Thursday, 27 September 2012

#RICO and other not so important things...

ITEM: I didn’t know Lee Richardson. Truth be told, he wasn’t one of my favourite riders. That’s no slight on him – I spent the greater part of his career away from speedway, and when I returned he was just another established heat leader. Still, I recognized his talent, and his commitment (even if that didn’t always include the ELRC!).

When he died in April I realized something big had happened. Riders have died before, of course, but seldom has their death produced the reaction Lee’s passing provoked. He rode for seventy percent of the Elite League tracks, as well as Reading, but the outpouring of grief came from all corners of the country, from those tracks he’d starred for, and the twenty-one he didn’t.

Fans were inspired to raise money for his family, with Chris Louis’s daughter, Freya, leading the production of the #RICO shirts you’ve seen up & down the country (and probably own yourself). I’m not sure if they need the money, but I’m sure his family are grateful for the sentiment – a constant reminder of the impact their husband, dad, and brother made in his short time on the planet.

Tomorrow night we gather in his memory. There’s a speedway meeting going on, but I’m not sure that’s the main attraction. Rico may have not been your favourite rider, or your best friend, but think of him on Friday at 8pm, yeah? I will be.

ITEM: Nigel Pearson and Kelvin Tatum come in for a lot of stick for their commentary on Sky Sports’s speedway coverage. Some of the criticism is justified, some of it wildly inaccurate, and spewed with a vitriol deserving of something far worse than bad commentary.

I’d say they make a good fist of what it is a pretty difficult job. Commentating on live sport is not easy, and requires concentration and innovation to avoid repeating the same thing over and over again, all the while trying to bring something fresh to action that the viewers can quite clearly see on their screens.

Where they do fail, I think, is in their unfailing hyperbole on one or two “superstars”. This is nothing unusual in sports commentary. Look at football – the commentator will latch onto a team’s star player, occasionally players, and tell the story of the match through them. That’s how sports commentary is done: how will so and so do? Can anyone match so and so? Is team X missing player Y? It’s a tried and trusted formula that works pretty well for most sports.

But not speedway. Speedway, as an individual sport masquerading as a team sport, should be a natural for this kind of play-by-play. Focussing on one or two riders from each side will pretty much cover every race in a meeting, writing the story of each heat, and therefore the match itself, simply and effectively. However, in its present state, speedway can ill-afford to adhere to the formula…

What British speedway needs is stars. If you were smart, you could make stars of varying quality and attractiveness out of all seven riders. Live television, on a mainstream sports channel like Sky, is perfect for that, but it is not happening. Instead, we get the same names, again and again, until a Poole match, for instance, becomes the Ward & Holder show. What happens, though, when Ward & Holder aren’t around?

Pearson and Tatum don’t owe speedway anything. There’s no impetus for them to change their ways, and I’d wager their bosses are quite happy for them to continue in the manner to which they’ve become accustomed. However, they seem to be big fans of speedway, just like the rest of us. They’re in a position to make a difference, however slight, to the direction and success of the sport in this country. I’d like to think they’d want to do that.

I’m not asking for a complete overhaul of the way they do their job. I’d like to see a little more focus on the other 11 or 12 riders in a meeting, and less on the “stars”. I want to know all about Kim Nilsson. I want to see kids pretending to be Jason Doyle. I want a casual viewer to know as much about Richard Lawson as they do about Tai Woffinden.

We can’t afford not to do this. The top riders may retire, they may get injured, they may give the Elite league a miss. We already have riders to replace them – it’d help us sell them if they shared in the hype.

ITEM: So Peterborough’s up for sale. Or it might not be. It’s not clear right now. What is clear is that the current owner, Richard Frost, is looking to downsize his investment, at least.

Running the Panthers at Elite League level, he claims, requires 2000 paying fans to break even, a ludicrous number that few, if any, tracks in the UK average over a season. Frost blames the large sums needed to keep the Panthers afloat on the lack of a top sponsor, but it’s as much an indication of the way he spends his money – often on expensive and unreliable foreign imports – as much as a bellweather for the rest of the Elite League.

Peterborough have never attracted large crowds. None of the city’s sports’ teams have, and the stop/start nature of a fixture list determined by the availability of the East of England Showground can’t help. However, they ran successfully in the lower division for many years in the 1970s and 1980s, cutting their cloth accordingly, you would argue. Have times changed so much?

If the club are put up for sale I can see few takers, at least at Elite league level. Whether it is financially viable to run in the Premier League is a subject for investors and accountants, but I’d like to think so. To lose a racing track like Peterborough would be criminal, so I’d hope something can be done.

As for Rick Frost, and his future in the sport? We lost a couple of wealthy speedway fans last winter when Avtar Sandhu and Allen Trump left the sport in disgust at the antics of the BSPA, and we can seldom afford to lose another. I’d hope he continues to back the sport in some way. Perhaps less spent on wastrels like Jepsen Jensen and Jonasson, though, eh?

ITEM: One of my favourite curiosities about speedway is the individual meetings that every track used to run, and that are still kept alive by a handful of (mostly PL) promotions.

