Friday, 30 November 2012


ITEM: I've never really had a favourite rider. For a while I flirted with Shawn Moran, all Bad Boy Club chic and hanging off the bike cool, and I had a thing for racers obviously riding at the limits of their ability and beyond, with often wild results, like Roman Matousek and Thierry Hilaire, but never really had someone I'd pay money to see, whenever I could.

Chris Harris changed that. The first time I saw him ride, live in the flesh, he captivated me. I'm sure I'm not alone. His absolute refusal to make any kind of good start meant that he was forced to hunt his opponents down from the back and, when the track preparation allowed, he more often than not did it, or at least came very close.

Simply put, Chris Harris is a speedway racer in a world of speedway riders.

Don't worry, he's not dead or anything, but simply extremely unlikely to wear a Coventry racejacket in 2013. Harris has a clear idea of his worth - some say inflated beyond reality, without actually knowing what he earns - and Mick Horton isn't prepared to meet it. Whether you call it fiscal responsibility or lowballing your star rider, they appear to be a million miles apart, money-wise, although - as Horton may soon find out - a rider's worth should be judged on more than his points scoring.

Harris has a special connection to the Coventry fans, forever cemented by that night at Wimborne Road two years ago, and the 2011 season (which he spent on loan at Belle Vue) was devoid of something, that x-factor that makes our sport special. Although results were less than fantastic this season having Harris back - joined by another of the Bees' talismans, Scott Nicholls - brought that special something back, and earned a struggling promoter some breathing space he badly needed.

If Harris leaves again - and rumours are that it will be just up the road to Birmingham, dangerously close for Horton's wallet, with fans able to travel to Perry Barr easily - then the Bees will be missing something once more. I'm sure it's a gap that can be filled. It will have to be at some point. But none of the current side, or their rumoured future teammates, have it in them.

It's going to be another strange season down Brandon way, but we're getting used to it now. I just wish we could say we knew the true value of our assets. Sadly, I think that's far from the truth.

ITEM: So the days of bringing in a promising youngster on a 4.00 average are over, and not before time.

Far too often, the wealthier clubs have been able to cherry pick the foreign talent, ending up with bargains few others can afford. The competitive advantage of this "talent spotting" has helped a select few clubs dominate the Elite League of late, and has often resulted in those riders being dumped as soon as they achieve a "real" average in favour of the next 4.00 wonder.

At the other end of the scale, clueless promoters have been sold a pig in a poke or two, bringing in riders on a 4.00 average that struggled to achieve half that - in its own way far more damaging to British speedway, because the likes of Fajfer, Sowka, Burmeister and Sitera score no more than a British rider, starved of opportunity, would score.

So goodbye, then, arbitrary system that did most of us no favours, and hello to, well, what? You'd think, by the reaction of certain south coast-based promoters, team managers, journalists, and fans, that the new system was destructive and wanton - no good for anyone, damaging to the Elite League, and carrying the Ebola virus or something.

What it actually is is an attempt to give every rider who does not currently have a CMA earned in either the EL or PL a realistic figure based on performances in the Swedish, Polish, and Danish leagues, and in FIM events. An independent assessor - and it's now no secret that it's respected veteran Peter Oakes - was given a list of riders and asked to come up with figures for them all. I'm not aware of his methodology, but the final decision, in any case, rests with the BSPA management committee.

The big noise on the south coast regards Piotr Pawlicki, little brother of Przemyslaw (who, you might remember, had his average changed to a more realistic figure when Poole decided to hamstring Coventry in the winter of discontent), and latterly a Poole Pirate.

Piotr came into the Poole team at the back end of last season, as a replacement for the injured Dennis Andersson (himself a "bargain" 4.00 rider a year before), but only managed to ride in four meetings due to injuries of his own, averaging 7.29. Under the new system he has apparently been given a 7.00 assessed average, which seems a little high - perhaps half a point - but is certainly closer to his real ability than the previous 4.00.

To listen to the Poole management, and their pet journalists, its on a par with a war crime, and rules the poor lad out of British speedway. Because who would sign a rider on an average close to his actual ability? Why bother signing Chris Holder on a 9.62 average when he might only average 9.62 points a meeting? Crazy talk.

Worse still, according to Poole, it's the death of the Elite League which, already struggling to attract top riders (in reality, it can't afford them), will now be shorn of the international bright young things that fill our teams. One journalist even claimed this would hamper efforts to make the sport "cool" again, because nothing is cooler than a spotty teenager from Warsaw who can barely speak English and puts his Polish and international commitments first. Right, kids?

