Saturday, 30 March 2013

The Roynon Incident, Visa Issues, Double-Up Fudge, and I Hooked A Newbie!

ITEM: I've never really witnessed anything genuinely important. I once saw Margaret Thatcher in Birmingham but sadly no-one shot her. And I ate in a Wimpy in London a week before the IRA blew it up, but that's about as far as it goes. And that's a good thing, because genuinely important things are usually pretty horrible, and involve someone getting killed, or hurt, or their lives being totally changed, and not usually for the better.

For a while on Friday night I thought I was witnessing something horrible. Adam Roynon had gone down, and the trailing Josh Auty had hit him, but it wasn't anything we've all seen a hundred times at tracks all over the world. Only Adam didn't get up. And the longer he stayed down, the more important things seemed to be getting. And when two ambulances arrived, followed by two police cars, both of which made their way out onto the track, I don't think I was alone in thinking the worst had happened.

The stadium was very, very quiet, but not quite the deathly silence that you'd expect. The music kept playing, albeit at a low volume, and that was the right thing to do. Hushed conversations could be heard, and it seemed all everyone could do to take their minds off what might be unfolding before their eyes.

Thankfully, we know now that Adam is at least alive, and compus mentis, and tweeting from his hospital bed. The rest is for a future day, and part of me hopes that I never see him on a bike again. The lad's too injury-prone, and it's heartbreaking to see this happen time and time again, and never really through any fault of his own - certainly no more than any other rider who suffers that occasional lapse of concentration, or whatever it is that causes these guys to crash. But, all in all, I hope he recovers fully, and we see him around for a long time, even if it isn't on a bike.

Now there were a couple of things that arose out of the incident that probably warrant further discussion. The first, and most important to my mind, was whether it was the right decision to carry on with the meeting after the crash. Opinions seem split on this, with no clear club bias in either camp. The match was over as a contest, and the delay of almost an hour did nothing to improve the chances of decent racing on a night where passing was already at a premium (and understandably so, given the conditions). Once racing had resumed, the few fans left in the stadium - most of whom had stayed until something, anything was known about Roynon's condition - observed it, glassy-eyed, dispassionately watching riders go round at a much slower pace, and probably praying no-one would fall.

It was the wrong decision. I'll say that now. The right thing to do was to have waited until Roynon was off to hospital, and send the fans home with a "we'll let you know but things look better than first thought", or whatever, rather than try and pretend nothing had happened and we should watch two more heats in sub-zero temperatures. I can't fathom the thinking behind the decision to continue, and accounts differ as to why they did, and who was responsible. I can't, for the life of me, envisage anyone thinking that an extra point was worth it (Birmingham were only six up at the stoppage, and against a lone reserve in the re-run of heat 14), and it would pain me to believe that anyone could make such a heartless decision based on that alone. Living with themselves must be pretty tough, if that were the case.

But perhaps, as racers and former racers - Havelock, Morris and Drury would have had input into the discussion - they took the decision that they needed to "get back on the horse". I don't understand the logic, but then there are many things about speedway folk I fail to understand.

The other main talking point was a skirmish in the crowd between Josh Auty and a fan. As I mentioned above, Auty was involved in the crash, although there was little to nothing he could have done to avoid it. There have been occasions in the past where riders have deliberately tried to injure opponents, but thankfully these are very few and very far between. There are riders, however, whose riding style when chasing an opponent, or a lack of concentration or flaw in their decision-making, has caused other riders to crash, and sometimes receive serious injuries, and you could lay "blame" at their door. Josh Auty has been, on occasion, one of these riders, prone to "over-riding" with a seeming lack of thought for his own safety, and sometimes that of his opponents. He's not alone, and even the smoothest rider can fall prey to it.

As Auty and Phil Morris returned to the pits while Roynon was still receiving treatment, someone in the crowd shouted, "that's another one you've done, Auty!" I've heard much worse flung at riders - and other sportsmen - and I've seen those it's been aimed at shrug it off or play up to it. That Auty reacted as he did, jumping the fence to confront his accuser, illustrated how serious the injuries suffered by Roynon appeared to be, and how much Auty - a contemporary and friendly rival of the fallen rider - was affected by it.

The guy who shouted it used to help out Kenny Ingalls, who suffered possibly career-ending injuries in a crash with Auty last season, and this may have played some part in his ill-judged comments. Thankfully it did not escalate further, although Morris did return to attempt to have the "fan" - who is actually not, and attends meetings in another capacity - removed, before calmer heads prevailed (although the unwanted and unrequested presence of Ben Barker, buzzing around like a fly around shit, did not help matters at all, and his attempts to inflame the situation while a rider lay very badly injured on the track should not go unnoticed).

Calm minds were needed throughout the stadium, and this doesn't seem to have been the case. It's probably something that needs looking at, and that every club should have in place an action plan in the horrible event that something like this happens.