From Cradley's Golden Hammer to Wimbledon’s famed Laurels, these meetings attracted the top riders who, back when the fixture list was more varied and guests were less common, made only one appearance per season at your local track.

For one reason or another, however, such meetings seen to have fallen out of favour. Birmingham haven’t staged the Second City Trophy for a few years, ditto with the Blue Riband at Poole, and both the Pride of the East and the 16-Lapper seem to have fallen off the fixture lists this season.

In recent years, however, Coventry have brought back the Brandonapolis, Dudley have resurrected the Golden Hammer, and Leicester have begun staging the Pride of the Midlands, so the trend isn't entirely one way.

A look at the line-ups of these meetings – and one-off testimonials staged at various tracks – reveals that there are a certain group of riders who are invited to compete time and time again (indeed, Steve Johnston used to joke about being Mr Testimonial!). These riders tend to be amiable, UK-based, and – above all – exciting and worth the entrance fee to see ride. And this set me thinking…

Next year marks the 85th anniversary of the first speedway meeting in this country, at High Beech in Essex. What better way to commemorate this than Grand Prix-style series, aggregating the results of these open meetings for a trophy? Especially if the riders invited were guaranteed to provide entertainment – no gaters, please!

Sure, some of the PL tracks with tighter margins may need a little assistance with their budgeting, but the value of including the Westernapolis or Scottish Open in such a series is worth the effort that the combined brains trust at the BSPA would have to make in securing a sponsor or sponsors for the series.

Maybe we could even name the winner’s trophy after Lee Richardson? A fitting tribute to a much-missed racer...

Friday, 21 September 2012

Ins & Outs, Fanciful Schemes, Riders With Clout, and Play-Off Teams

ITEM: It's good news/bad news this week on the "clubs in trouble" front. The announcement that Mike Bowden had reached an agreement to sell Plymouth to a local consortium headed by Devils' legend Seemond Stephens was tempered by the news from Workington that owner Keith Denham was about to close the club down.

Bowden resurrected Plymouth speedway a decade ago, opening a track on a school rugby field under a flyover, and building a successful operation. However, the wheels seem to have come off in recent years, with lax administration, uncompetitive teams, and rumours of riders going unpaid becoming a constant theme. Talk of selling up has seen Bowden entrench his position but thankfully common sense seems to have prevailed, and hopefully the 2013 Devils will return to the successes of the past.

The Comets, meanwhile, have seen their attendances plummet, with estimates that they have halved since the beginning of the season. The economy will have played its part, of course, and Workington have had a torrid season injury-wise. But to listen to the fans it's a similar story to Plymouth, that of an owner-promoter alienating his fanbase with a series of "my way or the highway" decisions. Worse still, Denham doesn't seem open to selling the club, preferring to close it rather than see someone else try to make a go of it.

No-one can dispute that, without the backing of an owner, clubs like Plymouth and Workington would struggle to operate, and - in business - a company stands or falls by the decisions of it's owner. However, sports clubs are no ordinary business. They belong as much to the fans and the community as they do to the man who pays the bills, and a smart owner realises he's just the current custodian and works with his "customers".

With other clubs openly, or rumoured to be, struggling or operating in a manner not conducive to keeping the fans onside, I wonder if it is time for the BSPA to investigate a system for the "fan ownership" model that has been a roaring success at lower level football clubs. The pioneers of AFC Wimbledon are always willing to advise on a potential takeover (or, as is most often the way, a rescue) and may also be willing to advise the BSPA.

While they may be uncomfortable at the thought of the great unwashed sitting down with them at their AGM, few could argue against more stable speedway clubs in this country. Time to act?

There was nothing in Pravda this week from the south coast on the prospect of two "top" rider sharing the number one position, and it was all the better for it.

Tai Woffinden joined his fellow Australian Darcy Ward in intimating, on Twitter, that he was looking at skipping the UK next season if a full schedule was on the cards, although I'm not sure anyone would have Woffinden in mind when thinking of the calibre of riders this scheme would attract.

More likely it should be the Grand Prix regulars who are not currently riding in the UK. This numbers just seven riders - Hancock, Gollob, Crump, Pedersen, Sayfutdinov, Hampel and Jonsson - far short of the kind of numbers we'd need to make it a success, even if you throw in the likes of Vaculik and (stop sniggering) Ljung.

This also assumes, of course, that all those riders would want to ride in the UK, even on a half schedule, and also that those who currently seem happy to do a full season - Holder, Iversen, Lindgren, et al - would be willing to take a cut in their earnings.

Some have argued that it should be optional, and that clubs who cannot afford these top riders would not have to employ them. This would create an uneven playing field, with the richer clubs able to choose between their top men, always using the fit and in-form when their poorer rivals struggle on with number ones who may be out-of-form and carrying knocks.

It also begs the question, if a club employs a top rider for half its fixtures, perhaps with a lesser light sharing the slot, then why would they use the top guy for anything other than their home meetings? Why pay top money to give your rivals a box office boost? We could end up with an imbalance between home and away teams that goes way beyond home track advantage.

