Monday, 24 June 2013


ITEM: Regular readers will know that my default position is that there's plenty wrong with British speedway. Not a week goes by when I don't point out some inconsistency or foolishness, holding the sport back and damaging its already shaky credibility even further. I know I'm not alone - social media and fan forums are full of it, too - and the general picture can sometimes be a bit gloomy.

But you know what? What we have is still pretty good. There are thirty-three tracks staging speedway in the UK, more than in any other country in Europe or the rest of the world. We have three 15-heat leagues, with thirty-three clubs racing - again, more than any other country in the world - and two "junior" leagues, with another thirteen teams taking part. Add to this a steadily-improving youth championship, and a thriving amateur scene, and - numbers-wise, at least - speedway's in pretty good shape in the UK.

Quality-wise, we have the world champion racing in the UK, and he will line-up in upwards of thirty meetings - we will see him more times than fans in any other nation. He is joined by six other GP stars, five of them in the current top ten, and four riders from the 2012 series. Further to that, many of the riders on show in the Speedway World Cup who are not currently riding in the GP series also ply their trade in the Elite League.

While we may not have the strength-in-depth of the Polish and Swedish leagues, the racing across our three leagues is often second-to-none, as exciting in the second or third tier as that in the Elite League or the SGP series. The number one sports channel in the country has a weekly show dedicated to the Elite & Premier Leagues, and local radio stations up and down the country present live broadcasts from the tracks. Yes, the national newspapers largely ignore us, but how many other "minority" sports have a weekly magazine of the quality of the Speedway Star?

When it comes down to it, if you are a fan of watching four slightly-unhinged men ride 500cc bikes with no brakes, for four laps around a 300 metre - give or take - dirt track, the UK speedway scene is in rude health. Yes, there are challenges ahead, and  financially the picture looks as good as it does for the rest of the country - pretty bad - but we have every reason to be positive about the present and the future of speedway in the UK.

And it's important that we are. Because there are just about enough of us at the moment to ensure we can survive the dips and troughs of this recession, and we can ill afford to lose anyone - or, more importantly, put any potential new fans off attending a meeting. This is what we can do. We can also do the usual of pointing out the stupid stuff those in power do, but don't - whatever you do - let it stop you from going to the track and enjoying your speedway. While it's still there we can change it, once it's gone it's gone forever.

ITEM: Birmingham are bankrupt! Or so a report on a German website said, after interviewing Martin Smolinski last week. Brummies' owner Alan Phillips denied this was the case, although he has been very vocal about the club's money worries over the past week or so.

The source of the Brummies' woes is that old chestnut: not enough people coming through the door to pay for the team they're not coming to watch. Phillips is especially aggrieved because he feels he's given the Birmingham public a team to be proud of - riding high in the league, and half-full of home-grown (English, if not Brummie) riders.

Now, a less-charitable person than I - alright, me - might argue that you really shouldn't be assembling title-challenging sides, especially flying in your reserves from Germany and Italy, if you can't afford it. But, you have to speculate to accumulate, and this is where Phillips is possibly being a little naive.

I'm no businessman but I'm pretty sure that 6 months - or even 18 months, if you start from his initial takeover of the club - is a pretty unrealistic yield time for any investment. Such things are usually realised over a period of years, not months, and especially at a time of economic woes the whole world over. If Phillips has been told that crowds will dramatically increase if he builds a title-challenging side then he has been lied to, as simple as that, another victim of the carny mentality pervading speedway.

A clue to this lies in his questioning of the whereabouts of the 6000 fans who attended Birmingham's opening night six years ago, wondering why they - or a significant potion of them - aren't attending speedway anymore. The simple answer to that is that most of them are attending speedway - Birmingham, as with any new track on their opening night, and especially one so centrally-located, attracted a great deal of curious fans from other clubs. Of the rest, a large chunk would have been curious onlookers who found that speedway wasn't their cup of tea, and more still would have been old Brummies fans wondering where Hans Nielsen or Neil Evitts were, and didn't come back because these new-fangled bikes smelled wrong.

Yes, Birmingham's crowds are disappointing, especially compared to other recent start-ups who seem to have held onto a decent portion of their fans, but the sport is a hard sell in a city with so many other distractions. Add to that the average age of those who do go, the anachronistic nickname, and the awful colour scheme, and Birmingham speedway looks pretty unfashionable. Would you sell a group of teens on an evening surrounded by the older generation, shouting for the custard-yellow "Brummies"? Like I said, hard sell.

So what's to be done? Cutting costs is the obvious answer, which may have an effect on the team's title chances but what's the point of winning the title if you don't get to defend it? Or perhaps the Brummies, as one of the sides following the fashion for two team managers, might dispense with the services of one of them?

