Monday, 29 July 2013

Hancock & The Polish Bubble

ITEM: On the surface of it, Greg Hancock signing for Poole, to replace the injured Chris Holder, looks very much like a good news story. A legend of British speedway, who spent almost twenty seasons riding for Cradley Heath, Coventry, and others, returning to the country where he made his name. However, as with so many things these days, the truth is probably a little less shiny.

Hancock quit the Elite League in mid-2007, with the disastrous BSI experiment at Reading falling down around his ears, and the American probably being owed no small sum of money. He moved his family to Sweden and began commuting from there, riding in the Swedish Elitserien, Polish Ekstraliga, and even the Czech league, but never once looking like he would return to the Elite League, despite overtures made by a number of clubs.

His absence could be seen as a symbol of the declining influence of British speedway on the world scene, but probably has more to do with the top riders not wanting to work so hard for their money, preferring to ride less meetings for the higher points money on offer in Sweden and Poland.

Whether it's necessary to ride in the UK to be a success is unclear. Tomasz Gollob rode just one season here, but also only managed the one world title. Jason Crump took a similar tack a couple of seasons after Hancock, even copying his move from Britain to Sweden but seemed to lack an edge after giving up the EL. Leigh Adams always seemed to make it work, though never won the big prize, but Chris Holder showed that a full season in the UK need not be a hindrance in the pursuit of SGP glory. Hancock, however, won a second world title whilst not riding in the UK, so who can tell?

A glance at the SGP roster for 2013 shows pretty much an even split between those who do and those who do not ride in the UK, and several of them preferred the Elite League over Sweden this season. This is probably because the money on Sweden is not as good as it once was, with several clubs in financial trouble, and with the standard of racing arguably the highest in all of Europe's leagues, that Tuesday payday isn't so appetising.

Poland, too, is beginning to show cracks in its veneer, which have long been predicted, despite the freakish fetishism some speedway fans have for the Ekstraliga. Rzeszow look likely to apply for 1.Liga (Second Division) racing next season, regardless of the their final placing, and Torun chose not to replace an injured Darcy Ward, preferring to use rider-replacement until his return, and when Chris Holder was ruled out for the season they chose to use Edward Kennett and Matej Kus as (terrible) replacements, rather than another big name rider.

Most interesting is the situation at Bydgoszcz, where the team manager has agreed to work for free, the club chairman has been removed by the fans, and the team have cut two of their three non-Polish riders in a money-saving exercise. Hans Andersen has been retained, but Aleksandr Loktaev and - guess who? - Greg Hancock have been released.

And that's where Hancock's return to the Elite League starts to look less like a returning hero, replacing a fellow Monster factory rider and helping out a team in trouble, and more like someone who has lost one payday and is looking for another.

Will it be good for British speedway? Well, it will certainly be good for Poole, although I shouldn't expect Hancock will score the points Holder has been. The Pirates have five home meetings remaining, and could reasonably expect their crowds to hold up or even increase slightly, although Hancock has no connection with their fans, who seem to prefer Australians to any other nation.

For the rest of the league? His appearance on the Pirates' team sheet will be welcomed by Belle Vue, Lakeside, and Swindon - Poole's three remaining away fixtures - but the other six teams will not benefit. Perhaps his return might garner some publicity for the sport as a whole, although the announcement didn't, and it's hard to see what impact a 43-year old can have on attracting new fans to the sport.

But Nigel Pearson is excited, and so it must be a Brilliant Thing. It's far more interesting as a bellwether for the decline of the Polish league, and whether more will follow Hancock's lead, looking for an easy payday on our shores. I, for one, hope we turn them away. It's one thing to encourage the likes of Vaculik, Sayfutdinov, and Dudek to ride here but another thing entirely when it comes to those who didn't care for us when it didn't suit them. Petty? Perhaps, but British speedway has to plough its own furrow now, and it can't possibly consider becoming a retirement home for some extremely fairweather friends.

ITEM: The first round of the revamped European Championship was shown live on Eurosport on Saturday evening, and the majority of viewers seem to have enjoyed what they saw. Although the Gdansk track that staged the event isnt the best for exciting racing - like Prague, location of last weeks SWC final, it is big and mostly flat - there was some top notch stuff at times, no surprise when you consider the quality of the field.
The cash infusion provided by Polish marketing company OneSport has attracted riders who have previously ignored the competition, and raised the standard of the meetings by some way. Indeed, last year's champion, Ales Dryml, and third-placed rider, Andrei Karpov, finished well down the field, unable to keep up with the higher speeds of Sayfutdinov, Pedersen, and Woffinden.

Five of the top six positions were filled by SGP regulars - Latvias Kjastas Podzhuks, fourth last year, continuing where he left off in the SWC to complete the top six - but the rest of the field provided a freshness that the SGP, already seven events old, lacks at this stage of the season.

If you weren't already aware of the event, however, you may have missed it. The Speedway Star, pretty much the bible for speedway fans in the UK, ignored it, with not even the most cursory mention of the event in its pages. A cynical man might argue that this is because Philip Rising (managing editor), Paul Burbidge (chief news reporter), and Dave Fairbrother (staffer) are also on the payroll at OneSport's rivals BSI, although whether the omission was under orders from BSI or a pre-emptive strike by loyal employees is unclear. Of course, cynicism being what it is, it may have been a genuine oversight. I'll leave ti to you to decide the balance of probabilities on that one!

The next European Championship event is staged in Togliatti, and it will be a rare chance to see a televised meeting from the Russian track. The Laguta brothers, especially wild card Artem, are track specialists, and so the SGP boys miht not have it all their own way on this occasion. While it's probably a nightmare for the Elite League, in its current incarnation at least, to have to deal with this series on top of the SGP, under-21s, World Longtrack, and all manner of other distractions, it's a refreshing change for the casual viewer at home. If the issues with our domestic league can be sorted, I hope his series  providing competition to a moribund SGP, is around for some time to come.

ITEM: Last week I laid out some changes to the regulations I'd like to see for the 2014 season in the UK. This week I have some more for you. My aim in doing so is to try and spark a bit of discussion and maybe, just maybe, the powers-that-be miht see something they like. Or not.
* Team line-ups to feature only 1 reserve
                   Teams competing in the Polish leagues, from the EkstraLiga at the top to the II.Liga at the bottom, have to include two home-grown reserves under the age of twenty-one. No-one who has paid any attention to the development of young Polish talent in the last few years can argue that this has been anything other than a good thing. There isn't sufficient quality in the British under-21 (or under-23, as I would recommend starting with) at present to go with two reserves at that level per team, but there is probably enough to cover 1 reserve per team. This format worked well in the past, with the main body of the team comprising of six riders taking four rides each, and a reserve with two programmed rides. Throw in a nominated riders heat and you have 14 heats per meeting, leaving ample room for the second-half racing I demanded all tracks stage after the main event.

