Deep in the vast industrial estates of the Black Country, golden lights flicker; crowds huddle under their yellow beams beside the greyhound track. The spitting, shouting engines roar along the dirt. Drivers sling 3000 horsepower, brakeless bikes, capable of acceleration to top an F1 car around the track. Spraying a mix of mud, gravel and silt into the air, the smell of petrol swirls around the Monmore Stadium - home of the Wolverhampton Wolves. Caged behind advertisement hoardings, the controlled chaos of the speedway plays out. 

 

This antique sport had a golden era in the 70s, when speedway racers were household names. Described as a ‘working class, blue collar sport’, could it once again capture the public's imagination, or is it doomed to the race tracks of the Midlands, unnoticed and forgotten by a new generation?

 

When myself and Ethan arrived in Birmingham that morning we didn't really know what to expect, there isn't much speedway in the capital.  Our combined knowledge of stories from  my grandad, a born and bred black country man, our time growing up in the midlands, and a few brief youtube searches wasn’t much to go on. 

 

We met Drew Kemp before the racing sessions at Parrys International bus station, just outside of Walsall. He was leaning up against one of those folding tables with a little smirk, chatting with the rest of the Wolves team; wearing his personalised bucket hat, long blonde hair falling out either side; he looked relaxed. He’s the new kid but has proved himself on tracks up and down the country and internationally, a three times under nineteen world speedway champion, but you wouldn’t have known it. 

 

“They were all racing motocross back in the day. That's what originally got me into it in the first place. It would have been weird for me, my family, not having someone riding.”

 

Drew, fresh out of school, has poured his life into speedway. “So I’m nineteen now, from the age of four I was doing motocross. At thirteen I was a national level championship rider and then at the end of 2015 I got into speedway. My Grandad used to race, my great grandad used to race, even my uncle races.

 

 “They were all racing motocross back in the day. That's what originally got me into it in the first place. It would have been weird for me, my family, not having someone riding.”

 

Unlike young sportsmen in the UKs more popular sports, he didn't always get the recognition he deserved. “School was a weird one for me because people always think motorsport is a bit of a weird sport. It's not mainstream like football or something like that. I don't think people really understood how big it was.” 

 

Most nineteen year olds are smashing up the nearest spoons, or getting stuck into their local nightlife, but for Drew there's different challenges; Week in, week out, he’s taking on Britain’s top speedway riders. 

 

“I’m not sure how well I balanced school and racing. I put a lot more effort into speedway and probably could have done better at school but I just wanted to race bikes all the time.”

 

It’s widely agreed that speedway, originally from Australia , made its British debut in Epping Forest back in 1928 and hit its golden era in the 70s. Manchester’s Belle Vue was getting 25,000 eager spectators through the gates every week. 37 teams across two leagues, the sport was bouncing. But England changed, and by the mid 90s the sport was struggling. As money and glam permeated the likes of football, speedway declined. 

 

With this in mind,  it's strange looking around the mostly empty Monmore. Of course the hardcores are there in their replica shirts but it's certainly not a sell-out. “It's a shame, if you look back to the 60s and 70s you could have had a whole league that was just teams in London!”. 

 

In 2007, however, Sky took on the broadcasting and it looked like the sport was on a comeback. But as the races struggled to hit figures of other sports around it, the plug was pulled just two years later. BT also tried its luck in 2017, but this blue collar sport was bound to fail on the big screen.

 

There’s a reason for this, explained Drew: “I think people really underestimate the sport until they come and see it. When you hear the engines and see the bike sideways it’s completely different to anything out there. I’ve watched it on TV and it's just not the same”. 

After getting back from the track and rewatching the madness on youtube, we couldn’t help but agree. 

 

In Europe, however, the sport seems to have found a new home. “It's mental when you go to Poland.” Drew says. “I always say, that’s the first time I felt like a proper speedway driver. They took us out on the parad and the people out there are just crazy for it. Fans banging their drums, shouting, throwing the paper rolls it was all mental. Everyones a lot more involved and it's just a bit bigger event over there.”

 

There weren’t any flares at the Monmore; No banging drums, no parades. Just pints, cigs and hardy stowolts in their replica Wolves tops. You know what though, that’s ok. There’s passion there by the bucketload, you can feel it pulsating around the track, you can almost smell it. 

 

With Drew and the new generation of young riders bringing this sport kicking and screaming into a new season, it’s interesting to contemplate where the sport goes next. Is there a new TV deal? It looks unlikely. But even if there aren’t flares, drums, cameras or crowds, they’ll keep racing. Because they love it, it's in their blood, they love going fast.

Words by Oliver Goodwin