The rest of the Elite League promoters, as evidenced by the new system being voted in at the AGM, are okay with it, recognising that it gave some teams with deep pockets an unfair advantage. I'm not sure it's a perfect system - but what is? - and probably needs tweaking before it gets there, but it's a massive step in the right direction. For once, well done BSPA, we might make a sensible rulemaking body out of you yet!

* I did actually work out my own formula for assessing these riders, based on their performances in the Swedish, Polish, and Danish leagues. According to my formula, the following riders would be assessed on these averages:

Piotr Pawlicki 6.49
Tobiasz Musielak 5.65
Mikkel Bech 6.02
Mikkel Michelsen 6.48
Martin Vaculik 8.20
Patryk Dudek 7.85

As a control, this is the formula applied to some current EL riders:

Sebastian Ulamek 6.95 (actual CMA 7.10)
Matej Zagar 8.09 (8.04)
Peter Karlsson 8.03 (8.61)
Andreas Jonsson 9.94 (9.66)
Kenni Larsen 6.54 (6.57)

It's not perfect, and there are some anomalies, but it works pretty well. The BSPA, with better statisticians than I, should adopt something similar.

ITEM: Things are looking up at last for Plymouth! After a torrid couple of years during which it became clear that speedway in the frontier town was becoming a joke, and further uncertainty over its long-term future, a new consortium has secured a tenancy to continue racing at the St Boniface Arena.

The four-man consortium, led by Plymouth legend Seemond Stephens, and former Trelawny promoter Godfrey Spargo, have reached an agreement not only with outgoing promoter Mike Bowden, but also with the landlords, St Boniface College, who were previously only willing to grant a year's lease.

Whatever Plymouth latterly became under Bowden, he was the man responsible for bringing the sport back to the city, and should be lauded for that. But, as with Keith Denham at Workington, there is often scope for a one-man show to go off the rails, the bigger picture sometimes missed for petty vendettas and blind faith in your own infallibility.

Still, brighter skies ahead for the Devils, and one of speedway's furthest outposts continues to take the gospel to the unbelievers...

ITEM: Coventry promoter Mick Horton took to the BBC CWR airwaves last Friday, answering questions from a supporters' forum about all things Bees. Much of what he said had already been reported, and certainly has been since, but the most interesting thing, for me at least, was a little snippet that underpins the whole reason for the Bees running in the National League.

Horton declared his aim - or at least hope, I'd say - that every rider turning out for the NL Bees (and I hope they keep that name, keep it simple) would be a Coventry asset. "Why do it otherwise?", he seemed to argue, and it's hard not to logic.

Using an NL side to unearth future assets has been a roaring success for Scunthorpe and, to a lesser extent, for Rye House. Even if those riders don't always graduate to the senior side at PL level, finding second division berths elsewhere, the loan and transfer fees brought in should more than compensate for the effort.

That is at Premier League level, where the step up is less jarring than straight to the Elite League, but there is no reason to believe it can't be successful for an EL side, too, perhaps in partnership with a "friendly" PL partner.

The Bees have already made steps towards creating a side of their own assets by signing Oliver Greenwood from Scunthorpe and local lad Richard Franklin from Dudley. The tricky part will be finding a rider of sufficient quality to lead the side and find a club willing to sell him.

There are also a number of "free agents" floating around - NL riders can opt not to become an asset of any club - and while some are badly-advised by parents and "agents", you'd hope that the benefits of signing for a big club can be made evident.

Business done at this level, where rewards for the riders are traditionally slim and beefed up by sponsorships, is seldom straightforward, and there have already been accusations of dodgy dealing and tapping up targeted at the Bees. As someone who values ethics over success, I can only hope that Mr Horton & Mr Rogers are of the same mindset, and that this is idle talk.

It's a brand new adventure for Coventry fans in 2013, and I hope they back it in numbers. I'm sure we'll have a team to match the passion of the Bees' fans for competitive speedway, and new heroes to build legends at Brandon for many years to come.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Top 20?, Dudley, Leicester & Belle Vue

ITEM: For a conference held at what many consider to be a crossroads for the sport in this country, there was precious little done to change the fortunes of British speedway at the AGM last weekend.

I'll be having a look at the decisions made over the next few weeks - as well as those they didn't make - but my overwhelming feeling is one of missed opportunity, something I know is also felt by a couple of promoters who were drowned out by the "nothing's wrong" brigade.

To start with, let's have a look at the latest fuzzy rule to ensure team strengths are even, at least at the top - no more than two riders from the top twenty available. As clear as that sounds, and in a perfect world each team would have two, and all twenty would find places, it's a little more complicated.

Upon announcement - not done officially, but by Poole co-promoter Gordon Pairman - there was frenzied debate over who would make the list.