The most important thing is that Adam Roynon seems to be okay. The extent of his injuries are not known as I write this, but he seems positive. Let's hope it's only good news stories from here on in.

ITEM: Edinburgh and Wolverhampton both had their line-ups disrupted this week by what appears to have been an oversight with Sam Masters's visa. Both clubs moved swiftly to find replacements - Claus Vissing and Ludvig Lindgren, respectively - but questions have to be asked about just whose responsibility it was that Masters's visa expired without a new one being applied for.

Neither club, publicly at least, expects any problem with the eventual issue of a visa, although there would be a case for a diligent civil servant to reject the application, given Masters was dropped by one of his clubs last season and saw an alarming fall in his scores at the other. Given that the likes of Koppe, Fricke, Horwood, Douglas, and Ringwood were all issued visas when most of them are clearly not up to scratch, however, you wouldn't put too much faith in the FCO actually doing their job on this occasion.

Visa problems have become an issue of late, with Horwood and Ringwood having to go to appeals this season, and Tyson Nelson and Travis McGowan failing to get one last term. Nelson's issues are cloudy, and possibly mired in unsavoury issues, whilst McGowan reportedly fell foul of neither of his British clubs wanting to shell out a sponsor's fee.

Whether a general aura of panic over immigration by a Conservative government adopting not only the rhetoric of a fringe political party but also their policies will impact on speedway down the line is anybody's guess. Given speedway's popularity in the EU, visas are only really an issue for Australians, Americans, and some Russians - our colonial cousins are pretty friendly fayre for middle England, so if I were Denis Gizatullin I'd be worried.

Scottish football reacted to an influx of foreign players by imposing a visa quota, across the whole league, and this may be something that would help, although - as I've written countless times before - there seems to be little impetus amongst the clubs themselves to stem the tide of cheap and grateful talent from Australia, at least.

ITEM: When the new doubling-up rules were announced from the BSPA conference in November, one of the talking points was the abolition of doubling-up partners, and that any absences due to clashes with Premier League fixtures were to be covered by a guest from the Premier League.

So it was with some surprise that when the rulebook appeared those absences were to be covered by rider replacement, in the first instance, and guests only for two or more absences. It also appears that fans weren't the only ones taken by surprise, and the decision to change the original ruling seems to have been made at BSPA MC level.

The way the ruling was originally devised gave promoters a wide scope to fill any gaps created by fixture clashes - something that imposing R/R takes away. It also plays into the hands of those promoters who have double-up riders at reserve (where they can still use guests) or as heat leaders (who can be ably covered by their teammates). Looking down the squad lists, a number of clubs who have double-up riders at positions 4 & 5 in their averages cannot have been happy to have been landed with such a restriction.

There are those that will be pleased about the change. For some unfathomable reason, they believe that guests cheapen the sport, and that casual fans (oh, for some casual fans!) will be unable to grasp - or accept - the fact that a rider can ride against a team one week and for it the next. I took a newcomer to Brandon on Friday, and over dinner beforehand explained to him the basics of the rules, and the reasoning behind guests and rider replacement and all that jazz. You know what? He didn't flinch. It made perfect sense to him. People are too quick to take umbrage on the behalf of others, and the guest system is one of speedway's little peculiarities - a universal selling point, if you will.

Rant over, I can't believe that the change will stand, or at least would like to see the thinking behind it. However, as is the way with such things, like mushrooms we will be kept in the dark, because they believe its best for us, and the inconsistency of their own decisions will build and build and build. Until there's no-one left to hoodwink.

ITEM: As mentioned above, I took a newbie to Brandon on Friday, slightly wary of doing such things, but always willing to risk a friendship for the good of speedway. I've known the fella in question, Paul, for over twenty years, but for the great majority of those I was in the speedway wilderness, following things only in the most cursory way.

In the past couple of years, though, he's listened to the ranting and raving of a born-again fan with interest, and after an aborted attempt to get him along to Lakeside (his local track) last season, I finally dragged him to Brandon.

I wasn't as concerned as I usually am with newcomers when it came to Paul. He's a big sports fan, and loves baseball, so I knew I could hook him with the statistics. And he's spent the last few years watching Isthmian League football, so I knew that the, erm, plushness of the surroundings wouldn't be an issue. Also, as a West Ham fan he's used to a big team underachieving, so that wouldn't be a problem either.

I was worried about the temperature, fearful that we might have to venture inside, where half the appeal of the sport is lost behind glass, and that he may not witness the best racing, given that the track was pretty bare due to the uncertain weather we've been enduring these past few weeks. And then we had the Adam Roynon crash, and a delay of almost an hour, which probably would have put paid to many a newcomer ever coming back, although it is something we hardened fans accept as part of the sport.