Or maybe they could be bold? Instead of moaning in the local paper that the people of Birmingham aren't supporting them, find out why they're not. Faced with an ageing fanbase, let kids in for free until the end of the season - they won't come alone and the entry fees you lose from those who come already must be minimal. Re-brand the team so that there is something cool to attract those kids - perhaps the Birmingham Bulls (only keep the Brummies as part of it because you don't want to upset the oldies)?

I don't know what the future holds for Birmingham speedway anymore than I know what the future holds for the rest of the sport. But I do hope that, even if Phillips isn't able to make it pay, that someone can, on a budget that is sustainable. The Second City needs a speedway team - and so does Liverpool, Leeds, Nottingham, Bristol (but that's a matter for another time) - and it would be a shame that getting your sums badly wrong was the reason they lost it again.

ITEM: I'm not so blindly loyal to my team that I'll defend everything they do, and I've certainly been a critic of Mick Horton in the past. However, every so often, a bubbling cauldron of anger rises in me, and all because some idiots have taken a potshot at the Bees.

This time, however, it was the Storm that were coming in for some flak, over the dropping of Brendan Johnson, in favour of a returning-from-injury Oli Greenwood. "This is a travesty!", they said, "They've got an Australian in their team!". "Poor old Brendan," they opined, "Increases his average and gets dropped for his trouble!".

There's a grain of truth in what they said, of course. Johnson was let go at the expense of Greenwood, who himself was replaced by Robert Branford, the "Australian". However, Branford, - the reigning British under-21 champion - may have been born and bred in Australia, but he has an English mum. He's committed himself to representing Team GB on the world stage (should it ever come to that) and so should, to all intents and purposes, be considered British.

And, yes, Brendan did improve his average - by exactly two points, from 5.25 to 7.25 - but that really doesn't tell the story of his whole season thus far. That average was earned from just four meetings, ad two of those were huge home wins against two of the weakest teams in the competition, Kent & Stoke. Brendan's old average - 5.25 - was earned over a much longer period of time, and is closer to his 2013 all matches average of 5.11. I'm not knocking the lad - he's better than I'll ever be - but the statistics speak for themselves.

Brendan was unfortunate in that Oli Greenwood was ready to resume his racing just as that new average kicked in, and that - realistically - he was the only candidate for Greenwood to replace. Greenwood is younger and averaged higher in 2012 than Johnson, and has been tipped for bigger things by those who know such things. Although disappointing for Johnson, it's a no-brainer for the Storm.

What could have been handled better is the manner of his departure, which I gather - at least from young Brendan - involved him being told he wasn't doing his job. Now whether that's true or not - and that's the beauty of opinion - it's a little harsh to be told so, especially when the alternative (a rider with a little more potential has become available to us) makes much more sense.

What really got my goat was the way Coventry were attacked for their skullduggery against a young British rider. These critics chose to ignore - or maybe have had their heads so far buried up somewhere that they weren't aware - that Coventry presently has more team spots open to British riders than any other club in the UK. Fourteen British riders can get regular rides because of Coventry speedway, and that's without the opportunities presented at the monthly training schools, and forgetting that Brandon is staging the British under-19 championship in September!

Mick Horton made it abundantly clear at the start of the season that the Storm had to be self-financing, a sensible decision given the perilous fortunes of speedway clubs in the 21st century. To this end, it also has to be moderately successful - play-offs or narrowly missing them would be the minimum, I'd argue - and a side to challenge for that position has to be assembled. However, the second caveat of operating the Storm in the National League this season was that it should also provide riders for the future, and so you'll find no Jon Armstrongs or Tony Atkins down Brandon way. This is a team of young racers, with three having graduated from the Midland Development & Northern Junior leagues in the last few months, who may go on to ride for the Bees or other sides at a higher level than they currently race at.

The alternative is that Coventry do not run in the NL because the team loses too much money, and after that why bother with second-halves because the jump would be too large from MDL to EL. Seven team places lost, hundreds of rides a year around a FIM-approved track gone, all because some very vocal hangers-on decided Coventry should stick with an underperforming rider. I think we got this one right.

As for Brendan Johnson, I hope he gets a team place somewhere else. He seems a good lad and isn't the worst rider I've ever seen by a long, long way. He could do a job at Kent, or Stoke, or Buxton, and I imagine all three will be on the 'phone before too long, if he hasn't called them first. Good luck!

ITEM: As if its not bad enough that the travelling circus known as the Speedway Grand Prix series disrupts and feeds off the EL like a fat leech picked up in a swamp by an unwitting backpacker on his first trip away from home, now the GP qualifiers are starting to play havoc with our schedules, too.

