Speedway Nations of Obscurity
Speedway is viewed as a truly international sport with a cosmopolitan line up of riders from all over the world with some nations better represented than others.
When we think of some of the better represented nations we naturally think of nations like Poland, Sweden, Australia, Denmark and of course Great Britain providing the bulk of the riders who entertain us on a weekly basis.
But if you think it's a closed shop after that, you're very much mistaken.
Russia may well boast a couple of the worlds top riders in Artem Laguta and Emil Sayfutdinov but they still probably fall under the banner of a relatively obscure speedway nation, perhaps more famous for their Ice Speedway exploits. Sayfutdinov would of course have a brief spell with Coventry in 2011 and is certainly the most decorated rider from there to appear on British shores. Ilya Bondarenko would have a spell with Leicester in 2011 alongside Sergei Darkin who, before that had enjoyed spells with Arena Essex and Coventry. Denis Gizatullin would spend 2012 and 2013 with Eastbourne and Roman Povazhny would also be associated with the Eagles as well as spells with Wolves and Arena Essex. Renat Gafurov would appear a handful of times for Oxford in 2005, followed by a season with Swindon in 2006 before reemerging with Poole in 2011 and Belle Vue in 2012. While there are a lot of very capable performers to have come out of Russia, there haven't been many have raced in Britain for a significant length of time, although a good few have appeared in the Polish leagues over the years.
While a nation like the Czech Republic perhaps hasn't had the success of some of their arguably better known counterparts, they have provided plenty of riders who have enjoyed successful careers in the UK and abroad. They have generally been fairly well represented over a long period of time with riders like Jiri Stancl, George Stancl, the Dryml brothers, Bo Brhel, Adrian Rymel and Michal Makovsky to name but a few all enjoying long and fruitful careers, with Vaclav Milik leading the charge for the current generation.
There have also been a few riders representing Finland over the years to varying degrees of success. Kai Niemi was a star of the late 70's and 80's for many UK teams as well as making multiple world final appearances. Kauko Niemenen was a very consistent performer in the old UK Premier League and enjoyed a lengthy career which saw him represent Workington, Glasgow and Leicester throughout the years. Riders like Tomi Reima, Jari Makinen and Kalle Katajisto all had relatively brief UK careers and Tero Aarnio has proved to be a solid and dependable performer for every club he has represented. Perhaps Finland's greatest success has been in the modern era with Kaj Laukanen, Timo Lahti and Joonas Kylmakorpi all making waves on the international scene, with the latter claiming four Longtrack World Championships in a row between 2010 and 2013.
Germany are another nation to fit into the same bracket although they do have an individual world champion to their name in Egon Muller. They are probably better known for their domination on the Longtrack scene with Gerd Riss claiming the crown a record eight times. More recently his son Erik Riss also claimed the crown as well as starring on the shale for Edinburgh, Redcar and Kings Lynn in the UK, and his brother Mark would appear for Edinburgh and Ipswich too. Robbie Kessler, Mirko Wolter, Kevin Wolbert and Steffan Mell all enjoyed spells with UK clubs as did current German standout Martin Smolinski, who himself is also another former Longtrack World Champion.
Bradley Wilson-Dean may be the only rider representing New Zealand these days, but he hails from a nation steeped in speedway greatness. In fact New Zealand are behind only Denmark and Sweden in terms of number of World Champions and that is largely due to the dominance of Ivan Mauger, Barry Briggs and Ronnie Moore between the mid 50's and late 70's, in which they amassed 12 gold medals between them. While those days may well be long gone along with their dominance of the sport, the contribution of New Zealand as a speedway nation will never be forgotten. Riders like Mitch Shirra and Bruce Cribb were both loyal servants to British Speedway and enjoyed successful careers despite not reaching the heights of their fellow countrymen. More recently of course Jade Mudgway had spells with both Berwick and Glasgow and is now a promoter at Redcar ensuring that the legacy of New Zealand lives on.