Would it be the top twenty of all riders who rode in the EL in 2012? Because that list included the late Lee Richardson, as well as Joonas Kylmakorpi, who'd already ruled himself out of British speedway in 2013. It also included Darcy Ward, Adrian Miedzinski, and Ryan Sullivan - all unlikely to commit to a full season.

Or maybe it would be a list containing those riders who were declared in 1-7s at the end of the season? This would remove Richardson and Miedzinski, but still contain Kylmakorpi, Ward, and Sullivan, and furthermore not include Kenneth Bjerre!

Or perhaps it would be a list of those committed to riding in the EL in 2013? But how would you create such a list, without already signing them to teams?!?

The doubt, and scorn poured on what seemed to be an ill-thought out idea, was assuaged a little when Birmingham co-promoter Graham Drury announced, at a fans' forum, that it would be all those appearing in the final greensheet averages, minus Lee Richardson*. This still includes Kylmakorpi, Ward, and Sullivan, but also Bjerre, and is probably as near as effective as you're going to get.

This isn't the first attempt in recent seasons to share the top talent around. Remember the "one over eight" rule? Despite an attempt to re-write history by Matt Ford and his apologists, this rule was brought in for 2011 for no other reason than to hamper the chances of the champions, Coventry Bees, who had humiliated Ford's Poole Pirates in the 2010 play-offs.

The rule ensured each team had a rider over eight points, except it didn't because Eastbourne used Bjarne Pedersen as their number one, and he was on exactly eight points. This meant that, whether he intended to ride or not, there was no place in British speedway for Matej Zagar.

And this is the danger of the current ruling. It looks as though, once again, Eastbourne will choose to go against the grain, and have only one rider from the list. The inclusion of Kylmakorpi, Ward, and Sullivan gives some wiggle room for that to happen, but we could find ourselves in the position of losing a loyal servant to British speedway because of a half-added attempt to even out teams.

Of course, the previous rule was thrown out after a year, having served its purpose to hand Poole the title, so who knows what the future will bring for this one?

* In addition, the list contains riders of the same sort of quality who haven't ridden in the EL before or who did not ride in 2012. Those who have not ridden in the EL - or who haven't attained an EL average - will be assessed by the new, independent assessor (and more of that next week). You could also imagine that riders who haven't ridden here for some time might also get assessed, but I take nothing for granted in speedway. Given all that, the list of "top riders" should look something like this:

2012 Top 20:
Darcy Ward 9.76
Chris Holder 9.67
Niels-Kristian Iversen 8.84
Tai Woffinden 8.80
Fredrik Lindgren 8.68
Peter Karlsson 8.61
Krzysztof Kasprzak 8.39
Adrian Miedzinski 8.21
Hans Andersen 8.18
Kenneth Bjerre 8.18
Davey Watt 8.06
Troy Batchelor 7.94
Chris Harris 7.91
Linus Sundstrom 7.87
Scott Nicholls 7.82
Ryan Sullivan 7.72
Joonas Kylmakorpi 7.56
Danny King 7.47
Bjarne Pedersen 7.35
Rory Schlein 7.33

Did Not Ride In 2012:
Jason Crump 11.07 (2008)
Andreas Jonsson 9.66 (2008)
Tomasz Gollob 9.52 (2000)
Greg Hancock 8.77 (2006)
Nicki Pedersen 8.61 (2011)
Jarek Hampel 8.28 (2008)
Matej Zagar 8.04 (2010)
Antonio Lindback 7.94 (2006)
Piotr Protasiewicz 7.67 (2006)

No EL Average:
Emil Sayfutdinov
Martin Vaculik
Rune Holta

ITEM: So there'll be no Leicester in the Elite League for 2013. Various reasons have been trumpeted, none of which would satisfy me if I were an ambitious Leicester fan, but it's often what's not reported that is most interesting.

The writing was on the wall last week when Matt Ford - who couldn't even be bothered to attend the AGM - declared it would be a bad idea for the Lions to come up because there was only one year left on the Sky contract, and they may find themselves short of cash from 2014 onwards.

This tells you everything you need to know about the attitude of some established promoters towards newer ones, and imagines that Ford, from his gold-plated ivory tower, believes every speedway club is struggling, hand-to-mouth, and unable to formulate a business plan that would, very probably, have taken this into account.

Chris van Straaten also expressed concern for the Premier League, arguing that admitting Leicester into the upper tier would harm the lower league - something clearly not an issue when King's Lynn (at the time the PL's strongest side) were given "incentives" to come up in 2011.

So far, so flimsy, but could it actually be that an Elite League track, and not Leicester's nearest neighbours, felt so strongly that the Lions running in the EL would damage their business that they threatened to pull out if they were admitted?