This weekend's meetings not only forced several clubs to go short-handed and travel with guests (and saw an outbreak of whinging from the Swindon area on a scale not seen since the magic roundabout was first laid out) but didn't even get completed! Lonigo went off fine, and even gave us an unexpected qualifier in the shape of Vaclav Milik, but Esbjerg was hit by rain.

Denmark has a thing for rain, it seems, at least our equal in unseasonable weather if past meetings - or non-meetings - at Vojens are anything to go by, and so the field assembled for the qualifier has to get together once more, on an unspecified date, and further disrupt our schedules.

The common sense decision would be to stage it this coming Friday, when the world's media, speedway glitterati, and two of the 16 riders involved will be in Denmark already, for the next day's GP at Parken in Copenhagen. But common sense and speedway so seldom go together and no doubt the FIM will be finding a new date which will not inconvenience the Poles but right royally screw with us Brits, like they always do.

Bringing things full circle, this is why - more than ever - we need to stay loyal to what we have in this country, because the international powers-that-be certainly don't give a flying fig for British speedway and have overseen its gradual erosion while protecting the Poles (the Swedes, as usual, have remained neutral, on their Tuesday island) at all costs. Stay loyal, stay true, stay positive, yeah?

Monday, 17 June 2013

A Polish History Lesson, and other things...

ITEM: As I write, Coventry's home meeting with the Swindon Robins on Friday will go ahead with the Robins tracking only one member of the current team - Nick Morris. Ironically, Morris would ordinarily be missing but his Premier League club Somerset have no fixture on Friday, and an unofficial rule says that even if they do arrange one, his Swindon fixture must come first.

The Robins are expected to fill their team with guests, and operate rider-replacement, and there has been much grumbling from fans on both sides about the fixture going ahead with such diminished representation from Blunsdon regulars. For Coventry, Olly Allen is injured and Krzysztof Kasprzak also misses the fixture - the Bees acted swiftly to book Birmingham's Chris Harris, the Brandon Bomber, as a guest. So, come tapes up on Friday, only six of the expected fourteen riders will be on parade, surely a record of some sort?

How has this come about? A mixture of things, but mostly the scheduling of the semi-finals of the World Championship qualifying rounds the day after. This robs the meeting of Hans Andersen, Troy Batchelor, Edward Kennett, Peter Kildemand - as well as the aforementioned KK - and has been in the FIM calendar since before the Elite League fixtures were announced earlier this year. Why it was ever agreed to in the first place is a mystery, although the majority of EL teams will have riders who would have hoped to progress to this round of the qualifiers, and so whoever drew the short straw was going to be hamstrung.

Swindon did reportedly raise the issue in mid-March, but with Coventry committed to racing on a Friday - and unwilling to take the losses from an "off-night" staging - there seems to have been little wiggle room. One solution could have been to petition Sky to show the meeting, but their choice of televised encounters seems to be chosen entirely by random, a game of chance that usually results in a terrible spectacle for the fans.

Fans of the Robins - who are also missing Kacper Gomolski to an official, but pointless, open meeting in his native Poland, and Ashley Birks, whose Premier League side race on a Friday - claim they cannot be expected to get behind their "team", although Kennett, Gomolski, and Birks have only made a handful of appearances in Robins' colours, and the mercenary nature of the sport can often mean dozens of riders appearing for your side every few years. Fans are entitled to feel short-changed, but the call is entirely down to the home promoter - if he chooses to risk a potentially smaller crowd, it's his decision to make.

The fixture list says Bees vs Robins, of course, nothing more. And, come Friday, there will be two teams of riders representing those sides. They may look unfamiliar, at least on the away side of the pits, but the riders will not give any less effort - their livelihood depends on a good pay packet and a solid reputation as a guest to be trusted.

How do you avoid this situation happening again? The easiest solution - although there is no easy solution - is to sign only those riders who are not chasing an unrealistic dream - with the best will in the world, the majority of those missing their bread and butter league fixtures this weekend will never make the Grand Prix series, let alone be competitive in it.

For now, we just have to get on with it, and trust the promoters to come to some accord in avoiding such clashes next season. They can add it to the list...

ITEM: The Midland Development League - along with its northern equivalent, the Northern Junior League - is run by eager volunteers and filled with riders who are doing it for the love of the sport, and perhaps with an eye on the National League if their progression - aided by regular, competitive racing - warrants it.

So far it's an unqualified success, in that nothing much was probably expected of it when it began, and it has delivered half-a-dozen to a dozen really good prospects for the next tier of racing. My local National League track, the Coventry Storm, are using three graduates of the two leagues this season, and that's something emulated up and down the NL, with few exceptions.

