History of Speedway
On December 15, 1923, motorcycle speedway was born in Maitland, Australia. One hundred years on, FIM Speedway will be celebrating the sport’s centenary season in style.
Throughout 2023, we will tell speedway’s story, honour the legends of our great sport and share priceless memories with our fans around the world as we look back at a century of racing …
IN THE BEGINNING
Speedway was born at Maitland Showgrounds in New South Wales, set in Australia’s stunning Hunter Valley wine region – around two hours from Sydney and close to modern-day Aussie venue Kurri Kurri.
One of the earliest speedway bikes was a Harley Davidson Peashooter, and this is the machine riders raced before they exported their sport to Europe in the late 1920s.
Britain staged its very first speedway meeting at High Beech in Epping Forest, North London on February 19, 1928, with fans standing both inside and outside of the track to experience this new sport.
Clubs sprung up across the UK, including Manchester’s Belle Vue Aces, who have staged racing every year since 1928 – defying the Second World War and the Covid-19 pandemic to remain the world’s oldest continually operating speedway club.
The first British league champions were the Wembley Lions in 1932, and while their venue was better known to football fans as the home of the England football team and the FA Cup Final, around 100,000 spectators regularly packed Wembley Stadium for speedway’s iconic World Finals.
While the Speedway GP stars have competed for the sport’s biggest prize over a series, ranging from six to 12 rounds since 1995, the heroes of the 20th century battled it out over several regional qualifiers for the right to race in the World Final.
With no semi-finals or final, a World Final saw riders go wheel to wheel over 20 heats, with the top scorer crowned world champion. With only five rides to change their life, whoever got it right on the night secured their place in speedway legend.
The first FIM Speedway World Championship winner was crowned at Wembley in 1936, with Aussie racer Lionel van Praag lifting the trophy, closely followed by USA’s Jack Milne in 1937 and Australia’s Bluey Wilkinson in 1938.
The outbreak of the Second World War forced the cancellation of the 1939 World Final and while some speedway continued during the conflict, the World Championship didn’t resume until 1949, when England’s Tommy Price became his nation’s first world champion.
The 1950s saw new heroes emerge as Freddie Williams of Wales, Australia’s Jack Young and New Zealand’s Ronnie Moore won world title doubles, while Kiwi great Barry Briggs won the first of four gold medals – three of them achieved with 15-point maximums.
Sweden’s Ove Fundin was the star of the 1950s and 1960s, racing to five world titles and an astonishing 10 straight seasons in the world’s top three between 1956 and 1965 – a record matched only by Aussie great Jason Crump between 2001 and 2010.
As well as being Sweden’s first world champion, he led his country to victory in the first-ever FIM Speedway World Team Cup Final at Gothenburg’s Ullevi Stadium in 1960.
Fundin also joined forces with Torbjörn Harrysson to win the first FIM Speedway World Pairs event – the forerunner for today’s FIM Speedway of Nations – at German track Kempten in 1968.
The 1960s saw the World Final head to mainland Europe for the first time, with Swedish city Malmo staging the first title-decider away from Wembley, won by Fundin in 1961, with Gothenburg going on to host the event nine times.
Another great emerged in the late 1960s as New Zealand legend Ivan Mauger began his dominance of the sport, winning three straight world titles from 1968 to 1970, before adding another three in 1972, 1977 and 1979.
He remains the only rider in the sport’s history to win three world titles in a row, and his haul of six championships is unequalled in the pre-Speedway GP era, with only SGP legend Tony Rickardsson matching that figure.
Mauger’s third victory came in Poland’s first World Final in 1970, staged at Wroclaw’s Olympic Stadium – home of the 2023 FIM Speedway World Cup.
Chorzow’s Silesian Stadium hosted the first of four World Finals in 1973. That night saw Mauger finish second as Poland’s first-ever world champion Jerzy Szczakiel took his place in history.
The 1970s also saw the start of a new era of Danish dominance in the sport as Ole Olsen emerged as the nation’s first world champion in Gothenburg in 1971, with two more titles following in 1975 and 1978.
Determined to boost the sport’s profile in his homeland, he constructed the famous Vojens Speedway Center in 1975, giving Denmark a glorious stage to host speedway’s top events.
The 24th and last World Final to take place at Wembley in 1981 was won by Californian star Bruce Penhall – the USA’s first world champion since Jack Milne topped the podium at World Final No.2 in 1937.
For the first and only time in FIM Speedway history, the 1982 world champion was crowned in the USA, with Bruce Penhall retaining his title, before retiring on the rostrum to pursue an acting career.