The EL has an over-inflated sense of self when it comes to this kind of thinking. Anyone who can find the time and money to watch speedway at Leicester and A.N.Other track is hardly likely to give that up because the standard got better at Beaumont Park. But a certain selfishness, and worry for the few fans they can attract, seems to override common sense in a certain corner of the EL these days.

So, yes, at least another year in the PL for Leicester, with long-haul journeys and "local" derbies with Sheffield. Keep growing, Lions, and maybe we'll see you in the EL next year when the rest of the league grows a spine.

ITEM: No "promotion", either, for Dudley, but for very different reasons. I've written before of my admiration for the club - which, I admit, can sometimes be to the detriment of the original intent for the third tier of British speedway - and I expected them to take the leap into the PL for 2013.

But their plan has always been to get back to a track of their own, within Dudley or Sandwell, and the financial risk of promotion could (and I'm sure they'd admit just as easily could not) have damaged that, and they've chosen to play it safe.

Far better, the club argue, to keep searching for that elusive site while banking the cash from their considerable crowds to enable them to build a facility worthy of second-tier speedway. Such sense, living well within their means with an eye on future success, should be the model at a couple of Elite League clubs that are operating above their natural level, and making the rest of the league suffer for it. But I digress.

So good luck to the Heathens, and I look forward to the local derbies with the new NL Bees' team. I just hope it won't be too long before we meet in the top tier!

ITEM: According to some publicly available figures obtained this week, Belle Vue are losing in the realm of £75,000 a season. This is eye-watering stuff, and probably not unique to the Manchester track, but it does illustrate the difficulties they are experiencing.

An EL promoter told me that each person through the turnstiles is worth about £13, once concessions are factored in, and so using this sketchy maths, over a 20-meeting season, another 300 on the gate would turn that loss into a profit.

And this is where the promotion part of running an EL club comes in. Luckily, the Aces have taken a new promoter on board, and he's one with experience - he worked alongside John Perrin in what seems like a very different era. For all their big talk, Chris Morton and David Gordon have a terrible record as promoters, propping up the league table and not paying for riders, as well as throwing veiled insults at their loyal, but frustrated, fans.

Every speedway fan wants Belle Vue to compete and not blight the sport. Let's hope George Carswell has that magic touch - another season like the last five could do irreparable damage to the Aces and to speedway as a whole.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Kids, Playing Games, the AGM & British?

ITEM: Lakeside speedway made a big announcement yesterday - they would be opening an academy, with its own training track, for the development of British youngsters. This is, of course, very good news.

Lakeside team manager Neil Vatcher had already made noises a few weeks ago about making team places for British youngsters mandatory, and claimed that the riders were already there to fill the roles. I don't think we're quite at that stage yet, but legislation will help us get there.

The academy - at least I think that's what it will be called - is backed by Hagon Shocks, who already heavily sponsor riders at both Eastbourne and Poole. They also back a scheme in the US, supported by Billy Hamill, to bring through youngsters in that shallow pool of talent, and so their commitment to the future shouldn't be underestimated.

It's only a start, though. There needs to be academies of this sort up and down the country, unearthing and developing talent to appear firstly in second halves, and then into the three-tier league system already in place.

Several promoters have suggested alternatives, or enhancements, to the plan, including track bikes for poorer youngsters to ride, and a youth league. It's good to see, after years of neglect, that the message - British is best - is getting through.

After all, there ain't no hero like a local hero...

ITEM: There's a lengthy piece in the Speedway Star this week about Cameron Woodward's participation - and eventual victory - in the grasstrack Masters.

The Masters is, to all intents and purposes, grasstrack's British Championship. I'm not the biggest grasstrack fan, but I seem to recall foreign riders riding AT the Masters before, in support races, but not in it. I'm sure someone will correct me if I'm wrong.

Australians, like Woodward, don't usually ride much grasstrack. They may have a dabble at its bigger brother, longtrack, but tend to stay clear of the green stuff. Woodward, perhaps inspired by his friendship with Finnish ace Joonas Kylmakorpi, took to the grass a couple of years ago, with some success, culminating in his Masters triumph. He is unwilling/unable to do more grasstrack, which is held primarily on Sundays, because of his Polish speedway commitments.

And this is the problem for the ACU, who oversee track racing in the UK. They have a champion who is really of no use to them. While Andrew Appleton, Richard Hall, and Glen Phillips - all top British grasstrack boys - rarely appear on British grass, the ACU can argue that they represent their country in Europe, something which confirmed Australian Woodward definitely doesn't.

What does all this have to do with speedway, you ask? Let me give you some names: Marvyn Cox, Rune Holta, Matej Ferjan. All riders who chose to switch licenses, if not nationalities, to further their speedway careers.