Second-half racing has a warm spot in the hearts of many longtime speedway fans, although I'd wager their idea of a second-half was individual, rider-of-the-night style clashes, rather than team affairs. Myself, I grew up on watching the Smith & Sons Lada Young Bees after every senior Bees meeting, home and away, getting 21 heats for the price of 15, and picking up on the next big things coming through the speedway ranks.

I still stay behind when I can to watch the Vikings, Coventry's fourth-tier side, and have enjoyed nothing more this season than tracking the progress of James Shanes, a 16-year old grasstrack prodigy from Dorset. I did wonder, after I'd told everyone how good he was supposed to be and he subsequently fell in his first outing, if I'd made an error, but young James has come on, leaps and bounds, and is beating the field - established NL riders apart - in every MDL outing.

His reward is a team spot in the Storm team, where he will partner Luke Crang - himself spotted racing NJL at Redcar - and the cycle will continue, with other Vikings, Knights, Spitfires, and Invaders eager to catch the eye and move on up.

If you're one of those who rushes off after heat 15, why not try and stay behind if there's a second-half. The racing may be a bit harum-scarum, the riders occasionally wobbly, but it's well worth half-an-hour of your time. And better still it's free!

ITEM: Saturday's Grand Prix from Gorzow was an above-average affair with a final and winner few predicted. It's events like this that keep the spirit of the series alive, rather than predictable and processional GPs like Western Springs and Gothenberg.
Much was made of the great stadium and passionate speedway fans that Gorzow enjoys, and it certainly is one of the better places to watch speedway today. You could look at their set-up with some envy, but even a brief look at Gorzow's sporting and industrial heritage tells the story of just why it's been possible.

With a largely-agricultural even until quite recently, Poland industrialised far later than its western European counterparts. With industrialisation came organised sport - in England, in the industrial towns in the north and midlands, that was either football or rugby league. With Poland undergoing the process later, and with a Communist government keen to centralise sporting excellence in as few places per sport as possible, Gorzow became a hotbed for two pastimes - water polo and speedway. The success of Eduard Jancarz cemented speedway's hold on the town, and even now its football team play in only the second division, and have never enjoyed any success to speak of.

When the Iron Curtain fell, and Poland was gradually absorbed back into Europe, the newly-privatised companies and town councils carried on as their counterparts under the hammer and sickle had, supporting the local community through backing their sports teams, and this is the environment in which Polish speedway teams operate. Their equivalents in football, such is the largess that has struck that sport, are unable to compete with their western rivals, and even with the oligarch-backed superclubs to the east. In speedway, however, there has never been the likes of a Roman Abramovich or even a Dave Whelan, and thus the Poles rule the roost.

For now, at least. Times are hard all over Europe, and Poland is no exception to this. There will come a tipping point where the current model is no longer sustainable - does that sound familiar? Until then we can marvel at speedway in Poland, and some of you definitely enjoy trips over there for grands prix and the odd league match. But don't make the mistake of trying to compare our league with theirs - it's just not practical to imagine that we could operate under their very unique circumstances.
ITEM: Promoters are always pulling one shenanigan or another, often with the approval of their peers on the BSPA MC, but it's not often that you find proof of it, especially not published in black & white on the BSPA's own website!

When Lakeside announced that they wanted to bring in young Adam Ellis alongside Sebastian Ulamek as part of a double switch with Kim Nilsson and Robert Mear, they were told quite unequivocally by fans familiar with the rules that it wouldn't be possible. Ellis would have been a double-up rider, and to double-up you have to have a greensheet average from the previous season. Ellis, who only began riding last summer and has made enormous strides, doesn't and thus was ineligible.

Still, this apparently did not stop Lakeside, who announced that he would be making his debut at home to Coventry, a match which was eventually washed out by some heavy rain in the Thurrock area. As the match did not go ahead, and no-one saw the programme, Lakeside apologists denied that their club was ever going to make the change.

Lakeside did redeclare their side to Ulamek, however, in place of Nilsson, and this is where they came unstuck again. In submitting their redeclared 1-7 - and presumably having it accepted by the BSPA, who published it on their website - they went over the points limit by almost a point. Obviously, this was an illegal change. Further muddying the waters was the fact that the published set of greensheet averages/team declarations that included this 1-7 was numbered 12 - the previous one was 10, and 11 was missing altogether!

The Hammers didn't have any fixtures between this redeclaration and their next one, which took advantage of the new averages released in June to track the same side but this time under the points limit. Then, wonder of wonders, the missing greensheet 11 appeared on the website, containing Adam Ellis in the Hammers' 1-7, and thus, once again, proving that someone at the BSPA approved their illegal line-up.