As it was, he enjoyed it. The whole package. The faded glory, the roar of the bikes, the unique "characters" the sport attracts, and the on-track action. He almost got to see a punch-up between a rider and someone in the crowd, and looked on in stunned appreciation as Ted Midgley watched Kaspo's every move wearing only a t-shirt.He'll be back to Brandon when he can, and I'll try and get him to Ipswich, Rye House, Mildenhall, and Lakeside, too - all not too far from his Essex base.

What hooked him wasn't the sport appealing to young fans, or bikers, or fans of extreme sports, it was that speedway in this country can be nakedly honest about what it is - it's not sterile, it's not corporate, it's not pretty, and it's not professional. It's about strange fans, committed riders, cheap chips, and a half-time raffle. If you could bottle that, there's a whole load of people who'd be fished in by it.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Worrall, Worries, Western Springs & the Speedway Mail

ITEM: With Richie Worrall as a trump card at reserve, Lakeside Hammers looked an easy bet for the play-offs this season. Worrall failed to ride enough meetings last year to gain an official average, and would have come in on a three (although he would have gained a “proper” average by the next set of greensheets) when he was averaging five and a half in his Elite League meetings last season – seven and a half if you include all meetings and bonus points, a truer sense of a rider’s scoring power.

As it is, Worrall won’t be riding for the Hammers in 2013 and their odds have lengthened enormously, although they should be commended for sticking with a young Brit and giving Richard Lawson a chance at reserve in Worrall’s place. Lawson, although a solid scorer at Premier League level, hasn’t set the EL alight thus far, though hope springs eternal.

And what about Worrall? Will he be riding in the EL this season? At the moment, no, but you can never rule it out, especially when he’s just signed as an asset of perennial strugglers Belle Vue – but more about that later.

So what went wrong? How did Lakeside lose their advantage over their rivals? What caused the breakdown in their relationship that saw an angry statement issued by Lakeside, dripping with venom about “agents” and broken agreements? Let’s start at the beginning…

Worrall was announced in Lakeside’s 1-7 last season to the surprise of more than a few fans and journalists. Yes, he’d had a decent enough season the year before, but the EL? Too early, surely? Yet he grasped his chance with both hands, and put in some impressive scores, before a broken leg suffered in June while riding for his Premier League side Newcastle put him out for the rest of the season. Still, he’d done enough that Lakeside were willing to track him again in 2013, and even complete a full transfer from his parent club Scunthorpe to ensure they’d have first dibs on his future.

This is where things apparently went awry. Scunthorpe and Lakeside agreed a deal, with both sides seemingly happy. Then something happened – if I were to speculate I’d guess it was the uncertainty over the future of the asset system brought about by the winter’s shenanigans involving Coventry, Birmingham, King’s Lynn, Swindon, and Peterborough – and Lakeside called off the deal. Scunthorpe, for their part, were surprised, and insist that they had nothing to do with the deal being broken, adding cryptically that they were “not unhappy” the deal had fallen through.

What seems to have happened next is that a clause in the contract agreed between Worrall and Lakeside was activated due to the deal changing from a full transfer to a loan agreement, much to the disappointment of the rider. Quite what it was that changed is unknown at this point – although Worrall, at one point, was willing to show the original contract to his Twitter followers, so you can guess it must have been a considerable change – but it led to the next chain of events, which soured the club on the rider and led them to, in Worrall’s words, “sack” him.

Worrall is twenty-one years-old. At that age, and when you’ve been concentrating on riding motorcycles for the past three years, sorting out business deals probably isn’t one of your stronger skills, so Worrall engaged the nous of his sponsor Mark Hennessey, of Autogate (a former sponsor of Belle Vue), to negotiate a better deal for him, one nearer the original agreement he had with the club. As Worrall apparently saw it, “Once a contract is signed you can't change it. Unless something happens...” and that something was the transfer being called off, which Worrall seemingly did not see as his problem.

Lakeside, who did not reply to a request to elaborate on their side of the story, apparently saw this as a final straw, an irrevocable breakdown, and cancelled their agreement with Worrall, signing Lawson within 24 hours as his replacement.

Worrall, according to family and friends, was excited about the new season at Arena Essex and was incredibly upset by this turn of events. Perhaps a little rashly, he instructed Hennessey to contact Belle Vue, to see if they wanted to buy his contract from Scunthorpe. Although you can accuse the Aces’ management of not performing as they should in recent seasons, they knew an opportunity when they saw it, and Richie Worrall is now a Belle Vue rider, even if there is no place for him in their side at the current time.

Who’s to blame for all this? No-one and everyone, you could say. Perhaps the only truly blameless party are Scunthorpe, who saw a deal they’d agreed with Lakeside called off at the eleventh hour for reasons beyond their control. Lakeside themselves cannot be blamed for not wanting to invest in an asset that may be rendered worthless by the next challenge to what is an illegal system, but can be considered rash and a little na├»ve by altering Worrall’s contract (legally, it must be stated) and then cancelling the agreement altogether.

