On the wrong side of the dirt tracks

Andrew Baker finds the gritty world of speedway is split by fears over safety
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The Independent Online
Until quite recently you could rely on speedway as the antidote to modern sport. It has real arenas: not antiseptic all-seaters, but battered back-street venues that are crowded enough to be friendly, never so packed that you have to queue for a beer. It has noise, the wonderful deep growl of the powerful, basic machines, and smell, the sweet, sharp scent of combusted petrol. It has old-fashioned heroes in battered leathers, gritty because they swallow the stuff night after night but enthusiastic enough to join the fans for a drink in the bar after racing. A relaxed, wise- cracking crowd with nothing to worry about except winning more races tomorrow.

But all that changed last Wednesday, when it was announced that the governing body of world motorcycle sport, the Swiss-based FIM, had fined 13 top speedway riders pounds 2,200 each, and banned them from international competition for the rest of the year. Their crime? Refusing to race on tyres that they considered unsafe.

"I just can't understand it," Carl Stonehewer, one of the fined and banned riders, said. "You get footballers who earn thousands every week fined pounds 500 for destroying a nightclub, and speedway riders who are concerned about safety are fined pounds 2,200 - pounds 2,700 including the costs of the hearing, which we also have to pay. We just can't afford it."

Stonehewer was speaking in the pits at Station Road, Long Eaton, a slight, blond figure juggling a cup of coffee and a cigarette as he prepared to race for Long Eaton Fina Invaders against the Poole JT Commercials Pirates on Wednesday evening - another sign of the sport's lost innocence is clunking, sponsor-friendly team titles.

Stonehewer, an England international, explained his side of the dispute, which arose when the FIM decreed that the world championship overseas final, in Coventry in June, would be raced on "solid block" tyres. "That means tyres without these cuts," he indicated incisions in the tread of the tyres on his race bike, "which help the tyres to grip." Stonehewer tested the solid block tyres the week before the Coventry meeting, and found his bike difficult to control.

"On the straights the thing wanted to spin through 360 degrees," he recalled. "And in the corners it just wanted to go straight on." The riders refused to race on the new tyres, but to placate the fans competed on their normal equipment. The FIM, however, were unimpressed.

How unimpressed can only be gauged by the severity of the fines and bans: no one at their Geneva headquarters was prepared to discuss the matter.

Speedway fans were. "The FIM are crazy," Dave Edwards, the PA announcer at Long Eaton, said. "They should listen to the riders. If the riders don't think it is safe, it isn't safe." The British Speedway Promoters' Association back their riders. "We are not saying the tyres were dangerous," said their spokesman, Peter Oakes, "It's just that they hadn't been properly tested. We'll fight any attempt to ban the riders from competing in this country if they don't pay their fines."

Long Eaton can't afford to have Stonehewer banned: they are in enough trouble already. Their captain, the American "Dukie" Ermolenko, is recovering from a broken thigh sustained in a crash. Their other American, Brent Werner, has been banned from all Speedway tracks unless he is competing at them, following "an incident in a restaurant on the outskirts of Coventry". Another star, Robert Nagy, is convalescing at home in Hungary after treatment for injuries received when an opponent ran over his face in a race in June. And now the Stonehewer fine. Surely they must be due for a change of luck?

Not on Wednesday night. Stonehewer made his first appearance in the fourth heat - and retired with a broken footrest. Shortly after that, his team- mate Les Collins pulled off to the pits, trailing bits of chain. Poole eventually took the win 50-46.

"That were shite," Stonehewer said on his way up to the bar after racing. "We couldn't get any grip on the track." Once in the bar, he got a grip on his tipple, a high-octane shandy composed of a bottle of Budweiser and a bottle of Hooch mixed in a pint glass. The talk was of lawyers and appeals. He bought drinks for his mechanic, bantered with Miss Long Eaton Speedway. But when he smiled, a muscle by one eye twitched.

The Supporters' Club stand sold "Stoney" badges, a cartoon figure with bulging plastic eyes; if you shook it, the black pupils danced, as if in amazement. As if it had just been fined a small fortune for no good reason.