* No GP - or GP-level - riders
                    Now this will ruffle some feathers, I understand that. But I'm firmly of the opinion that, in a time of austerity (and, let's face it, speedway has been facing austerity longer than the country as a whole), you need to cut back to grow again. In an ideal world, wed have enough money to have all the top guys racing here, and fill the team places beneath them with a decent standard of riders so that the racing was close and exciting. However, that's not a realistic prospect right now - nor will it be for some time yet. Given that, the disruption that the GPs cause to our domestic schedule is unwanted and unacceptable. British speedway would much better concentrate on providing a good standard of racing, and narrow the gap between the top and bottom racers. And to do that we have to cut the head off our talent base. It's unfortunate, because it will catch riders who have been loyal to British speedway throughout their careers, and who would probably stay loyal given the chance. But if we can reform our league so that instead of 10-point men to 3-point men, we had 8-point men to 4-point men, the racing would be closer and the disruption from the GPs all but gone. And then we can grow.

* Ease up on the tapes infringements
                    If there's one thing that infuriates most regular fans, and risks alienating new ones, its constant restarts due to tapes infringements. I'm not talking about those rare occasions when riders actually touch or break the tapes, but those times when riders look to pre-judge the tapes rising (or actually make a lightning start which the referee can't or won't believe they can do). Before I go any further, let me get one thing right: I'm not talking about a rolling start. That's cheating and should be stamped out by officious start marshalls. But if we were to let the natural punishment stand - if they jump too quickly they touch the tapes - and allow riders to get on with getting out of the gate, meetings might run a little bit quicker.

ITEM: The list of defunct speedway tracks has stayed unadded-to of late. That's a good thing. Leicester even came back from the dead. That's a brilliant thing. And in the years leading up to their return, an intrepid band of fans kept their name alive, tracking "Leicester" teams in second-halves and challenge meetings. It's a common phenomenon, and this season alone sees the participation of teams representing Long Eaton, Milton Keynes, and Castleford in the MDL, hopefully as a precursor to those clubs returning at tra cks of their own.
Kent announced last week that they would be taking on a Wimbledon side, on August 12th, and it will be the first time in five years that a team wearing the gold star will take to the track. However, the prospects of returning Wimbledon to the borough of Merton seem as daunting as resurrecting any of the old London sides, and so the question has to be asked, is there any point keeping these clubs alive?

When Dudley returned they very pointedly chose not to call themselves Cradley Heath. Dudley, as the local authority governing their former catchment area, was seen as a preferable name to attract sponsors and - more importantly - the imagination of the councillors and council officials who would decide whether any potential new stadium was viable.

So, following their example, would it be more prudent for Wimbledon fans to track a team that had all the trademarks of their former club, but which carried the name of a more receptive municipality? If a potential new track in Berkshire happened to look more viable in Bracknell or Newbury, wouldn't Reading fans be wiser to talk of a Bracknell or Newbury Racers?

Nostalgia, of course, is a powerful thing, as is the enduring hope of the human spirit. But there must come a time when realism steps in. The example of Dudley - as yet unfulfilled but hopefully not for too much longer - is a good one to follow.

Monday, 22 July 2013

Boring Danes, Boring World Cups, Rule Changes & Celebrations!