Usually, from a British point of view, it happens that a British rider switches to a foreign license, as in the case of Cox (Germany) and Andy Smith (Poland). Currently the enfant terrible of British speedway, Robert Lambert, is riding on a German license, and thriving because of it.

Is it too much of a stretch to imagine it happening the other way? It's already happened, in a minor way, with Michal Rajkowski taking out an ACU license to ride in the Premier League, and it's easy to imagine someone becoming frustrated with a lack of opportunities and/or support from their national federation and seeking it elsewhere.

How would that be received? How would the British public - and the powers-that-be react to the site of, say, Niels-Kristian Iversen lifting the British title, and wearing the union jack on his racejacket in the SWC?

The world is getting smaller, politically and economically, and it's surely only a matter of time. Are we ready?

ITEM: There's a massive buzz amongst my friends for the new Football Manager game, out a couple of weeks ago and still breaking up marriages.

Sports management games, including the likes of EA's FIFA & John Madden series, have been a staple of the console and computer gaming world since the mid-1980s, yet speedway - perfect for the genre with its statistical base - has always struggled.

Perhaps this is because there isn't the money there for the big developers to bring such games to fruition, and the few games we've had have been the result of programmers. A few years ago, a small, homegrown studio - Meth Designz - announced 5-1, a Football Manager-style speedway management game, and initial screenshots were encouraging.

They hit something of a brick wall when they approached Go Speed International, Terry Russell's media rights "empire", who wanted a ridiculous amount for the rights to something no-one else was going to pay for.

Last I heard they were attempting to produce the game with fictional teams and riders, but with an editing feature, something which the first editions of Sensible Soccer did with aplomb.

A speedway management computer game is not going to make anyone rich. To encourage and assist a game developer would cost the BSPA nothing. But if it brought in a hundred - even ten! - new fans, is it not worth it?

I don't know if 5-1 is still in the pipeline. I hope so. If it is, I hope that the BSPA get in touch and offer them assistance with what would be a great marketing tool, and a good bit of fun for everyone.

Finally, the AGM gets underway today and it's a biggie. This week's Speedway Star featured a Q&A with every promoter (save Berwick, for some odd reason), and a good proportion of them seem to realise that something needs to be done to put us on the right path for the next five years, at least. Others, thankfully not many, claim there's nothing wrong with the sport, and it's to be hoped that these people are kept very quiet.

I don't want a revolution to come out of the AGM, although God knows the sport needs it. What I want is a structured plan, with short and long terms aims, all geared towards making the product fit for the 21st century, and fitting British speedway's unique needs.

With that in mind, here's a laundry list of what I'd like to see:

* No squad system, shared number one position, or fixed race night
* Protected places for young Brits in all three leagues
* A discount/bonus on team building for using homegrown riders
* All Brits allowed to double-up between EL and PL, and all young Brits to "triple" up if desirable
* A return to the old tactical substitute rule
* Fixtures arranged on a more local basis
* Rules to be clearly written, published, and adhered to
* All riders to be given a published applicable average for all leagues
* A central fund created for training young riders, and for marketing the sport

That's just a few things I'd like to see. It's difficult for me to tell the promoters how to do business because it's not my money at risk. But I've taken heart from reading their thoughts that there is a movement for sensible change amongst them, and I'd like to be able to place my trust in them to manage it.

Only time - and leaked e-mails and official press releases - will tell. Good luck, one and all!

Friday, 9 November 2012

S.S., N.L., N.Z. & I.T.K.

ITEM: When I first started going to speedway, back in the heady days of the late 1980s, you had a choice of which weekly speedway magazine to buy – the Speedway Star or the Speedway Mail. I always preferred the Mail for some reason – it seemed a little more irreverent and gossipy than its glossy rival – but I bought both, anyway. I think most people who bought the Mail also bought the Star, too. Just not enough of them to keep both in business, it seems.

Nowadays it’s the Star or nothing. Well, not nothing, because there’s the internet to contend with, often meaning that by the time the Star reaches the newsagents the news it carries is out of date. Occasionally, due to compliance from the tracks, the odd bit of exclusive news will break, but mostly it’s days old, with all the disadvantages that brings.

The content of the Star has changed little over the years, and sales seem to have held up enough to make it a profitable exercise, so they can’t be doing too much wrong. You’ll never please anyone, of course, and to my mind there’s too much SGP coverage, too many “correspondants” willing to toe the party the line, and not enough investigative journalism. Others will complain that there’s too much opinion, too little SGP, and that they like to read what’s going on at their local track, even if it is straight from the promoter’s mouth, so what do I know?

