318 ROB SPEAK
When oval racing fans reflect on the top drivers they have witnessed in various formulas, the name of Manchester's Rob Speak will certainly feature. He is among an elite group and, to many stock car connoisseurs, arguably among the greatest multi-formula drivers ever, whatever the racing surface. In 2015, he will celebrate his 43rd birthday and has been racing in one form or another since he was a small boy.
He is a naturally gifted driver who displays amazing reflexes, a great sense of anticipation, superb track craft and a burning desire to win whatever the odds. During his racing career he has acquired a fearsome reputation for being among the hardest of hard hitters and many drivers have felt the impact of his front bumper or nerf rail, leading to paybacks and feuds that have the fans returning week after week for more of the same. In F2s it was Speak v Batten and Speak v Moodie and in F1s Speak v Wainman Jnr and Speak v Smith (Andy) - and there were many more. Guaranteed racing action to get the pulses racing - Speaky is box office gold!
After a highly successful Mini Stox career Rob began competing in the BriSCA F2s in 1990, winning his first World Final just a year later in 1991 at Bristol. He went on to become one of the most successful drivers the F2s had ever seen and over the next 10 years, amassed an incredible 8 World Championships, 10 National Points Championships and 349 Final victories. On the downside, controversy was never far away, perhaps the inevitable cross that dominant drivers have to bear in the face of resentment and envy. That he did so with an enigmatic smile on his face and loyal support from his racing team and legions of racing fans is an enormous credit to him and them. But even the most robust characters can find it becomes wearing and, when the fun and enjoyment of racing begins to fade, they can hardly be blamed for taking their skills elsewhere. Fortunately for stock car racing Rob turned his attention to The Big League in 2000.
Twelve months later, he won the F1 World Championship at Hednesford in a Terry George built space frame Elite car with fine tuning by Rob and the incomparable Cecil Sayers. Cecil seems to have been involved with more World Championship winning cars than most others connected to the sport. Rob is only the second driver to have won both the F1 and F2 Stock Car World Championships, the other being the amazing 252/552 Dave Chisholm.
Rob competed until 2002 in F1s and then had a break until coming back in 2008 for one season and then leaving again for a further period, returning in 2012 until the present time. During his F1 stock car racing career he has added to his World Title with 2 European Championships in 2000 and 2001, the National Series in 2014 (that makes 11 National Points Titles in F2s and F1s, the same number won by the legend Stuart Smith Snr, albeit all in F1s) and he has won 19 Finals to the end of the 2014 season. (However, Rob Speak is the only driver to have won both the F1 & F2 National Points Championships.) Typically, Rob got stuck into F1 racing without fear or favour, lighting up the terraces with frequent tussles on track with all the top drivers. It went down well and his fan base increased commensurately.
During his breaks from F1 stock cars he demonstrated outstanding ability in the ASCAR racing series and he is a Banger driver par excellence. He also continues to jump in a F2 stock car from time to time and over the last couple of seasons has raced in both formulas, sometimes at the same meeting.
Over the years, I have been fortunate to witness Rob racing in most of the different formulas he has competed in and there are so many outstanding memories to recall but two stand out for me, his 7th F2 World Championship win at Swindon in 1998 and his F1 World Championship victory in 2001.
The 1998 F2 World Final at Swindon was the first on shale since Crewe in 1993. Rob was top man in the F2s and so many of the other competitors wanted to get one over him.
He was on the front row and got away to establish a decent lead but the first of several yellow flag cautions allowed the field to close up on him. On the restart Dave Luscombe forced Rob wide and got ahead only to have the favour returned. But every time Rob edged ahead, the yellows came out and if it wasn't a caution it was spinning cars.