As for Worrall, it doesn’t seem to have been his fault that the full transfer collapsed, and while he signed the original contract which contained the reduced clause, he did so in good faith and expecting no hiccoughs with the deal. I would argue that employing Hennessey, with his ties to the Aces, was perhaps unwise, but perfectly within his rights, and I don’t doubt for a moment that he considered Hennessey would get a better deal for him at Lakeside than the one he was facing. Whether Hennessey deliberately sabotaged negotiations in order to force a move to the Aces is always going to be subject to conjecture, but there seems to be no evidence to back this up,m however tempting it may be to tie up the loose ends.

So where are we? We have probably the best young English rider sitting out riding in the Elite League this season, although on his average guest bookings, especially filling in for riders missing through doubling-up conflicts, will be coming in thick and fast. We also have Belle Vue sitting on an asset they can’t use at present, although if I were Kauko Nieminen or Artur Mroczka I’d be a little nervous right now. And we have Lakeside Hammers having to revert to a Plan B which, with no disprespect to Richard Lawson, has turned them from contenders to also-rans before a wheel has been turned in anger. As is so often the way in these kinds of scuffles, no-one wins. Sad.

ITEM: The economic malaise sweeping Europe, with Cyprus the latest victims, has undoubtedly hit speedway where it hurts, right in the pocket, with fans often having to pick their meetings faced with choosing between entertainment and heating their homes. But it may have a further, more serious effect on the sport, particularly in Poland, the current cashcow being milked by the world's top riders.

The Guardian newspaper carried a story this week on as proposed crackdown on the debts owed by Spanish football clubs to the national government and local authorities. The total owed is reportedly billions, and the EU moneymen argue - perhaps quite rightly - that they should not be expected to bail out countries like Spain when they are passing over such an obvious income stream themselves.

With several La Liga giants owing hundreds of millions to the authorities this could have a catastrophic effect on Spanish football, and the ripples are also beginning to be felt further afield. Why shouldn't we, it is argued, also clamp down on the subsidies given to professional sporting teams, which allow them to make profits on the largesse of the taxpayer? The current focus of such attention is France, where football and rugby stadiums are often owned by the local authority, who receive peppercorn rents from clubs who can have wealthy backers and are in receipt of millions of pounds in sponsorship and prize money.

It's not too much of a leap of imagination to see this applied more widely, with such agreements coming under scrutiny across the EU. As far as British speedway is concerned, this shouldn't be too much of an issue, with stadiums owned by the clubs themselves, or leased from third parties such as Ladbrokes or the Greyhound Racing Association. But the dominant model used in Europe could be very much affected, with many Polish clubs renting their stadiums - and in some cases receiving futher financial support - from the local authority. If this support were withdrawn, and the clubs made to pay a "fair" rent, it could have serious implications on their spending power, throwing the balance of European speedway out of kilter.

It's early days, but this depression is here for the forseeable future, and nothing will be sacred or not considered for cuts. Time will tell whether the Polish model is unsustainable, and whether the "stars" will come back to our shores, begging and with their tales between their legs. Let's hope so.

ITEM: This ridiculous weather - who ever heard of a meeting being snowed off?!? - and subsequent lack of speedway action led to me getting up to watch the first Speedway Grand Prix of the 2013 season at the obscene hour of 3am on Saturday morning, and while it was nice to see some bikes going round an oval track for a couple of hours, it won't go down in the record books as a classic of the era.

There were perhaps two and a half good races out of twenty-three, which is terrible odds, and this can be lain squarely at the door of BSI, with their insistence on targeting new markets and plush stadiums (rarely both at the same time, you'll notice) over racing tracks which would provide excitement for all concerned.

Jarek Hampel was a worthy winner - rarely thrilling but always consistent - and you have to wonder what might have happened in 2012 if the Pole hadn't been injured halfway through the season. The usual faces filled the minor places, but there were encouraging starts for newcomers Darcy Ward and Tai Woffinden. The thought, though, of another twelve meetings with these same riders, on predominantly identically-prepared tracks, is daunting, but I guess they have their fans, for some odd reason.

The New Zealand Grand Prix was the first broadcast by BSI's new outlet, Eurosport, and it was at times a refreshing change from the Sky presentation of previous years, although it should be pointed out that Eurosport merely took the international feed from BSI, slotting in their own adverts at the appropriate times. The commentary, from Wade Aunger and Steve Johnston, was different, and at times the right mix of irreverent and informative, but wore out its welcome as the meeting progressed. Nigel Pearson and Kelvin Tatum will be back in the saddle for the next GP, at Bydgoszcz in April, and the usual dissenting voices will reappear (although I, for one, could do without "Woffy! Woffy! Woffy!" or the bizarre trolling love-in Pearson has for Darcy Ward).