ITEM: Regular readers will know that one of the things that really gets my goat is the lack of support for young - or otherwise - British riders, especially in the Premier League. Places that could - and should - be filled by up and coming young talent are instead given away freely to riders of a dubious standard from anywhere but Great Britain, with recent examples coming not only from that perennial thorn in the side Australia, but also from Finland, Germany, and even Argentina! This collection of low-ability riders, all averaging under five points a meeting, are at least from the lesser speedway nations, and you could argue that we are aiding the development of speedway on their shores (not that we can afford to, with so much work to be done here) but there is another, less-worthy group of riders equally taking up valuable space that is being robbed from our young riders.
Young riders have made dramatic improvements before. Something clicks and a four-point rider becomes a seven-point man, a long-time second string becomes a dependable heat leader, and so on. So while it's unlikely, a few seasons in the PL may bring about improvements to these "Brit blockers". But even if you accept that there is a place for us to aid the development of Finnish, German, or Argentinian riders, there is no sensible argument for us to carry under-performing riders from the major European nations, and so the presence of Danes at the bottom of our second division teams is baffling to say the least.
It becomes even more ridiculous when you consider that the Danes, above any other speedway nation, are boring. Leaving aside Nicki Pedersen, when was the last time an exciting Danish rider took to the track? Frede Schott? It just doesn't happen. They're a lovely people - and their dedication to saunas is commendable - but they're dull. Like their most famous export, Lego, they're functional and may pass a few hours, but you can't really do much with them except admire their neatness. Their role as filler in some PL teams is just that and we can ill-afford bland stuffing from a nation that is - at the top end of the sport - stuffing us on the track.
The likes of Jan Graversen, Kasper Lykke, and Simon Nielsen are not world beaters. They never will be. Their averages may rise above six points per meeting on occasion, but will also fall below four. I'm sure they're very nice people but they - along with the Helfers, the Daveys, and the Albins - are hindering the progress of our youngsters by taking away the opportunity for them to ride with a better standard of rider, which is how any young rider improves. The Danes already have their own, very comprehensive set-up to bring along their own young riders, and we should not be aiding them at the expense of ours.
Even if there was a will amongst Premier League promoters to stamp this out, the current rules don't help them. The scrapping of the discount for team building on British riders removed even that tiny incentive, and while they hide behind weasel-words about EU laws (which, strangely, they ignore in most other aspects) little will be done. There is a general feeling that change is in the air, at least at the top level of the sport in this country - it would be a shame if we didn't take the chance to sort it out at every level and remove these cancers on the development of our future talent. So come on Mr Trigger, Mr Silver, Mr Biggart, be brave and give up your Danish comfort blankets - you have everything to gain and only really, really boring riders to lose!
ITEM: That the Speedway World Cup ended up with an exciting finish - a true last heat decider - was more down to the closeness of the result than any actual excitement on track. The choice of Prague as a venue for the race-off and final was disappointing, and that's before you factor in the accompanying seeding of the Czechs to the final. Prague is not an exciting racetrack. It is big and flat, and so rewards fast gating and fast engines above track craft. While it may have close proximity to one of the best cities in Europe to visit as a tourist, and is easily accessible by air, so is Barcelona and they've yet to suggest a Speedway World Cup round on Las Ramblas.
None of that matters to BSI, of course, and at least you could argue that the Czechs are a traditional speedway nation, although their recent fortunes are less than stellar. Their place in the final - in which they scored a pathetic twelve points - came at the expense of a competitive nation, although you might argue that those were few and far between this year. Again, BSI don't seem to care - the decision to seed the hosts straight through to the final is made with the aim of maximising attendance. That seems to have backfired this year, with the race-off sparsely attended at best, and the televised final revealing lots of empty seats. Only Event 2, at King's Lynn, had anything resembling a successful crowd - the rain-delayed Event 1 at Czestochowa attracted a crowd Buxton might have been embarrassed by!
Where to hold next year's SWC is going to be a tricky decision. The Czechs, by reason of their seeding, are in the top seven, and so will be seeded to the Event rounds. The same is true for Latvia and the US, and - at least for now - TeamGB. Sweden and Russia, who had terrible world cups by their standard, will have to go through the qualifying rounds, unless they are chosen as hosts, in which case TeamGB would have to qualify! Russia, with problems surrounding the issuing of visas for riders, let alone fans, would be a brave choice, and Sweden held the SWC - and were seeded to the final - only last year, and would be a very unpopular choice, but I wouldn't rule anything out when it comes to BSIs travelling circus.
The favourites, at least according to rumour, are the Danes, which would mean a reprieve for TeamGB, and would mean two meetings at a Vojens track which rivals Prague for excitement levels. This is the reality of world speedway while it is held prisoner at the pleasure of a marketing company (although the pre-BSI era was by no means a paradise of full stadiums and racing tracks) and we have to live with it. At least we can be grateful for small mercies and happy they haven't given the final - and a place in it - to the pacific island of Palau. Wait, what's that? Ngerulmud on line 1? Oh FFS...
ITEM: It's coming up to the time when promoters meet for their pre-AGM, when they discuss all the things they'll decide at the meeting proper. Usually this is plain sailing - the proposals raised at the pre-AGM are merely ratified by the later meeting, but recently this hasn't been the case, and things that most promoters think they're aquiesing to turn out to be very different by the time November roles around. Even then, decisions taken and voted on sometimes change by the time they appear in the rulebook, at the whim of the shadowy management committee.
Given that they can't even agree amongst themselves, and sensible proposals from their members go unheard, it would be folly to try and suggest rule changes that they might like to look at. But if there's one thing most of the BSPA can agree on, i's that I'm some kind of fool, so why not have a go, eh? Over the next few weeks, I'll be suggesting a few changes to the rules that might make things a little better. You may disagree, in which case feel free to suggest your own changes and I'll run them here, too. You never know what might happen - Scunthorpe's Rob Godfrey has admitted that promoters have to start listening to fans and I know he's not alone. What a brave, new world...
* Guest / Rider-Replacement Facility to only last for 28 days:
                    I have no problem with the guest facility. I even find it easy to explain to non-fans, who seem to grasp that it's a common sense way of replacing missing riders in a sport that is as much individual as it is a team event. I don't like R/R so much, but I still understand why it's useful, and again non-speedway enthusiasts seem to grasp the concept with little difficulty. It's one of the great fantasies that it makes no sense, makes a mockery of competition, and is universally disliked, perpetuated by a vocal minority who seem to hate the sport as a whole, never mind these two quirks. However, I do think it can become tiring to see the facility overused, and that fans can become annoyed by a constant stream of guests or R/R next to the name of that continually injured team member. So what I propose is a 28-day limit on the facility, after which the absent rider has to be replaced in the 1-7 by a new permanent team member. This might be difficult when it comes to top riders, but it's the same for all teams, and might bring in a bit of fresh blood to the league from time to time. No system of replacing an injured rider is perfect but with tweaks you might get there.
* Reserves limited to six rides, except in the case of riders ruled out through injury
                   The use of rolling averages - and, in the case of the National League, early season meetings which do not count towards averages - has led to the rise of the "super reserve". These riders, who have either been assessed too low or have made dramatic impovements in form, occupy the reserve berths when their scring power would usually have them much higher up in the team. Riding at reserve not only means they get to ride in the easiest heat of the night - heat 2 - it also means they can be used to take the place of any under-performing teammates, often meaning they ride seven times - half the programmed heats - and their points can be the difference between a win and a loss for many sides. I'd actually favour restricting them to only five rides, the same as any other team member, but at least restricting them to six rides would still leave some wiggle room for the smart team manager and not make a farce of meetings where (this season) Martin Smolinski, Adam Ellis, and Robert Lambert have scored match-winning maximums from the reserve berth.
* All clubs without strict curfews to run second-half team events
                    The Midland Development and Northern Junior Leagues have already begun to pay dividends in terms of rider development, despite their tender years (4 years in the case of the NJL, 3 for the MDL), and tracks who've been involved in staging such meetings have found a new stream of young riders to tap. At Coventry, their National League team have used Martin Knuckey and James Shanes, who rode for the Coventry-Mercia Vikings in the MDL, and Luke Crang and Tommy Fenwick, who made a splash in the NJL for Redcar and Workington, respectively, and the Storm are by no means alone in that regard. Tracking a MDL-level side is a win-win situation: the costs are minimal (for most teams only the cost of supplying fuel to their riders, although some don't even do that, and a set of race-jackets), the fans get an extra four-to-six heats for their money (whether they choose to stay and watch is another matter entirely), and the promoter gets to run the rule over future prospects for their teams. I'll accept that this is more beneficial the lower down the pecking order you get, but Adam Ellis made his first UK track appearances for Lakeside's short-lived Anglia Junior League side, and he should be lining up in the Elite league next season, just 18 months after that debut...
ITEM: Happy birthday! No, not you, me! Just over a year ago I posted the first Speeding Motorcycles blog and, barring one skipped week (when I wrote a double edition the following week to make up for it), I've written every week on all things bright and beautiful about our sport. I'd like to say that it's brought me fame and fortune but my life is really little different from a year ago, except that the release this blog provides me with means I'm a little less angry and frustrated about our sport's little foibles. I hope to continue on with it for as long as my interest sustains it - I strongly believe you should only do something for as long as you get a kick out of it - and I hope you'll continue to read. Excelsior!

