Sidecar Speedway is one of the most adrenalin fueled sports you can ever imagine. We ventured up to the Victoria and New South Wales border town of Mildura, where apparently 80% of Victoria’s grapes hale from. Mildura is famous for the aforementioned grapes, the River Murray and speedway, be it 2, 3 and 4 wheels. The superstars of world speedway have graced the dirt track of Olympic Park at one time or another and if there is one town that lives and breathes speedway racing it is Mildura. They are a different breed; the people that take part in sidecar racing. The swingers that crawl all over the back and the side of the bike whilst doing upwards of 130km/h, moving their weight around so that the bike doesn’t career off into the walls that surround the track – quite tricky considering the bikes are generally out of control throughout. Crashes are plentiful; banging bodywork is a given and excitement is guaranteed. #sidecarspeedway #mildura #victoria #australia #crash #sidecars #speedway #motorbikes #dirttrack #olympicpark
I make no bones about it. There is nothing more beautiful in motorsport than seeing a group of speedway bikes slide round a bend in full flight. The noise, the smell, the speed and the closeness of the racing, all make this sport something you have to go and experience live. Faster off the line than Formula 1 car, 80mph down the straights, no gears, no brakes and you have to turn right to go left….. That’s speedway – and when you get 16 of the best riders in the world in the same meeting, then it’s worth the trip across the ditch. However, when I say 16, I really mean 13. Two of the riders were gifted their spots in the World Championship due to other, better riders withdrawing their services due to politics – but it’s not really worth spending the effort debating that issue.
The remaining rider in the meeting is an adopted Kiwi; a 35 year old journeyman from Milton Keynes. Jason Bunyan has been wintering in New Zealand for the past 10 years and because the standard of New Zealand riders has gone by the wayside, since the world domination of the 60s and 70s by household names Barry Briggs, Ronnie Moore and Ivan Mauger. Bunyan has landed the Kiwi Title 9 out of the past 10 years (the other one he missed through injury!) and when the GP circus came to Auckland, he became the logical choice to represent his adopted homeland. In the previous GPs he has picked up a single point in each – gained by beating another rider in one race (you get 3 points for first, 2 for second & 1 for a third in each race).
Mind you, young Aussie hotshot, Darcy Ward nearly didn’t even make it past customs. After filing a “fraudulent” declaration card, a sniffer dog took rather a liking to Mr. Ward, who has had his run-ins with authorities in recent years, and it was discovered that Darcy was concealing an undercover apple in his possession. When the National headlines of the day was a fruit fly had been found the day before, the New Zealand armed forces were on full alert. After being checked wholly for infestation, the New Zealand customs department decided to let Darcy into the country, but detained the apple for further questioning.
Darcy, in the end, may have wished he didn’t make it through customs. After being shunted heavily TWICE into the fence in Heat 10, his next race 14 saw him get T-boned by the German Smolinski. Darcy was knocked unconscious, suffered some knee damage and broke his thumb in the crash – not to mention the costly damage to his bike and helmet!!
The racing was much closer this year than the previous meetings here. It was also moved back to a 6pm start this year to create more of a spectacle under lights. Western Springs is a spectacular venue, surrounded by hills and houses; under lights it becomes even more amazing!
Over 12,000 showed up to watch what could possibly be the last Grand Prix meeting at Western Springs. Putting on a speedway meeting is apparently unbelievably expensive – possibly not in the Bernie Ecclestone bracket, but punter for punter and dollar for dollar it must come pretty close. It was damn expensive too ($120 NZ to sit in the grandstand & $NZ 60 for everywhere else). The promoter somehow is still not breaking even so the costs of putting it on must be
extortionate restrictive (probably not allowed to use extortionate!). This would be such a shame as speedway needs meetings like this one, on a dedicated facility outside of the European heartland.
Ward’s 3 crashes certainly delayed the meeting, as it ran for close to 4 hours. Martin Smolinski, a German, ended up winning the final. I stress that he is a German. It is a fact that even making it into the GP series is quite a shock, let alone winning one. To draw somewhat of a comparison, I guess having a British world class surfer, Chilean snooker player or Jamaican bobsleigher (oh, wait…..) would be close. Smolinski is taking his opportunity to shine with both hands; and the series is better off with a hungry German, than someone else just looking for a payday.
British World Champion Tai Woffinden also got off his sick bed to make the Auckland leg of his title defence. Woffinden discharged himself from a Leicester hospital the previous Sunday in order to make his flight down under. Woffinden suffered 3 crashes in a league meeting and had sustained back pain and ligament damage in his right foot. He arranged for a physio to meet him off the plane in Auckland so try to manage the pain before suiting up for the GP.