So a lack of riders to fill such roles, an advantage gifted to those who can afford them, and an understandably selfish attitude towards sharing your investment... All good reasons why this idea should be a non-starter. However, as with other changes in recent seasons, when the impetus seems to come from the Dorset coast these things have a habit of getting through.

The sport is again at a crossroads, and we're set for another interesting AGM in so many ways - let's hope common sense prevails on this one, at least!

ITEM: David Howe speaks a lot of sense. This has been made clear in the past week or so, with the Scunthorpe rider making a case for slowing bikes down by using alternative tyres, and schooling Tai Woffinden in respect.

With costs spiralling out of control, and the sport becoming expensive to start in, and extortionate to compete at a decent level, Howe took to the pages of the Speedway Star to explain how different tyres would slow the bikes down, altering the way riders race, and making an expensively tuned, fast engine unnecessary to win races. This change, he said, would make speedway more competitive, allowing those who can't afford the services of Peter Johns and his ilk to compete with those who can.

This has long been a source of debate, with many in the sport arguing for a standard, sealed engine, and uniform specifications, but nothing has ever been done towards that end. Howe, at least, seems to have an idea of how this could be approached, and the powers-that-be would be foolish not to listen to him (and I'm led to believe that the BSPA management committee has asked for details).

Speedway has always had a wealth of untapped experience and insight on the terraces, and now it seems that the riders, too, are making suggestions for the improvement and survival of the sport they obviously love. Since Shane Parker stood down as chairman, the Speedway Riders Association has lain fallow, and it's time that it reared its head once more, perhaps with Howe at the top table. Buxton's Dean Felton, always willing to explain to, and engage with, fans seems knowledgeable and passionate, and he, too, would make a decent representative.

If the SRA can pull itself back together, we will have another voice joining the debate on the future of the sport, and that can only be a good thing. It's up to the BSPA whether they listen...

ITEM: So the Elite League play-offs are set and... well, the semi-final line-up is hardly mouth-watering, is it?

Lakeside scraped in after Peterborough's expensively assembled team fell apart in its last two matches, and Birmingham secured a slot by not losing at home by a big enough margin. This is how this season has panned out, with everyone other than the top two benefitting from others' misfortune rather than their own consistent performances.

It should be a Swindon-Poole final, of course, with the all-round strength of the Wiltshire side coming up against the top heavy, and slyly manipulated, Dorset Pirates.

Lakeside's chances of the title were hit by the loss of Lee Richardson, but blown out of the water when Richie Worrall, averaging over seven points a meeting in his debut season, broke his leg. Neither man has been adequately replaced, and so they are spoilers at best.

On paper, at least, Birmingham mount a stronger challenge, but are inconsistent in the extreme. Besides, even if they manage to get past Swindon, which on this season's results seems unlikely, they can be sure of nothing but a poor performance from their number one Bjarne Pedersen, whose performances against his parent club Poole have been nothing short of disgraceful this year.

So Swindon versus Poole, then. Never would have seen that coming in March, would you?

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Who Cares Who's World Champion? And more...

ITEM: I done a bad thing. I didn't watch Saturday's Grand Prix. I had a good reason - I was out at an honest-to-goodness speedway meeting, watching some sort of Bees' team get annihilated by Leicester and a Wolves' side who took it far too seriously. Birmingham also rode.
So while I was standing on the back straight at Leicester, my Virgin+ box was happily recording the Grand Prix for me to watch when I got home. Except I didn't. I just watched heat 5, and the aftermath, switched it off, pressed delete, and went on with my life. Not even the attraction of watching it in a little over 25 minutes was enough. Not even the prospect of watching it without comment or commentators. I didn't even watch the final.
I'm not alone. Viewing figures for the speedway Grands Prix are falling faster than a pit slut's knickers. But why? It's no less exciting than it ever was, and the horrible, horrible emergence of Chris Holder as a genuine challenger for the title ought to spark a little interest, so why  are so few people bothered with it?
I think it's because it doesn't matter. For all the addition of a cumulative score adds, each event is just a glorified open meeting. There's no sense that winning an individual Grand Prix means anything, and Sky don't even bother to show the podium presentation half the time. Throw in the madness that the winner of the final could actually come out with less points than the highest point scorer, and it's no surprise that no-one but the hardcore is tuning in.
Furthermore, I'm not actually sure that winning the big prize, the World Championship, actually means that much to British speedway and British viewers. It's been years since the World Champion rode for a British team, and with that lack of regular appearances on British shale comes a detachment. I'm not sure how Poland or Sweden - who still throw stupid money at speedway riders, to the detriment of their finances and those of local tax payers - market such appearances, but the arrival in town of the World Champion used to be a big thing. Greg Hancock pulled a big crowd to Coventry in March for his Brandonapolis appearance, but I wonder how much of that was down to former fans of Coventry and Cradley Heath welcoming him back. He certainly didn't seem to swell the crowd at Sheffield to the same extent.
This detachment from the bread and butter of British speedway has been a long time coming, and even though we may have the 2012 World Champion racing regularly on British shale in 2013 (assuming Holder wins and Matt Ford can sufficiently hoodwink the other promoters into letting him do what he wants), I'm not sure we can come back from this position. There's a watershed coming, and a parting of the ways may seem the most sensible option.
So the Grand Prix series marches on but less people seem to care every year. Their ambivalence is matched only by that of BSI themselves, content to chisel away at speedway to make their filthy lucre.
ITEM: An increasingly exasperated Nicki Glanz took to Twitter last weekend to demand money he's owed by Plymouth promoter Mike Bowden. His language wasn't pleasant, but then neither is not paying someone what you promised them. He also Tweeted that he expected a 28-day ban for his outburst, such is the punishment hanging over speedway riders who misuse social media these days.
Here's the thing: the body that would hand out that ban is the same one that is, publicly at least, turning a blind eye to the financial craziness at Plymouth. They've allowed the Devils to operate a facility for Glanz, and the pliant speedway press refers only to a "contract dispute". You can understand why Glanz would feel the need to take to Twitter when no other recourse seems possible. Remember, this is the same organisation that, when Hans Andersen walked out on Peterborough because he was owed SIXTY THOUSAND POUNDS, slapped a 28-day ban on him for withholding his services!
Bowden has already gone on record stating he's asked his riders to take a pay cut, and it's between him and the riders themselves whether that's acceptable. There have also been (unconfirmed) reports of rows in the pits between promoter and riders over sums owed, and the Devils changed captain mid-season. Incidentally, the captain is the one responsible for signing a declaration that all riders have been paid.
I'm pretty sure Plymouth aren't alone in not paying what they owe. There are rumours of at least one major club being in the same position, and as long as the BSPA allows it to continue, there will be many, many more. No-one wants to see speedway clubs close but unless the BSPA gets its house in order, and ensure that the men who risk their lives for our entertainment are properly compensated for their work, speedway is in big trouble.
ITEM: Another week, another Dudley Heathens story... Don't worry, I'm not going to make a habit of it, but it's a story with a bigger impact, one that deserves some discussion, and so I make no apology for having those Horrible Heathens in two weeks in a row.

