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.