Motorcycling: Wild card rider who put the wild living behind him

David Norris tells Mike Rowbottom why he stopped drinking to realise his speedway potential
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British wild cards rarely live up to their name. While Goran Ivanisevic went all the way at Wimbledon after getting the nod from the All England club, domestic competitors have hardly left scorch marks on the SW19 turf.

British wild cards rarely live up to their name. While Goran Ivanisevic went all the way at Wimbledon after getting the nod from the All England club, domestic competitors have hardly left scorch marks on the SW19 turf.

On the grit of the speedway track, however, things are proving different. Today's British Grand Prix at the Millennium Stadium - the biggest event in the sport - will offer a 40,000 crowd the opportunity to see the rider who has earned wild card selection for the second year running. Such were his exploits last year that the Sky TV commentator was moved to exclaim: "David Norris for Prime Minister. He is the biz!"

While this 32-year-old Hailsham rider's political ambitions remain dormant, the fact that he has been given the one place on offer to the host nation and will now join the 15 riders who make up the regular circuit testifies to the accuracy of the commentator's second observation.

Norris has long been acknowledged within the sport as one of the great natural talents. Barry Briggs, the former multiple world champion, once described him as a future world champion. For too long, however, as he himself acknowledges, Norris failed to make the most of his ability, drawn too often to the rival attractions of booze and fags.

But at the start of last season the rider with a reputation for intense sociability decided to change his image. He gave up the drink; he - virtually - gave up the cigarettes. And he gave himself an opportunity to show speedway exactly what he was capable of.

"I've been riding speedway since I was 16, and I got jaded with it," he said. "I was in a rut for probably eight years. I've always had the skills but you have to back that up with the right mental attitude and I didn't. I used to drink quite a lot. I wasn't an alcoholic. I wasn't out on the lash every night. But I'd go down the pub and try to get drunk as many days as I could without upsetting my wife."

Nipping to the pub was particularly easy for Norris as he lived right next door to one - the Bricklayers Arms. He has since moved.

"I don't drink no more," he said. "I gave up smoking as well, although I have the odd sneaky fag now and again, know what I mean?

"The only thing I have had to sacrifice is my social life, but I was utterly bored with doing what I was doing anyway."

His change of heart came about after he was chatting with a friend. "I was trying to think what I was going to do with the rest of my life and I suddenly realised I still had the chance to do something in this sport.

"I've realised that it's still possible, and that's why I'm going for it so hard. I'm still not at the level I would like to be, but I believe I can get there."

Norris's love of the sport began when he was eight and he went down to the local track at Eastbourne, where he has ridden ever since. "You could hear the bikes going in the evenings and I wanted to see for myself," he said. "My father, Mick, loved motorbikes and he took me down there."

Father and son also attended the 1980 World Final at Wembley, where they were among a crowd of 98,000 who witnessed the legendary exploits of Bruce Penhall and Ole Olsen.

Today's Millennium competition is the closest thing speedway has to those old Wembley nights, and Norris, not to mention the crowd, are determined to enjoy it."As a wild card you are expected to bomb out," Norris said. "Making any progress is a bonus."

Last year Norris confounded expectations - and some critics who questioned his right to be in the Grand Prix - by moving through the rounds before getting knocked out just before the semi-final. But although Lee Richardson, one of the two regular British choices, eventually finished third, the main plaudits went to the veteran from Sussex.

As one observer of the sport, Mark Thursfield, put it: "There was just something about the way David rode that was exciting. He's someone who likes to overtake, which the crowd love. He's a 'people's champion type figure."

Norris is at great pains not to compare himself with some of the younger, more dedicated riders - "They are real heroes. They have sacrificed what I couldn't" - but he acknowledges that his popularity has something to do with his old "social life''.

After meetings, while bright-eyed rivals were loading up their bikes for the next meeting in Denmark or Sweden, Norris would repair to the bar. "I always enjoyed having a drink and a bit of a giggle with everyone," he said. "There ain't many people I haven't spoken to in the world of speedway. I think everyone feels they know me, so if I have a bit of success they seem to appreciate it more."

Norris's career has taken its toll on his body - he has broken his neck and fractured his skull, collarbones, wrist and legs. "I've still got a good few years left," he said. "Trouble is, you don't bounce as well as you did when you were young."

But Norris's competitive spirit is shining more brightly than ever before as he takes to the track on his lopsided, customised machine. Speedway bikes don't have gears. They have no brakes, either. But when you ask Norris if this is ever a problem, he responds: "Not really. You've got nothing to stop for." And he sounds as if he means it.