The Family Sport by Rod Young
Speedway meant nothing for a long time in my life. It was a strange and arcane form of motorcycle racing that had very little to do with real motorcycles. In fact, the time when I owned motorcycles was the time when I was least interested in the sport. Speedway was a dead end as far as I was concerned, a throwback to the thirties; it was a moribund sport even when I watched it as a teenager in the sixties. There was something quaint about it then. It was decidedly not John, Paul, George etc and neither was it Mick or Keith cool. A few of the riders, like Ray Wilson, tried to effect a more fashionable look with their hair styles, but most looked like grease backed teddy boys. But at the track you didn't care because you caught the smell of methanol, saw the absurd contortions of the racers and you tasted grit and heard the growl and gunshot sound of highly tuned four stroke engines (the thin scream of two strokes was just about to dominate track racing). As I grew up there were other interests and although motorcycles were a passion there seemed little connection between the sport and my experiences on the road. I lost touch with speedway.
Fast forward over twenty years and one day when I was fed up with the same four walls, on a mere whim, I asked my eleven year old if she would like to see the local speedway team. She decided there was nothing to lose: it would be a late night, she'd get away from her younger sister and I hinted that there would probably be chips to eat.
It took two meetings for her to get the bug. It was against all the odds. Reading were bottom of the league, the stadium is ramshackle and next to the municipal tip, and the best racer on the team was Amando Castagna - who despite his exotic name bore more than a passing resemblance to Desperate Dan with a roll up! She's a sophisticated, smart girl with a mother who wouldn't be seen dead near anything so disgusting as a shale track and certainly not when there are motorcycles on it, so she's not that easily pleased. I don't know what did it but I suspect the fact that the chips were good and hot helped. There were other contributing factors as well. It was a safe place. Not for the riders perhaps, but she felt secure when she queued up for her chips and when she came back to her seat people didn't complain when they had to make room for her to pass. The stewards also teased her in a pleasant, paternal way and when we couldn't ear the tannoy she didn't mind asking the people sitting next to her what the order of finishing was. She also enjoyed the maths and is quicker to add the scores than her old man. She now likes working out probable outcomes from looking at the averages - her mother is an accountant by the way,
We have now moved up to the Elite League - only because we've moved away from Reading. Anyway, Dad was a Bees supporter as a kid and its like going back home for him. Even in the sophisticated Elite there is still something quaint and old fashioned about speedway. It's a place where you can talk to opposing fans and banter with them. And some of the supporters - home and away - look like her Grandma, and others like her friends at school, and there are families sitting together and the only worrying part of spectating seems to be that young boy who is about to direct that air horn at her ear.
As a kid of thirteen, I went to speedway with my brother, walking the three or four miles when we couldn't be bothered to catch the bus. We went on our own and although I would never allow my daughter to do that, I do feel that a speedway track is a welcoming environment even at away tracks. Perhaps that will change. Reading the speedway forums there have been complaints of boorish behaviour and bad language at certain venues. A depressing encroachment of modern supporter behaviour or perhaps a good sign that people are willing to complain and don't want to accept adults behaving badly in front of children - or each other. I am sure speedway will change and will in some ways become more sophisticated. I hope most of that change is on the track to improve safety, and then some in marketing and presentation. What I would like to remain the same though is that old fashioned and quaint feeling I get when I take my daughter to speedway tracks knowing that the mix of people still make it a "family sport".
PS. She likes Morten Risager now and I can't see him with a roll up.
This article was first published on 10th May 2005
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