Despite the diet entering only its 24th hour, I couldn’t resist the smell of greasy, salty, ketchup smothered chips that go hand-in-hand with slightly grubby, open-air stadium sports a step above ‘grass-roots’; the kind of food served in a cold port-a-cabin by an even colder woman. It was however, with a light dusting of sand that I stuffed them into my severely pebble-dashed face, for Speedway is neither elegant nor tidy, as I would quickly discover.
It was my first taste of live Speedway as Poole Pirates took on the Bell Vue Aces at Wimborne Road; the ‘Place of Pace’ for a ‘feast of speed’.
For a while now I’ve believed that sports taking place under floodlights in a confined stadium offer something other sports simply can’t: being penned in with your fellow beer-swilling, chip-munching man creates an atmosphere that only benefits the spectacle. What’s more, with two teams competing, you’re either a fan of one or of the other; neutrals don’t stay neutral for long – cue friendly yet stoutly proud abuse and japery.
Upon revealing the evening’s riders there were howls of cheers for the local Pirates and wails of boos for the visiting Aces. A particular highlight was the issuing of a ‘public warning’ by the referee to the Aces’ rider in yellow; a severe berating from the crowd in the cheap seats was his punishment for a jump-start. The newer, shinier glass-fronted grandstand remained quiet and somewhat more civilised.
The premise of Speedway itself is simple: 15 races, 4 riders in each – 2 from each team – 4 laps of the oval. Winner gets 3 points, 2 for the runner-up, 1 for third and nothing for fourth. If there’s a crash, the race is stopped and restarted without the rider deemed to have caused the stoppage. The winning team is the one with the most points by the end of the night. Simple.
The ‘bikes themselves take off like exocet missiles in a storm of mud, sand and whatever happens to be unfortunate enough to find itself beneath their wheels. From then on, those wheels are rarely in line, with the riders pitching the ‘bike sideways into semi-graceful arcs around each turn, themselves hanging on as competitors try to pass on both sides. All the while spraying the excitable crowd and their chips with debris; a hail fire of stones and sand-clumps; the projectile emissions of motor racing.
The winner gets the plaudits, unless of course he rides for the visitors; the losers get to try again later and the crashers invariably don’t. In only the fourth race of my inaugural Speedway experience the Aces’ Lee Payne was taken to hospital by ambulance after coming a cropper against turn one’s ‘No Pain’ barrier; the visible grimace on the rider’s face made me question the name’s validity.
Regardless, with gravel in my teeth, sand in my eyes and chips in my gob, I was enthralled.
Cheap tickets saw the grandstand seats fill rapidly and the drunker, more excitable the occupants became, the louder they did too, seeming to double in numbers by the time the Pirates amassed an unassailable lead.
The Pirates won the evening at a sideways, mud-flicking canter, much to the delight of the home-crowd and thanks largely to the team’s star attraction Chris Holder, the world’s number 1 of 2012. The fact that they won and he featured, plus the spills, the thrills, the chips and the dirt all added to the atmosphere and enjoyment.
Speedway, it seems, has got under my skin, skin that still carries a fine layer of sand and grime…