They (the doctors) weren’t too impressed when I said ‘I’m leaving, I’ve got a flight to catch to New Zealand! But that’s the way it is; it had to be done.I’m on crutches and the problem is I have to use my right foot which is the one with the ligament damage.
That was caused by the first crash. I thought I’d fractured my foot at first, but thankfully that’s not the case and I will be trying to rest it completely once I get to Auckland. If I have to miss the first practice to make the GP, then so be it.
I will be riding next Saturday. I’m determined to do all the right things this week, but it’s not the best preparation for the first GP of the season.
– Tai Woffinden on just getting to New Zealand
Woffinden scored a gutsy 7 points on the night and only just missed the semi-finals on a countback. It’s a solid start for the Brit that was a 500/1 outsider when he won the World Championship last year. Imagine a footballer playing through the pain barrier just to get out there – oh no, you can’t… they just wouldn’t would they????
Chris Holder flew the flag for the Aussie contingent – again a huge amount flew across for the meeting – it was estimated 2000+ Aussies flew over for this. Imagine what it would be like to have a GP in Australia – perhaps even a double header weekend in Melbourne with the Formula 1?? You heard it here first!!! Holder made the semi final with 10 points from his heats and was unlucky not to make the final when he got squeezed out by Dane Nicki Pedersen in the semi final showdown. The final was contested by a Swede, a Dane, a Pole and a German – there is possibly some sort of joke in there somewhere, but I’d rather leave that for now.
I will put up a different video of the event, but for now, this clip of the final catches all of the excitement. There has been 170+ Grand Prix Finals and this was probably the best one of the lot. Martin Smolinski wears the Yellow helmet. It pays to follow his progress through the race and see the miracle and beauty that is World Championship Speedway.
We can only hope that the Auckland round of the Speedway GP continues long into the future. Let’s also hope it becomes an annual double header with a round in Australia the week before – it could happen!!!!
ROUND 1 – SPEEDWAY GRAND PRIX
WINNER: Martin Smolinski (GER)
I had actually traveled to Auckland for the First Round of the Speedway GP Series and found myself looking for something to do on the preceding day – I was actually waiting for an interview to be confirmed, but that never happened! So what else do you do apart from heading off to a secluded beach on the West Coast of the North Island, about half an hour South of Auckland. When you get a little bit off the beaten track in New Zealand, signposts do not seem to be their strong point. I got close to where I thought I should be, but clearly not close enough. Another half hour later after driving uphill and down dale, I finally cleared the final rise and dropped down sharply, to pull onto a black sanded beach. Apart from me and two horses, there is no-one there; except for the throng of 60 odd jetskis!!!!
So what is The Yamaha Festival of Freeride all about? Essentially, it’s about expressing yourself on a jetski and using the favourable conditions to see what you can actually get a jetski to do. This generally includes back flips, side flips, massive air as well as some fancy trickery. Apparently “this spot on the west coast offers an ideally consistent swell, which encourages a wide variety of tricks” – I was told this by one of the competitors – can you tell? I have to be honest, he wasn’t wrong – the results are quite amazing.
Saying that it is easy to watch, but the event is difficult to follow – there are no announcements and no public viewing information; although I was probably the only spectator there that wasn’t related to any of the riders – I guess everyone else knew what was happening! However, it is non-stop action so I didn’t really have to know. As soon as 1 group finishes their session, the next group are straight out there. All you have to do is keep watching the water, ready for the spectacular!
There are only a few sessions that are “competitive”, and these are elective options only – I guess the rest of the time, you are just having mountains of fun! I am lead to believe that the “biggest air” and “trickiest trick” are the blue riband events. However, they do also give prizes to the “cherry-poppers” – those riders that successfully pull off a back flip for the first time.
It was a nice distraction from the everyday sports I get to watch. Seeing as these were generally the local Kiwis having a go, I wouldn’t mind witnessing something on a more International scale, if there is such a thing. Some of the tricks that these guys were pulling off were “fully sick bro”. I can only imagine what the X-games types may be able to carry off. The mind boggles.
In a town with only a couple of hundred people, in the middle of an agricultural area, amazingly Undera has a speedway track. Although, it is true that as Australian “country kids” grow up, they ride motorbikes. So, it is not entirely surprising that those urban metropolises (metropoli ?) such as Merbein, Appin and Pelaw Main produce world class speedway riders. All of these kids are desperate to follow in the footsteps of world renown Australians (but hardly known in their homeland) Billy Sanders, Jason Crump, Leigh Adams and of course one of my boyhood heroes, Newport legend Phil Crump (Jason’s dad!).
