Speedway-Rickardsson rides again as global ambassador for a new era

LONDON (Reuters) - Speedway great Tony Rickardsson rode the 'Wall of Death', retired with a record-equalling six world championships and is now on a mission to bring the joy of sliding on shale to a whole new audience.

The 51-year-old Swede was named on Friday as the first global ambassador for a rebranded sport entering a new era with Discovery Sports Events taking over as promoter on a 10-year deal from 2022.

The talk is of growing the global viewership five-fold over the next three years via Discovery+, Eurosport television and domestic free-to-air channels in key markets Sweden, Poland, Denmark, Britain and Germany.

The sport that drew crowds of 60,000 in Britain in the immediate aftermath of World War Two now struggles for mainstream attention, but Rickardsson still sees strong potential for growth.

If television viewers miss out on the heady whiff of methanol, with the 500cc single-gear bikes power-sliding around shale-based floodlit oval circuits at up to 130kph with no brakes, the digital world offers other attractions.

The Netflix 'Drive to Survive' Formula One documentary series serves as an example.

"The strongest tool we have is the riders and we are really going to focus on them from now with more behind-the-scenes material," Rickardsson told Reuters. "I think that can attract new fans to the sport.

"My oldest daughter, who doesn't watch motorsport at all, now watches Formula One thanks to 'Drive to Survive' ... I think that is a very good way to engage a younger audience.

"I know it's going to be a success because we have some very good characters within speedway. I can't wait. I would love to see these programmes. It is a plan. It will happen."

The Swede retired in 2006, a year after his famed 'Wall of Death' ride in Cardiff where he used the fence at the first corner to pass three rivals and win the British GP for a second time.

"It was a quick decision, and I'm really happy that I did it but afterwards I regretted it because I thought it was a pretty stupid move to do, with the consequences that could have been," he said.

"I thought afterwards it was one of the most stupid things I’d done. I realized it's time to retire because I will not survive if I keep doing stuff like that.

"This job is more long-term thinking, for sure. It's a question that’s been on my mind really all the time since I retired from speedway; How to attract newcomers? It’s always been a burning issue and I’ve thought about it long and hard to find a solution."

Discovery's 10-year vision sees a more connected pyramid from the grassroots right to the top.

There will be SGP (Speedway Grand Prix) with 12 rounds on two continents running from April to November, an SGP2 under-21 category, SGP3 for under-16s and a new international entry-level SGP4 for under-15s.

The Speedway of Nations and Speedway World Cup will complement the series.

Rickardsson recalled how as a rider he had somewhat unrealistic ambitions.

"I had a very strong belief that I would be part of building a motorsport that’s going to be bigger than Formula One," he laughed.

"I love Formula One and of course I set my sights on that and tried to work towards that.

"We didn’t even get close but I felt that we made some progress. But it’s difficult. Speedway is a combination of entertainment and sport and for me it is hard to understand why everybody does not love speedway."

(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Christian Radnedge)

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