As Ole Olsen stepped out of the limelight, a golden generation of Danes followed him to the top of the sport in the 1980s, with arch-rivals Hans Nielsen and Erik Gundersen fighting furiously over the world title.
Erik Gundersen won back-to-back gold medals in 1984 and 1985, before Hans Nielsen picked up two in a row in 1986 and 1987 – the second of those titles coming in Amsterdam at the one and only World Final contested over two days.
Gundersen’s third and final title came in 1988, before his career was cruelly ended when he suffered life-changing injuries in a crash at the 1989 World Team Cup Final in Bradford.
The Danes continued to dominate with Nielsen claiming No.3 in 1989 and Jan O Pedersen adding his name to the list of champions in 1991. But the nation’s first champion was far from done on the world stage.
SPEEDWAY GP IS BORN
In a quest to turn speedway riders into household names and raise the sport’s profile across the world, Ole Olsen conceived the concept of the FIM Speedway Grand Prix series – meaning the world champion would no longer be decided over a single night of racing.
After hosting the last-ever World Final at Vojens in 1994, which saw Swedish shooting star Tony Rickardsson pick up his first world title, the Speedway GP series was born in 1995.
Polish legend Tomasz Gollob was the first-ever Speedway GP winner in Wroclaw on May 23, 1995, in the year Hans Nielsen went on to make history as the sport’s first Speedway GP world champion. It was to be the last of his four world titles and he remains Denmark’s most successful speedway rider.
The 1990s were a dream for American riders. Following Sam Ermolenko’s World Final win at Pocking in 1993, Billy Hamill became the second Speedway GP world champion in 1996, before Greg Hancock led an unforgettable American one-two on the rostrum with Hamill in 1997.
THE RICKARDSSON YEARS
As the sport approached the 21st century, one man was determined to take Speedway GP to the next level. Step up Tony Rickardsson.
The Swedish maestro powered to back-to-back Speedway GP world titles in 1998 and 1999 and won another pair in 2001 and 2002 – collecting his fifth gold medal at Sydney’s Stadium Australia – the first time the series had ventured outside Europe.
The early 2000s saw huge change in the FIM Speedway world as BSI Speedway purchased the rights to promote the Speedway GP series from the FIM. The company was later purchased by IMG in the mid-2000s.
BSI Speedway relaunched the World Team Cup as the FIM Speedway World Cup, with Australia crowned the first winners of the now famous Ove Fundin Trophy at Wroclaw’s Olympic Stadium in 2001.
New champions emerged as Danish racer Nicki Pedersen stormed to a shock world title in 2003, charging from 12th in 2002 all the way to the top. That victory left Australia’s Jason Crump heartbroken as he finished second for the third straight season.
Crump was not heartbroken for long, though. He celebrated wildly at Hamar’s Viking Ship Stadium in Norway as he turned silver into gold by lifting the 2004 Speedway GP world title.
But Tony Rickardsson was back on top in 2005 as he delivered the crowning glory of his Speedway GP career. Winning an astonishing six Speedway GPs from nine rounds, the Swedish great powered to a record 196 championship points to match Mauger’s record tally of six world titles.
His breathtaking wall of death on the first turn of the 2005 FIM British Speedway GP final in Cardiff will go down as the most jaw-dropping moment of the SGP greatest season a rider has produced – so far.
Tony Rickardsson announced his retirement from racing midway through 2006, with Jason Crump and Nicki Pedersen sharing the top step for the next four years. Crump lifted title No.2 in 2006, before Pedersen dominated the sport in 2007 – matching Rickardsson’s record haul of 196 championship points, albeit from 11 rounds.
Nicki Pedersen retained the crown in 2008, with Crump back on top in 2009 – a season which included a glorious seven-ride maximum to win the FIM British Speedway GP in Cardiff.
One man who was always in the race for Speedway GP glory as the 21st century dawned was Polish icon Tomasz Gollob.
After a storied career, which saw him lead his country with distinction, the all-action 39-year-old ended Poland’s 37-year wait for a speedway world champion, sealing gold at Italian track Terenzano and then picking up the trophy in home city Bydgoszcz.
THE MONSTER MEN
If Tomasz Gollob’s title triumph for Poland proved age is just a number, evergreen American icon Greg Hancock completely redefined what’s possible for a rider in the autumn of their career.
After a huge victory at the 2010 FIM Croatian Speedway GP in Donji Kraljevec, which completely transformed what was threatening to become a disastrous season, Hancock went into 2011 full of desire. And he rewrote the history books by becoming the oldest Speedway GP world champion, aged 41 – fittingly sealing the trophy in Croatia.
