We have all had many ambitions in our lives. Me? I wanted to be a speedway rider!
I can blame my father for this (which is why we have fathers – to be the recipients of ‘blame’) as it was he who took his young son to Meadowbank Speedway in Edinburgh to watch the Saturday night’s competition under floodlights. The sound of the straight through single cylinder speedway bikes, the smell of Castrol R and the shoulder to shoulder racing enthralled me.
I even became a lifetime member of the Meadowbank Speedway Supporters Club. Not that my life membership has done me much good, since they tore down the speedway to build the arena for the Commonwealth Games of 1970. But even tearing down the track did nothing about stopping my ambition to be a speedway rider.
When I was 17 I was undecided as to whether I should enter medical school or take up speedway racing. My parents made the decision for me and it was books, bones and scalpels. I would make the same decision for my children, so I do not hold a grudge.
However, that desire to go speedway racing remained with me, despite graduating as a doctor. I came to know the speedway racers, the engineers, crew and riders. They all became my patients, as I was probably the only doctor in Australia who understood their love of the sport. But I had never swung my leg over a speedway bike.
Speedway bikes are motorcycling minimalism taken to the extreme. A very light tubular frame with a small fuel tank and even smaller seat, fitted with a 500 cc engine, no brakes and no gears. An ignition cut out is fitted on each bike tied around the rider’s wrist to operate when the rider leaves the machine, which they do frequently.
And back to the story – I was rung one Saturday morning by the race engineer for one of Australia’s top professional riders, John Titman. John had cut the tendons in his left hand in an industrial accident on the Friday and he had been operated on and was in hospital, where he was to stay till the middle of the next week. There was only one problem, John had to ride at the speedway that night, or he had to drop out of any chance of the world final later in the year. Could I get him out of hospital, and get him OK to race?
This was a big ask, but by early afternoon we had designed and fabricated an aluminium ‘glove’ which stopped him moving his middle, ring and small fingers, but still would let him grip the handlebar.
John rode below his best, naturally, but placed well enough to go through to the next round of the world championship (where he finished sixth in the final).
When he returned to Australia after the world final he came to see me to thank me for my part in getting him there. “What do I owe you, Doc?” My reply took him aback somewhat. “A ride on your speedway bike!”
And so it happened. 30 years ago, a 42 year old novice swung his leg over a world championship speedway bike. A 500cc methanol burning bike with no brakes. My boyhood ambition was finally realized. I was never going to set the dirt tracks alight, but I had done it. And before you ask, I didn’t fall off either.