Tai Woffinden may be only 22 but he goes into the British Speedway Grand Prix at the Millennium Stadium today with huge expectation riding on his shoulders.
The Scunthorpe broad- slider lies just one point off the top of the world championship rankings after becoming the first home rider to win overseas for 14 years in Prague.
First, though, Woffinden had to get to Cardiff. He spent the three days leading up to the race cycling from his home track at Monmore Green in Wolverhampton in order to raise money for Cancer Research UK.
He did the 138-mile ride in memory of his father, Rob, a veteran of the British speedway scene who died of liver cancer in 2010. Tai grew up in Australia until the age of 15 – whisper it quietly but the heavily tattooed “Woffie” has a motorcycle helmet emblazoned with the Australian flag scratched across his back – and his father was at first reluctant for him to follow in his tyre tracks.
There were always machines hanging around, however, and Woffinden Jnr cut his teeth in motocross, the off-road version of dirt-biking. “My father built a motocross course in the back garden, and one day when we were washing the bikes afterwards I noticed that there were these other bikes in the corner,” he says. “Dad didn’t want to say anything about them at first. But from that moment I was off.”
On the family’s return to Scunthorpe when he was 15 he started riding for the local Scorpions, and the following year he signed up with the Elite League club Wolverhampton Wolves and began his long-standing partnership with his mentor, Peter Adams.
Such was his talent that he was handed a wildcard spot on the Grand Prix circuit at 19. However, the chance came at the wrong time, just three months after his father died, and he performed poorly in that first season, coming 14th out of 15. This is his first full season back at the highest level. So does Woffinden believe he is now reaching his peak? “I don’t think so, there’s still room for improvement,” he says. “I’ve been training hard with my personal trainer and that has definitely helped.”
Woffinden is not feeling nervous ahead of today’s Grand Prix; despite his tender years he has seen it all before. “There’s going to be 50,000 people there and the atmosphere will be amazing. But I’ve ridden in the British Grand Prix before so I know what to expect, it will be like any other race.”
Despite its large grass-roots following, speedway does not receive the public attention that it deserves as one of the most egalitarian of sports. Beneath international level, the machines are basic and all essentially the same. So why is speedway afforded so little coverage?
“I’m not sure,” says Woffinden. “I suppose there’s a lot of people who support football in England, unlike say in Poland. But it’s a real family sport. The other day at Wolverhampton there was an 80-year-old woman in the pits, and she said she hadn’t been to speedway for 40 years. She was loving it!”
If Woffinden can become the youngest world champion since the competition went from a one-off race to a global series in 1995, his exploits might bring back a few more admirers who have drifted away from the shale.