It’s been put down as a joke for years, but could the new National Stadium be a fresh dawn for speedway?
he roads are jammed and Star Wars characters dance joyfully to a brass band as racing enthusiasts from across Europe gawp in wonder at the new £8m stadium that has been built purely for their quirky, downtrodden sport.
Speedway, the racing discipline outsiders love to laugh at, rarely has such an opportunity to shine as the grand opening of its new National Stadium in Manchester.
The stadium has been a 10-year labour of love for the Belle Vue Aces club, who persuaded Manchester City Council to invest in an international speedway arena as part of regenerating the east side of the city.
Those Aces, the world’s most famous speedway team who have been in operation since speedway’s pioneering days of 1928, will have the new stadium as their home for league matches. It will also host the national individual championship and this year’s Speedway World Cup finals.
To enthusiasts more accustomed to sharing a timeworn greyhound racing stadium, the new National Speedway Stadium is nothing short of a miracle.
Its seated grandstand with glass-fronted corporate hospitality boxes looms over the Kirkmanshulme Lane and glancing through the passageways reveals beautiful red shale on a brand new track.
The 5500 tickets for the meeting sold out weeks ago, making this British speedway’s first sell-out for decades.
As brightly-adorned fans pour in and fill the stands, club officials talk proudly of their new home. The first spade went into the ground in March 2015 as the Aces embarked on their last season in the adjacent Belle Vue greyhound stadium, where they have been bunked-up with the dogs since 1988.
The waiting’s over
Belle Vue fans have been waiting for this moment since 1987, when the famous Hyde Road stadium was sold from underneath the club’s feet for a reported £10 million and demolished to make way for a car auction site. Promises of a new stadium came to nothing so they moved into the nearby greyhound track in time for the 1988 season. They have been there ever since.
It was better than being homeless, but there was an ever-present sense of sadness and yearning for their old home over the road.
Enter Chris Morton, who’d raced around Hyde Road for 15 seasons and remained an Ace for their first three years at the dog stadium. He took over running the club in 2007 and set about getting the Aces their own stadium. Today is the day that becomes a reality.
Speedway’s coming home
“This brings speedway in this country into the 21st century,” says Mark Lemon, the Aces team manager, as he surveys the rapidly-filling stadium. Lemon sees the massive potential benefit the new venue brings to speedway.
The track, modelled on the old Hyde Road circuit, will be available through the week for practice sessions to develop a generation of homegrown riders. The idea is to reduce the 29 British speedway clubs’ reliance on riders commuting from Scandinavia and eastern Europe.
Lemon says: “This will help bring the next generation of British riders through. Britain is lacking a few top-quality riders. There have been riders over the years who have made a good start and then not gone on, but now they have a place where they can develop properly.
“There are workshops here, engineering facilities and there will be a speedway academy to develop riders for the future and bring them through. In Tai [Woffinden] you’ve got the world speedway champion from Britain and that creates a buzz that can only help.”
Two-time world champion Woffinden is among the riders in tonight’s grand opening meeting, plus another eight riders from the Grand Prix series that will decide this year’s world champ. Save for the British Grand Prix, this is the hottest line-up for an individual meeting in the UK this year.
They’re all racing for the Peter Craven Memorial Trophy, held in memory of the Aces hero who won world titles in 1955 and 1962 before losing his life while racing for Belle Vue in 1963.
But the noises emerging from the riders about tonight’s racing surface aren’t as positive as their comments about their wonderful new surroundings.
Rumours are sweeping the pits about the state of the third and fourth turns, a section of track only laid in the past two-and-a-half weeks because poor weather has set construction back.
The riders convene privately with the referee for tonight’s meeting to discuss matters then emerge to warm up their engines and pull on their distinctive Kevlar race suits, boots and steel shoes. So far so normal.
Much is at stake tonight and, with respect to the family of Peter Craven, the destination of the trophy is near the bottom of that list. There are 5500 fans crammed into the new stadium and ready to watch the dawn of a new era. A sport whose fans are more likely to accuse it of shooting itself in the foot are watching as it aims for the stars.
But while the stakes are high for the club, the tragic demise of Craven all those years ago is a pertinent reminder of what’s on the line for riders. They could see their week-old season, their career or even their whole future wrecked in a split second.