Where was I? Oh, yes, Joe Haines has signed for Dudley until the end of the season, as injury cover for National League top lad Adam Roynon, who was injured on Elite League duty for Coventry two weeks ago.

Haines does not have a regular ride in the EL, and is averaging far less than Roynon in the Premier League, so although he may be a capable deputy for the Cumbrian racer, he's not quite at the same level.

So why has a move that clearly weakens Dudley caused such controversy? To hear the complaints of fans of rival teams you'd think that the Heathens had signed Greg Hancock, but even those who recognise Haines's true level are still unhappy.

The counter-arguments fall into two camps - those who think it's bad for Haines, and those who think it's bad for the National League. Haines, the nay-sayers claim, is taking a step backwards, and is now riding in a league he showed no interest in at the start of the season. Even if one were to accept the premise that it is a step backwards (although this ignores the obvious panacea that winning races can provide) the simple truth is that it gives a still-developing young British racer more rides at a time when fixtures slow down. Haines will also ride at several of Wolverhampton, Stoke, Mildenhall and the Isle of Wight, tracks which do not feature in the PL.

So is it bad for the National League? It depends which NL you are talking about, and what you perceive the function of the division to be.

The National League as it currently exists falls firmly between three stools. There are clubs like Dudley and Mildenhall, ambitious and with an eye on promoting speedway at a higher level, the NL being a way-station on their path to the Premier League. There are also stand-alone clubs Buxton, Stoke, and the Isle of Wight, for whom speedway at NL level is sustainable, but always with an eye on the balance sheet. Lastly there are the "junior" teams, of King's Lynn, Scunthorpe, and Rye House, who exist purely to develop talent for their senior clubs.

Three different types of club, with three different outlooks on what the NL should be. You have to say, though, with the balance of clubs being independent entities, having to attract fans to ensure their continued existence, that they should be given all the room they want - within the rules - to put out the strongest team possible.

The alternative for Dudley would have been to operate the dreaded rider replacement, book a guest (from an ever-diminishing, through retirement and injury, field of top NL riders), or throw in a rookie, out of his depth, which would do club and rider no favours at all.

Though it may not please their rivals, Joe Haines is the best option both for Dudley and an NL that needs to be taken seriously as a genuine 3rd tier.

ITEM: Oscar Wilde once said, "a cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing." Because I'm an arch-cynic myself I'm going to pretend he actually said it about speedway promoters, instead, and never more has this been true than of the Coventry Bees' attitude to the Adam Roynon/Josef Franc doubling-up position.

Roynon, as you know, was injured two weeks ago at Swindon. It's overwhelmingly likely he'll miss the rest of the season. Coventry have chosen not to remove him from the squad, claiming a gesture of solidarity with the injured rider. Sentiment doesn't pay the bills, but this would not be a problem if Roynon's doubling-up partner were suitable.

Josef Franc, for it is he, has had a mixed season. A good showing as the wildcard in the Czech GP has been all but eclipsed by a very average season for a very average Sheffield team. Despite sharing the doubling-up position with Roynon, his converted average is almost a full point less. This would be an issue in itself but for the bigger problem that he is prone to going missing to fulfill continental bookings for which the Bees cannot adequately replace him.

