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Images from round two of the 2019 SGP series from Slovenia
NEWS

Speedway Superstar: Tai Woffinden

Jun 102020

Tai Woffinden is a complex character.

A dedicated family man who lives a quiet life on a sprawling country estate in Derbyshire, but a thrill-seeker who grew up surfing the waves of Perth, Australia and who admits he’s come to terms with the fact that every single race could be his last.

He says he has a long-term plan to open a children’s petting zoo but, in the interim, races a 500cc, no-gears, no-brakes speedway bike round shale circuits in speeds of up to 70mph. And he does it pretty damn well.

For the uninitiated, Tai is a three-time speedway world champion and the sport’s one true superstar. He is loved by many, hated by some, but everyone has an opinion and everyone knows his name.

This is his story.

“We moved to Australia when I was little and I was a pretty wild kid, I would just do all sorts of crazy stuff that you shouldn’t be doing at my age. I’ve always had that thing in me that looked for danger and to get an adrenaline rush, I would always come home with cuts and bruises and my parents would just think ‘not again!’

 

“I started to ride speedway because my dad was a speedway rider when we lived in England, he rode to a pretty decent standard but was never going to be the best in the world. He taught me and I was pretty good, and it got to the stage where I was probably good enough to make a go of it as a career.

 

“We didn’t have loads of money so I had a choice of either doing the Australian Under-16 championship rounds or paying the air fare and going to England to try and crack it. My dad knew I had something so he just said ‘you’ve got to go to Europe and make a job of it’.

 

“So as soon as I turned 15 my parents packed up their lives in Aussie and we moved back to Scunthorpe so I could become professional. We lived in a caravan because everything went into my racing, so it was a big change. One day you’re on the beach in Perth and the next you’re living in a caravan in freezing cold England.

 

“When I was a kid the thought of moving to Europe to race motorbikes sounded amazing, it sounded so much more fun than going to the beach every day. Now I realise I had it pretty good! When I go back now I realise how lucky I was and I try to enjoy every minute. But obviously I wouldn’t change anything, I’m just grateful to my parents for making the sacrifice they did.”

 

Speedway, below the elite level of Grand Prix racing, has domestic leagues all over Europe at various standards and it was at the lowest rung of British league racing, the Conference League, that Tai started his paid career.

To say he made a splash would be an understatement. His impact was phenomenal, tearing through the domestic scene like the proverbial hurricane. Everywhere he went, he piled up the points and whispers grew louder on the terraces that they were witnessing the beginnings of something special.

 

He says: “Once I started racing it all came pretty easy to me, everywhere I went I just won loads of races and every little step up I took, it carried on. I started right at the bottom and smashed it, then went up a league and smashed it, then went to the top league and kept scoring loads of points, I thought it was easy!

 

“When all you’ve known is success, it hits you pretty hard when you get a setback. I was always going to hit a bump in the road, nobody goes through a whole career just winning all the time, but I didn’t know at the time because when you’re young you just think you can do anything.

 

“I thought I would just keep going up and up and nobody could touch me, that was my mindset.”

The inevitable bump in the road came in 2009, when Tai’s whole life, never mind his career, was derailed.

 

His dad, Rob, was a larger than life character who had enough personality to light up whole buildings, never mind rooms. He was a lively, salt-of-the-earth kind of man who everyone wanted to know. He was also Tai’s mechanic, his confidant, his teacher, his closest and most loyal ally.

 

His sudden diagnosis of terminal cancer, then, hit his son hard. He was 19, a star in the making, and now he was facing the prospect of living the rest of his life without his dad.

 

“You never know how bad that situation is until you live through it. It’s the worst feeling, you are just helpless and you have this timebomb hanging over you.

 

“My dad was pretty pragmatic about it all though and he knew he had something like nine months to live so for us it was, ‘ok how do we make this time the best it can be?’

 

“He came with me everywhere that year, when he could. Any race I had he’d be there with me, just taking it all in and spending quality time together. We were inseparable and it was nice, we got that time in and I’ll always have that.”

 

Rob died in 2009 and just months later, Tai was offered a spot in the Speedway Grand Prix series. Four years after making his professional debut, here he was being given the chance to race at the highest level of the sport.

