A Speedway Slant—By Steven L. Thompson

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Photo by Gordon Keown

29 May 2011, 1700 hrs local, Mildenhall, Suffolk, England: Stationed as I was at RAF Mildenhall from May, 1969, to July, 1972, it came naturally to me to think in military terms as I gazed out over the crowd at the Mildenhall Speedway Stadium, even though the stadium has nothing to do with the base. Going to military bases does that to me, among other things. (Automatic, unstoppable thoughts: "Uniform squared away? Haircut okay? Going TDY today?") But now, almost four decades after I left the Air Force base a few miles from this bustling speedway track, there is no sign of military anything, apart from a few spectators who look like Air Force types, even in mufti.

I'm here in England to do research for my next novel, and watching this speedway match between the Mildenhall Fen Tigers and the Isle of Wight Islanders has nothing to do with the research. But I can never resist the allure of a dirt-track motorcycle race anywhere I might be. And speedway tops my list of favorite dirt-track events when it involves team racing, as British speedway has almost since its advent in 1928 (or 1927, depending on whose version of the history you believe). The Aussies brought speedway to Britain that year, and everybody agrees that speedway as we know it was an Australian creation of the early 1920s.

When I was here in the Air Force, I was roadracing in the Auto-Cycle Union as a National-class rider on my 350cc Shepherd-Kawasaki. But I got involved with speedway, tangentially, two ways. First, when I went to the Isle of Man in 1970 to race my bike in the Manx Grand Prix's Junior (350cc) class, I got to know another racer riding a bike fettled by my tuner, Terry Shepherd. Peter Strong was then a sub-editor at the British weekly Motor Cycle News and was doing a story about riding in the Manx Grand Prix aboard a Suzuki "Super Six" production bike turned into a GP bike by Shepherd. My racebike didn't make it through practice week, due to a failed gearbox, but Peter finished a respectable 30th in the Lightweight and got his story about MGP racing on a budget.

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Speedway Slant

”—just as you’d expect from a rider who impressed a tough talent scout for a pro team 40 years ago.

Memories of Jim and Peter and British speedway as it once was flicked through my mind as I watched the Fen Tigers take on the Islanders. Their bike technology was vastly different, of course, and the Fen Tigers team itself not even organized until long after I was back in the States. But what happened out there on the track when rider and machine were released by the tapes at the start of every four-lap race was just the same as it always had been in British speedway: ferociously tight racing, amazing skill and rear wheels spewing bits of track into the air, although the roost-shields on the bikes kept it all less dusty than in the old days.

If you’ve never been to a speedway race, you owe it to yourself to experience it. But be warned: Speedway is addictive, especially when you have a home team to root for. And my home team, I realized that beautiful Sunday in Suffolk, was the Mildenhall Fen Tigers.

Oh, yes: That day, they beat the Islanders.