Thursday, 30 August 2012

Speeding Motorcycles Microblog: Lessons From History

Reading through Jeff Scott's Quantum Of Shale last night and came across this gem:

"One thing I do want to establish once and for all to those that perhaps don't understand is that this is a new promotion with a new ethic and those that think we should have taken the opportunity to call the meeting off as we had suffered an hour's drizzle or that we should have called off in the morning in case we lost, need to understand one thing. We are professional and we are building you a club to be part of and proud of. Therefore we do things right. Plenty of speedway businesses and the sport itself have been damaged sometimes beyond repair with a string of early rain-offs - some without weather foundation all in the name of winning. We won't do that as it's not just gamesmanship it's cheating and cheating the sport and cheating the paying public who invariably lose interest in the end and don't attend at all. We will wait until the track is too wet to prepare for an 8pm start every time and if that's 4, 5, 6 or 7 o'clock that's the way it will be. You can make your minds up if it's worth risking a trip but you do it in the knowledge that every effort will be made." - Jon Cook, Lakeside programme, 08/08/2008

23/08/2012 - Calls off meeting with 12 hours to go, because of a forecast of rain, and with a rider woefully out of form (who subsequently quits the club)

Friday, 24 August 2012

Fixtures, Farragos, Fill-Ins and Fun

ITEM: It's rare that a speedway reporter becomes the story rather than writes it but Josh Gudgeon suffered that fate this week. His crime? He found out that Swindon had re-declared their team, bringing in Robert Miskowiak for Simon Stead, and reported it, on Twitter.

Stead's form had not been good for a while, so it was no surprise that he might have lost his place in a team looking to win their first title for 37 years. What was surprising is that Stead didn't seem to know he'd been dropped.

With Alun Rossiter and Gary Patchett otherwise occupied when the story broke, and unable to provide confirmation or denial, the Swindon fans turned on Gudgeon. Half couldn't believe their promotional team would do such a thing to Stead the day after his testimonial, and so accused Gudgeon of lying, and the other half, willing to sacrifice principles for success, accused Gudgeon of breaking the story before it was ready to be made public.

Journalists have no obligation to sit on a story. Their job is to report news, and by its very definition news needs to be reported while it is fresh. If Gudgeon did anything wrong it's fail to seek clarification from the Swindon promotion. But, then again, he may have done - like I said earlier, they were incommunicado.

Speedway journalism would never win the Pulitzer or even the Paul Foot Award for investigative reporting. It is polite, uncontroversial, and often willing accessory to the wool being pulled firmly over the eyes of the fans. It is extremely rare that the Speedway Star will report any controversy, or criticise the sport's controllers.

The thing is, we're not in the 1950s any more. The news that promoters would rather you didn't know leaks out, with it without reporters like Josh Gudgeon. Last year I built up quite a team of informants, willing to pass on info they thought should be in the public domain. I was even passed a piece on the perilous financial state of one Elite League side by a respected speedway journalist. My protestations that it should be the centrepiece of a larger investigation in the Star were met with a shrug.

No-one wants to shame our sport. But as long as we are complicit in hiding its abuses they will continue. Young girls will be in danger from leery riders, rules will be ridden roughshod over, riders will go unpaid by unscrupulous promoters, and the product we pay to see will further be diluted and become a joke to all but the hardcore of fans.

Will the next generation of reporters like Josh Gudgeon make a difference? It's too early to tell, and I'd like to hope so, but my gut tells me he'll be pulled into line by his peers and the speedway establishment before he's reached his mid-20s. I don't like being wrong but I wouldn't mind this time.

ITEM: Speedway if often accused of being a slapdash sport. Some of this criticism is wildly inaccurate and unfair, but it does seem a truism that if speedway can find a way to make a mess of something it will.

British speedway is unique in the sport (and possibly in any sport) in that its competitors stage their home matches on different nights of the week. In the Elite League we have two Monday tracks, two Wednesday tracks, three Thursday tracks, two Friday tracks, and a lone Saturday outfit. This makes compiling a fixture list extremely difficult, especially when you have to take overseas commitments of the riders into consideration.