So, yes, I got to see some speedway, if you can call it that, and maybe the action will get better on an actual racetrack in Poland next month, although the odds are pretty much 50/50. It's speedway on TV, though, right? And that's a good thing. Just don't make it out to be the best thing in the world when it's sub-par, okay?

ITEM: Lots of nostalgia flying around this week as Tony McDonald, former editor of the Speedway Mail and current Retro Speedway publisher, asked for memories of his former publication for a feature in an upcoming Backtrack magazine.

I always preferred the Mail to the Star for some reason, nothing I could ever put my finger on but a feeling - perhaps misplaced - that it was a little more "outside, looking in" than the seemingly pro-establishment Star. Yes, I've always been contrary, it's not a recent development!

I also liked its use of cartoons and spot illustrations, by the wonderful Jeff Baker, rather than relying on the same old photos, and the editorials by Tony Barnard always raised a few heckles in the corridors of power - something sadly missing (though for understandable reasons) in the current speedway media.

I raised the possibility, through Twitter, of a "Best Of The Mail" book, even if just an e-book, and I'd certainly be first in the queue to purchase a glimpse into our past, should that prove a possibility.

Monday, 18 March 2013

New Bosses, New TV, Same Old Rain & A Lack Of History

ITEM: Armando Castagna is, arguably, the best rider Italy ever produced. Giuseppe Marzotto may have a thing to say about it, but let's agree it's Armando, right? Having said that, it doesn't mean much, and that's no real slight on the Italians, it's just a reflection of the balance of power in world speedway over the years.

Now, though, Castagna is one of the most important figures in the speedway universe. As head of the FIM Track Commission he will nominally control all speedway activities held woldwide, and is only answerable to the FIM President (whose job I'm sure he has half an eye on, in any case). This power, ligned with Castagna's considerable experience in the sport (unlike some of his predessors) and the huge regard in which he is held by speedway people all over the world, should mean that he will have little trouble pushing through any reforms he deems necessary.

But what does this mean for the speedway world? You might expect Castagna, as a rider from a nation often marginalised in speedway terms, to become a champion of the rest of the world, and not consolidate the power of the Poles, Swedes, Danes, and Brits. The appearance of two Argentinean rounds of the world under-21 championship in 2012 was no doubt due to his lobbying - Castagna spent many a winter keeping in shape on South American tracks - and it may be that the outposts of the speedway world may be brought more inside the umbrella.

In this way he can be seen as a similar figure to UEFA President Michel Platini, who is keen to spread football's wealth and influence more equally around Europe, to the extent of hosting the European Championships in 20 host cities in various countries, rather than one host nation. However, one of Castagna's first acts was to take the 2013 rounds of the same under-21 championship away from Argentina - and also from Latvia - on the grounds of safety and logistics, so it cannot be assumed tha he will be a friend to the smaller nations regardless.

The removal of the Latvian and Argentinean finals takes the under-21 championship down to just three rounds, which Castagna argues is ample enough to decide a fair championship. This must be a worry for BSI, parasitical organisers of the Speedway Grand Prix series, which has grown to an unwieldy and problem-causing thirteen rounds in the last two seasons. If Castagna is satisfied with just three rounds for the under-21s, it cannot be assumed that he will be happy to keep the SGP in its present, bloated form, especially as - unlike the old one-off World Finals of old - the chances of a rider from a smaller nation (unless he is backed by big money) reaching the upper echelons of the sport are as remote as ever.

We may also see changes to the Speedway World Cup, again organised by BSI, to ensure greater participation from a wider range of nations, rather than the same, usual suspects. You can't help but feel that recent football world cups have benefitted from new characters shaking up the status quo, and recent appearances in the SWC by the USA, Slovenia and Latvia have been welcome, if ultimately doomed.

It's too early to tell exactly what Castagna will do, or what kind of Commissioner he will be, but it's certainly fun to speculate, and it definitely makes a pleasant change to have a speedway man deciding the ultimate fate of our sport. These are fascinating times we live in.

ITEM: So the cat is out of the bag, where it had been hastily restuffed a thousand times, and Eurosport have been officially announced as the new broadcasters of the SGP & SWC. Obviously details of the deal have not been released but it's hard to imagine a broadcaster with a reputation for not paying for footage stumping up anywhere near the cash Sky were paying to BSI. However, keeping the series on air is a sensible move on BSI's part, because out of sight does so often equal out of mind.

There has been a largely positive reaction from British fans, who will now be able to watch the events live from their sofas without having to buy expensive new equipment or find a hooky feed on the internet, especially given Eurosport is free-to-air with most basic packages on satellite and cable in the UK. Some are trumpeting their decision to cancel Sky, as is their right, as if they'd won some great moral victory over an evil empire (forgetting that they're all evil empires these days, and that the events they're so keen to watch are backed by a "sports drink" linked with deaths and marketed to teens who could really do without it...)