Hancock played a key role in the sport’s development away from the track through his partnership with Monster Energy. The energy drink manufacturer then became presentation sponsor of the Speedway GP series in 2012, as well as Monster Energy FIM Speedway World Cup title sponsor.
Monster Energy also sponsored several Speedway GP athletes. Aussie favourite Chris Holder was one of those riders and came out on top in an epic title race with Nicki Pedersen in 2012.
He was soon joined in the Monster Energy family by Tai Woffinden. The Great Britain hero famously re-joined the series after a two-season absence and defied bookmakers’ odds of 500/1 to be crowned Speedway GP world champion at only the second attempt in 2013.
As the next generation of superstars emerged, one of the legends was still proving the man to beat. Greg Hancock claimed title No.3 in 2014, before adding No.4 in 2016 after Tai Woffinden sealed his second in 2015.
Hancock’s fourth and final triumph came at the end of a 2016 season, which saw Aussie racer Jason Doyle win four Speedway GP rounds, before being denied a shot at the title when he crashed out of the penultimate round in Torun.
Doyle roared back into title contention in 2017, only to suffer a broken foot at a PGE Ekstraliga match in Torun.. After hastily undergoing surgery, Speedway GP’s man of steel raced just five days later at the FIM Danish Speedway GP in Horsens, finishing fourth to top the championship standings.
He then powered through the pain barrier for the next four months, sealing the sport’s ultimate prize with a glorious victory at the FIM Australian Speedway GP in Melbourne.
Tai Woffinden inked his name in British speedway folklore in 2018, becoming the nation’s first-ever triple world champion when he sealed the Speedway GP World Championship ahead of Polish star Bartosz Zmarzlik.
That season nearly saw him complete a golden double as the FIM Speedway of Nations launched, with the sport’s world team championship transitioning from a four-team tournament to a pairs event to allow more countries to be able to compete for gold.
Despite winning the FIM SON Grand Final in Wroclaw, Woffinden had to settle for silver as Russian duo Artem Laguta and Emil Sayfutdinov sealed the decisive second and third places to earn their country’s first speedway world championship of any kind. They went on to lift the FIM SON trophy again in 2019 and 2020.
THE ZMARZLIK YEARS?
Poland’s golden generation were rapidly making their mark on the world stage, with the likes of Maciej Janowski, Patryk Dudek and Piotr Pawlicki all playing their part in back-to-back FIM Speedway World Cup wins in 2016 and 2017.
Bartosz Zmarzlik was very much part of this group, but following his Speedway GP debut in 2016, it was the Szczecin-born star who emerged as Poland’s new speedway icon.
After bagging a bronze medal in 2016 and silver in 2018, Bartek stormed to gold in the 2019 Speedway GP series, fighting off a huge challenge from Danish debutant Leon Madsen and Emil Sayfutdinov at the last round in Torun.
Zmarzlik then defied the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020, which badly disrupted the sport’s calendar and closed down racing in many countries, by winning an eight-round Speedway GP series staged over five weeks to become only the third SGP rider in the series’ history to retain the world title.
His dominance was interrupted by a breathtaking season from Artem Laguta in 2021. With Zmarzlik and Laguta winning five of the 11 Speedway GP rounds each, it was one of the all-time great title races. Despite registering 189 points – the fourth highest total in Speedway GP history – Laguta’s haul of 192 – the third best points tally – saw him become the first world champion from Russia.
There was more heartbreak for Zmarzlik in the 2021 FIM SON, with Great Britain defying the loss of talisman Tai Woffinden to injury, as Robert Lambert and Dan Bewley won the Lions’ first world team title since 1989 with a 5-4 victory in the Manchester Grand Final.
Artem Laguta’s 2021 joy was very short-lived when, along with Emil Sayfutdinov, he found himself suspended from the sport by the FIM due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, leaving Bartosz Zmarzlik to lead Speedway GP into a new era.
After agreeing a 10-year partnership with the FIM, Discovery Sports Events replaced BSI Speedway/IMG as FIM Speedway’s global promoter, taking the sport’s presentation, television coverage and youth development pyramid into an exciting new era.
The pits, the central stage, the push-off area and fanzone may have been completely new, but there was a familiar result as Bartosz Zmarzlik powered to three Speedway GP wins, sealing title No.3 with back-to-back victories at the rounds in Vojens and Malilla.
Can he continue his dominance as speedway enters its second century of racing? Stay tuned for an FIM Speedway story that continues to be written …