They say that variety is the spice of life and all of us here at Fueltopia are firm believers in trying something new.
There is a vast amount of awesome motorsport content to discover on the internet, but sometimes its good old fashioned word of mouth that points you in the direction of something different, and that’s exactly how I found myself watching an assortment of motorbikes tearing round a field in Kent.
My first introduction to grasstrack came during my last visit to Kent Kings speedway back in 2015. Whilst conversing with one of the marshalls he was insistent that, if I enjoyed watching speedway, I really should consider giving grasstrack a look as well. On the strength of his advice I did some research after returning home from Sittingbourne, but I hit a dead end when hunting for a local track.
Fast forward to the start of this year and, after happening to mention grasstrack during a pub conversation, I was sent a link to the Astra Grasstrack Facebook page. Astra run a grasstrack venue in Swingfield, situated just down the road from Fueltopia favourite Lydden Hill. Frustratingly I had just missed a big meet at Swingfield, but I noted that there was another major event coming later in the year, so I jotted it down in the calendar and kept my fingers crossed that it wouldn’t clash with anything else.
Having failed to fit any speedway events – or indeed any two wheeled motorsport – into 2016, I was keen to try and make amends before the end of the race season. The final round of the European Solo Grasstrack Championship provided me with the perfect opportunity to kill several birds with one stone.
Armed with the limited knowledge I had gleaned from the marshall at Sittingbourne, I arrived at Swingfield with very little idea as to what to expect. Thankfully the program did a good job of bringing me up to speed and, thanks to a qualification system that would be familiar to any long term rallycross fan, I soon got my head around the structure of the event.
As much as I hate turning up to an event completely clueless, I do like the freedom it gives when taking pictures. I’m not trying to photograph a favourite vehicle, competitor or team, I’m purely looking out for things which catch my eye.
So what’s grasstrack racing all about then? Fundamentally modern grasstrack is much the same as speedway in that bikes race around a large oval circuit, travelling very sideways at very high speeds. Grid numbers are higher in grasstrack, but the aim of the race is exactly the same: finish as high as possible in order to score points. Cumulate enough points and you’ll earn a better position for the final.
The machinery used is also broadly similar to speedway, though grasstrack bikes are slightly more refined in that they run full suspension and are often geared. Just like speedway, grasstrack bikes don’t have any brakes, so speed is regulated entirely by throttle and steering input.
Grasstrack events often feature several solo rider classes for different displacement engines, which differs to speedway, plus they also cater for sidecars as well.
I have previously watched sidecar racing on tarmac and motocross circuits. Whilst spectating both of those disciplines I rapidly came to the conclusion that sidecar crews must be utterly bonkers and, perhaps unsurprisingly, I would say exactly the same of the grasstrack sidecar teams.
Sidecars came in two flavours at Swingfield, specifically 500cc (for the borderline insane) and 1000cc (for the fully certified lunatics). Both classes were very rapid but, to my untrained eyes and ears, the lap of a 500cc sidecar seemed a lot smoother. The 500cc riders were obviously backing off the throttle prior to the corners, but the 500cc sidecars looked planted in the turns and seemed able to put the power down without too much drama.
Contrast that with the 1000cc sidecars, which looked absolutely lethal. Many of the bikes sounded completely off-throttle as they approached the corners and, when the slightest amount of power was applied, things seemed to rapidly turn very sideways up front…
…and get very muddy out the back! Both the solo and sidecars were spectacular but, for me, the 1000cc sidecars were the absolute highlight of the day.
Incidentally – and you may have already noticed in the pictures – but, for reasons I was unable to ascertain on the day, the right hand 1000cc sidecars ran the course anti-clockwise, whereas the 500cc left hand sidecars ran the course clockwise. Hopefully a grasstrack expert can clear that mystery up for me!
Despite a severe lack of knowledge with regards to the solo Championship, I did at least recognize one name on the entry list. I had previously seen James Shanes riding speedway at Sittingbourne and I subsequently discovered that Shanes was not riding just for the event win, but for the European title.
Battling against a mechanical issue in heat one and exclusion in heat two, Shanes still managed to qualify for the “B” final. Second in the “B” final was enough to earn him a spot in the “A” final where he was able to take first place and, with it, the European title.
After several hours of sideways bikes (and a couple of impromptu mud showers), I found myself silently expressing my gratitude to the chatty marshall at Sittingbourne. Grasstrack is every bit as entertaining as speedway, plus it has the added bonus of sidecars as well.
I was also surprised by just how relaxed the atmosphere was for a European Championship event. Spectators had unrestricted access to the paddock area and the crowd line was situated just a few feet back from the edge of the track.
Amusingly when I returned to my car at the end of the day there were a handful of flyers tucked under the windscreen wiper informing me of multiple events occurring other tracks in Kent: seems that there are plenty of grasstrack venues in the area, I just did a poor job of finding them!
With the 2016 race season all but done I suspect I am going to run out of time to fit anymore grasstrack in: however I already have speedway and grasstrack lined up for my itinerary in 2017!
Want to see more of the European Grasstrack Championship at Swingfield? Click here for a full image gallery.