Motorsport: Triumph and tragedy spur on speedway's young champ

By Chris Rattue

Tai Woffinden was a 500-1 wildcard to win the World Championships, a victory even he wasn't expecting. Photo / Dean Purcell
Tai Woffinden was a 500-1 wildcard to win the World Championships, a victory even he wasn't expecting. Photo / Dean Purcell

British rider Tai Woffinden is modern speedway's youngest world champion after his triumph in last year's FIM grand prix series.

The 23-year-old, born in England but brought up in Perth, was in Auckland this week to promote the first round of the 2014 GP at Western Springs on April 5.

Woffinden was a 500-1 wildcard outsider going into just his second GP series, which replaced the old single-night final system in 1995. He suffered two breaks to the same collarbone last year but still lined up in all 12 rounds.

The triumphs have been marked by tragedy though, the death at 47 of his father Rob, a club speedway rider who was Woffinden's "best mate". When a track closed near Perth, Rob Woffinden helped build a new one, a move that would lead to his son becoming world champ. Sadly, he did not live to see that.

Has life changed as the world champion?

Hardly at all. There's more press, but it won't change me in any way. I've opened a leisure centre, they put a picture of me holding the trophy on a few buses ...

Will last year's ride help you negotiate Western Springs?

We wrote down the set-ups but this year's track may have different material - two days of practice will sort it out. The track is a lot bigger with longer straights than we are used to. It's really quick and enjoyable.

This may be Auckland's last GP ...

It would be a massive shame. Speedway should push hard to keep it here. The riders definitely enjoy coming down.

When did you start on a bike?

Riding motocross as soon as I could walk. My mates had [speedway] bikes in their garage ... dad said I could have a go but the motocross bike would have to go. I rode weekends, partied afterwards then went back to school. I'd never looked at a speedway magazine or website ... but dad and his mates said I was quick enough to give England a go. So mum, dad and I went back when I was 15 - we lived in a Scunthorpe caravan park for three years because we had no money. Dad couldn't work because we were racing seven nights a week. I had to borrow money off everyone I could. I went wherever, getting myself out there and learning, getting better. Mum was the last person I paid off - the final payment was at the start of last year.

Did you race your dad?

Yes ... he gave up when I went underneath him and put him through a fence at Wanneroo. I got a bit cocky - he was always in front of me but I was getting faster and faster. I thought it was funny but dad wasn't impressed. He had a bad back for a few weeks and said "that's it" and sold all his stuff.

Losing him must have been very hard especially as you were still young ...

I was 19 and had to watch him deteriorate. He had an alcoholic's cancer - pancreas or liver - but never drank a day in his life. They told us he would fall asleep ... but that was definitely not the case. He got very sick suddenly [in early 2010] and was screaming for 24 hours, calling my mother's and my name really loud. The Macmillan [palliative] nurses didn't come, the ambulance couldn't give him painkillers, he sat there screaming. The doctor at the hospital couldn't find a vein, they had to find painkillers from a different ward. He was all right for 20 minutes and then would start screaming again. That happened about seven times. It was horrible, watching someone you love suffering like that. The s*** we went through ... my mum went on a mission going to see the head of the nurses and the hospital. No one should have to go through that.

How did you cope?

I tried to be strong for my mother but then I had a big breakdown back in Australia. I couldn't handle it - I was going to quit speedway and get another job. Dad had been such a big part of everything ... we never even argued. I was working with a sports psychologist and called people I knew. They said give it another year, see how you go. And I enjoyed it.

If you weren't a speedway rider ...

I'd be bricklaying. When I was 15 I did a bit of work with my mate. I can lay bricks, fast and straight.

Childhood sports hero?

Jeremy Stenberg, the [American] freestyle motocross rider. Motocross is still my first love. I still ride it whenever I can. I've also got a stand-up jetski, a minibike, two cars I'm doing up ...

Who is your biggest rival?

[Danish triple world champion] Nicki Pedersen. He's an idiot - he'll dive through gaps that aren't there and run you straight to the fence. Everyone is a bit ruthless at some point but he's ruthless for fun on every lap. I hope he doesn't break his back or someone else's doing it. I love racing him - he hates it when you beat him. If he beats you he turns around and gives you the old thumbs up. I don't even look around when I beat him - he's not worth turning around for.

How would you describe your riding style?

I don't like my style to be honest. I feel as if I look a bit uncomfortable on the bike although everyone says I look really good.

Aims?

I do my best every race, no matter what. I'm not going to say I want four or six world titles. My goal is as many as I can, but this sport is so unpredictable. Who would have picked me to win last year?

- NZ Herald

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