The popularity of wind sports is growing in Poland. But what does “speedway” mean in that country? We will explore the history of the sport and how you can enjoy it.
The Early Years
Although most famously known for its roller coasters, the modern-day speedway track was born out of necessity. In the early 20th century, Poland was under the rule of the Russian Empire. In order to make the most out of scarce resources, the Russians used a combination of traditional track and field events and new motorized ones.
One of the first organized speedway races took place in January 1908. Ten teams took part, racing against each other on a track that was three kilometers long. The race was won by the White Sea team, which consisted of cyclists, track cyclists, and motocrossers. It was only the third time that the unique blend of motorized and track cycling events had been held, and it was a resounding success.
The next race took place in the summer, with just four teams participating. The participants were the same as those of the previous race, with the addition of a motorcycle heavyweight championship for which Poland was named host. The races continued to grow in size, and by 1918, 12 teams had signed up. In 1926, the first World Championship was held in Warsaw, with four nations taking part. This was followed by a second that was officially open to women in 1928. The Poland national team won both events, with one of the team’s members, Zofia Nałkowska, taking home the World Championship for Women that year.
The Golden Age
In the years after World War II, Polish speedway racing enjoyed something of a revival. The Soviet Union occupied the country from 1939 to 1945, and with it, the sport. After the war, the communist government nationalized all sports organizations, including racing teams and tracks. They had one priority: to develop a national sports program, and speedway was a cornerstone of that effort. The first post-war World Championship took place in the city of Łódź in 1955, with just four nations participating. The winner was the Netherlands, which defeated the defending champion, the United Kingdom. That same year, the legendary Leszek Kołek broke the world record for the 100-meter sprint with a time of 10.6 seconds.
The next year, the world record was improved upon by another Pole, Władysław Komarov, who took 10.4 seconds to complete the same sprint.
Five years later, in 1960, the World Championships returned to Łódź, this time with seven teams participating. The Soviet Union sent a team, and so did France and West Germany. The Netherlands again won the event, although this time they came second to Poland, who finished with the most wins that year (6).
That same year, the first Speedway Grand Prix took place. It was originally created as a competition between nations, but it became an international event in 1963. The first season had just two races, with the United Kingdom and Germany taking the top two spots. The following year, it became an annual event, with the World Championships now a fallow year. In 1966, the World Championship returned to its pre-war format of just four teams. This was the first of five straight World Championship victories for the Polish national team.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Polish speedway underwent something of a modernization. The communists nationalized all industries, including sport. They realized that they needed to bring the sport up to date with the times, and they did that through research and development. Between 1960 and 1980, the average speed of a team bike was increased by 20 percent. The first motorcycles with adjustable gearing were introduced, and later, computerized engine management systems were developed. As a result, top-level speedway in Poland became faster, smoother, and more exciting to watch.
The Rise Of Euro Speedway
In 1987, the world speedway scene shifted as members of the European Union created the European Speedway Championship, which consisted of teams from England, France, Germany, and the Netherlands. That same year, the first ever Speedway World Cup took place in Wrocław. It was a huge hit, and one year later, it became an annual event. Since then, the World Cup has taken place every year, with the exception of 1991 and 1995, when it was canceled due to the fall of the Iron Curtain and the War in Bosnia. The Euros were a complete success, with the Dutch and English teams combining to take home the cake.
New Grading Structure
In 2011, the International Speedway Association introduced a new grading structure for league competitions. The new formula gives more weight to teams that win more often, which encourages them to keep winning.
This is a big shift for what is traditionally seen as a straight knockout competition. However, it should come as no great surprise, as the sport has always been about building a winning team and staying ahead of the competition. In the 2014 season, the top division in the Polish speedway league will feature 12 teams, which is a return to the previous format of having just four. The new teams that joined the league this year include:
- Łódź – a team that won the last three Polish championships
- Piła – a team that has won 12 of the last 14 Polish championships
- Jasłowicze – a team that has won 12 of the last 14 Polish championships
- Astra Zycow – a team that has won five of the last seven Polish championships
- Siedlec – a team that has won four of the last five Polish championships
- Włochy – a team that has won three of the last four Polish championships
- Zielona Góra – a team that has won two of the last three Polish championships
- Gorzów Wielkopolski – a team that has won two of the last three Polish championships
- Ruthenia Warszawa – a team that has won one of the last two Polish championships
- Gdańsk- a team that has won the last Polish championship
That should make for an interesting season. In addition to the usual league competitions, the top division will also see fierce rivalry between previously untouchable teams. The league is set to begin in the fall, with the World Cup in Wrocław just around the corner.