Monday, 15 July 2013

Cheats & Unreliable Witnesses

ITEM: Let's get one thing out of the way first: staying down after you've fallen to get a race re-run is cheating. It cheats everyone except your own fans and your own team. It cheats the opposition fans, it robs your opponents of money they were earning before your actions, and it robs the sport of credibility. But, more than that, there's a sinister undertone that may have a potentially far worse consquences.
The most recent example of this kind of thing played out on Sky last week. With Wolves needing a 5-1 to win the meeting, and Darcy Ward going off 15 metres having touched the tapes at the first time of asking, the deck was stacked against the Poole Pirates. When guest Troy Batchelor missed the gate and found himself trailing the Wolves' pair, it looked even worse. A hard-chasing Ward fell on the 3rd and 4th bends and, although his bike clattered into the air fence, he took the gentlest of landings, lying spread-eagled on the shale. There he lay for a few seconds before slyly looking over his shoulder at the race, seeing that things were still bad for the Pirates, and making absolutely no effort to get up. The race was stopped and a smiling Ward walked back to the pits, unhurt and abused by the away fans. Needless to say, in the re-run, Batchelor made a jump-start and romped home. Cheats do prosper.
It's very difficult to get off a bike and make it look like an actual crash, so no-one's accusing these cheats of throwing their bikes away to gain an advantage. But they're willing to make the most of any falls, and that has to be stopped. There's also a difference between the rider who falls and gradually/immediately gets up and then struggles, in top Marcel Marceau fashion, to get his bike off the track, and those who feign injury. Poole may have just had their season wrecked by a very serious injury to their captain. Their whole season has been blighted by injuries, not least to Ward himself, and yet the Australian saw fit to pretend to be injured, and there must have been some in the crowd who - even for a moment - were worried for his welfare.
This is dangerous. This is the boy who cried wolf. Speedway fans can be the most sanctimonious in the world of sport when it comes to falls - woe betide the fan who celebrates if his team benefits from any kind of fall - but play-acting of this kind risks making a cynic of even the most trusting fan. How many times can you have your feelings played with, and show genuine concern, if the rider is pulling a fast one because he and his teammate messed things up? I'm sure that the next time a Poole rider falls and the opposition fans don't treat it as a serious incident that the Pirates' fans will be up in arms, accusing their counterparts of all manners of slights, but can you blame those opposition fans?
Given the nature of speedway fans - overhwhelmingly reverent and concerned for the welfare of the riders - there is actually little chance of them verly celebrating a fall or castigating a fallen rider, and so the riders who do engage in this kind of activity will still take advantage of them, and the benevolence of referees to cheat and cheat and cheat. However, some referees have taken action against this sort of thing - Berwick's Paul Starke was fined by the referee (and roundly criticised by Nigel Pearson and Kelvin Tatum, who stayed strangly quiet about Ward's transgression) for doing it, and Andrei Kudryashov was fined and banned for four meetings for doing the same in Poland. So the authorities can deal with it, they just choose not to in most circumstances.
Speedway has many issues but one of the things it is getting right is the racing on the track. This blatant cheating risks damaging even that. Stamp it out!

ITEM: Speedway journalism is a funny old thing. The usual criticism is that speedway "journalists" are merely editors, copy and pasting or occasionally re-writing club press releases, which have usually been written by the same people in the first instance. This will be strenuously denied, of course, especially by the editors of the Speedway Star, but is has to be said that - on the whole - speedway journalism gives the sport a pretty easy ride.
There have been some truly fascinating stories over the last couple of years, none of them covered in much depth in the speedway press, who would no doubt say that they are not in the business of writing about things which damage the sport. And this would be fine - although intensely disappointing - if that were the only reason behind it, but there's another reason why speedway journalists might be reluctant to tell the whole story and rely on "puff pieces"...
Speedway journalists rarely have one master. The realities of life as a freelance journalist are such that you have to find work where you can get it, and thus you have the situation where speedway reporters are often working for a number of publications. David Rowe, for example, covers the Coventry Bees for the Coventry Evening Telegraph and the Speedway Star, as well as working as the press officer and programme editor for the Bees. He also reports on Leicester for the Speedway Star, commentates for Clean Cut Sports, and works in the (virtual) BSPA press office. Oh, and he also reports on football for TalkSport, and a thousand other things. Paul Burbidge is the chief news reporter for the Speedway Star, reports on Poole Pirates for the Bournemouth Evening Echo, and is chief mouthpiece for the Speedway Grand Prix and Speedway World Cup. Even the managing editor of the Speedway Star, Philip Rising, is also employed by BSI!
This could - and I'm sure does - create a conflict of interest at times that both colours what they write and informs what they don't write. If a reporter is employed by a club to work on their website or programme, they are hardly likely to break a negative story about that club in the newspaper they also write for! Imagine if a scandal broke which involved one of the more high profile SGP riders, or even BSI themselves - could we expect to read an objective account in the Speedway Star? Could we expect to read about it all?
I'm extremely nosey about just about everything, so I make it my business to find out about the people who write the things I read. Others are less bothered/insane and thus take what they read on face value. Most writers do not declare an interest in the things they write about, and so readers trust in the reporter to be objective at all times. But how can they be when they are trying to keep so many people happy? I'm not sure Nigel pearson has ever claimed to be objective journalist, but I'm sure he'd love to be thought of as one (having come up the old school way - no BA in journalism for the proper journos!). Yet given that he works for Sky, Eurosport, BSI, TalkSport, Dudley Heathens, Sheffield Tigers and the BSPA (and I'm pretty sure I've missed some), and has to keep each one happy and look after his own future employment prospects, is it any wonder that he sits on the fence when it comes to any sort of controversy?
I want a thriving speedway journalism. I want investigative reporting and the facts laid bare. I want honesty and objectivity from my speedway news, and opinion and subjectivity from the major characters - those with the experience and awareness of the wider implications to the sport and beyond. I am not naiive enough to believe everything I read but I want to feel like I'm getting most of the story. Perhaps I'm alone? Perhaps the status quo exists for a reason and we're happy to be spoonfed whitewashed news and reports by a pliant press? I'd like to think not, though. I'd like to think that even the journalists themselves are a little tired of not telling the real story - they'd have to be, if they were proper journalists, surely? - and that change is possible. I won't hold my beath, though.
ITEM: Watching SWC "event 1" yesterday, it struck me just how moribund an affair it was. With the Russian federation playing silly buggers with their top riders, there are only five "world class" nations in the Speedway World Cup (and I'm being polite about TeamGB and Sweden there), and thus both events 1 & 2 will include teams who are really just making up the numbers.
If Russia had sent Sayfutdinov and the Lagutas to Czestochowa, Latvia would have been rooted near the bottom, out of things almost before the event began. The same will be true of the USA team in Kings Lynn tonight, and was true last year with Germany and the USA, and the year before with Germany, the Czechs and a weakened Russia. The format can sometimes produce a close contest for the one place on offer in the final (although not when a strong Poland team race at home, as they seem to do most years), but mostly acts as an introduction to the teams you may see in the final.
I'm a strong believer in the "weaker" countries taking part in the SWC. The current format excludes a couple that could take part, even though they would be makeweights at best. The only way the minor nations will improve is in competition against better opposition. It's true of the minor nations in football and it's true in speedway. Yet speedway is also a spectacle, with spectators and broadcasters paying often large sums for the experience. The current format, with many of the meetings a foregone conclusion, robs the paying audience and that watching at home of a true contest. Of course, speedway being what it is, even an uneven contest can still provide some good racing, although that certainly wasn't the case at a flat and boring Czestochowa yesterday.
There has to be a formula that would both provide exciting racing and not leave the minnows floundering like a fish out of water. Or we could carry on as we are, using the minor nations as practice fodder for the Poles, Danes, and Australians. SWC sponsor Monster likes to be seen as edgy and rebellious - what's edgier than the underdog upsetting the apple cart?
ITEM: It's unlikely - but possible - that TeamGB will qualify for the final from tonight's Event 2 at Kings Lynn. Although the Americans are a one-man outfit, and the Swedes have had injury problems you wouldn't wish on anyone outside Dorset, the Danes look far stronger than our own quartet, especially with the withdrawal of Scott Nicholls. But with all four riders young enough to have a few more pops at the competition, any experience is good experience, and those coming along behind them certainly give cause for optimism.
This season's under-21 championship was possibly the weakest in its history in terms of participants holding down Elite League and Premier League team spots. The young British rider seems to mature a little later these days, and at under-23 level we certainly look a lot closer to the other nations than the younger age group. What is especially encouraging is the quality of our 14-17 year olds, with Robert Lambert, Adam Ellis, Max Clegg, Daniel Spiller, and others looking very much a quality class. With Phil Morris and Neil Vatcher - aided and abetted by a host of "bigger picture" clubs - finding opportunities for these young racers to further their speedway education, the future looks bright.
We have suffered as a nation from a dearth of talent in recent years. This has had a number of effects on the sport, most notably in a lack of international glory and a paucity of British heroes for fans, the media and aspiring riders to hook onto and look up to. This, in turn, has led to a reduction in the public awareness of the sport, lower incomes from sponsorship, and less and less interest from the media. Although Sky's official reason (inasmuch as one never was given) for dropping the BSI events was their Saturday night timeslot, I imagine it had as much to do with a lack of a strong British competitor to sell to their customers as anything else.
Hopefully we'll soon be celebrating as Robert Lambert and Adam Ellis dominate the world scene, but I'd settle for them becoming solid international performers. Not asking much, am I?

