Among the many and varied sports that I’ve enjoyed watching over the years on Sky Sports and Eurosport, speedway is perhaps the most annoying one that my parents have had to put up with. Moving to Manchester has provided me with a lot of opportunities, not least of which being the chance to visit the brand new National Speedway Stadium at Belle Vue for a night of racing first-hand.
My girlfriend, Ffion, and her family have long been fans of “banger racing” and caravan-based demolition derbies. I’m sure I would’ve been too had they shown any of those on Eurosport in the late 90s and 00s. She has many fond memories of the racing at the old Speedway Stadium and brought up the idea of going to see the opening meeting of the speedway season, the Peter Craven Memorial Trophy.
It’ll be a help to give a rundown of the basic rules perhaps. Speedway involves 4 riders racing round an oval track for 4 laps. There are 3 points awarded for crossing the finish line 1st, 2 points for 2nd, 1 point for 3rd, and 0 pts for 4th. The meeting was going to be 20 races, with everybody’s points added up as it went along. After the 20th race, the riders in 1st and 2nd overall would go through to the Grand Final, and 3rd-6th would have one final race with the top two riders joining them. Whoever then won in the Final would be champion of the whole meeting. Simple, right?
The National Speedway Stadium in Belle Vue is home to the Premiership’s Belle Vue Aces, and this individual meeting featured riders from the Belle Vue Aces current team, their “Colts” team (as I understood it, their “2nds”), former Aces riders, and famous faces from the world of speedway, including “5th in the world” Matej Zagar, who got, by far, the best reception from the crowd as the riders mounted a trailer and took an introductory circuit of the track, attached the to the back of a large tractor.
The night, as a whole, came in complete contrast to our night at the Premier League darts a couple of weeks ago. While it’s a boring aspect of the story, the parking around the stadium was excellent. If you couldn’t get into the car park at the stadium, then the residential roads nearby proved a safe and uncluttered place to leave your car without fear of a ticket, and with only a very short walk to the stadium.
There was a bit of a long queue for tickets, but they were readily available when it came to it (make of that what you will) and we soon found ourselves heading off to take our place on the south terrace. On the way round we passed a burger van on the road, which seemed unofficial, but it was sure to provide cheaper and equally effective sustenance as any official one could inside the stadium. So we handed over a tenner and got a couple of burgers, chips and drinks. There seems to be a stringently-enforced “Food and Drink” policy at the stadium, so we had to finish our food on the way round to the turnstiles. Fearing that we wouldn’t get in with the remaining coke cans we had, I pinged mine as quickly as I could, and stowed Ffion’s away in my coat pocket. We were soon in, and it felt like we’d really got one over on the draconian system.
We were one of the first in, and got a prime spot right at the front in the middle of the terrace, well placed to see the riders come out of the 2nd bend, floor it down the short straight, and swing into the next. People around us seemed mostly to be hardcore fans, bedecked in leather “Aces” jackets, caps and, in one instance, a full biker suit and helmet. The crowd, it’s fair to say, couldn’t have been further from the darts crowd. Well-behaved and drinking in moderation, there was little fear that at any moment someone might pour a beer over my head for no reason whatsoever.
The weather was meant to be poor, but the rain held off for the whole meeting and we were able to witness a rather lovely sunset as the riders were getting prepared to come out on the track. I ran back to buy a programme from the sellers by the gates, and it’s a good thing I did, as I think we’d have been largely lost without it. There was section in it which detailed all the races that would take place, with boxes for you to note where each rider placed in the races so that you could follow how the action was developing. A great help, if you brought a pen, but unfortunately we hadn’t. Neither of us having been to the speedway itself before, we didn’t know this was a thing, so we felt rather conspicuous as we looked across the terrace to see fan after fan with pens clutched in their teeth, ready to be fully up-to-speed with what was going on. We’d have to rely largely on memory.
The action itself was amazing. It was great to be so close and experience the speed they were going at. For some reason it seemed a whole lot faster than it looked on tv. And it proved difficult to take good pictures of the action, however that could have been down to our inferior photography skills, but we did our best anyway.
As the riders came out of the bend towards us we got regularly showered with dirt and shale from the track. After catching a couple of pieces of shale to the forehead, I resolved to protect my face with the programme as the riders went past. From then on it was only my fingers which took any real damage, though I did take a couple of heavy shots to the ribs. It strangely really felt that you were part of the action, and there was a certain camaraderie amongst the crowd. A woman with a microphone in the middle of the track did her best to get everybody excited for the upcoming heats, with little effect, but nonetheless the atmosphere remained pretty good throughout the night.
Another nice touch was the resident mascot who came round to take pictures with the kids in the crowd and hand out lollipops. Ffion was very disappointed that he didn’t target her with a lollipop, despite being only 22 years of age. I forget his name, but he was a nice touch to the evening.
There were perhaps only 2 negatives about the experience. Firstly, the food/drink van within the stadium was fairly overpriced, with a standard, machine-made hot chocolate costing something like £2.50. Secondly, there was a guy beside us who, in his excitement over the racing, kept leaning over into Ffion, seemingly without noticing he was doing so. He also shouted loudly throughout the entire thing. He’d usually repeat “Go on (insert rider nickname)!” over and over again at top volume, despite having no prospect of being heard by said rider. While that was annoying it was nice to see someone with so much passion for the sport.
All in all, the trip to the speedway was well worth the £34 it cost for 2 terrace tickets, and no doubt we’ll be back once or twice over the course of the season to take in some prime league action. Well worth a visit to the new stadium!