 

“Before he died, my dad begged me not to accept the place in the GP’s. He said “Tai, please don’t do it, it is too early and you are not ready for it” but I thought I knew better. I was smashing points in everywhere and thought I’d do the same in the GP series but he was right,” said Tai.

 

He continued: “I wasn’t ready at all, and I hated it. I was missing my dad, I was scoring no points in the GP’s and that was affecting my league form so I just partied to block it all out. I basically just went mad and after the races I’d go out and get smashed, that was my life.

 

“At the end of that year I was fifty-fifty on whether to continue racing or whether to just pack it all in. I’d had a gutful, everywhere I went I’d have 50 or 60 people say ‘we’re so sorry to hear about your dad’ and I just had enough. I hadn’t even had a chance to mourn him because I was straight into the GP’s so I just wanted to go back to Australia and get away from it all.

“Something changed in those few months though, I saw a sports psychologist and something just clicked with me. I loved partying and all of that stuff but I knew that if I wanted to make a proper go of my career then I had to change all that and calm down a bit.’

In terms of comebacks, Tai’s story is up there. He lost weight, gained focus, and got back to business.

The points started flowing again and when he was granted a place in the 2013 World Championship series, this time he was ready.

 

Nobody, even Tai, knew how ready he was. At the start of the season he was a 500/1 betting underdog to win the title, the kind of bet you wouldn’t even waste a pound on. He was there to make up the numbers, perhaps he would sneak into the top ten, but win the championship?

 

“It got to the stage that year where I just knew, but there were stages where I thought I’d blown it too. I broke my collarbone twice that year, the second time was in the second last round and I knew that if I pulled out then I’d let the guys behind me have a chance.

 

“I just got on with it and tried to race on and I scored a few points, enough to keep me ahead, and that was when I knew I’d do it. I remember saying on TV that the British national anthem would be the one played at the end of the year – that’s how confident I was!

 

“I went straight to see my surgeon after that round and he said ‘how long before the next round?’ and I told him it was only two weeks. He told me to strap it up, grit my teeth and race the last one and he’d fix it after that. When he told me that I knew I’d do it.”

And he did do it. He became Britain’s first world champion since 2000 and sealed his place in speedway history, capping an incredible turnaround from just a couple of years before. But then what happens? Do you sit back and put your feet up, knowing you’ve climbed the mountain that seemed impossible?

What separates the true greats in sports is hunger. The greatest athletes - Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Valentino Rossi – were never satisfied with winning once. Their relentless desire to re-write the record books was what set them apart. Win and win again.

“Even though I didn’t go into that season expecting to win, as soon as I did I knew I could do it again. It wasn’t just the feeling of ‘ah I’ve made it now, I can retire happy’. I enjoyed it but then I wanted to do it again.

“Motivation is just built into me, everything I do I want to be the best. Literally everything. When I drive somewhere I’ll race myself, I’ll make a little race in my head about how quickly I can get to a road sign or whether I can beat the car next to me to the bridge. When I’m at an airport I’ll race people through security, it’s just how I am.

“I can’t help it, I just want to win at everything. So when I got that taste of being the number one, I knew I wanted to do it as many times as I could.”

It’s not hard to spot Tai in a crowd. He may not be the tallest but he stands out from miles away. The dark hair that at one time might be a mullet (yes, a mullet) and the next cropped, the beaming smile, ear-stretchers and tattoos that cover 75% of his body.

“Ah the tattoos! There’s a funny story behind this. When I was 14 I wanted to get a tattoo and my parents said ‘if you do good when you start racing in England you can have one’ so when I was 15 and I was scoring loads of points I got my first one.

“Then one Winter my mum was going back to Australia and I’d started to get a few more and before she left she said ‘Tai, please don’t go onto your hands or neck.’ She went home and two weeks later I sent her a picture of my hands and my neck tattoos. She wasn’t very happy!

“Some of them mean something, some of them don’t. I’ve got some personal ones but a lot of them are because I like the design, but I’m not done yet. I’ve got so much more that I want to do but it’s just finding the time. Sometimes I’ll see a gap in my schedule and my tattoo artist, Ronnie, will travel up to my house and we’ll make it into a little studio for the day. The pain is fine, I just don’t like how long they take - I’m so impatient!

“It’s just who I am though. I like them so I have loads, I don’t really think about it too much.”

