British speedway has confounded expectations by picking itself up off the dirt numerous times in recent years, but there are genuine fears that the ongoing uncertainty over coronavirus is set to stall the sport’s engines for good.
From its heyday in the 1970s, when crowds in excess of 20,000 frequently flocked to stadiums like Belle Vue, and London alone boasted half a dozen clubs, interest has dwindled to the point where crowds at today’s top clubs often barely graze four figures.
Yet those hardcore loyalists remain so crucial to the sport that their continued absence from the track side – as decreed by the Government’s latest guidance for combating the pandemic’s second wave – could potentially strike its final “hammer blow”, according to British Speedway chairman Rob Godfrey.
“If we don’t start another season then it could end the sport,” Godfrey told the PA news agency. “Yesterday’s news really was a hammer blow, in the sense that it just cracked the skull. You’ve got to fear for our future – it’s heart-breaking, real pit-of-the-stomach time.”
Speedway’s current Premiership and Championship seasons were cancelled in July due to the ongoing uncertainty, and Godfrey believes there is little hope of next year’s campaign starting in March under the current six-month restrictions.
“We were obviously fortunate in that we did not start our season because that would have been a disaster,” added Godfrey. “You can’t start a season then shut it down for six months – it would have made us a laughing stock. But the concern now is where we’re going in the future.
“The latest round of Government measures go as far as March 22, one week after the start of our season, and we could not possibly plan with the restrictions still in place, because we’d be facing the same uncertain situation, along with issues such as sponsors and obtaining visas for riders.”
Godfrey cites Saturday’s British final as an example of the uncertainty. Having achieved status as an official test event, promoters sold 2,200 tickets, only to subsequently be told that numbers must be reduced to 1,000. This week’s development means it must now take place without any spectators – and at a significant financial loss.
“There’s no strategy whatsoever in my opinion,” said Godfrey. “You can’t just keep kicking people in the b******s. We accept that we’re a minority sport, we’re down there already and they just keep kicking us.
⛔️British Final behind closed doors⛔️
Due to the latest government announcement, Saturday's @SpeedwayGB event at Foxhall will now take place without supporters. Details on refunds and how you can still watch the action👇#2020BritishFinal🇬🇧 https://t.co/BqtJZ2HMaZ
— Ipswich Witches (@ipswichspeedway) September 22, 2020
“I can’t emphasise just how ridiculous and demoralising it is. We put our hearts and soul into this sport and people should be allowed to go and watch it.
“Speedway is the number one sport in Poland and they are letting people into stadiums. There’s no reason why it can’t happen here. One thousand people can go to Tesco’s or go to the zoo, but they are not allowed to watch speedway.
“We are not the only sport in this position and hopefully football will lead us out of this, but I think all the sports need to really stick together and unite to make our voices heard.”
Many predicted speedway’s demise when Sky ended its broadcast deal in 2013, yet the emergence of stars like three-time world champion Tai Woffinden, who started his career with Scunthorpe Scorpions, helped to almost single-handedly keep the sport and its attendant dreams afloat.
Names like the Hackney Hawks and the White City Rebels have long disappeared off the sporting map. The real fear for speedway men like Godfrey is that the coronavirus crisis, and its management, could leave their whole sport down and out in the dirt.