George Dodds's picture

When it comes to writing the history of British speedway’s current parlous state much time should be spent considering what was going on in the FIM Committee rooms in the 1980s.
Up until then the three professional speedway leagues in Europe – then, as now, Britain, Sweden and Poland – had a stranglehold on the World Championship Final.
Australia, New Zealand, Denmark and the USA had provided as many World Champs as the big three – remember Poland still has only had two winners in the championships’ 82 year history – but their riders still had to compete in one of the big three leagues if they wanted to make a living out of the sport.
With Poland still behind the Iron Curtain and Sweden jealously guarding team places for their home-grown riders, Britain was the place to make a buck.
For the first 16 stagings Britain, and Wembley Stadium, had the World Final monopoly. Sweden finally got a look-in in 1961 and after 1970 the big night was shared out between Wembley, Ullevi in Gothenburg and a series of huge Soviet era bowls in Poland.
With the right to stage the final came the potential for huge a financial windfall for the staging association – something that didn’t go un-noticed in the halls of power in Paris where the movers and shakers tended to come from outside of the big three.
Following Wembley’s spectacular last hurrah in 1981 there was a logic to giving the USA the following year’s final with the Americans in their pomp and retired legends Ivan Mauger and Barry Briggs prepared to pour money into the LA venture.
And if the decision to allow West Germany to stage the following year’s final at Norden smelled suspiciously of political deals done in smokey tea rooms then goodness knows what was smoked the day they decided to stage the 1987 event over two days … in Amsterdam – two of the worst days of racing in speedway’s history watched by me and a few hundred others.
The FIM continued to strangle the golden goose with its bare hands as the, then woefully inadequate Vojens and Pocking joined the far more suitable Bradford, Ullevi, Munich and Wroclaw on the staging rota.
The argument was that there were insufficient major stadiums prepared to host speedway’s big night to make the finals a financial success – Mauger, Briggs and co-promoter Harry Oxley were rumoured to have lost a lot of money despite a healthy crowd at the LA Coliseum.
With a blast of true politician’s logic those in power reasoned that if there were not sufficient stadia suitable to host the crowds attracted by speedway’s big night then instead of having the final on one night, spread it out over six.
And so Grand Prix Speedway was born in 1995.
From then on first six, then between ten and 12 Saturdays would be given over to Grand Prix across Europe and occasionally in New Zealand or Australia.
British speedway had been struggling for over a decade from the loss of revenue from Wembley final nights and in 1995 a merger of the leagues had taken place.
Of the top league Eastbourne, Bradford, Cradley Heath, Kings Lynn, Coventry and Swindon raced on a Saturday night; something that became increasingly impossible as the GPs grew in both importance and frequency.
British speedway at the top level was increasingly pushed away from its traditional Saturday racing into the middle of the week.
1995 was also the last time that a British track – officially the London Stadium, but Hackney Wick to everyone – hosted the deciding Grand Prix.
Hackney again in 1996, Bradford the following year and three years at Coventry saw the British Grand Prix take up its now place as a mid-season tear-up.
Martin Dugard’s memorable Millennium victory at Brandon also marked the last time that the British Grand Prix would be staged on a traditional speedway track – or even in a city with a speedway heritage – as sports entrepreneurs BSI paid, reportedly handsomely, for the rights to stage the GPs and for no logical reason decided to take it to Cardiff.
Initially it seemed a success as around 40,000 turned out to see speedway under a roof in Wales.
But the 18th staging at the now-named Principality Stadium will see a similar turnout as the people of Wales steadfastly continue to ignore speedway with the dishonourable exception of the hotel owners who happily bump up their prices for the weekend.
At least in the early Millennium Stadium days Wales had a speedway presence with Newport and, for a spell, Carmarthen racing in the lower leagues.
But now the British Grand Prix is the one and only speedway meeting in Wales every year.
It’s profile outside the closed speedway community continues to submarine. Initially Sky showed the meeting live and there was a weekly highlights package on Channel 4.
But despite the supposed sports promotion genius of first BSI and then IMG the terrestrial TV presence has vanished and, via Eurosport, the live offering is now on the barren wasteland of BT Sports.
What should be a showpiece for speedway is a stagnant mid-season individual meeting raced in a half empty stadium on a poorly shaped track.
The British GP has not been kind to its staging tracks. Hackney now lies under the Olympic Park and BT studios in east London, Bradford’s track is tarmacked over and Brandon in Coventry is being allowed to decay in the hope that the owners can cover it in houses.
I wouldn’t shed too many tears if the roofed over Cardiff Arms Park was added to that list.
London’s former Olympic Stadium and the new Commonwealth Games facility being planned in Birmingham should be closely monitored with a view to moving the British GP into former and current speedway heartlands.
Then there would be a chance of reawakening dormant interest among former fans and drawing a crowd to the GP which demands attention from outside the hardcore fans.
Football failed after a gallant effort but the time is surely right to demand that speedway comes home.