But the Elite League throws a further spanner into the works. The lone Saturday track, Eastbourne, is limited in the amount of unopposed Saturdays it can run due to the Grand Prix competition that runs just about every fortnight between May and October. Their reasons for not wanting to stage a meeting while the GPS are on are obvious - rider availability and fans staying at home to watch on TV - and they find sympathy with an EL eager to keep as many teams as possible.

To this end, with a 10-team membership, the league chooses to operate a complicated system by which all teams meet each other home and away once, and some others meet twice. This is, clearly, far from ideal, in two important ways.

Firstly, it does not enable a level plating field. This is negated somewhat by the play-off system, but it's still obvious that a team which faces Belle Vue home and away twice, and Poole home and away just once, will have a clear advantage over one that had the reverse of that situation.

Secondly, it makes for a very uneven fixture list, with some teams visiting a track twice in one month, and others just once - which may be 18 months since their last tussle!

With the complications I've already outlined it's obviously not an easy thing to fix, but it HAS to be fixed. Firstly, Eastbourne have to be brought into line and find space for 18 home fixtures. Then we have to have someone looking over the fixtures before they are finalised to ensure they are evenly spread. Lakeside's Jon Cook took on the job of sorting out the complicated new formula so perhaps he'd be the one to do it.

Speedway promoters don't like being told how to do their business but if speedway is to be taken seriously, and taken into the 21st century, it's got to get ship-shape. This is just a start.

ITEM: Unlike many other fans, I don't mind the guest system in speedway. It means you get seven-man teams, and the individual nature - and points-based payment of riders - usually means the guest will try hard to score points for his temporary team. Yes, it may seem odd that a rider will often be helping his own team's rivals, but this rarely happens in a direct manner, with most riders careful not to guest for teams fiddling with their own for titles or play-off spots.

Indeed, I much prefer a guest to the Rider Replacement option, which leaves a team short-handed and can massively enhance the shortcomings of an already struggling side.

Last week, at Birmingham, the Bees operated both facilities, with R/R for the injured Scott Nicholls, and a guest for concussed number one Chris Harris. Although the remaining Bees' riders adequately covered Nicholls's absence in their R/R rides, Harris was a different story.

With all due respect to Christian Henry you could hardly call him a suitable replacement for an Elite League number one, even one with a currently low average like Harris - Henry is ranked in the low-30s in the PREMIER League averages.

He wasn't the first asked but he was the first willing to ride and able to get to Perry Barr, which is to his enormous credit. Some were simply unable to break other commitments, or were at home abroad, whilst others wanted too much money: one PL heat leader apparently cooked up a figure of £500 a point!

There are two simple answers to this. You either establish a squad system or allow teams to bring in guests who are not currently riding in the UK. Each has its problems - I'm told there is a fear that the richer clubs would pay top riders NOT to ride and park them in their squads, and that the logistics of bringing in a guest from overseas is expensive and difficult - but it's worth trialling, surely?

Przemyslaw Pawlicki, a Coventry asset with an average under Chris Harris's, was in the country last Thursday and could have ably deputised, if the rules allowed. The Bees lost by seven points...

ITEM: It's British Grand Prix weekend and everybody who's anybody is heading to Cardiff.

I'm kind of jealous because I'd like to be there but left it far too late to get time off work to go. Not for the racing, of course, which - as a GP - never merits more than watch on Sky and moan on Twitter, but for the community happening.

I love meeting new friends, especially ones I've "known" through Twitter and Facebook for some time, and I suppose I'll have to sort something out one day.

But for now, for those of you making your way to Wales, have a great time, don't forget your #RICO shirt, and make sure Harris & Nicholls hear you every time they take the track.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

More Meetings & Less, More Rules & A Mess!

ITEM: Another week, another rules fiasco. This time, Peterborough. At the back end of last week, Peterborough made the announcement that they’d signed Thomas H Jonasson to replace the injured Olly Allen, and that he would make his debut in the televised clash with table-topping Swindon Robins. Only for Jonasson to ride in Poland and get injured. Now, as we aware from last week’s shenanigans, if you haven’t ridden for your club you are not entitled to be replaced by anything other than a National League rider (and the club landed with a £300 fine). However, Peterborough were allowed to revert to their previous declaration, with still included Olly Allen, and they tracked Ryan Fisher as a guest.

Guess what? Nowhere in the SCB regulations – speedway’s rulebook – does it say that this is possible. But I’m assured by several members of the BSPA that it is. If so, it must be an unwritten convention, and if we’re getting into that territory we’re really in trouble.