However, it shouldn't be forgotten that, before Sky, we pretty much had nothing in the way of televised speedway in this country. The old one-off World Final may have eventually made its way onto the BBC somewhere, and Channel 4 showed the odd bit of footage as part of a "isn't this weird?" documentary here and there. Oh, and Eurosport used to show random meetings from the continent, which is how most of us became fans of Heinrich Schatzer and Zoltan Adorjan without ever seeing them in the flesh.

Sky brought league speedway into our homes, and all the good and bad things that came with, but they brought speedway into our homes. And I'm a great believer that, unless she really done wronged ya, ya dance with the one what brung ya!

Don't get me wrong, I'm no massive fan of Sky's business practices, and they've pretty much ruined modern football. But, at this time, British speedway needs them - it also needs to negotiate its own deals, cutting out Go-Speed, but that's a topic for another time - and we need to remember that before we waltz off into the moonlight with Eurosport, our new darling.

I've appealed before for people to keep the faith, and I'll do so again. Enjoy the fact that you'll be able to see the moribund GPs on Eurosport but also celebrate Sky's support of our bread and butter action. We'll miss it when it's gone.

ITEM: All being well, I should have seen two speedway meetings by now. All wasn't well, though, and I've seen none, and all because of this bastard weather. The usual comments have come out, mostly along the lines of starting the season too early, but those of us with slightly longer memories (ie, more than 11 months) remember that the weather is usually pretty good this time of year.

I would agree that the season did perhaps start a week too early, although all of the three meetings scheduled that weekend were run, and two of them provided good entertainment in reasonably-clement weather, but mid-March seems a perfectly reasonable time to start things. Besides, with Easter a moveable feast, and Good Friday a big day money-wise in the calendar, promoters have to be prepared to open their doors as early as March 21st if they want to take advantage of it, and probably before that if they want their team ready to race.

The weather is speedway's eternal foe, although some tracks cope better with the rain than others. Whether covers are the answer is still up for debate, though they'd certainly help in a good percentage of cases, and nothing short of a roof is going to be foolproof (although I wouldn't put it past speedway to rain off an indoor meeting - oh, wait, it's happened before, hasn't it?). What we need to do is be patient and understanding and trust that those who promote speedway actually want to make money out of it and will only postpone meetings if they think they can't provide an entertaining - and safe - spectacle.

Am I annoyed that I missed out on the Brandonapolis and the East Midlands Bowl clash between Leicester and Coventry? Hell, yes! Do I blame the promoters for not running those meetings in the conditions that were forecast? Not one bit. It's just something we have to put up with and enjoy what we do get to see all the more when it actually arrives.

So, third time lucky this Friday - Coventry vs Dudley in the Travel Plus Tours Trophy at Brandon. £10 to get in and a local derby to boot! And it'll be all the sweeter for having had to wait for it...

ITEM: Ivan Mauger retied from "public life" today, giving health concerns as his primary reason. Although the cynic in me may point out that "public life" seems to entail $hilling his book around and living off past glories, there's no doubting the massive career the man had, and just how dominant he was in his prime.

Now that the National Speedway Stadium seems a little closer to becoming a reality - and I will be buying an edible hat sometime in the future - I wonder if some money can be found for a statue, bust, or memorial plaque to commemorate his career, preferably ouside the confines of the stadium to entice curious passers-by?

Speedway seems to shy away from is history a little, when the rich period of the past is there to be mined to the benefit of the current encumbents. This year is the 85th anniversary of speedway beginning in this country, and the 75th top flight league season, but both will seemingly pass unmarked. Sad.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Racesuit Fashion, Reckless Predictions, Righteous Causes & Reading Material

ITEM: In less than perfect weather, Swindon unveiled their 2013 squad this week, and the racesuits those riders will be wearing. Alongside the controversy of including Troy Batchelor in their 1-7 - still to be ratified by the BSPA who are caught between a rock and a hard place, it seems - was the novelty of different racesuits for home and away meetings.

This has been made possible by the new club sponsor, Excalibur Communications, and the purple "away" racesuits match their corporate colours. Although both Peterborough and Eastbourne have had away racesuits in the past, it's something that hasn't been seen in recent years, and it will be worth watching to see if any other clubs take up the initiative in future seasons - certainly Sky, who insist on black legs on the current racesuits for TV, may be interested, if they keep the Elite league beyond the end of the current contract, which expires at the end of this season.

A pleasing aspect of the Robins' 2013 racesuits was the prominence given to the Robin emblem - large and in the centre of the chest, right where the old race jackets used to place it. In previous seasons, the old, fat robin had slipped down the frontage, almost resting over the belly, with sponsors' logos given preferable placing. Something similar has happened to Coventry's fighting Bee this season - it has shrunk to a tiny size, and is buzzing around the riders' collars, an annoyance rather than a warning.