It's all very silly, and given that the Hammers rode no fixtures during this period no actual offence was committed. But given that Lakeside's co-promoter Jon Cook is the BSPA vice-chairman, and on the BSPA management committee that approves such changes, it doesn't look great. I'm sure there's a perfectly reasonable answer as to why all this happened. I just don't think they'll ever tell us.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

When Is A Robin Not A Robin? (and other questions...)

ITEM: I like a home win for the Bees as much as any Brandon regular but there are times when you have to wonder whether it would be like shooting fish in a barrel. What am I talking about? On June 21st the reigning Elite League champions - the Swindon Robins - are in town but as things currently stand they may be missing all seven riders. Now I'm sure Mssrs Patchett & Rossiter could put together a team of 6 guests (and R/R) that would stand a very good chance of earning some points at Brandon, even allowing for events going on elsewhere, but would it really be a contest? It's a tricky one.

I've written in the past few weeks about how fixtures should be sacrosanct, and that - as long as an adequate replacement under the regulations is permitted - teams should adhere to the fixture list whenever possible. And, as I said, against a rag-tag team of guests the Bees should easily take the points. But we wouldn't be facing anything near a Swindon Robins team, and at the only time they're programmed to ride at Brandon to boot.

So what are the options? If you were to go down he route of postponing the meeting (which, again, I'm torn on), finding another Friday to host the meeting would be best. However, with Coventry operating National League this season in addition to the Elite League, there are no available Fridays until August 30th. This could be doable, of course, but leaves little wiggle room for rain-offs later in the season.

Another option would be to switch the fixture with another EL side, one who haven't go to so many riders involved in the World Championships. King's Lynn is probably the best option here of the teams still to race at Brandon, but they were in town only last Friday. Poole are the next best option, and if were Mr Horton and Mr Patchett I'd be on the 'phone to Mr Ford, trying to sort something out a.s.a.p.

Of course, it may be that the Bees, who will be missing Krzysztof Kasprzak themselves, may want to offset that by facing a weakened side. There's no shame in that - the fixture list will always throw up occasions when the visitors (or hosts) are weakened for one reason or another - but you do wonder what effect it might have on the crowd. Having said that, depending on what guests were booked, and if a few local favourites were included in their number (Harris, Schlein, etc), the attendance might stand up quite well. It's a lottery, though.

If it were my decision I'd try and switch the fixtures but if that were not possible I'd insist on it going ahead. This season has seen too many suspicious and convenient postponements already, and to add another to that list would be foolhardy.

ITEM: I've been looking through the Polish statistics for this season so far. Don't judge me, I had some time on my hands and was curious. Regardless of the actual ins and outs - Woffinden and Iversen are the top performers in the EkstraLiga and Piotr Swist is still going strong in II.Liga, if you're interested - one thing that impressed me was the dedication to tracking two homegrown youngsters at reserve in every team.

The young Poles - under twenty one years of age at the start of the season - stay at reserve for the whole campaign, no matter their average, and finding the right one can prove to be a match winner. Piotr Pawlicki and Patryk Dudek, who can mix it with the best in the EkstraLiga, are in that position, and are racking up vital points for their sides, who are riding high in the league.

Could this work in British speedway? Well, obviously it could - we do have enough riders to fill those positions - but is it something that would not leave the fans shortchanged with unbalanced sides producing processional and strung-out racing? I'd say, yes, with a few caveats.

We couldn't do it now, absolutely, as of tomorrow. Not two under-21s in each of the 23 senior teams. The Elite League sides would be carrying dead weight, with only a handful of riders of that age anywhere near the ability to no get shown up, meeting after meeting. In the PL, there are more who could mix it with the major body of riders in that league, but probably still not enough right now, although there are some riders making huge gains in the NL this season.

What I'd argue should be done is that, from next season, all EL teams have to field at least two ACU license holders (eligible to ride for TeamGB), one of which must be under-25. In the PL, the same, except that one rider must be under-23. Then, each season, drop that age down, and increase the number of ACU license holders. Hey, presto, you've got yourself a path for your homegrown youth to progress into senior racing!

Like so much of what I write about what should happen, and how it would benefit British speedway, it's a pipe dream. Turkeys don't vote for Christmas, and promoters interested in the very short term don't, by and large, like to introduce restrictions on their team building. Still, there's everything to gain from doing it, if introduced slowly and steadily, and very little to lose. Back the Brits, FFS.

ITEM: So last night saw the dawn of a new era in world speedway and it was... a bit of a mess.

OneSport are a sports marketing firm from Poland. This season they've pumped money - and found commercial partners to pump money - into promoting speedway on the continent, largely with an eye of earning the same kind of riches that BSI leech out of our sport. Their main project is raising the profile of the European Championships, drawing in several high profile Grand Prix riders, no doubt to the chagrin of BSI, but they've also dipped their toe into reviving the World Pairs, last seen in 1993.