After winning the big one in 2013, Tai’s profile exploded in Britain. Everyone wanted a piece of the miracle man. Adding to that victory in 2016 and 2018 only served to boost that even more, and with extra fame comes extra scrutiny.

And if you know Tai, you know biting his tongue isn’t something that comes easy to him!

 

“I like having a bigger profile but it doesn’t mean anything if I don’t win. I get the recognition because I win, so I guess they go hand-in-hand. If I keep winning titles my profile will get bigger and I’ll have to bite my tongue even more!

 

“The extra fame I’ve got now is cool but sometimes I hate it because there are so many things I can’t say or do. Sometimes I want to say exactly how I feel but I can’t because it’ll upset someone, so it isn’t all good. There used to be so many times where I’d write something out on social media and someone would be like ‘you can’t say that, just leave it’.

 

“Even when I was doing my book, I had to take out quite a lot when the lawyers went through it. As I’ve got older, I’ve learned to just keep myself to myself and I’m pretty good now, I don’t get into too much trouble. I’ll always be honest though, if I’m asked a question I’ll just say how I feel.

 

“Maybe when I retire I’ll spill all the beans and say everything I want to say, when I’m back in Australia and can’t get into trouble!”

 

As big as it was, it wasn’t just the first world title win that changed his life in 2013, in fact, he’d probably tell you that it wasn’t even the most significant thing that happened to him that year.

 

It was in April that year when he met wife Faye, and the couple married in 2016 and have gone on to have two daughters. Her influence on him is clear for anyone to see, she has been by his side for each of his three world titles and gives him the stability he needs to squeeze the best out of his incredible ability.

Said Tai; “When I met Faye I knew straight away I wanted to marry her and I was pretty persistent! We just clicked straight away and it’s easy, it just works.

 

“She didn’t even know what speedway was when I met her and to be honest she didn’t really care, it was just my job. Obviously the more we got to know each other she understood it’s not a regular job, for six months of the year it’s pretty full on.

 

“None of it fazes her though, she knows it’s what I do and until I retire I’ll put everything into it, but when I’m at home we don’t talk about it, watch it, nothing. When I’m at home I’m her husband and a dad to our kids, not Tai the speedway rider.

 

“We have a great life, we’ve got an estate with our house and Faye’s parents live in another house and we’ve got stables, a little lake, we rent the fields out so we have loads of horses there and it’s a great place for our kids to grow up.

 

“It’s been a real project, we’ve done so much work I can’t even tell you. We gutted the two houses, renovated them, I’ve levelled out all the grounds, put up new fencing, added a new roundabout, everything. We aren’t finished yet but we’re getting close now and when it’s done it’s going to be sick.”

 

Long gone are the days of drinking, fighting and rebelling. Ten years on from his first disastrous spell in the GP series, Tai’s a three-time champion, a father-of-two, he’s released a best-selling autobiography, won countless awards and cemented his place as one of the best of all time.

But that doesn’t mean he’s finished. Far from it…

 

“It’s great that I’ve won three world titles, if I retired tomorrow I’d be happy with what I’ve done but then what would be next? I know what I’m good at, I’m good at riding a speedway bike, so I need to make the most of it. While I’m still racing, I’ll want to be the best in the world so that’s what motivates me. I want to look back when I retire and know that I did everything properly and gave myself the best chance to be the best I can be.

 

“(GP rival and three-time world champion) Nicki Pedersen once said the hardest thing to do is to retain the title, so that’s another motivation. I’ve done it three times but I haven’t retained it yet and that annoys me. I don’t want to win it one year and not the next, then win it again and go on like that – that pisses me off!

 

“It’s tough to win a world title, that’s why only a few riders have done it. The GP series is the top riders in the world and everyone is at the top of their game and they want exactly the same as you.

“I know that I have a great team and I know how hard I work, and I know that’s enough to keep winning. After I won my first title I probably slacked off a little bit, but that made me realise that you can’t do that if you want to be the best. This year I’ll work even harder than I did last year, and next year I’ll work harder again.

 

“I want to be the best ever. The record is seven titles and I’ve only got three so I’ve got a way to

go yet - but I’m gunna give it a go. That’s what drives me, wanting to do something nobody else has done before.”

 

Don’t bet against him doing it.

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