Ashley Riley is one of the sport’s finest entertainers. From delivering massive hits to his rivals to occasionally avoiding them on route to victory – he is a real star of National Bangers.
The Brighton-based racer is also one of the key components to the ever-popular Bears Banger team, one of the longest-serving teams still currently racing having been formed in the 1980’s.
Since then, they have travelled all over the United Kingdom and beyond, entertaining crowds wherever they go. Riley recalls the early days of the Bears at Worthing, watching his Dad race with some of his closest friends.
“My first memory of racing was at Worthing, where the team first started racing before I was born,” explained Riley. “I lived for racing back then as a young child, I was around two or three years old. Watching my Dad and all his pals’ race was awesome.
“The team was created by my Dad and Mick Francis, who worked together at the local tip. The Bears name came from an old Bears skin and head found there. Dad used to race with that bolted to his roof for years until it rotted so bad that there wasn’t much left.”
Riley’s Dad, Nigel Riley (‘Nutty’ Nige) is the Captain of the team and still races to this day after creating the team with his friends and work colleagues more than three decades ago. The friends of family aspect has always been a big part of the teams make-up.
Riley thinks this is why the team has stayed together for so long and been on-top of their game for the majority of all those years.
He said: “The team has always been made up of family and friends that are so close, they may as well be family. I think this is why the team has stayed together throughout so many generations with none of us falling out with each other. We have tried to not become too serious in our approach to racing as well, which has helped. This coupled with spending as little time and money on it as possible.”
Riley himself has been racing for a while now having made his Banger debut at Smallfield – a track which he later admits the Bears like to call their ‘home.’
“My first Banger meeting was at Smallfield in a 1.3 cross flow Ford Capri – it was a day I had looked forward to all my life,” told Riley. “It went just as well as I had dreamed it would. I gave a huge shot in each race, the heaviest being on Glen Beevis in the Destruction Derby. It knocked Glen out for a little bit which was a bit worrying, but he soon came around and sat in his well shortened MK5 Ford Cortina.
“It felt like my head was going to fall off even with all the adrenaline pumping around, it was stiff as fuck! It was everything I expected and more – it was way better than racing my Mini in the non-contacts at Gatwick Raceway. It’s fair to say, from that moment on, I was completely hooked.”
From that point onwards, Riley has gone on to have a hugely successful career within the National Bangers which has also seen him gain loads of respect from drivers, officials and fans alike.
The 2006 Smallfield World of Dirt win was perhaps Riley’s biggest win of his career so far, but the day remains close to his heart for a different reason, as he explains.
“I think the 2006 World of Dirt was one of the only meetings I actually set out to win – which is never normally in my thoughts. It ran on the day my son was due to be born, so it nearly didn’t happen for me, but thankfully he was born a short while after which also drove me to try my best to win, as I wanted to mark the occasion.”
Riley also won the Unlimited Banger Shamwreck title in 2008 at Nutts Corner – which he admits gave him more of a buzz. Riley also confirms that the early Shamwreck meetings remain some of his firm favourites in the many meetings he’s done.
“I think winning Shamwreck with all the Stinkbridge chasing me down and trying to stop me was more of a buzz than the World of Dirt win,” he admitted. “I think I’d be hard pushed to name my favourite crash but my favourite meetings (that are known for crashing) have to be the early Shamwreck ones, where I’d be proper sore for a week afterwards – that’s when you know you’ve had a good meeting.”
Shamwreck is also the scene of one of Riley’s biggest ever hits when he picked up Marc Dalgarno on the back straight and followed him into the turn three armco. The hit completely snapped Dalgarno’s Jaguar in an event won by Mike Flaherty.
Riley has also been successful with the Bears in team events with the Brighton-based team winning the Kings Lynn War of the Worlds Teams title twice, the Smallfield Unlimited Banger team Championship and the 2004 Battle of Britain Teams title too.
The Bears have had some great team rivalries over the years, battling the likes of Stinkbridge, Team Black and more recently DWO. Riley admits he and the team enjoy these wars but picks out another team who they have had plenty of memorable hits with over the years.
“Team battles are great!” beamed Riley. “We try our best to race as a proper team as often as possible and we’ve met so many other proper teams along the way, but I’d say Posh Wash is the best team we’ve raced against. It’s always just been about Bangers with the two of us, and we always talk after smashing each other to pieces, which is a hard thing to find nowadays.”
As well as team battles, individuals have also come up against the Bears on multiple occasions. Either because they race on their own or because they are at a meeting without any or few teammates – DWO star Andrew Jones is an example of this.
Just like with the teams, Riley picks out a driver whom the Bears have had some good crashes with over the years.
“The toughest driver we’ve come up against over the years is ‘Grumpy’ (Richard Regan) when he was in the Hitmen and on his own, he always gave as good as he got,” he said. “And again, it was always just racing with plenty of respect between us, so still to this day we are all good friends.”