No-one wants to see a rider clearly out of his depth, especially on a televised match, but if we are going to have rules – and I’d argue that they are pretty necessary – then we have to follow them to the letter. What’s the point of having them otherwise? As it was, Fisher rode superbly for the Panthers, scoring a crucial seven points before falling in a nasty crash that took the wind out of the meeting. The Robins have every reason to demand his points be taken away, but seem happy to accept this weird rule-breaking, even though it may cost them top spot in the league. I know of at least one promoter who wouldn’t stand for it, and strangely I’d back him on it (and that would be a first!).

Speaking of demanding points be taken away, an understrength Coventry side rode at Birmingham on Tuesday and took the hosts to a last-heat decider. Birmingham, though, rode under protest, because they’d studied the latest team declarations on the BSPA website and noticed that Coventry shouldn’t have been allowed a guest at number 6, and thus wanted any points the guest – Rohan Tungate – scored to be taken away. As it was, he only scored one point, so it was kind of moot, but it’s still embarrassing for both Birmingham and the BSPA.

Why? The BSPA – and not for the first time – messed up the team declarations page on their website. They listed Adam Roynon as doubling-up with Leigh Lanham, and Aaron Summers as doubling-up with Josef Franc. If that were the case (and it’s actually Roynon/Franc & Summers/Lanham) then Coventry should have tracked Leigh Lanham at number 6. However, a simple glance at their own declarations would have revealed that they were wrong too, meaning their own team was illegal. Birmingham chose to protest rather than ask the Coventry promotion if the declaration was right, and hopefully will forfeit their £300 protest fee for wasting time. As the money goes to the Speedway Riders Benevolent Fund (or it always did – does it still?), I think it’s only fair if the BSPA matches it, a bargain for their continued ineptitude.

ITEM: There’s been some talk lately of mid-ranking British riders – which, of course, means anyone outside the top three – looking to double-up next season, even though the rules currently forbid anyone with an Elite League average over 6.00 from doing so. This doesn’t preclude many – Danny King, Edward Kennett, Simon Stead, and Lewis Bridger – but it’s become a subject of some debate. Bridger has publicly stated his preference for it, yet scored well last night, increasing his average rather than dropping it, and thus – as the rules stand – ruling him out of contention. Likewise, Danny King has had a solid year, scoring well for Birmingham, and fully deserving his place in the British World Cup squad.

Kennett and Stead, however, have had difficult years. Both have dropped their averages substantially, with Kennett failing to reach double figures in the Elite League since April. Naturally there have been rumours that this has been deliberate, but I would hope that no rider would betray his promoter, his club, and his fans in this way. Especially Kennett, whose indiscretions last season were rewarded with a loyalty few would be shown.

The simple answer, as I’ve written in this blog before, is to allow all ACU license-holders to double-up, as in Sweden. That way there is little incentive to drop your average (other than the old chestnut of going out on loan from your parent club to return on a lower average), and everybody is happy. If a Premier League wants to track Chris Harris on a near-12.00 average they should be free to do so.

Until that’s the case there’s always going to be talk. Yes, Bridger has come out and stated his desire in plain terms but while Kennett & Stead remain silent yet continue to turn in disappointing scores for their clubs, the rumour-mongers circle…

ITEM: I’d like to see the word “open” used more in speedway. Not as in a freedom of information (though I would like that, obviously, and it’s a subject for another blog), but as in the first half of the phrase “open license”.

Tracks ran on open licenses quite freely in the past. They’d put on a dozen or so meetings a year – either team challenges or individual competitions – unburdened by the day-to-day running of a league speedway club. It doesn’t happen much now –Sittingbourne and Northside are the only non-league tracks operating in the UK (although Lydd runs “black” - that is, without SCB consent) – but my interest in the subject was piqued by a trip to the Norfolk coast this week.

Driving to the Norfolk coast is a fair old haul, unless you actually live in East Anglia, and there’s not much to see and lots to think about. I drove past the site of the proposed Norwich revival, which looks perfect for speedway, and onwards towards Yarmouth. On the way out to where I was staying I passed Yarmouth Stadium, once the home of the “Bloaters”, now a venue for greyhounds and stock cars. The old speedway track has been tarmac’d over, but it struck me it would be a perfect venue to stage half-a-dozen meetings a year, in the summer season, if the track could be sorted out.

