Almanack: Magic mix of shale and pace

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IT'S A big day in Norfolk: Speedway fans from all over the country will be converging on King's Lynn for this afternoon's Commonwealth final, a vital stage in the 1994 World Championship. To provide a wider audience with form tips for this important event, and to gauge the health of the sport, Almanack set out on a midweek expedition to East Anglia.

Selecting a meeting was not difficult: the Ipswich Witches have more representatives in the final than any other (three and a reserve) and the defending Commonwealth champion, Leigh Adams, rides for Arena Essex, who were Ipswich's opponents in a First Division match on Thursday evening. So to Foxhall Stadium, a location described fondly by a connoisseur of such venues as 'semi- derelict, surrounded by trees, and full of retards'.

That opinion is most unfair. It is true that Foxhall is not in the first flush of youth, but the bits that are still standing are reassuringly solid, and it has an appealing and very British aura of faded glory. It is, indeed, surrounded by trees. But the people in it are wise and knowledgeable - as long as you are talking speedway.

By seven o'clock, 1,500 fans, some with dogs, some with children, most with thermos flasks, had shown up. A few deployed camping chairs on the daisy- covered terraces. Others were drawn to the pit fence, where they strained for a closer glimpse of the riders as they tinkered with their machines. Suddenly an engine rumbled into life and everybody went potty, running around shouting 'Ssshhhh] Turn it off]' What on earth was the matter? 'Noise regulations', Brian Messenger, the Ipswich manager, explained. 'No engines to be run before 7.10. There are houses just behind the trees.' He looked glum. 'They're building some more soon.'

A standard speedway race consists of four laps of a 300- 400 metre shale circuit, two 180-

degree bends connected by short straights. A good start is vital (overtaking is notoriously rare). The knack is for the rider to get his weight forward on the straight, then change the balance of the bike as he comes off the throttle for a moment, cant the machine sideways and drift through the bend with the power on again.

The obvious attraction is noise and speed and danger, but there is a kind of grace to it as well. A pair of riders sweeping around a bend parallel and equally committed can be as perfectly synchronised as Torvill and Dean.

Ipswich won the match, and Leigh Adams plenty of races: he'll be the man to catch at King's Lynn today. Ipswich's Jem 'Donkey' Doncaster will be chasing him. A pro for 12 years, he is not big on the romance of the sport - not even the Commonwealth final. 'It's another round of another championship,' he said. 'We all start square.' Anyway, he's won it before.

Twenty thousand people used to pack Foxhall in the Fifties for the visits of such glamorous rivals as the Yarmouth Bloaters. 'Donkey' signed an autograph for a little girl, who grinned fit to bust. Did he think the crowds would ever come back? 'Maybe the crowds will come back,' he said, deadpan. 'Pigs can fly, can't they?'

(Photograph omitted)