The Bears have also raised over £140,000 for the Rockinghorse Children’s Charity over the last eight years, which has allowed them to buy vital lifesaving equipment for the Royal Alexandra Children’s Hospital in Sussex.
This has largely been down to the annual Unlimited National Bangers ‘Big Bears Bash’ meeting that started way back in 2012. Riley talks about how the idea came about.
“We started the Bears meeting at a time where my bro’s son, Ronnie and my daughter, Sienna had been in hospital,” he explained. “After seeing our kids there and all the other sick children, we decided that we would stick our necks on the line, and see if we could get a big enough backing to run a meeting of our own, to raise money while we smash cars up for fun.”
The meeting started at Smallfield, where it ran continuously for three years (2012-2014), when the Bears decided to move the meeting to the Arlington Stadium, Eastbourne. The moved proved to be a fruitful one with the meeting going from strength-to-strength.
Riley explained why the team made the executive decision to move the meeting.
“We started the meeting at Smallfield because it’s the track we call ‘home’, but we felt it had reached its peak,” told Riley. “We decided to move it to Arlington as it’s local to us and the charity. So, we approached Deane Wood at Spedeworth, and he was glad to help. It turned out to be a great move for the charity and the meeting, which gets bigger each year – the drivers have really got into the spirit of the meeting.”
The Bears also won the ‘Community Event of the Year’ award back in 2018 at the Argus Community Stars Awards for their fantastic charity work. Riley admitted that the meeting has surpassed all expectations they had when they first set it up and also stated they were never in it for the awards or plaudits.
“We set out with no goals in mind at all, but together as a team and as a racing community we have actually smashed all expectations of ours and I’m sure everyone else’s,” he admitted. “The pursuit of any awards was never on the cards for us, but Michael Burnage – the back bone of the team, organisation wise – decided we should try and after three years of close seconds, we finally won against some other huge charity events. Considering it’s voted by the public, most of which have no clue what Banger racing is, it’s great for the sport and the charity.”
Given the situation the world has found itself in this year with regards to the Coronavirus pandemic, this year’s ‘Big Bears Bash’ is currently under threat with a decision about the event set to be made closer to the event.
However, a JustGiving page has been set up for anyone wishing to donate to a very worthwhile cause. The link to the page can be found here: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/bearsbashforthenhs?fbclid=IwAR0FPVY7dpe4jpf-q7ePqPkOewYl7gcjVSgYWzIxVUKOYgzXdywkEjM6kEU
Last year saw Riley qualify for his first ever Spedeworth Unlimited National Banger World Final after the Bears star finished fourth in the inaugural Banger World Series (BWS) Entertainers League. Speaking about the BWS, Riley admitted he enjoyed the racing and spoke of the new vibe brought to the table thanks to the Entertainers League.
“I enjoyed the BWS last year and the Entertainers League brought a new vibe to all the rounds with more cars and more action,” he said. “Qualifying for the World Final was great. It was good to be on my first Spedeworth World Final grid but the main reason I wanted to qualify was so my son, Leo, could drive me out onto the grid and as a father, it doesn’t get any better than that.”
Never a driver afraid of going against the norm or what one might expect, he piloted a beautiful Cadillac Hearse for the main race and used it to good effect too, delivering a solid T-Bone to Tom Jordan and jacking Jamie Pole as well.
Riley spoke about how the opportunity to race such a car came about and how it made him more relaxed heading into the race.
“The Cadillac Hearse was a sponsored car,” admitted Riley. “That particular model is really hard to find, so I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to race it. It was great fun to drive and it also made the grid experience a lot more laid back, as let’s face it, I wasn’t winning in it so there was only one goal I had going into the race.”
The big Hearse recently returned to the Foxhall Heath Stadium back in March where Riley once again put it to good use. He jacked Craig Cooper hard on turn three before meeting ‘Patch’ Beasley on the nose in the Wildcard Final with a cracking head-on. A hit over the rear left wheel by Tom Filmer seemingly finished off his evening.
As always, there is a big list of people whom Riley would like to thank for all their help.
“I’d like to thank my Mum and Dad for putting me on this earth, to serve the banger community in many ways. They knocked it out the park making such a being – pretty good for two minutes work,” joked Riley. “On a more serious note, I’d like to thank every one of the lads who have helped over the years; Dean, Blake, Liam, Pete, ‘Big’ Dave, ‘Nutty’ Nige, ‘Nutty’ Mum, ‘Stick-Man’, Leo, and Carl. All have helped me build cars in the rain, cold, dark and every other miserable weather condition, just for me to race. But most importantly, I need to thank my missus, Kelly for putting up with me.”
The Bears have been a staple of National Banger racing since the 1980’s and are still going strong to this day. And with a new wave of young Bear cubs coming through the ranks, it looks like we could be seeing the name out on track for many years to come.
Riley and the Bears team almost epitomise everything the sport is about. Unusual cars, big hits, memorable moments and fantastic charity work.
By Jordan Hollands