There’s plenty of other, similar venues dotted around the country, with the infrastructure and target market to support speedway, but perhaps not at a full, league level. If these venues were to be given open licenses, they may even, in time, become fully-operating league tracks. If not, it’s half-a-dozen extra tracks, running half-a-dozen extra meetings, on tracks of different shapes and sizes, where young British riders could learn their trade. It’s also a way for prospective promoters to learn the ropes, without losing their shirt. Everybody wins.

ITEM: The World under-21 final returned to Coventry on Friday, for the first time in (appropriately enough) twenty-one years. Only it didn’t, really. Because it was only round three of seven rounds, and so although Michael Jepsen Jensen won the meeting with a referee-assisted 15-point maximum, he actually won nothing more than to add to his cumulative score going into the next round. In short, it was a glorified open meeting, charged at premium prices.

This Grand Prix-it is spreading. It’s bad enough that the senior GP series now has an eye-watering twelve rounds, and the under-21s seven but now the European Championship, run by the strangely- redundant UEM, has four rounds, and the World Longtrack Championship (which features speedway riders) has six. All this adds up to blue balls for the paying public and a headache for British promoters looking to build a team which will appear at all of their fixtures.

It has to stop. Except it won’t, of course, and will only get worse. Either the FIM needs to see some sense and schedule meetings to happen on the same weekends (meaning a non-GP rider would have to choose between the under-21s, the GP challenge, the European championship, and the longtrack, and compete in only one) or the Elite League has to take a stand. It may mean saying goodbye to some good competitors, but it’s cheating the public the way things are being run currently.

As fans there’s little we can do. We can stop supporting these piecemeal events that are sold to us as showcases or we can shrug our shoulders and accept the whiphand of the FIM. It’s a tough choice.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

When Is A Rule Not A Rule? And Other Mysteries

ITEM: When is a rule not a rule? When it’s not implemented across the board? When it’s only brought into play because someone flags it up? When it makes absolutely no sense in the first place?

All of the above are true, of course, and never was this more starkly illustrated than when King’s Lynn were punished for breaking such a rule this week. Their crime? At Swindon three weeks ago (the wheels of justice turn slow in BSPA town) they used Cory Gathercole as a guest for their absent double uppers, David Howe and Ulrich Ostergaard. A clever move, given Gathercole’s previous association with the Robins, and one which met with the approval of both meeting referee and the Swindon management.

However, it broke a rule. The rule that says that you can’t have a facility – and using a guest is a facility, as is rider replacement – for a rider who hasn’t yet ridden for your team. Ostergaard, a replacement as a double up rider for Joe Screen (who had a higher average than the Dane in any case), hadn’t yet taken to the track for the Stars, and so the use Gathercole was against the rules.

In a twisted way it makes sense. It prevents teams from signing, say, Tomasz Gollob without any intention of him appearing for their team, and using guests up to his average for the whole season. It clearly wasn’t made to be used in the manner in which King’s Lynn fell foul of it, but there you go – the BSPA is very good at making rules that punish minor transgressions whilst trying to outlaw major ones.

All this only became a problem, though, when somebody protested against the use of Gathercole. It wasn’t the meeting referee (and it’s not his place to, either), and it wasn’t the Swindon management, although they were obviously the ones with most to gain. It wasn’t even any of the sides the Stars are competing against for one of the two play-off places up for grabs (if you assume Swindon & Poole will grab the top two slots, that is). No, it was just somebody with a grudge. Ugh.

I wonder if there’s a statute of limitations on how late a meeting result can be overturned? Because, it might not surprise you to find out, Belle Vue were guilty of this exact same offense in May, using Ricky Ashworth to guest for the double up pair of Charlie Gjedde  and Mark Lemon when Lemon hadn’t raced for the Aces. What happened? Nothing. Because no-one complained.

Furthermore, Poole were granted a facility for Darcy Ward at the start of the 2011 season after Ward had injured himself riding motocross. He was yet to make a 2011 appearance for the Pirates but this was waved through. Why? I guess no-one complained. And while we’re talking about Poole, I’m still waiting for their win over Lakeside in May to be overturned. They tracked an illegal team and won by two points. Did anyone complain? Obviously not.

