Speedway: A bright idea for the bikers in lycra

Norman Fox looks at speedway's attempts to resurrect the roar of yesteryear

SPEEDWAY in Britain recently reached its three score years and ten. It is not in the best of health, making its grandstands sometimes feel more like sheltered accommodation. But there is nothing like dressing up to keep you young. The trouble is that the sport has never been overwhelmingly sophisticated. So the little numbers its Elite League riders will be wearing in celebration of this special season are in team colour co-ordinated lycra so luminous that the tracks could dispense with floodlights.

Speedway has rarely stopped looking back to the golden post-war period when crowds would turn up to watch anything that took their minds off the years of austerity. That it survives at all is an achievement. Suggest that the latest of its many relaunches bears a heavy hint of desperation and the chairman of its promoters' association, Terry Russell, does not exactly burst into ear-splitting disagreement. "We need crowds, desperately... we're looking for a new public," he admitted at the fashion show put on at rainswept Arena Essex by several of the world's top, though understandably self-conscious, riders.

Russell did his best to give the impression that the purpose of the new team colours would be to make the sport more "crowd friendly". In fact, the vividly obvious reason for the idea was to look eye-catching on television this season. Unfortunately, all of Russell's hard work to set up a deal with Sky crashed, which came as a terrible blow following the axing of ITV's World of Sports coverage.

So speedway was left with yet another forlorn-looking attempt at a revival. In spite of the fact that black leathers and open exhaust pipes have given way to psychedelic lycra and sound mufflers, the sport is virtually unchanged since the days of packed houses for the Wembley Lions. In a way, that is its appeal and Russell says the hard core of supporters who make up today's average gate of only about 2,000 probably want it that way.

Although stadiums have been closed and teams disbanded, he refuses to countenance radical changes from the age-old four-lap format that has never completely overcome the sport's persistent and all-too frequently justified "first to the first bend wins" criticism. Admittedly a number of stadiums have been lost because housing development engulfed them but an occasional spectator will always be struck by the timeless familiarity of the sport and its often discouraging surroundings.

Russell says the clubs in the Elite were chosen mainly because their stadiums have modern facilities, but the impression of a sport lagging a long way behind the ultra-modern arenas was emphasised by the venue for the re-launch. Anyone going to Arena Essex, which is sited by an old quarry and discreetly hidden from the Lakeside shopping complex, is best advised to brave the pot-holed approach by riding an off-road bike.

Russell persisted. "We are of the opinion that the sport itself has not got a lot wrong with it other than the fact that not a lot of people go. What we're trying to do is make it easier for people coming for the first time to realise that riders wearing the same colours are in fact a team, and that this is a team sport."

He looks enviously at the boom in football and accepts that there is no contest between the sports. Yet though he seems to be attempting to sell a sport that appears past its sell-by date, there is a thriving youth development programme with centres of excellence similar to those set up in football. Even without television the new Elite league of nine clubs is the best in the world. Proportionately it has attracted more outstanding riders than British football has yet drawn top foreign players. Unlike football there are virtually no "has-beens" looking for one last highly paid fling. This season will see the world's No 1 and 2, the Americans Greg Hancock and Billy Hamill, and No 3, Tomasz Gollob, of Poland, all with Elite clubs. Although, like football, there is a feeling that home- produced competitors are being edged out, Russell admits that British speedway should make more of the fact that it is a magnet for the world's most talented riders. But thinking that dressing them up in co-ordinated fluorescent uniforms will put them back in fashion seems a shade optimistic.

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