Saturday, 6 April 2013

Smoli, Inside Speedway, Fixture Madness & Staying Loyal

ITEM: Something very odd happened this week - Martin Smolinski made headline news. Usually he bothers no-one, just getting on with his white-line pootling, averaging somewhere between 4.50 and 5.50, and looking like an absolute disgrace with all that plastic crap all over his bike.

But the past week or so has seen a very different Martin Smolinski, one that scores points for fun, although he still isn't straying very often from that white line, and he still looks a right state, dragging the image of the sport down with his Lego bikes.

As is normal when a usually modest-scoring rider begins to bang in some big scores, questions have been asked, some phrased more politely than others, and some comments definitely made tongue-in-cheek and undeserving of the attention some publicity whores have given them.

The first thing to address is: Is Martin Smolinski cheating? And the answer is, on the balance of all probabilities, no. He doesn't seem the sort, for a start. I'm not sure what that sort actually is, but you know what I mean. Also, there is a procedure - although I can't blame anyone for not putting any trust in such things - to have any suspicion of cheating investigated, and no-one has gone down that route so far. I've no reason to believe they will, either, and that brings m to my second point.

Has Martin Smolinski got an unfair advantage over his competitors? I'm going to say yes. But let me make this very clear - whatever he's doing is within the rules as they stand. From what Smolinski as said, his engine tuner - former world champion Egon Muller - has found a way to incorporate the newly-legalised titanium parts into the engine in such a way that it gives him an unbelievable amount of speed, no matter what line he takes on the track. So, whereas before, Smolinski's white-line love affair saw him scoring mostly at the lower end of the charts, this added power and drive has propelled him to the top of the averages.

Last season Peter Johns did something to the engines that he prepared (and I'm no expert, so I wouldn't have the first idea of what) that gave a similar advantage to riders using a PJR engine - unreal speed that, again, brought some mumbles of cheating. As with the PJR advantage, I'm sure whatever Smolinski & Muller have found will soon be discovered by other tuners and the status quo will return to normal.

Except that it won't, because not everyone can afford a top tuner, and this is the biggest problem facing speedway at the present time. A level playing field, where a young kid does not have to spend tens of thousands of pounds to become even half-competitive is needed. Higher bills for the riders means higher wage demands which means higher entrance fees which means less fans which means tracks closing. So while Birmingham fans may be giddy with glee over Smolinski's recent form, they - as a track which took so long to return from the wilderness - should also cast a worried glance at just where this is all going.

ITEM: A visit to the track shop at Perry Barr this week saw me add a couple of magazines to the growing pile that the missus is always tutting at, with the latest issue of the always-excellent Backtrack and the debut outing for Inside Speedway coming home with me. As you'd expect from a publication I've just described as "always excellent", Backtrack is once again a fantastic read, and well worth £4 of anyone's money if you've even half an interest in our sport's glorious past.

Inside Speedway is a very different animal, so much rooted in the here and now, rather than the glory years of the sport. It's a beautifully-designed magazine, perhaps a little picture-heavy for my tastes, but my tastes aren't exactly normal. It would certainly not look out of place on the shelves in WHSmith, next to Four Four Two and AutoSport, although I wish them good luck getting it into such outlets.

It's very early days, but for my money the content was a little... vanilla. Too many rider interviews can often give the impression that it's less a magazine than a printed game of "look who my friends are!" There could be a great variety of the type of article, too, but this may come in time. The biggest issue is probably the small writing team, who - I gather - are all pretty similar in terms of background, experience, and outlook on the sport. They may benefit from a few "old hands" or a slightly alternative view on things. A few smaller pieces would also be welcome, but that may say more about my lack of an attention span than anything else!

What's not up for discussion is that the guys behind Inside Speedway have produced a worthy product. Plenty of people dream, promise, plan, and scheme, but never deliver, and that's something these guys have got passed and moved on to getting out an actual product. I'd be interested to see how it develops as they grow into the job, and I'll definitely be back for a second issue.