He chose to ride in an open meeting in the Czech Republic on Monday rather than a televised league fixture, and will again be missing tomorrow night when the Bees take on local rivals Birmingham. And with four fixtures still to be arranged, who knows if he'll be available for those!

Franc's unsanctioned (by the BSPA) absences can only be covered by a Premier League rider under a 6 point average. Even in a weakened Elite League these riders have no business taking to the track, and so teams that are forced to include them are rightly fined £300.

Quite often these riders can the difference between a win and a loss, and that is especially hard-hitting in home fixtures, where a string of losses reduces the crowd. Worse still, their inclusion sends a message to the fans that the management are disorganised and apathetic.

This could have been avoided by replacing Roynon as soon as the prognosis was delivered, or replacing Franc as soon as Roynon achieved his new, higher average. The club could even have made the best of a bad job by replacing Franc last week, when it became obvious he'd miss fixtures.

They chose not to act, and so will reap what they failed to sow. It's unfortunate that they don't realise how much damage it could do to crowd levels and cash flow, but there you go. Price of everything, like the man said...

Thursday, 6 September 2012


ITEM: When you get a text message on a Monday morning that says, "Did you hear about Pratty?", you immediately fear the worst. Then you realise that Colin Pratt is practically immortal and will outlive us all, and it probably means something altogether different.

What it referred to, of course, was that Pratt had decided to sever his ties with Coventry, after a 15-year stint that had brought the club more than its fair share of silverware. Brought into the club by Martin Ochiltree, he stayed through the Sandhu era, and into Mick Horton's reign, despite being the age at which most men would have retired to the allotment.

Starting the season as co-promoter and joint team manager, Pratt was unceremoniously removed from the latter by Horton, who declared that joint team managers weren't working for him. The decision at the weekend to go back on that after a matter of weeks seems to have been the final straw, and you have to wonder how much Pratt knew about either decision before they were made.

Most Coventry fans are upset at the sequence of events. Pratt was well-liked, and seen as a link to the golden era under Sandhu. Memories of 2010 will be slow to fade, when Sandhu, Trump, Pratt & Rossiter, and the eight riders in the Bees' squad pulled off the impossible and defeated the forces of darkness. All gone now, and uncertainty remains.

No-one is kidding themselves that Pratt had been outstanding in his dual roles this season. Some of the signings at the bottom end left a little to be desired, though these were enforced by a crowd-pleasing top four, and despite a good Midland League campaign, results were below par in the league.

No, Pratt's departure is seen more as an example of a general malaise at Brandon, where for every good thing the club does (and let's not pretend there haven't been any successes this year) is followed by a mistake.

Some fans are looking back, hoping that Sandhu will ride to the rescue, quoting a statement he made that Horton had to win the fans' trust before he'd be allowed to be the club outright. Speedway's peculiar ownership rules, and the harsh economic reality of the times, were never going to allow that to happen, and so - like it or not - Mick Horton owns the Coventry Bees.

They say that if you can't be with the one you love, you should love the one you're with. I'd also add that you can ask the one you're with to change, to strengthen those ties, and this is what every disgruntled fan needs to find it in their heart to do.

If you are dissatisfied with the way Mick Horton is running the Bees, let him know. Don't shout it at him from 50 yards, send him abusive e-mails, or post dogshit through his door. Instead engage him at Brandon, and at away tracks. Send him suggestions and criticisms, but remain polite. Above all, be firm that this is your club as much as it is his.

Colin Pratt is gone from the Bees. He had a good run. Do I wish he was still there? Of course. I wish Sandhu, Trump, and Rosco were, too. But they're not, and they're not likely to be. For the next few years, we're Mick Horton's Black & Yellow Army. Let's show him how we do things, eh?

ITEM: So poor old Darcy Ward might find doing the Elite League a bit of a stretch next season if he makes the SGP series? My heart bleeds for him. Instead of knuckling down, manning up, and getting on with it, like (and I can't believe I'm going to say a good thing about him) Chris Holder has, he says he'll probably give the UK a miss in 2013.

Oh, but wait! He says he may be persuaded to stay if the Elite League adopts a policy of allowing riders to share the number one race jacket, so that - presumably - Ward and Holder could do half the meetings each for Poole (I wonder if he's asked Holder about the loss of income this would entail?).

This is not the first time Ward has threatened to quit the UK. At the time of his, shall we say, legal difficulties he posted on Facebook that he was done with the UK, and also tweeted last month that if he was made to ride on a wet track at Poole he would quit in 2013. He obviously didn't carry through on his first (and soon deleted) promise and, as it turned out, the track was dry anyway the Wednesday night of the second threat, so at the moment he seems to have a little of the Boy Who Cried Wolf about him.

It's a familiar threat, though. Towards the end of last season, about this time of year, in fact, Chris Holder made a similar declaration. That time it was in regards to the rule that prevented a team tracking two riders over an 8.00 average, a rule only brought in less than a year before. Whether Holder's intervention made any difference is a subject for debate, but the rule was duly dropped, and a pliant speedway press massaged history to ensure there was little dissent.