Of course, sponsors are ever-more important to speedway clubs but there has to be a balance struck. Ask a newcomer what the Coventry team nickname is, and he's likely to be confused, and wonder what kind of animal a Buildbase is. I exaggerate, of course, but hopefully this is a blip and the Bee will take pride of place next season.

Racesuits are a part of modern speedway I'm yet to be convinced by. My early years in the sport were during the race jacket era, with riders expressing their individuality through their choice of leathers. I can understand the need for a uniform, especially when the sport needs to be taken seriously by television, but this is often compromised by new signings and guest riders, who either wear an old-style race jacket or one of those horrible team shirts, flapping in the wind and making the non-racesuit wearers look like they've forgotten their PE kit.

At least we don't make them ride in their pants.

ITEM: I've cast a cursory eye over the National league in recent season, and even attended a few meetings, but this season - with my local track entering a team for the first time - I'll be more than an interested observer. So who's going to win the thing? yes, it's time for my National League predictions!

It's a tricky prospect, because Kent have yet to name their complete 1-7. I've worked things out - SCIENTIFICALLY! - assuming they will name two 3.00 newcomers, who will ride around that level, as their last two riders. If by any chance they manage to name Robert Lambert as one of those two, then jump then jump them three or four places up the league. He's that good. Anyway, here we go...

1st - Isle Of Wight Islanders
2nd - Dudley Heathens
3rd – King's Lynn Young Stars
4. Stoke Potters, 5. Mildenhall Fen Tigers, 6. Coventry Storm, 7. Kent Kings, 8. Buxton Hitmen
As always, the margin for error is MASSIVE. Send me hate mail if you disagree.
ITEM: The 2013 season got off to a fine start last night with a farewell meeting at King's Lynn for Stars' legend Tomas Topinka. The weather stayed dry, despite rain and fog enveloping the rest of the country, and there were no serious falls or injuries. Just as it should be.
The sight of the fixture list in this week's Speedway Star brought it home, of course - the new season is here, with all the excitement that brings, with every club and rider starting afresh, and everything up for grabs. The reality is that the same old faces, and the same dominant clubs, will take the lion's share of the glory, but there's always a surprise somewhere.
Tonight is the Ben Fund meeting at Berwick, weather permitting, and I hope there's a big turnout for this important cause. I attended last year's at Birmingham, and although the crowd was perhaps a little down on what it usually is, a lot of money was raised for some very deserving riders.
Riders can dip into the fund on a short-term basis, or request assistance for bigger, life-changing items. Last year the fund spent £125,000 helping out current and past riders, and most seem to value the cause very highly. Not everyone, though - fund co-ordinator Paul Ackroyd claimed in this week's Star that a couple of riders who received assistance last year, and had agreed to ride in tonight's meeting, pulled out to ride in the Topinka Farewell last night and/or Freddie Lindgren's testimonial tomorrow instead. Disappointing, and I only hope those riders take a long look at themselves.
So if you're going along to Shielfield Park tonight, wrap up warm and dig deep. This crazy sport of ours needs our commitment and occasionally our money. These Ben Fund meetings give us a way to provide both.
ITEM: There's a new speedway magazine coming out soon, Inside Speedway, and these things are as rare as hen's teeth. For the last twenty years or so, since the demise of the Speedway Mail, the Speedway Star has enjoyed a virtual monopoly on the speedway magazine trade, althouth a new publication will occasionally appear. Some have stood the test of time - Classic Speedway and Backtrack, both from former Mail editor Tony McDonald, are both well past 50 issues - but most are doomed to failure, surviving only a few issues before they disappear back into the mire.
Inside Speedway is backed by the Speedway365 website, and will publish four issues a year, available at track shops and through subscription. It looks to be feature- and interview-based, which the publication schedule probably necessitates, and it will be interesting to see how it differs from what the Star already offers on a weekly basis.
There is room for at least one other speedway publication, though whether Inside Speedway will provide it remains to be seen. A more irreverent, less likely to toe the official line, publication would be good - something along the lines of When Saturday Comes, which has lasted over twenty-five years providing something different to the mainstream offerings.
The usual naysayers are out, dooming the magazine before it has even hit the stands, but I wish them luck with it. There's precious little to read about our fantastic sport - anything that can pass the time between meetings is a welcome addition to the racks.

Monday, 4 March 2013

Diamonds, Doubling-Up, Havvy & Half-Assed Predictions

ITEM: Mixed news for British riders emerging from the north east last week when Jason King informed Newcastle that he wouldn't be fit for the start of the new season. King, injured last year riding for Berwick, had been pencilled in for his parent club, who had left a suitable gap at the bottom of their team.

