x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Racing without brakes, that's speedway

Jason Crump, a third-generation Australian speed racer, talks to Matt Majendie about his long road to recovery after his crash at Ipswich in September 2009.

Jason Crump of Australia leads the way during the British Speedway Grand Prix at Millennium Stadium in Cardiff in June 2009. Andrew Yates / AFP
Jason Crump of Australia leads the way during the British Speedway Grand Prix at Millennium Stadium in Cardiff in June 2009. Andrew Yates / AFP

Riding a motorbike at speeds of up to 110kph without brakes smacks of utter madness.

But in the world of speedway, one of the most adrenalin-filled forms of motorsport around, but yet to make its mark in the United Arab Emirates, such a set-up is part and parcel for top riders.

Instead of brakes, competitors - four to six of them in each race - use powerslides to control their speed at every turn as they ride four laps anti-clockwise per race around a loosely packed, shale-surfaced oval circuit.

There is little room for manoeuvre and even less for error as they jostle for position in a sport that is big news throughout Europe and Australia.

And there are few, if any, better exponents of the sport than the three-time world champion Jason Crump, who is all too aware of the perils of racing.

Back in September 2009, Crump crashed during an event in Ipswich in the United Kingdom. Initially, the accident did not look too serious and he was taken to hospital merely as a precaution.

He went on to win the world title a month later - adding to his previous crowns in 2004 and 2006 - but increasingly it became clear that the damage to his upper arm was much more serious than first thought.

Nearly 18 months after the fall, Crump has still not regained full fitness and has undergone two more operations this winter to rectify the problem.

"The main issue is that I've got a nerve problem and, as I've found out, that's something that takes time to sort out," explained the 35-year-old Australian. "After the last grand prix of last season, I underwent another operation and it went as well as it could have done.

"And then I had another operation at the start of this year and I've just had the stitches out for that."

The extent of the injury truly came to light only in the winter, making Crump's achievement of finishing third in last season's world championship standings all the more remarkable.

In fact, the British-born rider struggled to contend with even the most simple day-to-day tasks.

"It wasn't a case that I was just in pain when racing; I was in pain just getting out of bed for months and months on end," he said. "And it grinds you down. It got to a point where every day was just a chore.

"I don't think people understood the pain I was in at the time and how much it hampered me, so yeah, I'm proud of where I was in the championship."

Crump, though, is more than happy to contend with the perils of the job, of which there are plenty.

Not to mention the potential dangers, vast swathes of his season are spent travelling to various venues to race; plus he has had the occasional run-in with fans.

During the 2003 championship he was in contention going into the season finale but just missed out on the top spot.

However, in all the build-up it later transpired that he had received death threats through the post from crazed speedway followers telling him to call off his title challenge or else face consequences.

"I didn't actually open the mail until after the season had finished, but the police dealt with it afterwards," he said. "But look, mate, it all happened a long time ago and it's not even worth talking about. All the speedway fans have been great with me ever since."

Whatever the perils, one would argue that speedway was the only career course open to Crump.

His father was Phil Crump, a one-time championship contender, and Jason was born in Bristol, in the UK, while his dad was competing on the European circuit. Added to that, his grandfather is another former speedway rider, Neil Street.

"Bikes were all I knew from a young age," he said, "although there was never any pressure to get into speedway. It's too risky and dangerous a sport to go into if you're not completely into it. But from the age of 14 or 15 I'd pretty much decided it was what I wanted to do."

Growing up, which Crump describes as nomadic because of the amount of travelling his family did, he spent up to nine months of each year in the UK while his father raced. The family moved back to Australia in the mid-1980s.

Living at the family home in the countryside, he would hop on two-wheel machinery whenever possible.

"From as young an age as I can remember, I was riding a bike," he recalled. "I remember with my mates, the first thing we wanted to do was to get out of school and get on the bikes.

"We were too young and I remember we had a few run-ins with the local police, but they never caught us - we were too fast!"

It soon became clear that Crump boasted admirable talent, but after he started competing professionally it took him a number of years to win his first speedway world title.

"For three seasons I was runner-up, so you start to wonder a bit when your time will come," he said. "So I remember clearly winning the first title, in 2004. More than anything it was just a big relief. I was finally a world champion, and that was never going to be removed from me.

"The other two titles I was able to enjoy more, in fact, and celebrate, as I'd already been a world champion."

Crump is in the relative twilight of his career, although the current world champion, Tomasz Gollob, will celebrate his 40th birthday in April and is considerably more senior than Crump.

"I've still got some time, but there aren't many guys in this sport over the age of 40," added Crump. "There's not a lot of sports where you can be a world champion post-40, except maybe darts and snooker, and this is clearly a lot more active.

"In other motorsport, you obviously go a lot faster, but I don't know a more intense brand of motorsport out there."

Speedway, and Crump in particular, have no shortage of followers. Fellow Australian Mark Webber is a big fan and has become a close friend, and the two became even closer during Crump's battle to regain fitness.

And MotoGP legend Mick Doohan is another motorsport figure that Crump has befriended.

"Mick's an absolute legend; he was pretty much my idol growing up," said Crump. "And I've got to know him quite well. I remember idolising him, and then one day we were watching our kids racing each other. Surreal.

"He and Mark have been a massive help in getting the best people to look at my injuries. Those guys have both had their injury problems and know the pitfalls of getting back fit. I owe both of them a lot.

"I consider Mark a good friend. Our calendars mean we don't get to see much of each other, but we chat a lot on the phone and I know he's set for a good season. He probably has been to a lot more speedway events than I have F1 grands prix."

Crump's injury nightmare has cast his mind to life after speedway, which will almost certainly involve moving his wife, Melody, and the couple's two children away from their home in the Northamptonshire countryside back to Australia.

But he is confident he still has plenty of time at the top of the sport before then.

"I feel that, if fully fit, I will be right up there again," said Crump before admitting he has not ridden a bike since the last grand prix of the season, in late October.

"But that's not a problem. It's winter, so very few guys have had time racing. I've had the last of the stitches out now, then I'm off to Dubai at the end of the month with the family for a holiday and then it's back into action. I'll be racing at the end of March and I'm positive I'll be completely ready."

Crump will not be honing his skills on two wheels away from speedway all that much. He does the occasional motorcross event, but, remarkably, does not own a road bike and does not even possess a motorbike licence.

"For me, there's too many cars on the road," he added, "and too much to weave in and out of. I'm just happier riding about on our land where we've got a little bit of a track. That's all I need."