You might think it’s a bit crazy to race anticlockwise around an oval dirt track on a motorbike that does 0-60 in 2.5 seconds, only turns to the right and has no brakes or gears. But this is exactly what Glasgow’s speedway racers do for the benefit of enthralled crowds every Sunday at Ashfield Stadium.
Sunday, May 3, saw Glasgow Tigers take on the Sheffield Tigers, with both sides fighting for a place in the semi-final of the British Speedway League. Fans of all ages packed the stadium, not that there was a crowd of thousands, but that Ashfield is a stadium in the humblest sense of the word. In fact, unlike most motor sports, the proceedings as a whole were cheerfully low key.
The commentator would have looked more at home calling out bingo numbers on Phoenix Nights as he appealed to the crowd for sponsorship deals and politely asked people not to sit with their legs over the safety barriers. Between heats the track was raked and sprayed with two antique tractors, and the Tiger’s mascot was behaving as though he had just got out of bed with a near fatal hangover.
If you were standing on one of the corners you would be treated to a refreshing spray of red dirt with each circuit of the bikes. Aside from the racing, the Ashfield proprietors kept everyone entertained with a bar, tombola, some fairly basic merchandise and a small chip shop, which proved so popular the queue was never less than half an hour long, though worth the wait ...
An unusual, sweet smell of exhaust fumes hung in the air, not too dissimilar to vegetable oil, evidence of the methanol, or wood alcohol, fuel the bikes must run on. The use of this biofuel makes speedway one of the most environmentally friendly motor sports in the world, and although it is quite toxic I couldn't be sure that my chips had not been cooked in it as well.
Each team put forward seven riders who raced four at a time over fifteen three-lap heats. Three points were awarded to first place, two to second and one to third. The start was delayed by the malfunctioning of the starting mechanism and it was eventually decided to use a long elastic band to start the first few heats: the traditional method, as the commentator told the crowd. Though the elastic was far from satisfactory — the riders nearest the release point had an advantage of a fraction of a second — the starting pole was fixed by heat five.
In speedway the rider quickest off the starting block is usually the winner and so rigorous starting procedures are essential for a level playing field. There were in fact only two successful overtaking attempts that day.
Sean Parker, Glasgow’s esteemed captain and veteran of the sport, took the first heat with a savagely quick 58.7-second run, the fastest time set for the day and almost his track record. He might have been quicker if his bike hadn’t started billowing smoke on his last lap; it was clear that the machine couldn’t handle it’s rider’s grit. Unsurprisingly, lap times deteriorated as track conditions wore down over the afternoon.
Sheffield’s Joel Parsons slid off dramatically in heat three, pushing just a little too hard for the lead and paying for it dearly when he was excluded from the restart. In spite of Parsons’ fall and Parker’s early victory, Sheffield held the lead for the first few heats.
Heat eight provided a seminal turning point in the game when Glasgow’s Josh Grajczonek came first, pushing Glasgow ahead of Sheffield. Another highlight was Chris Mills’ overtake of teammate Paul Cooper in Sheffield’s doomed battle for third place. From then on Sheffield were just wiping the dust from their eyes in the wake of Glasgow’s stampede to victory.
The crowd exploded when James Grieves roared past Sheffield’s captain Ricky Ashworth. Overtaking is rare, risky and very difficult, but always well received.
By the fifteenth and final heat Sheffield needed the full five points available just to pull a draw out of the hat. Unfortunately an over eager Ritchie Hawkins snapped the starting tape and was given a 15-metre penalty effectively scuppering Sheffield’s last chance to claw one back.
Over the course of the competition, it was James Grieves who gave the most distinguished performance, winning all five of his races and picking up the maximum fifteen points. The whole of the Glasgow side did their fans proud.
Parker described his pride to the fans saying: “It’s a good feeling to win, that’s why we ride. When we won I saw someone jumping up and down like it was Christmas.”
He cheerfully dismissed rumours of his retirement to the amusement of the crowd, saying: “This is definitely, possibly, maybe my last year.”
On Friday, May 8, the Tigers suffered a narrow 46-44 defeat to the endearingly named Somerset Rebels in the first leg of their two-part duel and there is a good old-fashioned derby to look forward to when Glasgow race Edinburgh on the May 17. Although the University of Glasgow has yet to field its own speedway team, an afternoon up at the track certainly provides a wholesome diversion.