FEATURE: Northampton teenager Dan Gilkes is a speedway demon!
How does a teenager from Northampton end up being a professional speedway rider for the Kent Kings?
That was certainly the question that crossed my mind when my attention was brought to the achievements of former Campion School pupil Dan Gilkes, who is making a name for himself in the speedway world.
The 18-year-old is looking forward to what will be his first full season as a speedway pro, riding in the second tier of the British Speedway League with the Kings.
As with all sports, speedway was put on hold in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but the new campaign looks like being good to go in May, and Gilkes is aiming to make an even bigger impression than he has already.
The Bugbrooke boy has already claimed a runners-up trophy in the British Under 19s Championship, and has been called into the 16-man Team GB Squad for the forthcoming campaign, so these are exciting times.
So, back to that original question, how does a Northampton lad end up being a speedway star?
It all stems back to his dad, Cory, and grandfather, or pap, Peter, being regulars at the Coventry speedway track when Dan was barely out of nappies.
“We have been going there every meeting since I was two-years-old, and I fell in love with the sport,” said Gilkes
“As I got older, I was doing a bit of football as well, and it got to the point where I asked my mum and dad for a motocross bike from Father Christmas, and he got me one!
“It then got to the stage where I was doing okay at motocross, and my dad said to me you need to choose football or speedway if you want to become professional at one of them.
“I think my dad would have preferred me to do football as it would have been a lot cheaper! But I chose motocross, and then speedway.
“And I always wanted to do speedway, because motocross didn’t have the buzz I was looking for.”
The young Gilkes’ initial steps into speedway were on something called grasstrack, which is speedway staged on grass, racing on a 65cc bike, and he came second in the British Championships.
“It still wasn’t what I was looking for, I wanted to do proper speedway.”
The Gilkes family invested in 125cc in 2011, and things really started progressing.
By the age of 13 Gilkes was riding a 250cc, and then it was up to a 500cc, the same as adult racers use - which was quite a leap!
“It was about developing my style rather than race results,” says Gilkes.
“It was too early, and I made a lot of big mistakes, and with having a more powerful bike everything moves a bit quicker. If you don’t have the race experience on a smaller bike, if mistakes happen on a bigger bike it causes injuries.
“But I kept practicing on the 500cc.”
Early injuries suffered included a couple of broken wrists after flying through a fence - and we will go more in-depth on injuries later - but Gilkes now well and truly had a total speedway hunger.
He claimed a second place as a 15-year-old at the British Youth Championship, and by 2018 was racing in a development league at weekends.
By 2019 he wanted to step up to National League, which is effectively division three of the British Speedway league ‘pyramid’, and he was offered a contract by Kent, which he signed.
It has to be said, things didn’t get off to the smoothest of starts, with Gilkes explaining: “In my first league meeting I broke my pelvis and had eight weeks out!”
But he returned when fit and quickly made real progression.
“I was riding in both the Championship, which is seen as the first professional league, as well as the National League,” he said
“With the pandemic, the 2020 season didn’t go ahead, but for me it was a bit of a blessing in disguise because I was able to get another full year of practice in.
“That meant I could get myself up to Championship level, because it is a big step up from National League.
“You go from riding with youngsters, to riding with and against riders who also ride in the Premiership, which is the top league, so it is a big step up.
“I am now definitely more confident as a rider than I was in 2019.”
Here I will take the time to try to explain a little bit about how speedway works (I think!), as until I had spoken to Dan I only had the vaguest of vague ideas.
The British Speedway League is in three tiers. Top is the Premiership, then there is the Championship and the National Development League
All three stage meetings that have the same competition format of 15 races per meeting, or match.
Each race sees four riders compete (two from each club), and the race is about a minute long over four laps.
The bikes have no brakes and no gears, just a clutch.
The scoring is three points to the rider who wins, two for second, one for third with fourth drawing a blank.
“It is definitely very exciting,” said Gilkes.
“We accelarate faster than a Formula One car when we start. We go from zero to 60 faster than they do.”
Gilkes will this year be riding for Kent Kings in the Championship, as well as Kent Royals in the National League.
“We don’t train together or anything like that, it is very much you sort yourselves out and then just race together,” he explained.
“So I could be riding in a Championship meeting on a Monday, and then racing in the National League at the weekend.
“We are going to have two great teams, we have a lot of experience in the Championship team which I can learn from, and then in the National League team we have a lot of riders who are a similar age to me.
“We all get along and there is a great team atmosphere, and it is great to be part of that as well. They are two great teams and the Kent fans are great in terms of support, so it is a great club to be at.”
And looking ahead to 2021, he added: “I have had a year off racing, and although I have done a lot of practice, it is not the same.
“I would love to be able to get back to normal, and to get in a year’s worth of racing so I can learn from that. Practicing is fine, but it is when you get into a race situation that sets the guys apart.
“I am not going to set any targets in terms of my average or anything, if I can learn every time I ride from the experienced guys then I am going to progress, that’s what I want to do.”
Kent is obviously not exactly just down the road from Northampton, and with fixtures at places such as Plymouth, Glasgow, Eastbourne and Newcastle, there is a lot of travelling involved.
Gilkes accepts it’s ‘the choice he made’ when taking up the sport, and is indebted to dad Cory, as well as mechanic Rob Cousins of Rob Racing for doing the bulk of driving so he can ‘get the odd sleep in the back of the van!’
Family support, financially and emotionally, is obviously crucial to Gilkes, and he is grateful to his dad and pap, as well as schoolteacher mum Bridget.
“My mum and dad have dedicated their whole lives to me, so I can’t thank them enough for what they have done,” says Gilkes, who combines his speedway career with education at the Paultec Speedway College in Norwich.
Gilkes went to Paultec after getting his qualifications at the Silverstone University Technical College, and he said: “At Paultec they understand the commitments we have when it comes to riding, and they teach us all about speedway.
“How the bike works, mechanical engineering, all that type of thing, and they cover everything we need to become a professional speedway rider.”
Ah yes, what you need to be a professional speedway rider... it would seem you have to have a high pain threshold as well as plenty of bravery!
I have already mentioned a couple of the injuries Gilkes has suffered for his love of speedway, so I asked if there were there any others.
Here is his (painful sounding!) reply: “I have had a broken collar bone, broken two bones in my wrists.
“I have broken my pelvis and my shoulder, and also suffered nerve damage in my foot.
“With the bike having no brakes it is a dangerous sport, and it is just part of it!
“I have broken enough bones now for it not to really upset me too much, and it is a part of the sport you have to deal with.
“You understand when you first sign up to it, and I am fine with it, it is part and parcel of riding.”
Rather you than me, Dan. Rather you than me.
Dan’s sponsors: CMF Carpentry and Trade Services; Speculate 2 Accumulate; ATPI; Hagon Shocks; Iwade Garage; Touch Tec Solutions; The Raj Kettering; Crop Shop Kingsthorpe; Fuchs Silkolene; Revolution Speedway; Rob Racing; STS Stakeford Tyre Services; A&F Engineering; Mardi Gras Motorsport; A Frost Property Solutions