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

On The Road Again, and more

ITEM: Almost simultaneously on Friday night, three heavy crashes at Edinburgh, Coventry, and Lakeside left three top riders feeling - as Kelvin Tatum would say - distinctly second hand. Of course, of the three, Chris Holder received by far the worse injuries - a broken shoulder, dislocated hip, and broken heel - but Ben Barker and Peter Karlsson can't be in the best of places, either.

Talk immediately turned to the amount, and seriousness, of crashes, and many wonder if there is something wrong with the modern set-up that is causing these incidents. Lee Richardson's brother Craig, no stranger to speedway bikes or tragedy, put the blame squarely on the new silencers, and he's not the first. So what's going on?

I'm no expert on motorbikes, speedway or otherwise. I only know what I read, and what I hear, but there does seem to be a consensus that the bikes now are too fast, and the power in a much different place than before. They "ride" differently, by all accounts, and the emphasis seems very much on going full throttle and riding the track hard and fast, with little of the delicate throttle control of years gone by.

This has led to change in the way tracks are prepared, with the deep, grippy tracks of old largely gone the way of all flesh - those rare occasions when they reappear marked by an inability of most modern riders to handle them until the blade comes out to scrape all difficulty and skill out of the track.

Crashes have always been a part of speedway, and an exciting, but harmless, crash is a surefire way to hook a new fan. Injuries, too, have been part and parcel of the sport, and I'm sure if you looked over the history of our beautiful game with respect to the amount and severity of injuries, there'd be pretty much a consistent story throughout.

All of which makes the introduction - now made compulsory by decree - of the air-fence a curious thing. By even the loosest application of logic, the use of the air-fence should have dramatically curtailed the amount of injuries, yet we still seem to suffer as many as before its introduction, which can only point to the bikes or the riders being less safe than in previous years.

I'd like to think that, despite only having ridden a speedway bike once (and very badly at that), I'm a pretty good judge of a rider, and I can't say that today's stars are any worse than their predecessors, and certainly not the degree that would make effect such a difference to their safety, so you have to assume that it's the bikes that are less safe. Faster, yes. Safer, no.

Which makes you wonder why, in an age of austerity and with rider safety (hopefully) at the root of every decision they make, the FIM haven't taken steps to explore making the bikes safer rather than enforcing expensive safety barriers that only serve to hide the problem.

Less powerful, slower bikes may initially make the action a tiny bit less exciting, in the same way that the introduction of the new silencers initially did, but riders adapt to conditions incredibly well, and - for the benefits in rider safety - it's a tiny price to pay.

Like I say, I'm no expert. I may as well be talking about nuclear fission or brain surgery, but there is a problem that needs to be solved. Hopefully someone will take it on.

ITEM: If you picked up last week's Speedway Star you'd have seen, amongst other things, one of managing editor Philip Rising's periodic State Of Speedway editorials. Rising has been around the sport long enough to have a pretty good grasp of the realities of the current situation, even if he is perhaps too close to certain promoters to be truly objective. That aside - and trying your very hardest to ignore his position as a sock puppet for BSI and the Grand Prix circus - if there's anyone currently working in speedway journalism who can cut through the issues currently affecting our sport, it's Rising.

He certainly finds his targets in the short piece, and probably could have written more, perhaps with input from some of the sport's interested parties - riders, promoters, fans, broadcasters - for a fully-rounded picture of the issues affecting speedway today. However, there's a certain emptiness to his complaints because he fails to offer any solutions. You might argue that it's not Rising's job to offer solutions, and that even if he did they wouldn't be listened to, but you'd be wrong on both counts.

The Speedway Star is the trade paper. It's the only show in town as far as a widely-read and respected speedway publication goes. Given speedway's traditional default position of pretending everything is fine, the party line often parroted in the magazine is taken as gospel by a good deal of the sport's fans, especially those with no access to, or interest in, internet tittle-tattle and self-aggrandising blogs like this one. As such, what is written in the pages of the Speedway Star carries a weight that is unmatched within the sport, and promoters ignore it at their peril. That's why so many are keen to keep a good relationship with the magazine and, similarly, the magazine is keen to keep on the right side of the speedway authorities. It's a symbiotic relationship in which neither party is keen to rock the boat.

However, as Rising mentions in his editorial, sales of the Star are entirely dependent on the fortunes of the sport. Minor fluctuations in sales can be affected by redesigns and the quality of the writing in the publication but whether the magazine continues to thrive and survive depends on speedway thriving and surviving, and so they have as vested an interest in the future of the sport as any promoter. Therefore it is not only desirable that the Speedway Star should seek to help the sport through what an optimist would call a "sticky patch", it's imperative for their continued existence.

And the speedway authorities, loathe as they probably are to have anyone tell them how to do business and how to spend their money, would be foolish in the extreme not to listen to Rising, Richard Clark, and the rest of the magazine's knowledgeable staff, if they were offered solutions to some of the issues affecting the sport. Indeed, given that the journalists staffing the magazine, as a whole, are abreast of the goings-on, dark deeds, and real problems facing the sport (often given off the record to trusted confidantes), it may be that this (mostly) objective brains trust might just be able to see innovations and solutions where promoters - self-interested as they tend to be - cannot or will not.

