Marion's along for the ride

THERE'S a chill in the evening air and she is 82 years old, but Marion Wood grins defiantly and insists she really doesn't feel the cold.

Her blue jacket with gold lettering emblazoned across the back is buttoned up snugly, her blue and gold woolly scarf wrapped around her neck and her matching baseball cap, which struggles to contain unruly white curls, all protecting her from the Armadale nip.

A spit of rain is falling; enough to send most grannies shuffling back inside to the electric fire and Coronation Street.

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But Marion – known to followers of Edinburgh Monarchs speedway team as "Maw" and one of their longest-serving supporters – isn't one for complaining about the cold.

Instead she's doing what she's done for many weekends since the early 1960s: watching daredevil riders kick up red dust, screeching and sometimes crashing their way around a treacherous shale track with roaring engines and 500CC bikes with one gear and no brakes.

"Speedway gets a hold of you," she says, squinting towards the circuit where four riders – two of them in Monarchs colours, two competing for bitter rivals Glasgow Tigers – are revving their bikes and filling the air with the heady, distinctive and not completely unpleasant whiff of methanol fumes.

"My friends think I'm mad to come here. I think they're mad not to want to come," she says.

"Maw" has travelled from Pencaitland with her daughter Margaret Sutherland, 56, for this crunch Friday night fixture. Her equally-fanatical sister, Margaret Purves, 75, is among the crowd rattling a plastic tub with "drivers' fuel fund" penned on the side. She has travelled from St Boswells in the Borders.

She sets down the tub and gleefully explains that this is just part one of their girls' only weekend – tomorrow they head south to watch the Berwick Bandits.

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Speedway – fast, furious and spiced with danger – draws all ages, from these golden girls down to the primary school boys and girls with their parents, young couples hand in hand and groups of workmates, whose Friday evenings during speedway season are spent in this corner of West Lothian.

Or, at least, they are for the time being. Not for much longer.

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The Monarchs roared into Armadale's dog track, otherwise known rather grandly as The Lothian Arena, 14 years ago after the demise of Powderhall in Beaverhall Road in 1995.

Since then houses have appeared on the stadium's boundaries. The march of progress means a Sainsbury's is now earmarked for the site.

This, nods Monarchs' promoter John Campbell – a speedway fan since his childhood in Pilrig Gardens when he would hear the Saturday night roar of bikes from the old Meadowbank stadium – is likely to be their last season on Armadale land.

"We're at a critical time at the moment, deep in discussion," he says, refusing to elaborate on where the Monarchs might race next season. "We've known for a while we had to move – 14 months. But that hasn't made it any easier to find somewhere."

It's been suggested by some that they'll probably set up camp within a 20-minute journey of the current stadium, possibly at a vacant industrial estate close to the M8 in the Livingston area.

But nothing is guaranteed. Mr Campbell cites potentially protracted planning issues – neighbours tend to regard speedway as excessively noisy, and supermarkets just as irritating – plus the time to construct a new stadium. If all isn't ironed out within the next few weeks, this might not be the Monarchs' last season at Armadale after all.

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But on Friday night, as the riders emerge from a concrete toilet block clad in brightly-coloured fireproof kevlars branded with sponsors' names and the blue and gold Monarchs crown, what happens next season is far less important than tonight's challenge – beating Glasgow Tigers in the Premier Trophy fixture.

Monarchs captain Matthew Wethers, 24, has come a long way to race in front of this clutch of wooden structures that makes up the team's home ground.

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"I went to school in Australia with a couple of kids that did speedway in Adelaide," he explains in an Aussie drawl peppered with a hint of Scots.

"After a couple of years my dad asked if I wanted a try. I had a shot, never looked back."

He's one of several who have crossed international boundaries to arrive here. Such as Finland internationalist Kalle Katajisto who faced his own nail-biting race against last week's volcanic ash flight delays to reach the meeting on time. As it turned out he needn't have bothered: he blew his engine in the second race.

Watching from the pits, where the conversation becomes a shouting match over the deafening cacophony of revving, backfiring engines, is crocked German rider Max Dilger.

Armadale on a slightly damp Friday night might not look like the pinnacle of speedway excellence, but, according to him, the chance to ride here, among some of the country's top talent, is a major lure.

However, a dislocated shoulder sustained two weeks earlier has sidelined the 20-year-old. It's both frustrating and costly – riders are paid for the points they win – turning up to watch doesn't pay the bills. "It's a hard sport," he says with a smile of acceptance. "You ride really close without brakes. You might crash."

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He's getting help from Motherwell FC's physiotherapist, he adds. So while the rest of us might take several months to recover from a dislocated shoulder, he aims to be back racing in "one or two weeks".

This is clearly no sport for softies. Heat three is proof, when Monarchs' Kevin Wolbert, who drove 1,000 miles from Germany to Armadale in 20 hours to take part, careers into the crash barriers.

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Watching it unfold is one-time speedway racer Ian Milne. The 40-year-old from Cumbernauld knows the risks: he used to race for the now-defunct Linlithgow Lightning team, today he is one of the few spectators to remain seated throughout the evening, his knee wrecked by the sport.

"I had a few leg injuries," he explains, pointing to a crutch that's propped up beside him. "One of them damaged my knee pretty badly. Then I got MS. That and the leg injury together gives me problems.

"I was just a minor rider," he stresses. "Not like these guys. It takes a lot of courage to do what they do and keep doing it."

As he speaks, another Monarch parts company with his bike and smashes into the protective barriers. There's a collective groan from the crowd. The Monarchs are on their way to a humiliating defeat and a public roasting from Mr Campbell via the stadium microphone.

Not that this poor show has particularly dampened the flow of spirits in the sponsors' box. David Watt has paid for the privilege of entertaining customers and friends. "I've been here a few times," he says. "It's always a good night out."

Will "Maw" Wood carry on coming, even when Armadale, like Meadowbank and Powderhall, is just a faded memory?

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"Of course," she declares, tugging her scarf a little tighter against the chill. "I'll never stop coming."

Edinburgh Monarchs are in action tonight at Armadale in a Premier League fixture against Sheffield Tigers. Gates open at 6.30pm, first race at 7.30pm.


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IT'S fast and furious, and at one time speedway was among the top spectator sports in the country.

Two teams of seven riders race each other over 15 thrilling heats – each consisting of four laps with two riders from each team. They ride over loosely packed shale which allows them to slide sideways into the bends, scraping their steel-clad boots along the ground.

Little has changed in the sport since it began in Edinburgh on 19 May, 1928 at Marine Gardens in Portobello when crowds of 10,000 packed the stands.

But the outbreak of war brought speedway to a halt for several years.

It emerged again in 1948 when a new track was built at Old Meadowbank, home to Leith Athletic FC. The Edinburgh Monarchs team were established and took part in their first fixture on 26 March, 1948 in Bristol.

The sport's popularity took off. Crowds of 20,000 gathered to watch Monarchs' Australian Jack Young dominate the sport, going on to win the world championship in 1951.

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But the team became victims of progress. The Commonwealth Games were due to come to Edinburgh in 1970 and Meadowbank was to undergo a major rebuild to accommodate the athletes.

Monarchs raced for a spell in Coatbridge before returning to the city in 1977 to take up residence at the greyhound stadium at Powderhall.

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They remained there for 19 seasons until the stadium was controversially sold for development.

Monarchs raced for a year at Shawfield in Glasgow before finally making Armadale their home in 1997.

The club compete in British Speedway's Premier League, racing on Friday nights at their home ground.

They have won the Premier League twice, in 2003 and 2008.