomes nearly 65mph. That's quite a difference!"

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