Is a capital return just my fantasy?

Published on 20th July 2017
Author George Dodds

In common with many regular users of the internet not all my “friends” are real.
Speedway is plagued by these fantasy friends – the ones who are “never going back again to X, Y or Z because A, B and or C has turned speedway into a laughing stock/circus, joke” – delete as applicable.
My fantasy pals join me in a Utopic world where sexism, racism, ageism – indeed almost all isms – have been consigned to history, Newcastle United fans are becoming bored with winning the league title EVERY season and each Shielfield Park meeting finishes in a 46-44 Bandits’ victory following a last heat decider.
This week, over a pint of Federation Special my “friends and I have been discussing Speedway Grand Prix. It went something like this:
Fantasy Friends: “So are we off to Shielfield again this Saturday? I can’t wait to find out what happens this week. This speedway really comes up with something different every meeting doesn’t it – great racing, crashes, controversy, away wins, men dressed as Indian squaws.”
Me: Well actually no there’s no meeting this week because of the British Grand Prix.
FF: “Oh where’s that being held then? Silverstone, Brands Hatch, Donington Park?”
Me: Er no, none of them – it’s at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff; what used to be the Millennium Stadium before sponsorship and if you’re an owd bugger like me, Cardiff Arms Park.
FF: “OK, I didn’t realise that there was a speedway team in Cardiff.”
Me: Well there’s not actually – there was for a few years just after the war but that’s about it really.
FF: “So is speedway big in Wales then?”
Me: No again, Newport had a team in the 60s and 70s and then again in the noughties and there was a Conference team at Carmarthen but both drifted away from the sport a decade or so ago.
FF: “So why is the British Speedway Grand Prix held in a city, in fact a semi-independent principality with only a tenuous link with the sport?”
Me: Well it has a stadium with a roof which means that the meeting is guaranteed to go ahead – although they did have to open it one year to let the bike fumes out and that resulted in it raining on parts of a track build inside a roofed stadium – the sort of “first” that organisers could have done without.
FF: “Well that sort of makes sense. Now we’re always reading on the British Speedway Forum that fans would come flocking back in their thousands if only promoters paid whatever the big name riders want so I’m assuming Cardiff is packed to the rafters every year.”
Me: Well no, it’s just over half full – around 45,000 – which is probably about the number that watches British league speedway week in, week out. It’s doesn’t really seem to go up or down regardless of who is racing. Mind you we get the same mid-series date every year, Britain has never had a title deciding event in the Cardiff era.
FF: “Another can please – great stuff this Federation Special. Shame they can’t sponsor a speedway team and change its name to that of the beer but no-one would be daft enough to let that happen I suppose.”
I may be tempted to find a Berwick hostelry tuned into BT on Saturday or just wait for it to appear on Youtube within hours of the last heat as any successful lobbying of Mrs D that a GP weekend was a good use of the family fortune would need to involve Warsaw, Melbourne, Los Angeles, even London but certainly not Cardiff.
In fairness to BSI – which runs the GP series – its options were limited in that for differing reasons the previous British GP venues at Hackney, Coventry and Bradford either became unavailable or were just too small for what remains one of the highest attendances in the series.
It was hailed as something of a coup when the GP switched from Brandon to Cardiff in 2001 but in truth the stadium needed a non-rugby sporting attraction to justify its public funding as the English football and rugby league finals prepared to switch back to London following the protracted rebuilding of Wembley.
Indeed it was the decision of Wembley to give speedway the boot after the 1981 World Final which dealt the sport a body blow which many see as the start of its decline.
It is easy to look back on those days with rose-tinted spectacles and forget that the 100,000 full houses reminisced upon were normally somewhere more around the 70,000 mark.
Where the loss of Wembley really hurt was in the sporting press and media where the view is that, with the exception of football, if it doesn’t happen in London it doesn’t count.
Don’t believe me? Then look at rugby union where teams playing in Wycombe, Reading and Cambridge kept London in their titles in a desperate attempt at staying relevant to the National press.
Despite the switch of BBC Sport’s base to Salford – just five miles from the National Speedway Stadium and arguably nearer the heart of speedway’s Midlands/North powerbase – and the success of Tai Woffinden in the series, speedway still sits on the outer margins of the national broadcaster’s radar.
It cannot even be persuaded to give us equal billing with hockey, basketball, ice hockey or women’s football which at least get daily results and fixtures published on its text pages.
Admittedly you’ll also struggle to find more than the scantest of Moto GP or Superbike information – so perhaps it’s an anti-bike racing agenda.
And the answer is?
Well I always though that BSI missed a trick in not even looking to capitalise on Hampden’s transformation for the 2014 Commonwealth Games and staging a Scottish Grand Prix with a temporary track laid over the athletics lanes.
And that ultimately is the way back into the capital with the former Olympic Stadium in east London – less than half a mile away from Hackney’s old Waterden Road haunt – has retractable seating which allows it to stage events such as this year’s Para and able-bodied World athletics championships yet still have a seated capacity of around 60,000.
Crucially, although West Ham United is the stadium’s anchor tenant the stadium must be used for other sports hence its willingness to stage the Race of Champions, rugby of both codes and planned T20 Cricket there.
Speedway may have been missing from the capital for almost a decade now but there are still many old fans of Wimbledon, Hackney and Crayford who would be tempted back for at least one night.
That would allow the sport to build on its annual big night in a way that Cardiff never will.
All it needs is some positive thinking from BSI or for an independent promotion to take on the financial risk of such an event.
That seems less than likely so for the foreseeable future it’s “Mae’r holl ffyrdd yn arwain i Caerdydd(*)” – or watch it from the comfort of your local pub.
* All roads lead to Cardiff

George Dodds
George Dodds

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