Track stars' driving force

Speedway: A TRIP to the supermarket is the travel limit for many most weekends.But for speedway riders and their mechanics life is far more exciting.Ask Steve Catling where he may be driving to next and exotic places like Stockholm, Prague and Warsaw will be included in his reply.

A TRIP to the supermarket is the travel limit for many most weekends.

But for speedway riders and their mechanics life is far more exciting.

Ask Steve Catling where he may be driving to next and exotic places like Stockholm, Prague and Warsaw will be included in his reply.

Steve is a full time mechanic for Ipswich Evening Star Witches star Scott Nicholls, and it is his job to get bikes and accessories to tracks all over Europe.

A speedway riders' life compares in no way to that of other professional sportsmen. Top footballer David Beckham does not fly, but Arsenal would not consider taking him by road to play away European matches.

And Ipswich Town will look to the skies to transport their party to Luxembourg for the UEFA Cup game in August. They even fly to games in the north.

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Scott's hectic schedule can see him riding in Poland on Sunday, England on Monday, Sweden on Tuesday, England on Thursday and Norway (say) on Saturday.

By necessity he has to fly to many foreign meetings – and he keeps a couple of bikes in Sweden for weekly league matches for Smederna.

But otherwise it is into a sponsored van that covers a vast number of miles over the course of a season – around 30,000.

I decided to go along on one of the trips – and feel privileged to have done so.

The meeting was the Slovenian Grand Prix in Krskjo, which is situated in the south east corner not far from the Croatian border and on the road from Ljubijana to Zagreb.

The task was two-fold. To transport Scott's equipment from Ipswich, and to assist in the pits as he attempted to move up the 10-series GP table.

The former was a huge success, the latter an understandable failure due to a rival mechanic breaking Scott's ankle when riding into him as the Ipswich man came off the track following heat one.

It took 36 hours driving time to complete the trip, while Scott rode for just over three minutes. It might not add up to a logistics expert but it was worth it.

Graham Brown, who runs a landscape business, has been helping Scott in the pits for a number of years and was the third member of the party that left my Ipswich home at 8 pm on Wednesday night.

The Dover ferry was booked for 8.15 pm, but typical of the casual nature of the speedway world this mattered little to the travel-hardened duo.

"We can still get the 10 pm ferry," said Steve as we raced down to M20 with him at the wheel often at over 100 mph.

Scott is sponsored by SeaFrance but I am assured this was only a coincidence that a ferry was waiting for us as we went through customs at 10.05 pm. Consequently, it was straight on to the boat – and a couple of drinks in the bar.

Calais at 1 am European time is never the most appealing places, but as it was raining by now it was even more depressing.

But we soldered on and took onboard our first new drink of diesel half way across Belgium.

This was my cue to take the wheel and the laden van was pleasantly comfortable to drive as I negotiated a tropical downpour that was accompanied by thunder and lightning.

My two companions slept peacefully in the two bunks behind me – having a surprising amount of confidence in my driving ability.

By 6 am I could carry on no more having driven over 200 miles. Both Steve and Graham leapt up as we pulled into a lay-by with the latter taking the wheel, which he was to keep for the next 12 hours.

We took cool boxes with ample supplies of food so there was no call to stop other than to take on liquid for the van and to relieve liquid from ourselves.

It was time for me to sample the back bunk, which was comfortable enough with a homely duvet and cosy pillow. But this was to prove the lowest point.

Much needed sleep would not come and with a head heavy with fatigue the prospect of a further umpteen hours without sleep was not an encouraging one.

But a pit stop to throw some water over the face proved an immediate cure – and I was soon feeling human again.

Numerous roadworks hindered our progress through Germany and it was not until we got to Munich that the scenery began to take a turn for the better.

With Graham still burning up the miles we passed Salzburg to our left and headed into the beautiful Alps, stopping at one point to briefly breath in the crystal clean air and soak up the atmosphere.

Passports were looked at for the first time as we entered Slovenia just beyond Villach where a succession of long thin tunnels and toll booths came into play.

Navigating Ljubijana proved a little troublesome until we picked up signs for Zagreb and headed towards our final destination. Two tractors frustratingly held us up on the home stretch before we turned the final corner and headed across the bridge into Krsko – a small town the size of Stowmarket.

Grand Prix secretary Graham Brodie was sitting on the hotel terrace along with Speedway Star editor Richard Clark as we unloaded at 6 pm on Thursday. So a much-needed shower waited until after a couple of Slovenian ales.

A meal at the hotel and a few more drinks preceded a deep sleep. There followed two days of glorious weather before it was time to depart on the return journey at 11 pm on Saturday night.

Steve took the wheel to just short of Munich and then Graham took over to drive the rest of the way. They did not let on but I had a feeling they were trying to break their time record in getting back to Calais.

I don't think it was anything to do with my driving, but all my offers to take over the wheel were politely rejected.

I managed to sleep in the back bunk on the way home and must have enjoyed four hours or so, although I did witness out of one eye a hic-cup that saw us drive almost into Munich town centre.

Graham kept hammering on and when fully awake again – and after a hot meal in a clean road-side restaurant – I joined him in the front seats.

We experienced another problem in Venlo partly because of a road diversion and ended up driving down a cycle path with snarls from passing joggers.

But it was soon back on the open road with regular calls to Scott to find that he had landed at Heathrow after his delayed Sunday morning flight from Ljubijana.

Tobacco was purchased just outside Calais and beer, wine and spirits not far from the ferry terminal – before we made an incredible journey on to the boat.

We stopped for just a few seconds while tickets were inspected and it was then non-stop straight on to the boat. No messing with sitting in rows on the quay.

And it got better. We had access to the lorry drivers' meal room and piping hot was on-tap as many times as we cared to venture to the serving hatch.

Steve remained in the back as we went through Dover customs as for some reason the van is always stopped when he is visible. It was then back to Ipswich in good shape and with a host of memories.

I had even got used to sleeping on the road, and next time reckon I could settle down for several hours.

For me it was a once in a lifetime journey into the unknown. For Steve and Graham they will be back on the road next week (Scott's injury permitting) with Stockholm the destination. Passing the supermarket on the way.

N (SQUARE) See part two of this feature in tomorrow's Evening Star.

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