For many teams so far north, and as I've written before, the easy answer is to ship in a foreigner to do the job at the bottom end of the team - often ending up employing a stop-gap Brit, though, when that foreigner isn't up to the job. But credit to Newcastle - who have built their side of recent years around Stuart Robson and the Worrall brothers, and added Andrew Tully to the mix for 2013 - because they've given the job to a young Brit, Lewis Kerr, increasing the number of National League graduands by one in a year when it's already pretty impressive.

Already Joe Jacobs (Glasgow), Adam Ellis (Ipswich), Lewis Blackbird (Leicester), Ben Reade (Plymouth), Josh Bates (Scunthorpe), Jake Knight (Sheffield), and Stefan Nielsen (Somerset) have joined last year's starters Cam Heeps, Jason Garrity, Tom Perry, and Ashley Morris (Workington). Craig Cook, the Worrall brothers, Ashley Birks, Kyle Newman, Richard Lawson, and Kyle Howarth - all graduates from the National League since its development in 2009 to a more professional operation - show that this policy is worth pursuing.

Kerr won't find the step up to Premier League action easy - he was initially ear-marked to share the number 7 jacket at Leicester with Blackbird - but in Richie and Steve Worrall he has no better example of how to make the transition. As with all the Brits - yes, even Bridger and Barker - Speeding Motorcycles wishes him luck, and congratulates the Diamonds on giving the lad a chance.

ITEM: So, the Elite League then. All teams declared, and the season only a matter of days away, but who looks like they're going to carry the trophy off? As with last week's Premier League predictions (which attracted the ire of Scunthorpe fans), I've used SCIENCE! to work out - based on declared 1-7s at the start of the season - who is going to finish where. Here goes...

1st - Swindon Robins
2nd - Lakeside Hammers
3rd – Birmingham Brummies
4. Coventry Bees, 5. Peterborough Panthers, 6. Poole Pirates, 7. King's Lynn Stars, 8. Wolverhampton Wolves, 9. Eastbourne Eagles, 10. Belle Vue Aces
As always, the margin of error is MASSIVE, so feel free to collar me when it looks like it'll be going very, very wrong and say, "I told you so!"
ITEM: So the mystery is finally over (although I told you six weeks ago on twitter), and Gary Havelock has been announced as the new team manager for the Coventry Bees! Havvy's appointment is very much in the mould of Birmingham and Phil Morris last season, which seems to have paid dividends for the Perry Barr club, even if Morris is sometimes a little trigger happy in putting in protests (including once protesting about a Bees' team based on a set of greensheets that would have also seen his own team deemed illegal). As a motivstor, though, Morris seems to be a great addition, and you'd hope that Havelock would be something similar.
He won't be doing the job alone, of course, with last year's sacrificial lamb Blayne Scroggins retained alongside the former Redcar rider to deal with the more technical aspects of the job, by which you can probably infer paperwork and the rulebook. Havvy's job, it seems, will be to pass on his considerable experience of riding these damn machines, motivate the riders (if they need more than a paycheque to do that), and act as a buffer between the team (and perhaps the fans) and the management. If it works, it's the best decision Mick Horton has ever made. If it fails, it was worth a go.
As a rider, Havelock achieved a lot - World Champion, Elite League Champion, World Under-21 Champion, twice British Champion... The trophies and championships may have dried up a little as age has caught up with him, but that pedigree, if it can be transferred to management success, should see the Bees back as a force in the sport, arguably where they belong, and from where only the machinations of bitter, jealous rivals removed them. Yes, I'm a Bees' fan, so I would say that, but the potential is there. Let's hope it's realised.
ITEM: Peterborough Panthers have made a brave decision this season, and paid over the odds to riders who would normally double-up to concentrate on the Elite League in order to bring success back to Alwalton after six trophyless seasons (Eastbourne have also gone without a double-up rider, but for very different reasons, and - not for the first time - they are irrelevant to this discussion).
Whether to include a double-up rider, or how many, has been a tricky part of putting an Elite League side together for some years now. If you can make it work for you, you can secure the services of a rider who will score his share of Elite League points whilst still earning solid money in the Premier League. The downside, of course, is that he may get injured whilst riding in the PL, but then virtually all riders (Robert Mear being the exception that proves this particular rule) ride somewhere else during the week, so it's a moot point.
The real problem is when fixtures clash, and for a Thursday/Friday night track like Peterborough, that's bound to be an issue. Still, Swindon and Coventry have decided to use double-uppers this year, so it proves there's no one way of doing it. The change in the rules - whereby there are no double-up partners, and a guest can be utilised from a (most of the time) wide choice of options - certainly helps those clubs with fixture clashes, but Bank Holiday fixtures will be particularly tricky in that regard.
Not everyone can afford to follow Peterborough's example, though, but I bet more than one promoter will be watching how it goes with interest, and we may see a reduction in the use of double-up riders as the season progresses, and it'll be certainly under consideration for next year.