For any aspiring speedway star chasing the Under-21 dream is a huge part of the growing up process, a vital stepping stone in any fledgling career.
As a rider it’s the first time you are classed as an adult, racing the same machinery as the Grand Prix riders and expected to perform and behave like a potential champion.
I’d be willing to bet that every young rider on parade at Berwick on Saturday night knows who has won each of the Under-21 championships for the last decade or more. Whether standing on the top step or just competing in the championship is their goal and the British final is an important box to tick.
Undera in Australia was the start of my own Under-21 dream, competing on my home track having just turned sixteen. If memory serves me correctly Adam Shields won from Nigel Sadler and Craig Watson while I was more than happy with my mid-field finish having picked up points in all my heats and stayed clear of any drama.
Each of my five Australian Under-21 championships taught me valuable lessons and gained experience which has stuck with me to this day.
But in 1999 I finished second and that was enough to qualify for the quarter-final of the World Under-21. That night at the Gold Coast opened new doors for me and shortly after I landed in the UK for the first time to prepare and acclimatise for my qualifier in Croatia.
Being brought up in Australia meant that travelling long distances to race was the norm so I took the journey from Britain to Croatia in my stride.
My plan was to learn quickly, take full advantage of any opportunities that arose … and stay out of trouble.
A top eight finish would mean qualification for a semi-final in Portugal and another six weeks to prepare and learn while staying in the UK.
And that was where I finished – eighth.
Now the semi-final was my new goal. I approached it with a similar mindset but a touch more experience and used the time to get the set-up right.
I managed seventh in Portugal which was good enough to qualify for the World Under-21 Final at Vojens in Denmark. At the time Vojens – developed by three-times world champion and Grand Prix driving force Ole Olsen – was speedway’s Mecca and the venue for the biggest meetings speedway had to offer, including two world finals.
Lee Richardson won that day from Ales Dryml with Nigel Sadler third. I finished 12th and, standing on the centre green, reflected on how far I had come in such a short period – and not just in miles from Undera.
I had again scored points in every one of my races and was chuffed to be able to say I was in the top 12 of the world’s under-21 speedway riders.
I had learnt massive amounts and matured as a rider, I was ready to learn league racing and had proved to myself I could mix it with the best in the world.
I hope each of the riders in this year’s British U21 Final field can enjoy that same experience and tick a few boxes of their own.
Good luck boys, stay safe … and have fun!