ITEM: There's no hard and fast rules about being a speedway fan, no matter what some people would try to tell you. There are degrees of support, often dictated by disposable income and demands on time, and there's really no point in arguing over who's the better fan and all that gubbins. The only general rule is that you should probably stay loyal to your team, no matter what happens, because the alternative is to turn your back on the sport or - horror of horrors! - transfer your attentions to another side.

Now it's fairly obvious that something isn't right at Coventry at the moment, the latest in a line of somethings stretching back to the 2010 AGM. This season it's the team, which - although we are only three meetings in - is underperforming in the worst way.

It was always a team of "ifs" but I was confident enough that those ifs would turn into certainties that I tipped us to contend for a play-off place. The three major "ifs" were which Krzystzof Kasprzak we'd see, whether Grzegorz Zengota could continue his rehabilitation from a bad injury suffered at the end of 2011, and whether Adam Roynon could come back from the horrible injuries he received in the National League play-off final last October.

We know now that the Roynon issue is moot, although he did look comfortable enough before his crash last week to make me think he wouldn't be a problem, and a six-point average was there for the taking. Zengota has won the majority of his points thus far from the gate, and that's fine - he's riding to his average, and you'd hope that a bit more experience on British tracks, and in weather better suited for racing, would see the odd point earned by a clever pass before too long.

Kasprzak is one of the sport's great engimas. When he's interested and motivated he's a world beater. Sadly, that doesn't happen often enough for my liking, and I don't I'm alone in that. There are whispers that he's not happy with something at Brandon but if I'm honest, that's not my problem - I pay £17 to see him race and if he has any problems with management he shouldn't take it out on the fans who shell out their hard-earned money to watch him.

It's been a tough couple of years for a Bees' fan, but we're not alone. Belle Vue fans have had all manner of indignities to suffer, Wolves - deluded and ever-hopeful as their fans are - are riding the cusp of a slump, and Swindon, before last year's glorious triumph, were a club going nowhere fast. And I'd hate to think how Eastbourne fans must feel. Generally. Not because of any specific issue.

Riders and promoters come and go but your club remains your club. You have to stay faithful, and back them to a certain degree, because if it's ever to come out of whatever crisis/slump/omnishambles it finds itself in it will need people like me and you. That doesn't mean toeing the party line about every single thing - criticism and cynicism are healthy - but it does mean that, when the chips are down you have to roll up your sleeves and dig in with some support.

Will I call a spade a spade and tell the Coventry management in no uncertain terms what I think they've done wrong, and what I think they should do? Of course! But I'll be there every Friday, helping them out with my cash and giving the riders a tiny bit of support. Everyone has a limit to their patience but I think - at Coventry, at least - we're a long way off that point yet. And the alternative is unthinkable.

ITEM: Working out a fixture list for the Elite League can't be an easy job. There are numerous factors to take into account - five different race days, clashes with Premier League meetings for double-up riders, and with Swedish, Polish, and other commitments for the top boys, as well as meetings moved for Sky and stadium availability issues for those who rent.

Ideally, and working off a 25-week season, you'd want between one and two meetings a week, allowing for the Grands Prix and the mid-season SWC shut down. What you certainly could do without is seven meetings - a quarter of your league programme - in the first seventeen days of your season. But that's what Coventry are faced with this season, and the imbalance is all the more obvious when you suffer a injury which should, ordinarily, only rule a rider out of two or three meetings.

The Bees race their seventh meeting on April 15th. If you look at the other Elite League sides, Wolves are the next to reach that point, a full week later, while Birmingham don't race their seventh meeting until May 8th, twenty-three days after the Bees (and by which time the Bees will have raced nine meetings). While it can cut both ways, and Birmingham will certainly want to take advantage of Martin Smolinski's purple patch, it can certainly be argued that a more balanced fixture list will aid them in the long run.

I'm not sure what the answer is, but there has to be a better way than this. It affects team's league chances - one way or another - and it's a burden on the supporters' pockets (with the Bees, in particular, having four meetings in eight days this week, and a Storm meeting thrown in for good measure!). There are bigger issues facing the sport, of course, but that doesn't mean that something can't be done. Let's see, shall we?

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