It stinks, basically. If you are going to have rules you have to ensure they’re applied fairly, and across the board. To punish King’s Lynn and not Belle Vue, or to allow Poole’s transgression go without even a murmur in the press is ridiculous, and only gives ammunition to those who claim the sport is badly run. It’s not difficult, BSPA. Sort it out.

ITEM: Ah, Krzysztof Kasprzak, you lovable scamp!  With your disappearing acts, you’re really spoiling us! Yes, Kasprzak went missing again. Just like last year, when his Polish club pulled a power play and prevented him from riding for Birmingham, he missed an Elite League for Poole against title rivals Swindon on Monday. Why? He hurt his back, apparently, though it would take the least cynical man in the world not to point out that his Polish league match had been rained off and postponed for two days – after the Swindon versus Poole fixture. Come that rearranged Polish fixture, Kasprzak was fine, his back healed. A miracle! Or was it?

Polish riders cocking a snook at British speedway is hardly new. Yes, we understand that that the Ekstraliga is where their bread is buttered, that they will always put Poland first, and more than one promoter has been scared off a Polish signing for this very reason. But going so far as to manufacture an injury because your Elite League fixture is an inconvenience is taking things a little too far. It’s okay, though, right? He’ll be punished for it, yeah? No-one believes his story, after all. Hans Andersen took to Twitter to express his feelings about the “injury” and even his Poole teammate Darcy Ward, interviewed on Sky Sports, poured scorn on Kasprzak’s story.

But guess what? Come Wednesday night he returned to the Poole team, and he was even well enough to score a 15-point maximum!

It’s no surprise that the Pirates have decided to sweep the affair under the carpet. Kasprzak is only in their side due to a supreme piece of rule manipulation by promoter Matt Ford, and they’re so focused on winning, to the detriment of everything else, that they’ll let it slide. Besides, the rider replacement facility they were granted in Kasprzak’s absence garnered nine points – pretty much at the top end of what you’d have expect him to score.

So who loses out then? Just about the rest of us, is the simple answer. The Swindon promotion and their fans, and Sky Sports and their viewers lost out because Poole didn’t track a full team. The rest of the Elite League suffer because, in a league competition where just about every fixture counts, you expect your opponents to track their strongest team wherever possible. And, once again, it sets a horrible precedent – what’s to stop another Pole (or Swede or Dane) deciding they don’t fancy riding in England one night, and coming up with a bunkum excuse?

The one I really feel for, though, is Neil Middleditch (and that’s not something I expect to type often). Although Matt Ford, as a promoter, will ride roughshod over the rules and conventions of speedway to ensure Poole are successful (and, thus, profitable), Middleditch is responsible for ensuring his team win. To be handicapped by the loss of a heat leader, and to have his authority undermined by that heat leader clearly deciding that Middleditch’s team is less important than his Polish side, must be hard to take.

I was hoping that, as a proud man, Middleditch would at least express his disappointment – as he did over Tai Woffinden’s no-show for Team GB last week – but he’s stayed silent, when even his own riders has spoken out. A great shame.

ITEM: Another home defeat for Coventry, and the slim hope of the play-offs finally seems to have slipped away. So what next? Well, before we write 2012 off completely, there’s still the Knockout Cup to be won, with a semi-final against struggling Belle Vue or Birmingham standing in the way of a final appearance. Besides that, it’s a case of looking to next season already.

Mick Horton would be the first to admit he made mistakes when he took over at Brandon. Slowly he seems to be righting the ship, and he should be commended for this, despite the obvious commercial advantages of doing so. For 2013, though, he needs to get out of the blocks fast, declare his intentions and do everything he can to make them happen.

The signing of Michal Szczepaniak is a step in the right direction, and the fact that King’s Lynn seem to have had few problems with his brother is encouraging, especially when you are dealing with a Pole (see above!). Adam Roynon is looking like the rider many always thought he would be, and Kenni Larsen is settling into the steady, unspectacular role many Danes seems to find themselves in. Beyond that, who knows. Aaron Summers has had a disappointing middle third of the season, and the heat leaders are a baffling puzzle of inconsistency and machine problems – none of them can be sure they’ll be invited back at this stage.