I’m not about to tell Pinegen, the Speedway Star’s publishers what to put in their magazine, not without taking a major financial stake in the company, anyway, but it’s no secret that many readers prefer the winter editions of the Star, when news is perhaps thinner on the ground than in the summer months, to the regular season ones. Brian Burford can always be relied upon for interesting, thought-provoking articles, and the lack of urgency in reporting events allows the editorial staff to flex their wings a little. I’d like to see more of this all year round, even if some of the usual content has to be sacrificed.

Until the late 1980s, the Speedway Star was a sister publication to World Soccer, and that magazine has always carried op-ed pieces from its various correspondents, from long-time editor Keir Radnidge, US reporter Paul Gardner, and veteran journalist Brian Glanville, and these sit well with the usual results, news, features, and interviews from the world of, well, soccer. Freeing up the local correspondents, too, perhaps finding some who aren’t in the employ of the track they report on, might also provide a slightly different voice to the copy and pasted, available on the internet days before, stuff that fills its pages now.

The Star has developed, and with an eye on digital media, it’s true. They have begun producing Speedway Star Xtra, available through the website (although unwieldy for those of us who’d prefer to print it out and read it on the toilet!), and this is a very good thing. But it’s a start, not a finish, and I’m sure Richard Clark, Philip Rising, and the rest of the staff realise it.

For all I’ve said, on most weeks the Star is still a cracking read. A lack of competition, though, can’t allow it to rest on its laurels. It needs to make itself indispensible, not an add-on, and a new year always brings new opportunities.

ITEM: Speedway is at a crossroads. The AGM next week will be a humdinger, with so many things to sort out that they may need to book into the hotel for an extra week just to get through the agenda. All three divisions are having their issues at the moment, although things look much brighter for the Premier League than they did a few weeks ago (and may even get a surprise addition to boot), and they really need to set their stall out for the next few years.

Nowhere is that more important than the National League. The third tier of British speedway is a bit of a Frankenstein creation, made up of teams of varying resources and aims, and is struggling to be all things to all clubs. It needs to find a way to allow standalone, ambitious clubs such as Dudley and Mildenhall to exist in the same league as de facto reserve sides from King’s Lynn and Rye House, as well as clubs who’ve been bigger and downsized, such as Stoke and the Isle of Wight, and clubs who have no intention of being anything other than they are now – Buxton – to compete on the same playing field. It’s not an easy task, but here’s why it’s so important.

Because there are new tracks hoping to open in Bristol, Norwich, Sittingbourne, and Cornwall and these prospective tracks need to be able to thrive from day one, promoting a speedway product sufficient to attract and keep new and lapsed fans from these areas. Speedway needs these clubs – twenty-seven tracks operating in a country with our speedway heritage is disappointing, to say the least, and with half those tracks always on the brink of financial ruin, we need the numbers to take away the risk of a 1958 scenario (which you can read about in this week’s Speedway Star – cheap plug).

The National League is also important for the development of young, British talent, of course, and that is one area even the most optimistic of us has to agree has been lacking of late. Still, the green shoots are beginning to show, and it’s interesting to note that, as well as giving first rides to nascent talents, the league this year had several riders who some would argue had outgrown it. Those riders – Adam Roynon, Ashley Birks, and Richie Worrall, to name but three – came on leaps and bounds, in no small part, I’d argue, to the extra rides, on varying tracks, that riding in the NL afforded them.

This is an area where the NL could do more. What did British speedway gain from Kyle Newman, Kyle Howarth, and Simon Lambert not riding in the NL this season? Little to nothing. Would British speedway have gained further from the likes of Luke Bowen, Richard Lawson, and Ben Wilson riding in the NL? I think you could argue that it would have, assuming they were all willing to ride for the points money on offer – young riders will only get better racing against better opponents, and the Development Leagues are providing opportunities for those riders who under previous regimes may have been looked at as NL reserves. Better quality at the top filters down.

It’s becoming clear that the National League is a professional league in all but management. The money on offer to the riders may be less, but they are expected to be professional in their approach, and the promoters and management of the tracks are also expected to adhere to the regulations set down in the rule book. Except when they aren’t, and this is a big part of why the NL isn’t working.

What Peter Morrish has achieved is admirable. He, along with an army of helpers, turned a league for fading veterans and budding wannabes into a practical third tier of British speedway. But all things have their time, and I believe that, if the rules are right, and more importantly watertight, there’s no need for an overseer who can overrule them. Morrish’s position is an anachronism for the NL, and if they are to move forward – and be fit for the future – he has to go gracefully. A modern league should be transparent and sensible, not subject to the whims of an albeit knowledgeable and experienced benign dictator.

Whatever they decide, I hope the National League is fit for purpose in 2013. The prospect of Coventry and Plymouth swelling the numbers to ten (assuming Dudley stay put, which is in the balance), and perhaps even Norwich taking part, means more than ever the league will need careful attention and enthusiastic support. Give the fans a reason to watch the NL, give them riders to get excited about, and give them a well-run league, and they should repay you in kind.