The Pairs ceased to exist when it was folded into the World Team Cup, adding a reserve rider to the competing duos, before that competition expanded back to five, and now four, riders once more. The UEM, now calling themselves FIM-Europe, who are responsible for operating the European Championships, have run a Pairs competition since 2004, dominated by the Czechs, and so the format is one still familiar on a big stage in eastern Europe.

Last night's event, held at Torun and in association with the Polish federation, was an attempt to widen the event to include the top riders so often missing from the UEM event, and saw no less than 9 Grand Prix riders taking part (and would have been 11 but for injury) from the 21 programmed places, but was beset by problems for some of the nations in actually getting a 3-man team together. Sweden lost Fredrik Lindgren to British commitments, while Denmark missed out on Nicki Pedersen (to injury) and Niels-Kristian Iversen (apathy), and could only field two riders,as could the USA. Worst of all was the Czech team, which lost Lukas Dryml, again to British league action, and was forced to employ the services of Matej Zagar, a Slovenian, as its senior rider. Needless to say, this took some of the shine off the esteem of the competition.

It didn't help that they chose to hold he meeting on the same night as a round of the World Longtrack Grands Prix, a World Championship qualifying meeting, the Scandinavian final of the European under-21 championship, and an Elite League meeting in the UK. With so many other events taking place, it was always going to be difficult to field the top riders for each nation.

You may have noticed I made no mention of a British team entering the event, and that's not because they finished an embarrassing last, but because they didn't enter. It would have difficult to find three riders to take part at any rate, with Woffinden injured, Harris & Kennett riding in Austria, and Nicholls retired from TeamGB. Danny King, you'd presume, would have been available, but Ben Barker, Lewis Bridger and Craig Cook were all riding in the Premier League. Probably best we didn't, eh?

As for why the British didn't send a team, the truth probably lies in not wanting to support yet another organisation existing solely to damage their own business. I give the BSPA a lot of stick (and rightly so) on the blog, but I can support their decision here. The Grands Prix have already made a mess of British speedway's calendar, with nothing coming back to the clubs in return but disruption, and to support another BSI in doing the same would be suicide, both financial and actual. No, let them do what they want on the continent, but hold fast to what's best for British speedway, thank you very much!

It remains to be seen how OneSport will fare in the long run. I can see a battle with BSI on the horizon, with BSI (probably quite rightly) making noises towards the FIM over "their" riders competing for a rival organisation. How the FIM approaches this issue will decide more than just the prospects of two rival marketeers - with the PZM so firmly in bed with OneSport, and Poland still the money tree of world speedway, there may be more at stake than you think.

How nice, for a change, to have some trouble brewing that's not of our own making...

ITEM: Delays, eh? What do you do about them? It's been a bit of a theme these past few days, with meetings taking far longer than hey should do, although - as always - there are mitigating circumstances in every case.

Whether it's Coventry with remedial track work, Stoke with problems with visibility caused by a low Sun, or Eastbourne and a lengthy injury delay, three meetings these past few days just about reached the 3-hour mark - far too long for 15 heats of speedway, even on a pleasant spring evening.

With Coventry the delay seemed all the more worse, because of a delay to the already-late-enough 8pm start, and that could easily be allayed in future by switching to 7.30pm, like most every other sporting event that takes place with an evening start time. The 8pm is there because Colin Pratt grew up around Hackney speedway - "Make It A Date, Friday At 8" - but there is little good reason to continue, other than to give tardy workers more time to eat their dinners!

No track has perfected the "between races" entertainment game, and I'm not even going to begin to suggest how that particular problem might be solved, but the new potential supporter I took to Brandon on Friday was initially impressed by how speedily things ran, until the bizarre sight of a dozen men standing around doing nothing while Danny King directed the track repair took place, at any rate.

This is the key, of course - make sure he attention is focused directly on the action on the track, and quite how that can be ensured is the question for the ages. Intermediary races? Referees being quick on the 2-minute buzzer? Naked cartwheels from the start girls? I don't have the answers. But it is something, unlike the lack of big name riders or the weather, that promoters can solve. Ideas on a postcard to your local track...

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Charlatans, Pirates, Squads & Kings

ITEM: So that was Cardiff, then. Most people seem to have had the usual great time, regardless of the speedway meeting that they were – ostensibly – there to see, and in this screwed-up world we live in that’s all we can ask. But what about that meeting, eh?

The British Grand Prix has been held at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium since 2001. Before that it was held at a refurbished Hackney Stadium twice, a one-off at Bradford in that track’s last year of operation, and three stagings at Brandon – a stadium which has seen better days but is still one of the better arenas we have promoting regular speedway in this country.