It seems that as a minority sport, speedway in Australia is proving quite popular with the younger “X-games” generation, as it is quite cheap to get into and is one of the only motorsports where you can get paid as soon as you hit the senior ranks. In near enough every other class, both 2 and 4 wheels, unless you are some sort of child protege, it could well be years before you generate any revenue whatsoever. Speedway has an advantage in that it is the only motorsport where there are teams that race against each other in fixtures (or league racing). These are primarily in Poland, Sweden, the UK and other parts of Europe, but it does give Australian kids a defined pathway into the professional ranks, if they so desire. All of the 16 riders riding tonight will be off to the UK in the next couple of months to get ready for the European season.
Aside from teams racing, there are individual honours up for grabs. Appin’s own Chris Holder was WORLD CHAMPION in 2012! Unfortunately his 2013 world champion season was ended abruptly when this happened;
Holder ended up with a broken shoulder, a fractured and dislocated hip, a broken pelvis and a shattered heel! Speedway is a cruel sport. With even the slightest of mechanical issues, or a bump or divot in the track surface, a rider’s season (sometimes his career, and sometimes their lives) could be over in an instant. What is more important is that when these guys get injured, their ability to earn goes out of the window. Holder could have earned anywhere up to a $ 1 million in his championship season, but spent most of it in and out of hospital! However, these guys are perhaps the toughest sportsmen on the planet. Holder was back on the bike just 4 months later, ready to win back his Australian title!
The Australian Championship is a 3 round affair with meetings in Kurri Kurri (NSW), Undera (Victoria) and Gillman in Adelaide (SA). It is over in the space of a week, and the riders will cover over 1600 kms, by road, just to compete (plus however many kms just to get home after – for someone like Josh Grajczonek who comes from Nome in Queensland, that is another 2,620 kms!!!!!
Speedway bikes can reach speeds of up to 150kph. They have NO BRAKES and the riders wear very little protective gear. They have immense trust in the other riders around them to be safe and not do anything stupid. There is generally more overtaking in one speedway meeting than there is in an entire season of Formula 1. The thrills and spills are second to none. The fact that you can get so close to the track and see the action right in front of your nose makes it a totally different experience. The smell of the sport is absolutely unique too – some people say it is addictive and that’s why they keep coming back!
And that’s just two reasons why I love speedway!
The Undera track was packed with close to 3,000 people who came for their annual dose of speedway. They brought their own fold-up chairs and picnic hampers and set themselves up for their evening’s entertainment. Except, they would have to wait for it. At Undera they have a prevailing issue with the setting sun which can blind the riders as they race into turn 3. I say it is a prevailing issue, but on this night there was quite a large amount of cloud cover so it shouldn’t have been a problem, right? You do have to remember that you are in the country and they do things at their own pace. Even though there was no impediment from the sun, we still had to wait over an hour past the scheduled start time for some racing!!! The first couple of rounds were fairly processional.
The major surprises were when Holder fell in his first round and then was beaten in his second ride by local youngster (450kms away!) Justin Sedgemen and Troy Batchelor. In his third ride, Holder was narrowly beaten by the man with one of the best names in sport Dakota North – Fanny Chmelar, Randy Bullock, Bernt Haas being the other ones in contention! Holder recovered to win his last two rides and scrape his way into the semi-final. He turned the tables on North in the semi to snag the last place in the main final.
The racing got better as the meeting went on, but the incessant track grading cause it to drag on unnecessarily. There was over an hour wasted, watching the tractor rumble round. This was the only downside of a pretty decent event. There is just too much time being spent with nothing going on. Sports trends are for the “express experience”. A fast game is a good game is the saying. Speedway is no different. The quicker that a meeting can be run, the better it is for everyone. It’s just as well it was a pleasant night, as sitting around in searing heat would have been unbearable.
The final line up was Troy Batchelor (Swindon), Jason Doyle (Leicester Lions), Justin Sedgemen (Edinburgh Monarchs) and of course Holder (Poole – now released). Batchelor has been among the best 30 riders in the world over the past few years, and it was no surprise that when Holder out gated the other 3, that Batchelor tried to chase him down, all guns blazing. Heading into the first bend of the 3rd lap, Batchelor hit a hole that had been developing which shot him forward, crashing into Holder, causing a huge smash involving 3 bikes.
There’s no air fences in deepest rural Victoria, and Holder was catapulted into the wooden perimeter fence. He was down, shaken and received treatment for a good 15 minutes, before coming to his senses. He duly got up, limped back to the pits, acknowledged the applause from the crowd, got on his spare bike and got ready for the re-run of the final – which he duly won! Speedway riders are a unique breed of human being – it takes something special to get smashed up and then just get back on the bike and do it all over again. I’m not sure anyone will ever know quite what goes on under the helmet!