So is Ward serious about giving the EL a miss, or is it another Matt Ford shenanigan, designed to force through a rule change only he could possibly benefit from? Time will tell, time will tell...

ITEM: First off, let me get this out of the way: I never had much time for Cradley Heath. In fact, it’s true to say that I despised them. It’s okay, I’m a Coventry fan, it’s allowed. They – and Oxford – were our biggest rivals in the time I started going to speedway. Throw in the fact that they were quite good at that time, and a few unsavoury incidents involving aggressive fans and broken car and coach windows, and you can see I have my reasons.

I disliked them so much that I couldn’t even give the proper respect to Erik Gundersen and Jan O. Pedersen, and their obvious greatness, and even Greg Hancock and Billy Hamill, who later went on to ride for the Bees, have never really repaired the damage suffered from riding for the Heathens.

Cradley, of course, went the way of all things in 1996, and a big hole in the Black Country was left open and yawning, yearning to be filled. Some of their fans probably went (very reluctantly) to Wolves, some to Stoke, and a few to the Bees. Others still were lost to the sport, and some probably remain so. However, in 2010, the Heathens were back, albeit with a slight name change and the status of lodger at the tracks of their local rivals.

Initially splitting their time between Birmingham and Wolverhampton, Dudley – as they are now known, to put pressure on the local council – have raced exclusively at Wolves’ Monmore Green stadium the last season, renaming it Monmore Wood in honour of their dear, departed Dudley Wood stadium.

In that first year back they finished top of the National League table, only to lose out to Buxton in the play-off semi-finals, and then completed an injury-hit second season, finishing comfortably in mid-table, but well outside the honours. Hopes were high for 2012, though, with Adam Roynon signed as number one, with back-up from Tom Perry, Ashley Morris and Byron Bekker giving the Heathens the strongest top four in the league.

On Tuesday night, against an albeit-weakened Isle of Wight outfit, the Heathens triumphed 68-22 to finish the regular season top of the table, and they look very good for a play-off win, despite the loss of Roynon to injury while riding for Coventry last week.

So where next for Dudley? It’s obvious they’re a cut above the National League, which is a Frankenstein outfit made up of small, “operating within their means” stand-alone tracks and youthful reserve teams of established Elite and Premier League clubs. Dudley’s crowds are rumoured to outnumber that of their landlords, and the support is fervent and hungry for success. This brings a few idiots along for the ride, as incidents at Mildenhall and Buxton have evidenced in the past, but that’s par for the course.

Where next for most other clubs would be to consider a step up to the Premier League. Obviously this has its attractions – more league fixtures (and thus more varied opposition), and a better level of opposition, as well as the opportunity to increase the quality of your own side – but it also has its pitfalls, namely increased costs and, well, increased costs are the main thing. It’s further complicated at Dudley by their tenant status – would the Wolverhampton promotion be happy to sanction Premier League racing at Monmore Green? National League is obviously a ways below the Elite League, but Premier League is that one step nearer. It’s something that Chris van Straaten would need to consider very carefully but given his support for the Dudley promotion (of which he is a notional member), I can see few problems in this regard.

So, Premier League seems the next logical step, then. The club seems well set-up to go for it, as I found when I visited for the Golden Hammer a few weeks ago. Well-run, well-supported, and eager for success, I’ve no doubt that they’ll make a decent fist of it, should they decide to.

The real “where next?” for Dudley is obviously “Dudley”, and a stadium of their own. It’s something they’ve been working towards since before they lodged at Wolves, and the search continues to this day. News broke earlier this season that there was a potential site – a new stadium to be shared with Gornal Athletic FC, in the centre of Dudley – but as soon as the story broke opposition sprung up, and councillors claimed it was a non-starter. This is modern speedway’s malaise – a city-centre, well-appointed, multi-use stadium is always going to attract the naysayers, fearful of noise, and dust, and the goblins and orcs that speedway brings to a town.

This is why the recent trend for new speedway tracks has been out of town – on brownfield sites or industrial estates, such as Somerset’s Oak Tree Arena and Redcar’s South Tees Motorsports Park. Again, like moving up to the Premier League, this has its pros and cons. The positives are obvious. Dudley would own their own stadium and - subject to planning permission, of course – control their own destiny. They would be able to race whenever they wanted, collect all revenue from bars and food outlets, use the facility to run training schools and for practice for their own riders, and – most importantly of all – give it a proper name. “New Dudley Wood” (and, short of a sponsorship deal, I can’t imagine it being called anything else) would be there for all to see, emblazoned over the entrance to firmly announce that the Heathens were properly back!

The negatives are almost entirely that, to begin with, it’s probably going to be nothing more than a shack and a track, with the emphasis on shack. This needn’t be a problem, for club or fans, however. Dudley’s sojourn in the National League has not only taken them to Buxton, which defines grassroots speedway better than any other club save for former National League side Sittingbourne, but has also seen them visit Scunthorpe, and no doubt notice the ongoing improvements at that venue. You see, that’s the thing – all you NEED for speedway is a track, some pits, and a referees box. Everything else is dressing. And, with a following as passionate and as large as Dudley’s, it wouldn’t be long before they all came together to build up the new stadium to a fantastic level. Sure, it wouldn’t be Monmore Green, but who wants to watch speedway from the home straight alone, anyway?