What Coventry obviously need is an out-and-out number one. They have Greg Hancock and Andreas Jonsson on their asset list, but neither is likely to commit to a full season in the Elite League. Emil Sayfutdinov may, and has Coventry connections, of course, but is at a stage in his career where he’s either going to kick on or reach a plateau, and while he may be box office, he may not be exactly what the Bees need.

It’s a tricky one, but one Horton will have to solve early on, and then build the rest  of the side from there. I wish him luck – he may need it.

ITEM: And while I’m on the subject of top riders, it’s often said that the Elite League is not Elite because it doesn’t have the top stars riding in it. While it’s true that Hancock, Gollob, Pedersen, and the rest, are at the top of the sport, describing them as “stars” is an interesting choice of word. A star is often thought of as someone who gets top billing. They earn the most because they are who the fans wants to see. The appearance of Greg Hancock, a stranger on these shores lately apart from the British GP, at the Brandonapolis certainly put a few on the gate, and Sayfutdinov’s appearances for Coventry were met with big crowds wherever he rode. So, yes, the half dozen riders at the top of the Grand Prix standings every year can be considered as stars in speedway, but they are not the be-all and end-all.

You can promote speedway in three ways: the sport, the team, and the riders. As a curious mix of individual and team racing, the riders can be promoted more heavily than in other team sports, like football or rugby. However, most clubs seem to rely on promoting the sport and the team, rather than the riders, and by doing this they are missing out on a huge chunk of marketing potential. You can make characters of every rider in your team, and those in your opponents’ team if they’re not doing the job themselves. By doing this, in the same way that darts and wrestling give personality and a uniqueness to every competitor, you can create stories, add meaning to the even the blandest fixture, and turn the most average, journeyman rider into someone people want to see.

Play up on a rider’s aggressive riding style, emphasise the consistency of that rider who averages six, turn your French or German or Russian rider into the worst caricature of that nationality seen since Allo Allo… do something!

It worked in darts without losing the purity of the competition and it can work in speedway, too. Who’s going to be the first to try it?

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Of Duds and Dudley, Rivals and Champions

ITEM: So it's goodbye to Mathis Thornblom, and hello to Michal Szczepaniak! Not sure what it is this year, but teams at the bottom end of the league seem to have made poor choices with their 4.00 assessed foreigners. Mostly youngsters, with varying reputations, none of them have worked out for one reason or another. Whether it's Kajzer at Belle Vue, or Sowka at Wolves, riders filling these bottom spots are often seen as bargains, though recent history does not reflect well on that bargain paying dividends.

It's made more complicated, of course, by the rule that says you can't drop a rider with an assessed average. This seems to have been brought in with a couple of aims in mind, neither of which seem to be the one it has been used most for - stopping a struggling team dropping a rider clearly out of his depth. On the one hand, that should be a good thing - it should prevent teams going for a cheap option at the bottom of the team. Except it hasn't, and teams are still doing it, so obviously some common sense, and a large dollop of rule bending has had to be employed.

Kajzer at Belle Vue was woeful. Recommended by Adam Skornicki, he struggled to score points, or even to stay on his bike. Realising they'd been sold a pig in a poke, Belle Vue applied to get rid of him after just one meeting, and Jon Cook declared they should - because the lad wasn't of sufficient quality for Elite League racing, and was therefore a danger to the other riders. Except Belle Vue being Belle Vue (piss-up, brewery, etc) used him the following night before jettisoning him for good. Nothing like rewarding the man doing you a solid by making him look like a fool eh?

Wolves' Sowka was little better. Actually, he was worse, average-wise, but not by much, and at least managed to ride the requisite number of meetings before he got the elbow. He was another recommended by Adam Skornicki, by the way. I think we've all learned a lesson there. Once again, rules were bent to enable his replacement, because although he'd achieved a new average (and could therefore be replaced), that average didn't come into place until after Wolves' next meeting. They replaced him anyway but for some reason their opponents Poole did not protest (though they certainly let the referee know they knew that his replacement, Matej Kus, was illegal).

