George Dodds's picture

Nice one Tai.
Three world titles under his belt by the age of 30 officially makes Mr Woffinden the most successful Brit in World Speedway Championship history but does it make him the greatest British speedway rider ever?
Hot on the heels of Saturday’s Torun victory in both meeting and Grand Prix series there was no shortage ready to put the Scunny’s most famous son on a Muhammad Ali-like pedestal – one of the first being the nameless author of a piece on British Speedway’s official website.
“Scunthorpe-born Woffinden created history at the weekend by claiming a third championship in six seasons and has now become the greatest British rider of all-time”, he breathlessly twittered and in the modern way of cut and paste news (yes I do understand the meaning of irony, pot-calling-kettle-black and hypocrisy along with thousands of other words) it was a claim which soon, to use the vernacular, gained traction.
Within hours of the champagne flying in Poland there were calls for Tai to be knighted, nominated for Sports Personality of the Year, elected Pope, made Governor of the Bank of England, marry a minor Royal and present the Women's FA Cup at Wembley.
There may also have been the odd mention that his dad Rob may just have been a former Bandit and that as a teenager Tai guested for us on a number of occasions before a decade later attending the court of King Kenny and Emperor Normski to entertain the Shielfield masses with racy tales.
I’ll admit that I’m always up for a good argument: if anyone’s at a loose end on a Saturday night between now and the end of season dance I’ll happily debunk the nonsense that the earth is spherical; most certainly DO believe that it’s not butter; that Manchester City’s bottomless shady money pit benefits all English football and the SNP became a credible political force simply by replacing Alex Salmond with Wee Jimmie Crankie.
But is Tai the greatest speedway rider Britain has ever produced?
Has there never been his equal or better?
Or, rather like the hokey cokey, is the World title really what it’s all about?
If you really want to lob a hand grenade into the debate (me, make trouble just for the sake of it … never) did Britain even produce Tai or was he, like so much that is considered British these days, actually “made” abroad and then tweaked and reassembled within our island boundaries and a Union Jack stamped on his back?
If you follow the “World titles define a career” argument, and it is a perfectly reasonable stance to take, then all is done and dusted.
But bear in mind that does rule out pioneers such as Jack Parker – virtually unbeatable in his day; unfortunately a day that largely preceded the world championship and was interrupted by World War II.
World title win number three moves Tai ahead of British two-timers Peter Craven and Freddie Williams. By the Greatest Speedway Brit reckoning that makes him three times better than Britain’s other world champions Peter Collins, Michael Lee, Gary Havelock, Mark Loram and Tommy Price.
Internationally, if you follow this logic, he is now ranked above Ronnie Moore and Bruce Penhall; on a par with Erik Gundersen, Ole Olsen and Australia’s official finest Jason Crump.
Even better Tai can now “officially” be considered as good as Nicki Pedersen.
With age very much on his side the records of Barry Briggs, Ivan Mauger, Ove Fundin and Tony Rickardsson are well within the GSB’s grasp – assuming he wants to continue chasing championship gold rather than retiring and following the somewhat safer alternative of counting the cash.
As he told us on more than one occasion during last Winter’s B&G love-in speedway has already made Tai a millionaire – although whether or not that included unpaid Swedish invoices was not made clear.
Some will argue that winning a one-off world final was tougher than lifting a Grand Prix series.
Before 1995 one bad race, a tapes exclusion or breakdown – ask Dave Jessup, Malcolm Simmons, Kenny Carter – could cost you the world title.
Nowadays you can have a couple of bad races but still win a Grand Prix by getting your act together in the semi-finals and final on the night.
Indeed as Loram proved in 2000 it is possible to be crowned World Champion without actually winning a meeting.
There’s also the closed shop of the current series with the top eight guaranteed a spot in the subsequent year’s event and wildcards seemingly handed out as much on the basis of national need as on-track ability.
Tai himself found a way back into the GPs in 2013 thanks to BSI.
That he took full advantage of the opportunity and nailed his first world title is a nod towards GSB status but spare a thought for the likes of Collins and his predecessors who had to battle their way through a mystifying series of qualifying rounds against the cream of Australasia, America and the Nordic countries just to reach that year’s big night.
Indeed, and modern fans may find this hard to believe, even securing the top six place in the British Final – itself reached after up to 12 qualifying rounds and two semi-finals – needed to progress into the world stage of the qualifiers tripped up many a good Brit on the day.
Then came Commonwealth, Inter-Continental, British-Nordic elimination meetings – qualifying rounds designed to make grown riders weep, staged on tracks picked to give home contingents maximum opportunity while catching out wary first-time visitors.
Qualifying rounds in Sweden, Denmark or Poland were like minefields for riders who rarely ventured beyond their national boundaries except on international duty.
Modern GP riders can now race for titles on the tracks which pay them their weekly league wage in Sweden and Poland – something which makes Collins’ 1976 victory in Katowice even more noteworthy.
Arguably finishing as runner-up to Mauger in Gothenburg the following year was a greater achievement as Collins had badly broken his leg just days before the World Final.
PC was at his peak in the mid-70s but two engine failures in the 1978 British Final saw him finish tenth at Coventry and eliminated from that year’s title chase.
No way back, no second chances, no Wembley wildcard.
Two years later it was the turn of defending champion Mauger and 1978 winner Ole Olsen to fail to make the final night at Ullevi
Bad luck is not the only reason that PC keeps appearing in this week’s blog.
Quite simply in my, not especially humble, opinion he is the one man who blocks the claim of supporters of Tai’s claim to being the Greatest Speedway Brit Ever.
One Winged Wheel was sparse recompense for Collins – although he did back it up with five team and three pairs gold medals.
For me he remains British Speedway’s Number 1 … but unless Mr Woffinden retires soon it is a title which he will only hold for another couple of years at the most.