So, yes, congratulations to Dudley for finishing top of the National League, and good luck in the play-offs. But the biggest victory is yet to come – stepping up a level, and obtaining a new home. With the people they have in charge, and the fans they have behind them, I don’t think it’ll be too long for either.

ITEM: Two years ago there was a mini-revival in second-half racing. The Northern Junior League, orchestrated by the immortal Dick Barrie, featured teams from Edinburgh, Berwick, and more, and gave competitive opportunities to young British riders.

It was joined last year by the Midland Development League, and this year by the Anglia Junior League. All in all, over a dozen tracks, with riders representing both existing and defunct teams, are now operating meaningful second halves, and this can only be to the benefit of young Brits.

However, as is the way of such things, arguments are beginning to arise about how the leagues are run, with some unhappy that the SCB/BSPA have final say on the rules, and others resentful that riders who are getting National League experience "doubling-up" with junior league teams.

The involvement of the authorities was inevitable, but given their record of managing to ruin everything I can understand the reticence of those involved. However, if it is to progress to a proper, "4th division" it's something they'll have to live with.

As for the use of NL riders in junior teams, I'd actually say that it doesn't happen enough. While the top NL riders also ride in the Premier League, those who don't are restricted to a handful of outings a year, and could actually find themselves with less meetings than a junior league regular.

I remember second-half league racing at every track, with the best of the juniors able to step into their senior teams without too much embarrassment. We're along way off that today but allowing two, or even three NL lads to ride for each junior team would bring them on quicker, and give them experience of different tracks. It can only be good for the future of British speedway, and I hope common sense eventually prevails in the search for a long-term plan for junior league racing in this country.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Microblog: The Abbey Stadium

Until last Thursday, my previous visit to the Abbey Stadium, Blunsdon - home of Swindon speedway - was over twenty years ago. I got the supporters' coach down from Coventry - as I did to so many places back then - and it must have been late season because I remember it being dark as I entered the stadium. We were handed forms to vote for Swindon's rider of the year and, as he'd just been sacked by them, Coventry fans voted for Andrew Silver en masse. I don't know if he won in the end.

It's probably fair to say that, like a lot of speedway stadiums, Swindon hasn't changed a lot in the intervening years. The ageing main grandstand is still there, on the home straight, facing a stand that seems to defy time on the back straight. As for the toilets that lurk behind it, I hear Time Team are coming in to excavate it. They may even find Swindon's last title win, buried under Roman remains.

There's a movement within speedway, led by BSI, to put stadium before everything else. Damn the quality of racing, damn the ticket price, just look at the plush surroundings, and forget that you have to pay £8 for a beer and take out a mortgage to eat!

You know what, though? I'd much rather watch my speedway at Blundson, or at Coventry, or at Poole, or any of the other stadiums that have seen better days. It suits the sport, and it makes for a pleasant night out, not worrying about cost too much, or the heirs and graces that come when you remove the spit and sawdust.

That's not to say Swindon is a dump. Far from it. It's a tidy stadium that could do with a few thousand spent here and there, but isn't too much the worse for not having that. Although difficulties with the track meant the racing was pretty much horrible, the temperature dropped alarmingly and, yes, the lights could be brighter and the tannoy a little quieter, I enjoyed my visit.

Speedway is lucky in that it still laregly takes place in stadiums with character, unlike the soulless, retail park arenas that football has moved into. Long may it continue.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

BSI, Belle Vue, Having Fun & "Twatch"

ITEM: BSI are parasites. As opening salvos go, it's a brave one, but it's true. They take, take, take from speedway, giving back little to nothing, and seem to have been given free reign to do whatever the hell they like with the sport (as long as they don't mess with the financial powerhouse that is Polish speedway, of course).

I couldn't tell you how this came about. Money talks and bullshit walks, goes the phrase, and I wouldn't mind betting that large amounts of both were poured on to the FIM track commission that gave them the exclusive rights to run the World Championship and World Cup.

And what a World Championship! Thirty percent of the competitors in each round of the championship did not have to qualify, chosen instead for their "pulling power", already making a mockery of the competition. Of the seventy percent that did "qualify", eight are holdovers from the previous season, and could have finished sixty or seventy points adrift of the winner. And the three - less than twenty percent of the field - that did qualify directly? Even they go through a process tainted by selection - Jurica Pavlic will take his place in the final qualifying meeting as a wild card, having already been eliminated earlier in the competition, and will fancy his chances on his home track!

In the old system, a fall or engine failure could prove costly, and left many a favourite out of contention for another year. But that is sport - every rider who took part in the old one-off World Finals had earned their right to be there, every champion a deserving one (yes, even Egon Muller!).

In BSI's world the champion is one of a hand-picked elite. That's not to say they wouldn't have won the championship under the old system, of course, and it's all really beside the point. Which is, I remind you, that BSI are parasites.

I'm not sure who shares in the money their circus generates. Presumably the riders earn a bit, though there have always been rumours that this has not always been enough to make wealthy men of them. And presumably the FIM takes a chunk. If they're anything like FIFA, a very large one!

