Natural talent on a fast track

Norman Fox meets Paul Lee, a 15-year-old speedway star of the future
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BRITAIN'S youngest competitive speedway rider, Paul Lee, who was 15 last month, today faces his first big test when he races in the first round of the British Under-21 championship at Sittingbourne, in Kent. His parents say they would rather he take the risks involved in racing than ride a motorbike on the roads.

Peter Oakes, promoter at Peterborough, the Premier League club which took on Lee as an amateur immediately after his birthday last month, said: "The first time I saw him ride in practice I thought he was a natural. It's too early to talk about being a future champion, but it's time to encourage our youngsters." The sport has long been dominated by foreign imports.

When he signed a year's contract to ride in the reserve league - the Conference - Lee became the youngest rider in Britain to take advantage of new regulations allowing 15-year-olds to ride competitively. It will be another year before he can appear in a senior team. Up to now youngsters have only been allowed to ride in practice sessions, held after the big boys had gone home.

The British Federation set up the Conference to encourage young riders and let them race against more experienced ones. Lee says he can't wait to have a go against riders twice his age and with more knowledge of a sport condemned by its critics as just a matter of getting to the first bend first. "They've always said that, but we wouldn't have been watching it for nearly 20 years if that always happened," his mother, Alison, said.

The Lees home in Stapleford, Nottingham, would be some mums' nightmare: full of leathers, gloves, helmets, goggles, boots, speedway pictures and oily rags bubbling away in the washing machine. Outside, Paul starts up one of his two bikes. The crackle rebounds off the fence. "Oh, the neighbours have been lovely," Alison, said confidently. "I only start up the bikes when I really have to," Paul added, but he can't wait to show them off as an unimpressed dog walker crosses to the other side of the road on the neat estate.

Although the Lees have always been speedway fans, Paul's talent is not inherited. "Dad played a bit as a junior for Notts County," he explained, "but he's never ridden bikes." As for Alison? "I wouldn't ride on a motorbike, but I love the smell of speedway machines." Paul is his own mechanic. His father, Rob, helps out, though he is more familiar with fruit machines - his job is inspecting them.

While most of his school-mates talk about football, Paul keeps quiet about his own passion. "Some of them know that I ride. One or two have come to see me, but they think it's an easy sport." Far from it. For a start there is always danger. "When we go and see the Premier League matches and there's a crash, we have it in our minds that later on it could be Paul," Alison confessed, but she says she would rather him race his speedway bikes than ride on the roads. "That was one of the conditions of buying him the bikes. He sees no danger. At least at the tracks there's medical support." Any crashes yet? "Loads of them at first, but I've not broken anything," Paul said, touching his chair's wooden armrest.

The family has spent over pounds 3,000 on equipment, including two second-hand bikes. "Then we had to sell the car to buy a van for them. Sometimes we've thought we couldn't afford it, but he's got the potential. We look to the future," Alison said. "We've managed to get him a bit of local sponsorship, but when we see the way the foreign riders are treated - bikes, houses, all paid for - it seems a bit unfair. The Scandinavians give their young riders tuition and they grade them. Here we are only just getting round to that. That's one of the reasons our youngsters don't come through - and transfer fees are getting ridiculous."

Peterborough recently spent a British record pounds 35,000 for a rider from Poole. Oakes, the majority shareholder, said: "That's only because of hard work getting sponsorship and other activities and not relying entirely on gate receipts." Even if the club's gates have gone up from 400 to 4,000 in just over two years, the club has seen too many false dawns to believe that one day the sport will again attract huge crowds or make rich men of any but a few leading performers.

"I don't expect to make a fortune," Paul said. "I want the chance to race against the top riders." He never wanted to do anything else. "I played a lot of football, but I got bored. I pestered my mum and dad and got my first speedway bike when I was 13." His mother thought that was "a bit late" because kids start riding grass track at eight. After having some practice at various speedway tracks in the Midlands, he phoned Peterborough and got some after- meeting rides. This season, as he began to compete properly, he immediately had three wins. Today he takes his first step on the way to his world championship dream.

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