Wolves began the season with two 4.00 riders. The other, Pontus Aspgren, was a little better, but still deemed not up to the job, and replaced by yet another - Jakob Thorsell. Still with me? Okay. Sowka's replacements, the double-up pair of Matej Kus and Kenny Ingalls, didn't work out too well, either, and so Wolves replaced them with... Pontus Aspgren! The words "point" and "less" have never seemed more doubly apt. As a side note, making this change, and replacing Robert Miskowiak with Nikolai Klindt, took Wolves over the points limit. For some reason this has been allowed to stand by the BSPA Management Committee (which coincidentally features Wolves' promoter Chris van Straaten).

Coventry's situation is a little different. Thornblom was signed on the understanding he'd race in all but two of the Bees' remaining fixtures. At some point last week, he revealed that he'd actually have to miss another handful, making him available for around half of what he'd originally agreed. Obviously, this isn't acceptable - particularly not to a Coventry crowd still smarting from the Pawlicki Bros disappearing acts last season. As he'd made himself unavailable for his contracted fixtures, Thornblom is considered to be withholding his services (and will, one assumes, be handed a 28-day ban by the BSPA), and can be legally replaced - something some internet forum posters can't seem to grasp. So Szczepaniak is in, and becomes the 7th 4.00 assessed rider to ride in the Elite League this season - his brother Mateusz, at King's Lynn, being the one (partial) success story so far.

It's ridiculous, really. These are places that should not be filled by chancing on a foreign rider. They should be filled by British riders who need the experience - and the money - to further their careers. But if there's one thing the BSPA does well it's fiddling while Rome burns, and so we're witness to a farce. And, just like most farce, it stopped being funny a long time ago.

ITEM: One note of interest from the announcement to the crowd at Brandon that Szczepaniak had signed, was the response of the crowd to the news that he'd been signed from under the nose of Poole. While many at Brandon, and within the BSPA, would like to pretend otherwise, the winter of 2010/11 has not been forgotten down Coventry way, and there's no-one the Bees fans like to hate more than Matt Ford. While Coventry can't compete with them, and their manipulation of the regulations, on the track, any victory is welcome - let's hope this is one worth celebrating. Incidentally, how did the old Oscar Wilde quote go? "To lose one Szczepaniak may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness..."

ITEM:I attended the 2012 FAST Golden Hammer on Tuesday and - aside from the idiot on the centre green - enjoyed myself thoroughly. It was my first visit to Dudley, albeit at their temporary Monmore Wood home at Wolverhampton, and I was very impressed with the club. Like most Coventry fans of a certain vintage, I hated Cradley Heathens with a passion, but I'm eager to see the Dudley variety thrive and rise to their rightful place in the top league. They certainly have the fanbase for it - it was rumoured last season they had bigger crowds than their landlords - and their fervour is both admirable and enviable.

The merchandise stand alone is evidence of the passion of the fans - a dozen t-shirt designs, associated hoodies and coats, and assorted ephemera, all being snapped up, and displayed by those in attendance. Just about every other club I've visited could learn from this example, rather than peddling cheap tat (yes, I'm talking to you, Poole!) - people want to spend cash, to show that they belong to their tribe, and it seems foolish to turn this money away.

In Pearson, Pottinger, and Patchett, Dudley look to have the right people in place to take them further, though they may need to find someone whose name doesn't begin with a P, just to be on the safe side. I look forward to Coventry versus Dudley meetings at Brandon before too long, though I can probably get by without Gert Handberg, okay?

And the meeting itself? The racing was of a decent standard, much better than the last National League level meeting I attended, although the quality of the NL riders on show was obviously of the heat leader variety rather than second-string or reserve, and there were some excellent races. All for £12. I'll be back.

ITEM: Scott Nicholls won his seventh British title on Monday, beating out a strong challenge from Chris Harris in the final, and having raced his socks off to get there. In doing so he broke Barry Briggs's record of six titles, which the Suffolk racer had equaled last year, and so we don't have to have the shame of an antipodean holding a British record any longer. Some have played down Nicholls's achievement, pointing out the dearth of competition in recent years, but seven titles in eleven season still points to a remarkable consistency. And, let's not forget, he's still had to contend with the challenges of Lee Richardson, Mark Loram, Chris Louis, Joe Screen, Chris Harris, and Tai Woffinden in that time, as well as Kennett, Norris, Stead, and Barker. It's not like Nicholls has just had to turn up to claim the win.

So, yes, British speedway may be in something of a slump right now, but Nicholls is one of the true champions, and should be celebrated with the greats. Anything less is mean-spirited and dumb.