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Speedway as a school of life

08/12/09 - 14:35

Teenage Debut GP Winner Emil Sayfutdinov reveals his secrets

The youngest FIM Speedway World Championship Grand Prix rider of 2009 could scarcely have imagined that his grand prix debut would be so unbelievable.

Russian racer Emil Sayfutdinov, 19 years old and double junior World Champion, not only reached the final. He went on and won it. That is exactly how it goes – unexpectedly forceful, unpredictably certain.

In retrospect, the so-called “Russian Torpedo” was ready made for the role of precocious sideways superstar. He was born in 1989 in the small Russian town of Salavat, where speedway is one of the most respected sports. It’s not surprising that every local boy dreams of one day becoming a famous rider.

Very few can later say that they actually managed it. Emil has the right to claim himself as one of this small elite.

Growing up in a family atmosphere rich in motorcycle sport was the first influence on Emil’s future career. His father Damir had been a keen motocross racer, and went on to try his hand at the spectacular oval-track discipline of ice speedway, though without the same level of success. Emil’s brother Denis, eight years his senior, followed on to the oval-tracks. He continues as a professional speedway racer to this day, and Emil explains that it is thanks to Denis that he also took up the spectacular sideways sport.

Like most of today’s champions in most motor sports, he started young, when his father built him a moped. Emil rode round the local area, especially in the winter, getting an early grasp of how to stay on two wheels when there is scant grip from the surface beneath them.

At nine, he started serious motorcycle sport. His first motocross race, on a 65cc machine, was in 1998. It was four years later that he switched seriously from off-road to on-track. His enthusiasm for speedway, and his nascent skill, saw him selected for the junior team for the “Mega-Lada” club. He was so fast that he was moved almost directly to the senior team – a special concession from the MFR (Motorcycle Federation of Russian) allowed him to race against adults one year younger than is normally allowed. He was 14; the usual age limit is 15.

It was a crucial year. Now he started to earn a little money as a sportsman, unusual among his contemporaries, as well as a chance to travel to more distant meetings. As an extremely respectful young man, he gave his first prize money to his parents. It was not, he now says, a large sum.

Speedway had moved from being a favorite sport to become a serious and all-exclusive calling.

“Speedway is my only vocation,” says Emil. “Or at least it is my line of work. If I hadn’t succeeded in speedway I would have probably tried motocross … anyway I would have chosen motor sport. I can’t imagine myself as a doctor, or something else.”

It is not just the money, nor only the sport. “It is a great school of life, a really hard kind of sport. First I thought I would never let my future kids go in for sport, but now I believe there is a chance that I would do it. I would never force them – but if they became interested in speedway, I would gladly share my experience with them.”

At 16, there was a sort of hiatus … a misunderstanding between Emil and his father and the club saw him depart from Russian speedway for a season. Far from a disaster, it was an educative experience for the teenager, for he competed instead in the Polish league. Not only did he gain sporting experience, he also learned how to live on his own, and to develop an independent philosophy. Far from his family, he became more self-reliant and more confident. Emil still doesn’t have a professional trainer, relying on his own speedway knowledge and the advice of his father.

Success in sport never comes easily. Most people understand such hardships as injuries and long recovery periods, and interminable fitness sessions. But what is the real cost of success for a young rider? What does he have to sacrifice to become really successful in speedway?

Emil is no stranger to the level of dedication required. At the age of just 17, he was competing in three different leagues simultaneously: Russian, Swedish and Polish. It was now that he won his first World Championship – the junior title for riders under 21. He would do so again the following year, 2008. In spite of some poor qualifying results at senior level, this automatically entitled him to a wild card for the 2009 SGP Series. And opened the way to a year of extremely hard work.

“This season was really hard for me,” he said. “Sometimes I even had two race meeting in one day. I spent so much time on aircraft getting from one race to another that it almost feels like home aboard. All sportsmen who are really good in any sport have to dedicate most of their time to it. Sometimes I regret that I can’t have a summer holiday, and spend some time with my family,” he adds.

In spite of the demands on his time, Emil managed to pass his driving test, and to find some spare time to play football with his team-mates in St Petersburg, where he now lives.

The hard-working Emil began his Speedway Grand Prix career in the best possible way – victory as a rank rookie in the opening round of the year in the Czech Republic. This made him the youngest GP winner in the sport’s history, an unbelievable debut.

It was no fluke, a fact he emphasized with two further victories during the season so far, in Sweden and Slovenia. He reached the final in four of his first nine GPs, and has won three of them. It put him in the top three of the title standings, and secured his aim for the rest of the season, to “try my best to gain points in every heat”.

Sayfutdinov’s highlights are obviously the wins, and though he values these special moments, he usually holds to the principle that “once you finish a race, you forget about it”.

Emil has some pet hates, things that interfere while he is trying to handle the stress during a speedway meeting, where he will race as many as seven times in one afternoon or evening. One major irritation is interruption to his concentration by well-meaning fans. “People come to me during the meeting – different people – distracting me with their talk. I don’t like it, but unfortunately they don’t understand this. It’s always very annoying when somebody starts to explain to me how the race will end up. I really don’t want to know the results in advance.”

People often ask Emil what is his motto, but apparently he has no secret credo which can bolster his chances of success. “They say I have a great talent, but I think that talent is not enough. You also need to work hard”, says Emil.

Working hard, Emil learned how to draw strength from uncertainty and apprehension. “There is absolutely no sense in the fear of the failure. It is your life, and you need to have a good try before giving up. At first I had some thoughts, like ‘Why am I doing this if it’s so scary?’ But then I realized that this is my calling and there is no need to be afraid. All I need to do is just try. Finally you get experienced in overcoming your fears”.

Though the Russian Torpedo has achieved much in SGP-2009, he has had some problems in his first season – not only for technical reasons but also due to excessive striving for victory. It is too much haste that now and again prevents him from achieving it. And sometimes the more he strives, the deeper is his disappointment.

To reduce stress prior to an event Emil established some simple rules. One of the main principles is to have good rest before the meeting, and try to remain alone while he is preparing. Also whoever his competitors are, he tries to win, even if people say that there is no chance.

Emil Sayfutdinov as a youngest rider in the 2009 SGP Series, and as double junior World Champion is well known among fans where speedway is popular. However many in his home town of Salavat remain unaware of the scale of his achievements. He is asked for his autograph more frequently in Poland. In fact such relative anonymity helps him to stay reasonable and fair. As he says, he still values honesty most of all. Working on himself to avoid getting a swollen head is one of his main aims. “The moment a sportsman becomes proud of himself is the beginning of his fall”, says Emil.

As one of the most famous riders, Emil is a really determined man. He has learned to set the aims, and to achieve them. The goal for this year was to participate in GPs. and to perform worthily. It’s almost done for now. But there always will be other aims to achieve, other obstacles to overcome and other boundaries to cross.

By Tatiana Savina
Adaptation in English by Michael Scott

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