As we supped a coffee in a Wembley Stadium cafe with the landmark venue's Head of Music and New Events, Jim Frayling, we admired a large photo of the May 1975 attempt by daredevil motorcycle ace Evel Knievel to launch himself over thirteen single-deck AEC Merlin buses in the old stadium. Knievel succeeded, but crashed on landing and promptly announced his (brief) retirement. Last New Year's Eve his 21st century successor, Australia's Robbie Maddison, created a new world motorcycle jumping record at just shy of 100 metres in Las Vegas and, as last year's Race of Champions event at Wembley included some two-wheeled stunts, we asked Jim whether Maddison might be invited to the new venue to leap over a few bendy buses. Later, down in the bowels of the stadium he was confident that the statutory stadium speed limit of 5mph could be temporarily waived, but illustrated why Maddison might still think twice about it.
We could raise up the stage pocket which we take out for gigs and he could come straight into the stadium. There is a road out there which is the royal route, so you could get a bit of a run-up, but there's a slight dog-leg here. If he's prepared to take on the dog-leg we'll look at it!
Putting from our minds for a moment the image of a forlorn rider slapping into a wall of crash mats amidst plumes of acrid rubber smoke just out of sight of his take-off ramp we asked Frayling about how Wembley had managed to get a fully featured race track onto the premises last December for the Race of Champions, which features drivers such as Michael Schumacher, Marcus Grönholm and Jenson Button racing one-on-one in vehicles ranging from rally cars to dune buggies:
In the end they only needed four days, but we had set aside a lot longer! To start with we've got sprinklers just underneath the pitch that pop up, so we had to move the sprinkler heads because with the loading that goes on the surface they could have been crushed. We already knew we would have to completely replace the pitch. The contractors, FM Conway, then put two-by-two metal squares down which served as the base layer. They put sand on top of that, then different mixes of stones and eventually it was like a conventional road was built. Fortunately we've got motorway standard access in here, so the big trucks just rolled on, dumped their stuff and rolled out of the stadium. A great advantage with building things here is that we've got these huge back of house areas. When it was finished we had time to run track days with the help of Daytona. People could get together a team of ten and do karting around the stadium. I'm kicking myself because I was too busy and I didn't get a chance to do it! We're talking with the Race of Champions people and hopefully we can do that event here again this year. Something like 94% of the spectators we surveyed said they'd come again and recommend it to a friend.
Picture via Charlesworth-Family's Flickr stream.
The Race of Champions allowed Frayling to achieve a personal ambition of showcasing a sport for the new stadium that was not featured under the twin towers. Another track sport, for which Wembley was partially purpose built, has not so far been staged, so we asked him whether athletics might feature on the calendar:
We could do it and we meet the criteria needed, They'd build a platform and raise the pitch up. They'd have to raise the whole level of the floor to get an athletics track in and there are support posts built into the stadium to do that, but you'd have to do it in January and leave it like that for the year. You could have England football games here, but they'd have to be at a reduced capacity. We could hold around 70,000 spectators in athletics mode. I'm curious and I'd love to do it. We're a flexible venue. We've had a Tarmac race track down, we've had the NFL in, we've had music events, but I think there'd now have to be an unusual set of circumstances for us to be first choice for athletics ahead of Stratford.
Then yesterday it became apparent that athletics will soon be featured in the stadium after all, but not in a way that will call for the track to be installed. Paula Radcliffe was on hand to launch this year's Nike+ 10k Human Race, which will see thousands of runners compete against other cities on 31st August in the world's largest one day running event. London's participants will start the race inside Wembley aiming for the finish line at Olympic Way. Their performances will contribute to a "team" time for the capital which will be matched against those from 24 other venues worldwide. Nike+ users can sign up this week, while others can join them from 2nd June. A proportion of the registration fee will be donated to one of four charities: UNHCR, Livestrong, WWF and local charity Fairbridge.