Luscombe remained close, with other drivers making rapid progress. During the fourth caution of the race came the controversial decision to water the track or rather flood the racing surface. It made the restart a lottery. Fortunately for Rob, Luscombe missed a gear as the green flag was waved and he was able to exercise caution on the first bend. Luscombe was caught and overtaken by the fast moving duo of Bert Finnikin and Mick Sworder and Finnikin in particular was a proven master of wet tracks. He was the only driver to take advantage of the conditions and gradually overhauled Rob but only got close enough for one front bumper attack. For some reason it did not materialise and Rob managed to pull ahead, just out of reach, to win his 7th World Title from 559 Bert Finnikin and 152 Mick Sworder.
At the finish, he was seething with anger at the watering of the track during the race and refused to attend the presentation ceremony, leaving the top step of the podium empty. Eventually he relented and returned to the trackside to accept his trophy and apologise to the fans but my feeling at the time was that most spectators sympathised with his reasons, if not his actions.
It was one of the most intriguing and captivating F2 World Finals that demonstrated why Rob Speak is so special. He had to fight all the way to the flag, overcoming constant obstacles and challenges but he harnessed the anger and frustration and focussed them in a positive way to stick at his task and allow his skill, determination and ability to take advantage of the luck that came his way and carve out yet another World Final win.
The 2001 F1 World Final at Hednesford Hills Raceway had Andy Smith, Frankie Wainman Jnr and Rob Speak on the first two rows. They had been at it hammer and tongs all season and even the grey, overcast conditions could not dent the anticipation of what was always going to be an eventful race.
From the start, Rob sideswiped Frankie aside and forced an error from Andy Smith. Frankie eased Andy into the armco and Smith retaliated by punting Wainman into some parked cars. At that point the race was red flagged for an incident involving 335 Mark Woodhull that led to a considerable delay and the eventual disconcerting sight of an Air Ambulance helicopter to transport Mark to hospital for a precautionary brain scan. He went on to make a complete recovery.
The track lights illuminated the restart and added to the already charged atmosphere. Andy Smith led the pack away but moisture on the track slowed him sufficiently for Frankie Wainman to seize his opportunity and clatter him into the West bend wall. But in doing so he lost grip and made contact with the wall in turn two. It was all Rob Speak needed. As Stuart Smith Snr demonstrated on so many occasions, you have to be in the right place at the right time to anticipate and take advantage of opportunities that present themselves during a race - it's not all luck. Rob shot into the lead and held it for the remainder of the race, skilfully negotiating his way past slower cars. At times his fans must have had their hearts in their mouths as they willed him to the chequered flag, dreading the prospect of another car taking him out by accident or settling old scores.
Below is a model of Rob's 2001 World Final winning car:
Rob, Andy and Frankie continued to battle it out on track for the remainder of the 2001 season with Frankie topping the National Points with a meeting average of 30.8 points from 56 meetings, followed by Rob in second place with an average of 29.8 points from 49 meetings and Andy in third place with an average of 29.5 points from 37 meetings. What a season that was - the Stock Car Magazine headline of 'Tar Wars' captured the occasion perfectly.
Rob Speak is an extraordinary, multi-talented driver the like of which does not come along often. He is a joy to watch in any race in which he competes and never fails to entertain his fans, even when he leaves the track on the back of a tractor! Like Stuart Smith Snr before him, he has his detractors, but even they appreciate his skills. His place in the BriSCA Hall of Fame is a given and as I mentioned at the start of this tribute, for as long as the subject of supremely talented stock car drivers is discussed, Rob Speak's name will always be in the mix.
Rob wins his second F1 World Championship at the Adrian Flux Arena at Kings Lynn (Promoted by Buxton Raceway) on 19th September in an incident packed race that had two full restarts and a long delay, 10 laps from the end with only ten cars still racing, for a nasty racing incident involving 51 Dylan Williams-Maynard. This was Rob's 10th World Championship victory in F1 & F2 stock car racing - an amazing achievement. (See a model of his World Final winning car on the Home Page and both his 2001 & 2015 gold top cars on the Multiple World Champions page)