ITEM: What do Argentina and New Zealand have in common? Well, apart from both playing rugby union for some stupid reason, and both having their fair share of Welsh expats, they’re the newest areas to receive world speedway’s patronage.

With the SGP in New Zealand, and the first in the southern hemisphere since 2002’s Australian SGP, firmly on the calendar, the FIM decided to take the world under-21 championship to Argentina, which has been a strange yet thriving outpost for speedway for quite some time. Crowd levels in Bahia Blanca put most other tracks outside Poland to shame, and local enthusiasm for dirt track racing seems enormous. Troops of mostly central European riders have trekked to Argentina in the winter off-season for some years, and recently some of their riders have made in-roads into European speedway, with Emiliano Sanchez, Carlos Villar, and now Nico Covatti turning heads especially in the UK.

The young locals taking part as wild cards in the under-21 finals may have struggled – and there were more of them than usual due to the logistics and reluctance of some riders to travel so far for so little reward – but it’s clear that Argentina deserves its place on the calendar. New Zealand, on the other hand, is a different kettle of fish.

The nation has a huge speedway heritage – the names Ronnie Moore, Barry Briggs, and Ivan Mauger will always ensure that. Latterly, and since Mitch Shirra finally retired in 1993, they have struggled, with Andrew Bargh, Grant Tregoning, and Jade Mudgway being the pick of the crop, struggling at anything higher than Premier League reserve. Such is the dearth of talent in New Zealand speedway presently that Jason Bunyan, seven times NZ champion and married to a Kiwi, was chosen ahead of any native riders as the wild card for the inaugural NZ SGP in March, and - no disrespect to Bunyan – even he was well out of his depth.

So why has a struggling speedway scene like New Zealand been given a prestigious SGP ahead of a hotbed like Argentina? Money, of course. BSI, the corporate owners of speedway’s world championships, found a local willing to put up some money, and considered the market untapped and viable. Horrible word, market, but there you go. In a sensible world, money paid by BSI to the NZ speedway authorities for the rights to hold an SGP there should be spent on bringing through the next generation of Briggs and Maugers (or even a David Bargh and Mark Thorpe!), but our world is far from sensible. New Zealand speedway will probably limp along, as it has done for the past two decades, with predictable results on its standing on the world stage.

So what about Argentina? Will it get the SGP it deserves? Only if there’s a local willing to put up the cash, it seems, or if the city of Buenos Aires opens its doors – and stadiums – to BSI. Nothing is impossible but many things are likely. With New Zealand and Italy still on the SGP list, despite their international shortcomings, and with Prague being chosen by BSI as host city for the SWC in 2013 (and the Czechs under-strength team seeded through the final as a result), BSI have shown that it’s the market that counts, and the rest be damned. May they reap what they sow.

ITEM: Just a final note about gossip and rumours. I love them. The world would be so much less exciting and interesting without them. I like to read them, and if they’re delicious enough, pass them on. What’s a world without tittle-tattle? Boring, that’s what.

Having said that, occasionally you become privy to information that you really should share, but there are also very good reasons why you can’t. If a rider is scoring badly because he’s been caught cheating on his wife, for example. It may be exciting to talk about, and may even get some angry fans off his back if they knew there was a reason for him underperforming, but people’s lives are worth more than the brief thrill you’d get from knowing it.

Or if the information you’re passed is commercially sensitive in a way which could damage one of our few clubs. Let’s say a club had a new track lined up, but revealing it early could jeopardise the deal. Nothing that can be gained from everyone knowing about it before it’s ready to be announced is worth the potential loss of that track.

And for the informant themselves, no gossip or piece of insider information is worth risking a ban from the track where they watch the sport they love, so some rumours and breaking news have to stay secret, only fit for hinting at and whispering about.

It’s a hard life being a guttersnipe. My aim is to open speedway up a bit more, get people talking about things that should be discussed, and provoke debate, support or dissent when the wrong decisions appear to have been, or are about to be, made. Bear with me, I’ll try to tell you what I think you need to know. It’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

A Win For The PL & Aces In Trouble, Why Play-Offs Make Sense & Brits On The Double?

ITEM: So, at only the fourth attempt, Scunthorpe Scorpions are the Premier League champions. It comes on the heels of last year's National League championship for their junior side, the Saints - winning is certainly becoming a habit at the Eddie Wright Raceway.

Formed only seven years ago, Scunthorpe are a blueprint for a successful speedway club, with a top notch racing track and steadily-improving facilities at their brownfield site. It is fitting, then, that their opponents in the play-off final, Somerset Rebels, are themselves a good example of what can be done from scratch with a plot of land, some industrious individuals, and a whole lot of hard work. It's a credit to the Premier League that such clubs operate at such a high standard at that level, and they should be lauded as great examples of community clubs gone right.