From the very early days of the sport the USA has made its mark, from Jack Milne and his 1937 World Championship win to Greg Hancock and his last championship victory in 2016 there has been representation of the USA at almost every level of the sport. However it would be fair to say early 80's, which saw a golden generation of riders donning the Stars and Stripes, was the true peak of American Speedway. Bruce Penhall, the Morans, Rick Miller, John Cook, Dennis Sigalos all burst on the scene around the same time and they paved the way for the likes of Billy Hamill, Ronnie Correy, Sam Ermolenko and Greg Hancock to wow audiences in the UK and beyond. While not every rider can reach the level of a Penhall or a Hancock but the likes of Brent Werner, Ryan Fisher and Billy Janniro all brought a certain amount flare every time they took to the track, as only the Americans can. While the glory days of the 80's may be long since gone and we may never see the likes again, there is some good work being done with youngsters in America and riders like Luke Becker and Broc Nicol are perhaps only the start of a new breed of rider born in the USA and aiming to bring them out of speedway obscurity.
So we've covered the well known nations of speedway and we've covered the once dominant nations of the sport, but what about some of the lesser known nations?
When asked about some of the better known speedway nations it would probably be fair to say that Norway isn't near the top of that list. Lars Gunnestad put Norway back on the speedway map in the 90's and was a stalwart at Poole throughout the decade and is arguably the nation's most successful rider, however it was Rune Holta who represented them on the world stage until his switch of allegiance to Poland. In the 60's and 70's there were quite a few Norwegian riders on the circuit with some more successful than others. Reidar Eide would become one of the success stories, enjoying very fruitful spells with Edinburgh, Coatbridge and Newport among many others whilst Odd Fossengen starred for Poole around the same time. Names like Rolf Gramstad, Tom Godal, Tormod Langli and Edgar Stangeland would all pop up for a selection of UK clubs in the same sort of time period which on reflection was probably a golden era for speedway in Norway.
Speedway in France seems to have had a little bit of a shot in the arm in recent years with riders like David Bellego and Dimitri Berge making an impact in the UK and further afield. Before them came Phillipe Berge (father of Dimitri) who had spells with Peterborough, Oxford and the Isle Of Wight in the late 90's and brothers Sebastian and Mathieu Tresarrieu who both had spells with various clubs in the UK between 2001 and 2014. Most of the French riders have tended to be fairly proficient on the Longtrack and Grasstrack scene which is arguably more popular than speedway in France, which may well be one of the reasons why we don't see too many French riders make their way over to Britain to race.
There have been a small number of Dutch riders to have appeared in British Speedway with Theo Pijper the most well known having had a near 20 year career in the UK, mostly associated with Edinburgh, Glasgow and Berwick. Peter Vandenberg was a star of the 1960's who, despite being born in Holland, represented Australia and Great Britain. During his lengthy and successful career he would make apperences for Southampton, Wolverhampton, Newport and Aldershot up until 1970. Rudy Muts represented Wimbledon and Henny Kroeze had spells with Halifax and Sheffield in the late 70's and early 80's and more recently Romano Hummel had a very brief spell with Berwick in 2016.
Austria have had a few riders making appearances in UK speedway, most notably Manuel Hauzinger who had spells with Birmingham, Newcastle and Isle of Wight between 2005 and 2009. Of course Dany Gappmier currently rides for Berwick and Fritz Walner had a brief but eventful spell with Scunthorpe in 2016/17. Outside of that there hasn't been a lot of lasting impact made by Austrian riders other than Andreas Bossner (Exeter 1994) Gunther Haslinger (Doncaster and Birmingham 1970 and 1971) and Joe Weichlbauer (Cradley and Reading 1966-1968).