To listen to those who hold Cardiff dear, the pre-2001 GPs may as well have been held in a farmer’s field, and to go back to anything else would be the same. Except you know what? Maybe that farmer’s field - having staged speedway in the weeks, months, and years leading up to the event – might have a track in it which the world’s top riders can actually race on…

I’ve written before about the pitfalls of temporary tracks, and nothing I wrote then is any less relevant now. BSI have a Viagra-style tumescence for big stadiums – all the better to wine and dine wealthy sponsors and visiting dignitaries in – and seem less keen on actually providing entertainment for the fans who pay their hard-earned money to watch the racing. This is nothing new, of course – football and Formula 1 have both looked to filthy lucre ahead of the common man in increasing quantities, so why should speedway be any different?

There were rumours – and because BSI went into PR-lockdown that’s all we had, other than Twitter postings from concerned riders – that the GP might not be staged at all, such was the state of the track, but thankfully for those who had spent somewhere in the realms of £8 million on their weekend away, this didn’t come to pass. It seems to have been a near thing, though, with dozens of trucks of new shale reportedly ordered from Breedon Aggregates (although, curiously, BSI mouthpiece Phil Rising claims not) needed to make the track anywhere near rideable, let alone raceable. As it was, it didn’t break up that badly, although the injury sustained by Tai Woffinden, possibly as a result of a rut in the track, means the farrago may have had a very expensive casualty.

So what will happen? Little and nothing, I’d imagine. Since the cancellation of the German GP at Gelsenkirchen in 2008, and a promise of an inquiry and it never happening again, we’ve seen temporary track after temporary track begin to break up during the racing, creating potholes and ruts that if they appeared at Belle Vue’s Kirkmanshulme Lane would be rightly condemned as unsafe. But money talks, and while the riders can sell sponsorship on the back of being involved in the circus, they will continue to suck it up and get on with it. The only people who could make a difference – the fans – are a disparate and unorganised group, and – in countries where temporary tracks are mostly laid – do not get many other opportunities to see the “big stars”.

Thus the show goes on, and with people already having purchased tickets to next year’s GP, BSI can sit back, light a cigar with a £50 note, and laugh all the way to the bank.

p.s. Did I really see the Poole apologist and pornmonger admit to buying a ticket from a tout? Does he not know that it’s a criminal offence? Tut tut!

ITEM: So it seems that Poole may be punished for their ridiculous postponement after all, but not until July 10th at the earliest, and only then if Graham Reeve of the SCB can find a really, really good reason why they should. The rules are clear in as much as they’re ever clear, but we’ll wait and see, eh?

But you know what? I’m actually going to defend them a tiny bit. A really tiny bit, admittedly, but there you go. Poole shouldn’t have been in that position, and the rules are wrong. Told you it was tiny…

As the regulations stand, you cannot have a facility for a rider named in your redeclared team who has not yet ridden for your club. The reason behind this is obvious – it’s to prevent teams naming riders on high averages who have no intention of ever turning a wheel in anger for that club, and thus being able to replace him with guests of equal quality on an ad hoc basis. I’m not sure why this was deemed necessary, or if it was ever an issue, but it’s in the rulebook and so that’s the way it is.

Here’s the thing, though: Przemyszlaw Pawlicki was injured two days before he was due to make his Poole debut. The team had been struggling and if they wanted to pull the kind of stroke the rules prevent, they probably could have found someone with a higher average. As it was they wanted Pawlicki precisely because his average – gained two seasons ago – is lower than his present ability, and have nothing to gain from pretending to sign him.

What should have been available to Poole is a short-term – perhaps 7 days – R/R facility, which probably (you never know when dealing with the Dark Lord of Dorset) would have prevented this call-off farrago. As it was, the regulations  allowed only for a 6-point Premier League rider (and I don’t believe for one minute the smokescreen thrown up about having to go back to their previous declaration precisely because if this is about sticking to the rules, those rules allow the redeclaration to stand) and the meeting was off.

Similarly, Peterborough – who had moved a fixture against Wolverhampton for Sky TV and found it clashing with a previously arranged Danish League meeting – should have been granted a facility for Kenneth Bjerre’s absence. Bjerre is Danish, and was understandably keen on honouring his booking for Outrup, but the BSPA do not recognise the Danish League in the same way they do for Sweden and Poland. And while we’re at it, I still can’t for the life of me work out why Ludvig Lindgren, a Swede riding in the Swedish League on their regular race night of Tuesday, had to be replaced by a National League rider for Newcastle’s match at Berwick, which had once again been moved for TV.

