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.

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