The case of Italy and their contribution to speedway is a curious one as their connections run far deeper than many may imagine. Guiseppe Marzotto may not have pulled up many trees during his 1976 spell with Wolverhampton but his creation of the now iconic GM engine is still being felt in the sport today. Armando Castagna is probably the most successful Italian import having been most associated with Reading during his UK career. He is still involved with the sport as Director of Track Racing for the FIM and his son Paco currently rides for Birmingham. Other Italian riders have had brief spells with a variety of British clubs over the years including Stefano Alfonso, Armando Del Chiele, Guglielmo Franchetti and Mattia Carpanese.
Matej Zagar has been by far the standout rider from Slovenia for the best part of two decades and he continues to represent the nation at Grand Prix level. While he isn't the only Slovenian rider on the circuit, he has by far made the biggest impact. A number of his fellow countrymen have made appearances in the UK but none of them have had the staying power of Zagar. Aleksandr Conda made a handful of appearances for Glasgow in 2009, Maks Gregoric appeared for Redcar around the same time and Matic Voldrih would appear briefly for Berwick in 2015. Outside of that the only other Slovenian to make waves on the bigger stage was Matej Ferjan, who was a Grand Prix rider in the early 2000's as well as a star of the British Elite League for Poole, Belle Vue and Ipswich to name a few.
Ferjan would also represent Hungary later in his career, which in itself is another relatively obscure speedway nation, however they have produced a number of notable riders themselves. One of their most famous riders was Sandor Levai who represented Belle Vue, Newport, Ipswich and Cradley between 1965 and 1975. It wouldn't be until almost 15 years later that a Hungarian rider would make waves in the UK with Antal Kocso appearing for Bradford between 1989 and 1993 and Zoltan Adorjan appearing for Sheffield in 1995 and 1996. But perhaps the biggest impact of all was made by Robert Nagy, a Division Two Riders Champion in 1992 and a huge part of Glasgow's double winning sides of 1993 and 1994. He would also represent Middlesbrough, Hull and Long Eaton, although he didn't enjoy the same success he previously enjoyed with Glasgow. Other Hungarians to have represented British clubs more recently include Norbert Magosi (Peterborough 2004 and Berwick 2008), Jozsef Tabaka (Edinburgh 2010-2013) and Roland Benko (Plymouth 2014).
There are a number of Latvian riders on the circuit, with a couple of their clubs competing in the Polish leagues. However there haven't been many competing on British shores other than Andrej Lebedev who had a handful of meetings for Kings Lynn in 2013. He would of course go on to become a star of the Latvians shock elimination of Denmark at the World Cup in 2017 and looked destined for Grand Prix racing, which of course could still happen. Perhaps even more obscure than Latvia is Slovakia with Martin Vaculik the undoubted star from there. While his British career was finished before it really started he is consistently one of the top performers on the international scene with three Grand Prix wins to his name.
Other nations with very few notable riders are Croatia, Estonia and South Africa. Jurica Pavlic looked like he may go on to become Croatia's first Grand Prix rider in his early career and a number of eye catching appearances for Swindon around 2008 and 2009 seemed to back that up. It wasn't to be for Pavlic and while he maybe never reached the heights his early promise showed, he enjoyed a decent career until his shock retirement earlier this year. Rene Aas would finish second to Chris Louis in the 1990 World under 21 final, ahead of Tony Rickardsson who finished third. He then became the first rider from the old Soviet Union to ride in Britain, representing Sheffield, Bradford, Stoke, Hull and Edinburgh between 1993 and 2001, proving to be a solid middle order rider. South Africa have had a number of riders attempt to make their mark on British Speedway too, Bevan Compton made a number of appearances and showed real promise for Berwick back in 2001 before a nasty knee injury ended his career. Byron Bekker would appear on British soil a few years later but outside of relatively lengthy spells with Scunthorpe and Edinburgh, he often struggled to hold down a regular team place in the Premier League although he was a very accomplished rider at National League level.