I often argue that rules are rules, and that if we don’t follow the regulations set down in the SCB handbook then we risk anarchy and a free-for-all (which often happens anyway, due to the machinations of the useless BSPA MC), but there is a case for common sense being applied at all times. Nothing was gained by sticking rigidly to the rules in these cases, and dangerous precedents – if unpunished – have been set for the future. The BSPA gets a bad press pretty much every time its name is invoked and it has to be said that much of that is of its own making. It’s time to draw a line in the sand and start a new sensible era for British speedway. We have nothing to lose but the sport itself.

ITEM: The Bees got a pasting at Lakeside last night – although the score was made somewhat respectable by the Herculean efforts of a rejuvenated Krzystzof Kasprzak – and much was made by the commentary team of Scott Nicholls’s absence through injury. Perhaps it is time, they argued, for a squad system in British speedway?

We’ve been down this road before, and never with a satisfactory outcome because the logistics of a squad system are difficult – almost impossible, I’d wager – to overcome in a sport that is not exactly awash with cash. Few clubs could afford to have riders standing by – particularly with equipment ready to go – and those that could would probably do so only through the largesse of wealthy benefactors rather than their own money.

What could ease the impact of losing a vital rider is a tweaking and relaxing of the rules regarding replacements so that the options available are increased and varied, rather than having only one choice.

To take last night, for example, if Coventry had been allowed to use R/R or a guest, I’d wager they may have gone for a guest. If they were able to use a guest from a list of any riders with an Elite League GSA, they may have even found a Lakeside specialist not currently riding in the UK but willing to jump on a plane for a one-off appearance. Maybe if they were able to use a guest up to either Nicholls’s current average or his average around Lakeside over the past few seasons (whichever is higher), the meeting may have been closer.

And take this Friday, too, when Coventry will be without Kasprzak and Summers (as well as Allen, who can be ably covered by R/R), and when replacements are limited in their scope and ability. Rather than book a guest up to Kasprzak’s average, and another up to Summers’s, would it not be more flexible to be able to book two guests up to their combined average?

There are options to be considered before we try and work out how a squad system might work, but it would take sharp minds and brave thinking to get there. Despite my criticisms of the BSPA such men do gather round their table from time to time and occasionally good ideas come out of their jollies to Spain and, erm, Rugby. You never know…

ITEM: New tracks are as rare as hen’s teeth in British speedway and when they do come along it’s important they get things right from the off. Leicester have had their issues after inexplicably building a rubbish track despite having a blank canvas to work with, but they seem to be stable as a club in the third season. Dudley, the previous new club (although not new track) could count on a solid, existing fanbase but have worked hard to keep and increase it, with much success.

Which brings us to Kent, who began life in the National League a month ago, and have seen some big crowds flock into their Sittingbourne stadium, despite the ludicrous 6.30pm start time. Apart from an opening day win over an “American Internationals” side which only featured only two-and-a-half Americans, the Kings have yet to taste victory, and indeed have never looked even near taking the points, which must have the new fans scratching their heads in wonder. This is absolutely down to the team-building, but also owes a little to the fixture planning, of which more a little later.

Whoever put the Kings’ team together – and the clues would seem to point at Len Silver – got it badly wrong. Going with a strong number one is commendable, but not when he takes up almost 30% of your available points. Steve Boxall – for it is he – was looking for a way back into the sport after some issues in previous seasons, and can’t be criticised for taking the job, but he’s lost almost a third of his starting average already.

Tracking Boxall meant that if the Kings were to also have able back-up, they had to field a very long tail. I’m sure somewhere in the plans was Robert Lambert, who would make a mockery of a 3.00 average in the NL (as have Adam Ellis and Max Clegg) but he didn’t appear, and the four – yes, four – 3.00 riders they did sign have been less than impressive.

Yes, as I’ve said before, the National League is about more than a winning side – it’s about providing opportunities to the kind of riders who are struggling in their first steps in the sport at Kent – but the Kings management have an eye on greater things (Premier League, at least, I’d say) and have a duty of care to their own future to track a winning team and keep the fans coming back week after week.

Which is why, if I were in charge of arranging the fixture list at Central Park, I wouldn’t have programmed title favourites the Isle of Wight as the first competitive visitors to the stadium, nor followed that up with a Mildenhall side with plenty of track time under their belts. There are sides who are – and will – struggle in the NL this season, and I’m sure even the hardiest of Buxton and Stoke fans might agree that their teams would have been better cannon fodder for the nascent Kings than the powerhouse teams they have entertained so far.

It’s not too late to save Kent – it’s very early days, after all – and new averages should soon mean a lot more firepower can be brought into the side. I desperately want them to succeed, even if their odd running time means I’m unlikely to visit for a while, and wish them all the luck in the world.