I don’t have any footage of the crash or the final itself, but I did get one of the heats to give some idea of the track and its setting!
ROUND 2 – AUSTRALIAN CHAMPIONSHIPS
WINNER: Chris Holder (NSW)
There are some minority sports that have huge followings, but for one reason or another just haven’t caught on in the eyes of the general public. Speedway racing was invented in Australia around 1923 and is the only genuine form of team motor-sport, in match racing fixtures. But individuals also ride on an individual basis too, to ultimately become “world-champion”, or in this case Australian Champion. In Poland, Sweden, Denmark, and some isolated parts of the UK, speedway riders are household names and earn a decent living. In Australia, speedway riders emerge from nowhere and more often than not, look like they were born to slide bikes round an oval track.
25 riders entered the 3 round series, the majority of which were born in the 90s! The Friday night saw a qualifying meeting for the main series, where 15 riders rode off for the 7 available spots in the series. All 15 riders were under 20 – an astonishing statistic considering the distances you have to travel in Australia just to ride on a speedway track. A moderate crowd turned out to witness the future of Australia’s exports race their guts out for what essentially is only experience and a skinnier wallet, as quite frankly there is no money in the sport, domestically anyway.
I can quite honestly say that speedway is the most spectacular and exciting of all motor-sport across the globe. When you ask people about Formula 1, most people tell you they only really watch the first few laps as that is where most of the excitement actually happens. Well in a speedway meeting, you get anything between 15 and 22 of these. Every race only lasts a “first few laps” and they do it all again… and again…. and again. There is more overtaking in one speedway meeting than there is in an entire F1 season!!!! Speedway bikes have no brakes, are ethanol fuelled, can easily do 75 mph and accelerate faster than a F1 car! Talk about extreme!
The racing was close and competitive and best of all – quick! Both in terms of the races and the amount of time it took to run the meeting, even with a 25 minute delay, because we had to wait for the sun to set before we could start! Apparently the hottest country on Earth conveniently forgets about that blazing, blinding, cancer causing ball of fire in the sky, perhaps being a hazard to 4 blokes on bikes, going over 100 km/h with no brakes!!!
The Friday night meeting was really only a taster for the die-hard speedway fan to get their teeth into the main event. The Saturday night was shaping up to be a decent night’s entertainment. I drove to the North Brisbane complex expecting perhaps a bit of a queue to get in, but a 300 metre log jam of cars!!! I must have been at the wrong place. 20 minutes later, we got through the gates and followed the cars through to the 3rd overflow car park. It was lucky we had a 4WD, otherwise we’d still be looking for somewhere suitable to park! 8,000 people turned up to witness this bastard lovechild between road-racing and motocross!
Again we had to wait for the sun to remove itself from the Queensland summer sky, before we got on with the action. The racing was somewhat quicker and more cut-throat than the previous night. In Heat 8 – this happened (remember to come back!)
Unfortunately in that crash the rider to the left of the picture snapped a femur and will probably go without an income from the sport for around 9 months! A big price to pay in a meeting where there is little prize! In a strange form of payback, the rider that caused the crash, blew his engine up in the next race when doing a practice start and had to withdraw from the series! We did have to wait 20 minutes for the ambulance to take Kozza away and for a replacement “meat-wagon” to be on site, so that racing could resume, but that’s speedway and accidents do happen. All the overtaking was greeted with whoops and hollering, and the close, body on body racing was cheered with the usual loud gasps of astonishment that these guys don’t end up in a heap on the track.
This adrenaline packed sport continually offers something new every couple of minutes. Its dangerous. Its different and for the obvious reasons, unbelievably addictive. There is also a unique smell to the sport that you ultimately crave more of too! At the end of the night, the rider that was expected to win who was the highest ranked rider in the world , who had the most experience and more than likely the best equipment did triumph, despite a slight hiccup early on.
All in all, it was great to see live speedway again. The thrills and spills, the pure speed and the sheer guts, determination and skill these guys put on show for what is essentially “kicks” makes this sport, for me, the greatest show on two wheels. Long may it live on and just as a word of advice, go and it see it for yourself, just once – you wont be disappointed. If there are sidecars involved, be prepared for your eyes to grow stalks, because sidecar speedway is twice as dangerous and I have no doubt that the guys that take part are ten times as mad as speedway riders – but they drink ten times as much too!
A FINAL WINNER – CHRIS HOLDER (20 points)
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