There haven't been many Canadian riders to have ridden regularly in Britain but Kyle Legault is certainly the most recent and and arguably the most proficient. He proved to be a dependable performer best known for his time with Sheffield but he also represented Mildenhall, Newport and Birmingham between 2005 and 2011 but injuries blighted his career and hindered his progress. Gary Ford would spend a season at Weymouth back in 1978 and Shawn Venables would ride a few matches for Hackney between 1988 and 1990 before spells with Middlesbrough, Belle Vue and Sheffield up until 1994.
South America is probably more famous for it's football than anything else but they do have connections in speedway too. Antonio Lindback may have represented Sweden in his career but he was of course born in Brazil. Argentina is often the winter destination for a number of riders as they aim to keep sharp during the off season and a number of riders from there have made appearances on British soil. Perhaps the most successful of these was Emiliano Sanchez, who became something of a journeyman between 1999 and 2012, representing Glasgow, Trelawny, Birmingham and Sheffield among others, including being part of league winning sides for Hull and Kings Lynn. Nico Covatti could well give Sanchez a run for his money in terms of success during his career. A solid heat leader at Championship level, he has proven time and time again he is capable of beating just about anyone on his day. A former Ipswich, Birmingham and Somerset rider, he was due to ride for Kent in 2020 which obviously never happened and at this time it remains unknown what the future holds for him in Britain.
It is also worth noting that both Covatti and Sanchez also represented Italy during their careers, itself another somewhat lesser known speedway nation. Other Argentinians to ride in Britain include Carlos Villar, Facundo Albin and Fernando Garcia. Villar joined Berwick as a complete unknown in 2003 but soon became somewhat of a cult hero with his all action style. Tragically at the end of that season a track crash would leave Carlos with life changing injuries and as such he would never get the chance to build on his impressive debut season. Albin would ride a season for Sheffield in 2013 and Garcia has had spells with Glasgow, Edinburgh, Ipswich, Redcar and Berwick, to where he returned in 2019 having started his career there in 2015.
Perhaps the most surprising of the obscure speedway nations though is Zimbabwe, formerly known as Rhodesia. There have actually been a surprising number of riders from there to compete in Britain including Ettienne Olivier who appeared for Berwick and Coatbridge in 1973, but he didn't make much of an impact. One man who did make an impact however was Peter Prinsloo, who first appeared for Ipswich in 1971. He would resurface at Exeter in 1976 before a move to Poole in 1980, where he remained until 1982. His son Deon would make appearances for Wimbledon, Eastbourne, Long Eaton and Peterborough between 1990 and 1994. Another success story from Zimbabwe would have to be Denzil Kent, who was most associated with Canterbury with whom he spent four seasons with between 1980 and 1983 before finishing his career with Eastbourne in 1984.
David Steen would be the most recent Zimbabwean rider to appear on British soil, having first appeared for Reading in 1989. Spells with Edinburgh Stoke, Exeter, Oxford would follow before a return to Reading in 1997 where he enjoyed his best season averaging almost eight points a meeting before wrapping up his British career with a move to Glasgow in 1998. Perhaps the most successful of them all though was Mike Ferreira who was a star of the late 70's and early 80's. First appearing for Canterbury in 1978, Ferreira would spend four seasons there and would be virtually unbeatable in 1980, racking up 14 maximums. That continued in 1981 where he racked up 15 maximums and also won the Division 2 riders championship that year. Spells with Swindon and Wimbledon followed and even in his final season in 1985, he still racked up an impressive six full maximums and four paid maximums, cementing himself as arguably Zimbabwe's finest speedway export.
From Austria to Zimbabwe, via Holland, Argentina and South Africa, there is an entire encyclopedia of riders from quite literally all over the world who have competed in Britain, despite maybe being from outposts of world speedway. So the next time someone tells you that it's all about the Poles and the Danes, remind them of the true cosmopolitan nature of our wonderful sport with colorful characters from, quite literally all over the globe.
That isn't to say there aren't riders or indeed nations I have missed or that haven't been included here. If you know any more then please get in touch!
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Until next time...and there will be a next time.