It's a strange world when the thought of hopefully objective journalists seeking to influence your favourite sport is a desirable one but there's precious little that is "normal" about speedway. The opportunity to rebrand and reshape the sport will only come along once and has to be done right - inviting as many people as possible to participate will only shorten the odds on getting that done.

ITEM: So I went back on the road. And it was good. And totally different to last week's trips, but we'll get to that soon. Before I got the car warmed up for a trip into the Peak District, there was the small matter of welcoming Poole to Brandon. I've said before that this blog isn't meant to be one for match reports but if I can't mark the visit of the Pirates, along with the world champion and some little scrote who has the most amazing talent on a speedway bike, then what can I do? Coventry vs Poole has become the grudge match in Elite League speedway, despite Birmingham's best efforts to wind the Bees up with their nefarious schemes. While tempers have become heated on both sides in recent years, this has never spilled over onto the terraces and a healthy number of Pirates' fans swelled the crowd to almost 3000, a season high not just at Brandon but in domestic speedway as a whole.

The fans who attended witnessed a doing-dong battle that looked, in the early stages, like it was going to swing very much in favour of the away team. I don't enjoy high-stakes meetings like this, just as I never enjoyed big matches at the Villa when I had a season ticket there - too much at stake, bragging rights more than match points, and I spent much of the evening in a state of paralysed concern, which is a shame because there was some great action on show. Scott Nicholls's ride in heat 11, hard up the inside of Darcy Ward, and then around Kozza Smith - third to first in one bend - was as good a ride as I've ever seen in speedway, a return to the Scott Nicholls of old, which even shook me out of my semi-catatonic state, jumping for joy as he raced off down the back straight, leaving the Poole boys trailing in his wake.

It all, inevitably, came down to heat 15, and a certain Poole 5-1 to give them the win and put the final nail in the Bees' play-offs hopes (the lid is already screwed pretty tight on that particular coffin). It definitely looked like that was going to be the case but Grzegorz Zengota had other ideas, roaring up the inside of Chris Holder who, in an effort to readjust his line on the turn, clipped the back of Ward's bike and hurtled into the fence, a millisecond after his bike had burst the inflatable protection it should have afforded him. Initially some Poole fans blamed Zengota until it became clear there was zero contact between the two riders - a true racing incident with no blame apportioned to any party (although a certain Poole "superfan" would later blame Maciej Janowski for not scoring well enough, forcing Holder into a position in heat 15 when he had to race hard, if you can believe that). As mentioned above, Holder suffered serious injuries, and the match - with its result settled with the World Champion’s exclusion - was abandoned. There were few complaints from the fans, who slipped off into the dark in sober contemplation.

And so onto Buxton, another new track and another outing for the Coventry Storm, fast becoming as dear to me as their senior counterparts. Weakened somewhat by the absences of Joe Jacobs (riding in the Glasgow-Edinburgh derby), James Shanes (racing to 2nd place in the British 250cc Grasstrack championships in Cornwall) and Martin Knuckey (sadly taking a break from the sport), the Storm must still have been confident of taking something from the meeting, and continuing their march towards the end-of-season play-offs.

To say the journey to Buxton is picturesque is to seriously undersell it. The A53 from Leek to Buxton is nothing short of breathtaking as you climb ever higher into the peaks, never quite believing that a speedway track - or anything other than a sheep farm - could be hidden away up there. But there it is, nestled in the middle of some very rolling hills, smack bang next to a stock car stadium (where the Hitmen raced for the first few years of their existence), and overlooking a sinister collection of wooden huts, the kind you'd find in Quatermass, housing an extraterrestrial being.

The facilities are rudimentary, but to be honest what more do you need? There's a track, a bar, a burger van, a track shop, and some toilets - everything you need to stage a speedway meeting (and, lets be honest, everything bar a track is a bonus!). The toilets, although of the semi-permanent kind you find at upmarket festivals and shows, are still better than those on the back straight at Swindon - another place straight out of Quatermass. Unusually for speedway, but common at non-league football grounds, is the slope - the track has a pronounced fall from home straight to back straight, with riders heading downhill on the first and second bends and back up on the third and fourth. Some rather impolite comments were made about certain riders’ girth preventing them from making the climb, but it would not be smart to repeat them here!

As with the Isle of Wight five days before, the people of Buxton are friendly and welcoming, and it's hard not to feel for what they have achieved there, and what they still have to do. Like every other track in league speedway, they have to raise the funds for an air-fence, and its money they can ill-afford. If you have any spare cash, you can chuck it their way at their Go Fund Me page - click here - I'm sure they'll be very grateful! It's hard not to feel a little annoyed at the stock car racing taking place next door, too - a bigger crowd than that assembled for the speedway in a stadium with better facilities, and taking place at the very same time. In a world when all minority sports should be working together, this seems unfortunate.

After some initial baby steps, the Storm boys took to the track well, with Luke Crang adapting fast on his first visit. The Hitmen hit back, though, with their second strings finding their feet as the meeting went on, and it all came down to yet another last heat decider. With the bonus points at stake in the Mildenhall and Isle of Wight meetings, that made it five meetings out of five that were not settled until the final race, and people say speedway is dying! At Buxton Luke Crang was the last heat hero, settling into second place behind the unbeaten Charles Wright to secure the away win for the Storm. Both men received the bumps - Wright for his maximum, and Crang for his match-winning ride - and that illustrated the in-it-togetherness of speedway at this level. There's always going to be a winner, but in a way everyone wins, at least that's how it feels to this new convert.

I enjoyed my ten days of speedway, and my visits to new and long-forgotten tracks. The action doesn't let up now for a while, but I can't say that Wolverhampton, Peterborough, Hoddesdon, and King's Lynn hold the same attraction as the Isle of Wight and Buxton. Our sport has some special little outposts and you never know just how long they'll be there - catch them before they're gone.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

On The Road, and other things...

ITEM: The job of picking a team for the Speedway World Cup is not an enviable one at the best of times, let alone when British speedway is going through what could politely be called a "transitional" phase. Still, it's a job Neil Middleditch accepted and therefore one he has to shoulder, along with any praise or criticism (and let's face it, it will mostly be the latter!) that comes with it.

His job wasn't made any easier by Scott Nicholls' s hissy fit, thrown after being prevented from entering the unimportant but cash-rich European Championship because it clashed with meetings he signed a contract to race in. Nicholls's decision, which I've written about before, punishes no-one except the fans and his sponsors, but there's no going back on a grandstand and so we start a man down.

Only one of the team could be said to pick himself, with Tai Woffinden having the best season of his short career, on top of the Elite League averages and flying high in the SGP series. Woffinden, it could be argued, is our only genuinely world class contender at the moment, although I'd number the amount of genuine world class riders worldwide at less than a dozen.