I'll tell you who doesn't see anything from the series - British speedway. It may be a little different in other countries, where the staging venues are mostly club venues, presumably licensed as shared events (although that's just supposition on my part), but the British Grand Prix take place at Cardiff, one of BSI's beloved Frankenstein venues, which looks good on TV and in a brochure, but produces inconsistent racing.

All the money spent at Cardiff - which even you take each ticket to have been sold at £29 (which they won't have been, of course), amounts to over a million pounds - is funneled straight out of British speedway. It's money that could be spent at local tracks, and I'd guess that a lot of it has actually been diverted from that purpose. And that's without spending on hotels (at inflated rates) and merchandise. It's probably fair to say that the British Grand Prix costs British speedway somewhere in the realm of four to five million pounds a year.

Repeat that across the series, throw in the SWC, and you can begin to see just what a burden on speedway BSI are. At least at the football world cup the money goes to FIFA, who share it with their member federations!

All this and taking the top riders away once a fortnight, and infiltrating our only magazine with their nonsense!

Like Don Quixote tilting at windmills I'm starting a fight I can't hope to win, but I can't in all good conscience give money to an organisation that is bleeding us dry and making us grateful for doing so.

ITEM: How do you solve a problem like Belle Vue?

The Bees were supposed to be there on Wednesday night, racing a meeting already postponed from earlier in the season, but a message appeared on Belle Vue's website on Tuesday afternoon, informing us that the meeting had, again, been postponed, and that a further announcement would be made.

This mystery postponement brought scorn and derision from fans of all clubs, and when the actual reason - the track was unfit following a stock car meeting - was posted, almost two hours later, the damage had been done.

Now this is the thing: the Bees had raced a meeting on Sky the week before in terrible conditions, brought about by trying to prepare a track with had been damaged three days before. If anyone would understand why the Aces were calling off the meeting, it would have been Bees' fans.

This was just the latest in a catalogue of disasters for the Manchester club, which has seen the club become the laughing stock of British speedway - no mean feat when you look around at some of the promoters given a license by the BSPA!

It's sad that a club with such a long and proud history as Belle Vue find themselves in this position. Cash poor, trapped in a stadium that has seen better days, and unable to produce a quality racing surface that might at least assuage their critics, they lurch from defeat to defeat, having named a massive SEVENTEEN riders in their 1-7 this season.

What's to be done? Their mythical New stadium might solve some of the issues, but that shows no more sign of appearing than it did when I last wrote of it, six weeks ago. A new promotion team would undoubtedly help, but who would take that job under the current circumstances? And a winning team would at least put smiles on faces, but that's more of a pipe dream than the stadium!

We have to watch and wait, and hope. I don't like making jokes about Belle Vue (no, really, I don't) so let's hope they stop giving me ammunition one day (very!) soon.

ITEM: You might not think it from reading my blog or following me on Twitter, but I do occasionally enjoy speedway. And sometimes, I get to enjoy a whole meeting!

Monday's clash at Alwalton between the Panthers and the Bees was one such occasion, a meeting so free of crap and twaddle that it was a pleasure to witness.

Was it a decent track, prepared to engender racing, and allowing passes from the back? Or the fact that the score remained close throughout, and that the pesky Tactical Ride, that abortion of a rule, never made an appearance? Or the simplicity of the venue - little more than a track and a shack, but what more do you need?

I don't know. Maybe all of the above and more. But whatever the recipe, the end result was a thoroughly enjoyable meeting, a result to send everybody home at least partially happy, and a feeling that I'd got value for money for once. Even Edward Kennett's woeful performance was so bad that it was laughable!

Now Thursday and Friday was another story altogether..!

ITEM: I'm going to talk about wrestling for a minute. Bear with me, because it is relevant...

In wrestling you have good guys and bad guys, and they're known in the business as "faces" and "heels". The job of a heel is to get the audience behind the face, by drawing what's known as "heat". Heat can be anything from boos, to abuse, to physical assault - if the heel does his job right, the audience should be ready to kill him.

Occasionally, the heel draws the wrong kind of heat, known by smart "insiders" as "fuck you" heat. This is where the audience couldn't care less what the heel does, or whether the face he's fighting defeats him, they just don't want to see him at all.

Now this is where it gets back to speedway. Troy Batchelor has "fuck you" heat. There are riders who have cheated, been involved in sexual assault trials, and all manner of other shenanigans, and they're still not hated as much as Troy Batchelor. Even his own fans don't seem to like him much.

As it stands this hatred is worthless. He's only worth as much to Swindon as the points he scores. He's not going to sell any merchandise, he's not going to sell any tickets, and nobody is going to clamour to meet him at the end of the night.

But if Troy - and Swindon - are clever, they can turn this around. They can play up his arrogance, manufacture a feud with a rival rider in an upcoming but tough to sell meeting, and watch the sparks fly. The competition on the track remains pure and untouched, but the sport gains a marketable edge that the media and the fans can buy into.

After all, if you're going to have to put up with "Twatchelor", you may as well make money off him!