Riders come… and go
The Lord Mayor of Manchester hauls his burly chains to the infield and cuts a tape to officially open the stadium. The riders walk in unison around the new circuit to be introduced to the capacity crowd. Chris Morton makes an emotional speech that marks the end of a 10-year fight to give the Aces their own home.
The first gaggle of riders ride up to the pit gate to join the track, but the starting tapes aren’t in the down position. This isn’t going to be a race.
In groups of four, the riders emerge to try out the new track, before disappearing into another private meeting with the referee.
The stadium sound system plays a continuous stream of feelgood music, but the atmosphere in the pits is anything but. Officials are tense and refuse journalists access to the pits.
It’s way past the scheduled start time before the supporters start to get restless. Years of this kind of treatment have left speedway fans inured to being left in the dark while decisions are taken in secret. Shouts of ‘what’s going on?’ lead to whistles, jeers, boos and increasingly angry shouts.
The stadium announcer attempts to soothe the waters by finally revealing the riders are discussing track conditions and the likelihood of this meeting going ahead.
Riders emerge from their meeting with the referee and gesture towards mechanics with hands across throats. It signals an end to proceedings.
‘We’re not sheep’
Chris Morton, the man whose passion has brought this facility from pipe dream to solid reality, walks sullenly to the infield to announce in person to the crowd that the party is over before it’s even begun.
He deserves great credit for facing the public in hard times, just as he had done for the more upbeat opening ceremony an hour earlier. But the reception matched the temperature of this chilly Manchester evening as fans who’d travelled for miles and waited for hours vented their frustration.
“This is a disaster for us,” he says. “The riders have been round and they don’t feel it’s fit to race on. We have some of the best riders in the world here and if that’s how they feel then that’s how it is.”
Chris Harris, the British racer who was due to compete tonight, opens the pit gate and runs out to take the microphone. “The track is the perfect shape, but it’s unraceable,” he announces in an impromptu speech. “We could follow each other around, but we’re racers, not sheep,” he adds.
Whether the ripple of applause for Harris is for his willingness to address them or because they back the riders’ decision, it’s clear to see where the supporters’ sympathies lie.
Woffy vows to return
Back in the pits, British speedway’s poster boy Woffinden and arch GP rival Nicki Pedersen are in discussion. For once, the two appear to be on the same side. Woffinden tells MCN: “Everything else about this place is positive and we all really wanted to race tonight,” he said. “As riders we didn’t want to come here, get the bikes out the van and then just put them back in. One corner is great and the stadium is amazing, but the surface is dangerous.
“The truth is that we shouldn’t have been here. There was practice here yesterday and the track wasn’t right, so they should have had this meeting on another night. We would all be ready to come back another time,” he added.
Harris, who’d braved the fan fury on the infield, added: “I felt we would have been cheating the public if we’d ridden, as we couldn’t race. We were really keen to ride and we’re as upset as the fans about what’s happened.
“Speedway has been crying out for a stadium like this and we need to support it. We tried to come up with a solution tonight, but none of us could. I hope the fans understand.”
The huge potential of the National Speedway Stadium doesn’t disappear because of one botched evening. No-one will come round and demolish the stands, workshops and engineering facilities in a fit of pique. The academy will still be there to shape future generations of speedway riders.
The World Cup will still be staged here in July in front of 10,000 people and praise from riders suggests the track shape will make for breathtaking racing once the surface is right.
The new stadium remains an incredible shot in the arm for the sport but this opportunity to draw the spotlight to something positive about speedway backfired spectacularly.
Opinion ‘Fans won’t show up’
Nothing in speedway is how it used to be – track surfaces are different, bikes have changed hugely and riders will understandably no longer be pushed around when it comes to racing on unsafe tracks.
The chances of meetings being abandoned are higher than ever as modern, high-revving bikes become even more unpredictable on inconsistent surfaces.
Imagine relying on a spinning rear wheel for the majority of your ability to slow down and turn into a corner. Imagine that when you roll off the throttle the bike speeds up and straightens up. That’s what happens when the surface changes mid-corner, stopping the wheelspin and sending the rider spearing towards the fence.
Something has to change, whether that’s the way the bikes work or the method of track preparation – and to spectators it doesn’t matter which. If they don’t think a race meeting is going to happen they won’t turn up. And without clicking turnstiles there’s no money coming in.
Words: Tony Hoare Photos: Tim Keenan