Alongside Woffinden (never "Woffy", which is just silly), and with Nicholls sitting it out, Chris Harris should - and did - get the nod on experience alone, having been a fixture of the team for some years now. On his day, which still does come around once in a while, Harris is a match for anyone in the field,  and to ignore him would be folly. Happily, Middleditch agreed.

Craig Cook's early season form, seemingly unbeatable in the Premier League and piling up some useful scores in the EL, made him a shoe-in for most fans and, once again, Middleditch was of the same mind - a rare case of anyone connected with Poole speedway being on the same planet as the rest of the speedway world. Cook is a fast starter, which will pay dividends in the Czech Republic, should we get there (although it would take a miracle to lose out to the USA, who have named has-beens and never-weres in their squad) and the step up to the world stage will be invaluable for his future development.

For the final place Middleditch wasn't exactly blessed with options, although he narrowed them himself by not picking for the squad Richard Lawson, who is in super form right now, in favour of including Kyle Howarth, who Middleditch doesn't consider good enough for Poole! With ten riders named in the preliminary squad, and leaving Howarth aside, the final place was between Ben Barker, Edward Kennett, Daniel King, Josh Auty, Richie Worrall and Lewis Bridger, all much of a muchness this season after fantastic starts for Kennett and King.

You'll know by now that Middleditch decided to go with Kennett, a small track rider on a big track, and very much out of form lately. King, too, has hit a rough patch, which may have counted him out, and Barker is only just finding some form.
The elephant in the room is Richie Worrall, of course, with King's Lynn being his home track and him being very much "one for the future". And that's probably exactly why he wasn't picked.

Because if Neil Middleditch begins picking TeamGB riders on their future potential, with an eye to SWCs in years to come, what separates him from Phil Morris and Neil Vatcher, who are doing that job for the under-21s and younger riders? If the job of TeamGB manager is a duplicated role, why have it at all? And if you follow that logic, why have Middleditch, who has shown absolutely no interest in developing British talent in his club role?

So, you could argue, Worrall has missed out because Neil Middleditch wants to get his face and his sponsors on TV (and whoever heard of a team manager having sponsors anyway?)!
Worrall has taken it magnaninously, arguing it's probably a year too early for him, and perhaps Kennett, who at least seems proud and keen to represent his country, will surprise us all and score some big points!

Still, the system - as with so many things - needs looking at, and maybe it's time for Morris to step up and do the job. At least his EL team has some British riders in it...

ITEM: While we're warming to a theme, let's continue on the path of teams picked by Neil Middleditch, although as it's Poole we're talking about I very much doubt Middleditch has any input at all beyond offering a place to stay at his B&B for the whatever riders Matt Ford decides are in the team.

Poole have redeclared yet again, in another attempt to halt their faltering season. The first lot - including world champion Chris Holder, enfant terrible (in more than one sense of the term) Darcy Ward, and some dodgy Poles - failed to set the Elite League on fire, and actually led to the hilarious sight of Poole propping up the EL table. Cue an injury to Ward, who wasn't exactly knocking down trees before his enforced absence, and a rejigging of the side, bringing in noted absentees Przemyslaw Pawlicki and Thomas H Jonasson, and jettisoning the Pirates' sole concession to the development of British speedway, Kyle Howarth.

This redeclaration, too, was less than successful, although some questionable absences and a good choice of guests did see the Pirates win on the road at Belle Vue and Eastbourne, two teams rapidly finding their level once more in the EL. It also led to the benchmark-setting postponement of editions past, against Lakeside - the censure for which (or more likely, no censure at all) we will find out after the meeting of the SCB next Wednesday. Still, with question marks over the fitness of the new additions, and the woeful form of Dawid Stachyra at reserve, the tinker man came to town once more, restoring Ward to the Pirates' team, alongside Micky Dyer and Kozza Smith.

Except not really, because Smith is only in the team for one match only, and Poole are expected to redeclare once more after facing Coventry at Brandon. Smith will be replaced by an as yet unnamed rider, who isn't available to ride at Coventry and wouldn't have had his absence covered by a facility. All within the rules, of course, but stinking to high heaven, and that's before you get into the debate over whether such a comprehensive rejigging should be allowed when a clearly injured/uninterested, and therefore missing, rider is included in the side throughout. Interestingly, for that meeting against Poole, Coventry have chosen to bring Adam Roynon back into their side in place of Olly Allen, when they could have used him as a guest for Stuart Robson and benefitted from a wider range of rider replacement options. They didn't, possibly because they have an integrity missing from down south.

As long as Poole abide by the rules there is little we can do but tut at them, and a cynical man would point out that, for now at least, at least they are abiding by the rules! Whether it will make much difference to their fortunes remains to be seen, but you'd hope not. Cheats should never prosper and neither should those who skirt dangerously close to that line. Life has a funny way of equaling things out down the line, remember.

ITEM: So I went on the road, and I had a good time. Oh, more? Okay...

If I was excited about Coventry entering a team into the National League before the season started - and I was, even if our team looked slightly under power - then my expectations have been exceeded as the season has progressed. NL racing is a completely different kettle of fish to Elite League and even Premier League fare, where you'll see genuine contenders for current PL and future EL places alongside those who need extra time to reach that level, if they ever will. While sometimes this can lead to strung-out, imbalanced races that can equal anything the EL has to offer, it can just as easily - given the different levels of experience on show - produce close racing and an exciting spectacle to match anything on offer in the SGP series.

One of the added bonuses to the Storm's participation in the NL is seeing new teams whose existence toiling two levels below the Bees' lofty heights may as well be invisible to the majority of EL fans. Already this season Brandon has played host to Dudley, Mildenhall and Kent for the first time ever, and Stoke for the first time in almost two decades, and debut visits from Buxton and the Isle of Wight are scheduled for later in the year. And, best of all, we get to go to them, ticking off tracks as we go, and enjoying the hospitality of clubs at that level. Fantastic.

I'm currently in the middle of five meetings in ten days - four of them at NL level, and three of them at "away" tracks, and this little road trip has been eye-opening and satisfying in a million different ways so far. This blog isn't really about meeting reports, or a travelogue, but I'd be remiss if I didn't write a little about what I found when I visited these outposts of our thriving speedway scene, and so I'd better not be remiss! But first a few words about last Friday's meeting at Brandon...

To say that it was held in difficult conditions is an understatement. Just how much those conditions were controllable or the fault of the uncertain and drizzly weather is not for me to say. Nevertheless, I'm sure lessons have been learned and if the same situation where to arise things would be done differently by all parties involved. Let's just say that the track was tricky, and move on to how Mildenhall used their heads to gain four away points. Simply put, they had Jon Armstrong.

Armstrong weighed in with 14 points on the night, but of far more value was his experience, which he shared amongst his Fen Tigers' teammates like Tripitaka dispensing wisdom to Monkey in that old chop-socky morality play with the pig and the fish god. Armstrong's philosophy - a masterclass of confidence, concentration and care - paid dividends on a night when the track demanded exactly that, and how the Storm missed a rider with that experience in their side of the pits.