With new clubs still planned for Bristol, Norwich, Sittingbourne, and Cornwall, amongst others, the prospective promoters could do far worse than beg, borrow, or steal from the experience that Scunthorpe and Somerset have put to very, very good use.

ITEM: There's always talk of what may come out of the BSPA AGM ahead of the meeting in mid-November, with wild rumours thrown around like confetti at a wedding. Occasionally, though, something slips through that has been discussed, suggested or agreed upon at the pre-AGM meeting, and an interview with Aaron Summers in last week's Speedway Star contained a hidden nugget.

Summers, who has once again signed for Redcar in 2013, was asked about doubling-up with Coventry, and revealed that the rules were to be changed to allow any rider who doesn't ride in a foreign league to double-up between the Elite and Premier Leagues. Furthermore, I believe, at this point, that the foreign leagues in question are the Swedish and Polish leagues, only.

This would be a game-changer for some British riders who have long-chased continental opportunities with little success. It would allow the likes of Lewis Bridger, Edward Kennett, and Simon Stead to race in both senior British leagues, increasing their race sharpness and - more importantly - earning power.

It would also rule out certain riders from doubling-up, of course, and this season such a rule would have prevented Jason Doyle, Sebastian Alden, Ludvig Lindgren, and Kauko Nieminen, amongst others from riding both EL and PL.

The logic is obviously to reward those riders who put the UK first, and this is to be commended. I'd go further, and add in the Danish League. No disrespect to Charlie Gjedde and Ulrich Ostergaard, but it's hard to see what allowing double-up year after year does for British speedway.

I'm also led to believe there will be further changes to the doubling-up rules, with pairings done away with in favour of a facility for a missing rider, and perhaps the addition of a further place available to be filled by a double-up rider. This would bring the potential places for PL riders to also ride EL down from 40 to 30, but also hopefully improve the quality of those riders.

Positive stuff, and you can only hope the rest of the AGM comes up with such logical rulemaking.

ITEM: Where next for the Belle Vue Aces? Unable to complete their 2012 fixtures, and with lingering doubts over the viability of the new National Speedway Stadium to be built down the road from Kirkmanshulme Lane, things look decidedly dodgy for one of speedway's legendary sides.

While Chris Morton and David Gordon's time at the helm of the Manchester club have hardly been glory year's, this season has been a disaster from start to finish, taking in meetings called off in fine weather, rumours of late payments to riders, and ending with a crumbling stadium and dangerous track unfit to race on.

There is talk that the Aces are looking at a substantial five figure sum to even get the track fit for racing next season, money which - with the new stadium always seemingly around the corner - they can ill afford to spend.

Given that Kirkmanshulme Lane is unlikely to ever stage speedway again, the club could be faced with two options: ride elsewhere (Stoke or Buxton being the nearest options) or take a year out, keeping the club alive with promotional activities and the occasional away challenge.

Both have their advantages and significant drawbacks, the biggest being risking losing what loyal fans they have left in Manchester, but they would risk doing that anyway with another season at a substandard Kirkmanshulme Lane. If it were down to me - and it never is, so my opinion should carry very little weight - I'd plump for the latter, but only with a firm and fixed start date for speedway's return to Manchester.

Whatever they decide, or are forced into, there are choppier waters ahead for Morton and Gordon. I wish them all the luck in the world.

ITEM: There's been a fair amount of griping - admittedly from fans of defeated clubs who finished top of their leagues - that the end-of-season play-offs are not a fair way to decide a championship.

It's an old argument, and one that will rage as long as the play-offs are in place. This season, however, all three teams who finished top of the league after the home and away campaign was finished fell at the final hurdle, and the record books will record that the second placed teams took the title across the three leagues.

Whether it is "fair" or not is a matter of opinion, although the evidence is probably weighted on the side of a team having the best record over a regular season being crowned champions. The more relevant argument is if the play-offs are desirable or even necessary.

With the finances of speedway clubs dependent on getting people through the turnstiles, and sponsors interested, to the very last, it makes sense to keep the season alive as long as possible. That six teams were still in with a chance of lifting the Elite League title going into the last week of the regular season was fantastic business for those tracks, and those they visited, ruined only slightly by cramming in so many fixtures due to the weather.

Similarly, for a sport desperate for television coverage, the creation of an end-of-season finale makes so much more sense than allowing the season to peter out long before the trophy is presented.

So, love them or hate them, deciding a title by play-offs may not be the fairest way but it is the most sensible, given speedway's current situation. Get on board and think of the bigger picture.