Much has been written and said about whether old-stagers like Armstrong have a place in what is essentially a development league, and I've argued before that they certainly have a value. This illustrated it perfectly, and it's a shame there is no official capacity for a rider-coach at this level. Something to consider, perhaps.

That out of the way, let's move onto Armstrong's latest home track, and the National League Pairs at Mildenhall. I've visited West Row once before, twenty-odd years ago, only I seem to be the only one who remembers it, so - as with so many things these days - maybe I didn't and it was a figment of my imagination, and this was actually my first time. Regardless, my memories of the place were hazy enough for it to seem like a new track to me, and on first impressions it's a stadium perfect for watching speedway racing. Covered, hard-standing spectator areas on the home straight and first turn, complemented by grass banking around the rest of the track, give an almost 360° choice of viewing areas. A lovely bar (with odd, tiny stage area) and a tasty fish & chip shop complete the amenities, and it's a testament to what can be built up around a dirt-track marked out in a farmer's field, and must give hope to any visiting Dudley fan yearning for their own track one day.

Talking of Dudley fans, they were out in force, as were the home supporters, with a smattering of keen observers from the other NL teams also present, including - encouragingly - a healthy few from Kent. The Heathens' and Fen Tigers' fans seem to take it all very seriously, perhaps because this is their level (although I'm sure both aspire to PL, at least, down the line), and certainly more than the Stoke, Buxton, or Isle of Wight supporters, and this may tell it's own story in the clashes these sets of fans have had over the years.

Those troublesome Fen Tigers' fans also seem to have a bee in their bonnet about the Coventry management and riders, and some playing to the gallery from Storm co-manager Blayne Scroggins well and truly wound them up, to the point that some pressed up against the pit fences (like apes at the zoo) and a few hangers-on in the pits turned the atmosphere a bit sour. This was all precipitated by some dreadfully inconsistent - and at times dangerously negligent - refereeing from Dale Entwistle, who not only somehow failed to exclude a rider who touched the tapes in favour of all-four-back but also almost caused Steve Boxall to get badly hurt. A visiting promoter remarked to me on his way out of the stadium, "I'm glad I'm not writing his report!"

The little niggles aside, it was a decent meeting run on a dry and bare track. Passing was at a premium, but Ashley Morris and Adam McKinna made some fantastic moves from the back to earn valuable points from their sides and the applause of the fans. Dudley were clearly the best pair on show, and worthy winners, and I'd imagine most fans went home happy with what they'd seen for their £12 entry.

If Mildenhall were a little closer to me, and didn't have such a stupid start time, I'd visit more often. It's such a perfect place to watch speedway, and the shape of the track is perfect for close racing. I'll be back, but maybe not on "Dress Like Blayne Day"!

. . .

Two days later I'm on a ferry to the Isle of Wight, contemplating yet more National League action, and wondering if life gets any better. I'd never been to the IoW before - the island or the speedway track - and so this was a brilliant way of killing two birds (seagulls, presumably) with one stone, and there was no way I was missing it.

I dragged the missus along with me, and for once taking her to speedway meant somewhere other than an industrial estate or dilapidated greyhound stadium in a provincial backwater town. I told her it would pay off one day. We decided to go early and stay over, and the ever-active Bryn Williams put me in touch with the IoW Islanders' webmistress Errin Folds, whose parents own a B&B in Shanklin. Room booked, ferry booked, and weather looking like holding, I drove onto the island already feeling refreshed from the break.

After spending the afternoon at Alum Bay and taking the cablecar down to the beach by the Needles (recommended, by the way), we drove round the beautiful south coast of the island to Shanklin, and found the B&B. To say that the Appley Hotel is nice is to do it a great disservice - it was simply far too good for me and I felt like a robber at the price we paid. Needless to say, you should all book in next time you go to the island - Rod & Wendy have some great stories about speedway people staying there (Carl Stonehewer as the Pied Crabber Of Sandown, anyone?) and will make you very welcome. And they didn't pay me a penny to say that!

Smallbrook Stadium is a fifteen minute drive from Shanklin, on the outskirts of Ryde, hidden away down a country lane, well away from prying eyes and ears. It's a simple set-up: a club house, a stand with around 500 seats on the home straight, and a couple of cabins housing the track shop and a burger bar. There is grass banking around the rest of the stadium, and a hill on the 3rd and 4th bends which gives one of the most breathtaking views of speedway anywhere in the country, I'm told!

There is a friendly atmosphere about the place from the minute you drive into the car park, all smiles and a relaxed demeanour which I'm sure has nothing to do with the Bob Marley flags flying on the second bend!

About twenty Coventry fans have made the journey to the island, and as I updated the meeting on Twitter more make it plain they wish they could have come. I do wonder if the Isle of Wight might be suitable for a big meeting, tied to some kind of Festival Of Speedway, with 3-4000 fans coming over for the British Final, perhaps, and enjoying everything the club - and the island - has to offer.

The track is big, and the action can be processional at times, but the speed of the racing lends it an air of danger and excitement that more than makes up for that. Adam Ellis, still bewilderingly at reserve, was a class above, winning races for fun and setting times far and above the rest of the field. Only Luke Crang - on his first visit to the track and looking like he's ridden it a thousand times before - got anywhere near him, and even he was fifty yards behind. Ellis is a talent, although much relies on him making the start, which he did - seven times - and let's hope he continues his upward trajectory towards the top of the sport, even if it has to be at that joke of a track Lakeside.

At the interval I popped into the referee's box to say hi, and thanks, to Bryn Williams and had a good old chinwag about the set-up on the island. Bryn is tireless, despite his arthritis, and although his announcing style borders on the chatty side, it's obviously exactly what they want down there. It was nice to put a face to the name and I also chatted to someone who may or may not have been Graham Arnold (I didn't get his name!) before leaving Graham Reeve to get on with the second-half of the meeting.

The Storm lost but, as always with these lads, it didn't seem to matter. For the standalone clubs it's obviously a different thing but I see Coventry's participation in the NL as being about more than winning meetings. It's about watching young lads progress - in other teams, as well as my own - and having a bit of stress-free fun in the bargain.

I hope the Storm continue in the NL next year because I want a good excuse to go back to the Isle of Wight, although I'll probably find one even if they don't. Clubs like the Islanders are special little things, and they deserve our support. Like half the tracks in the country, the Islanders have to find the cash for an air fence for the start of next season, and if you can help in any way I'm sure they'd be grateful of it.

I'm off to Brandon again on Friday, for some rubbish Elite League action featuring the world champion, but my mind is already on Sunday, and following the Storm to Buxton. You can read about that next week but I'll tell you now, it's going to be fun watching the Storm. It always is.