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.


  1. Referring specifically to item 1: Airfences are, for some tracks, superb. They are not, however, the perfect solution that some seem to think. Tracks like Peterborough lend themselves superbly to the use of airfences - you have something solid to fix them back to, and because they can't move backwards on impact, but simply act as a shock absorber, they do a good job. Other tracks with permently fitted chainlink fences also find that they work well. It's when you get onto the multi-discipline tracks like Ipswich, and tellingly, Coventry, that the problems start. Holder's injuries are consistent with what he himself reported - that he had passed directly under the fence which lifted as he hit it, and smashed into the concrete wall behind. I am aware of at least 2 others riders who have over the past few years suffered the same fate - in fact I was present for one of them and witnessed the lifting of the fence first-hand - but, thankfully, to less severe results. An air fence is only ever as good as the situation will allow - Holder's injuries may well have been less severe had he hit an old-style chainlink catch-fence with kickboards correctly fitted, than an airfence which was NOT correctly fitted, and which as a result of that lifted up. Then of course there is the question of the testing of these fences - at least one of the regular makes in use had, at the last time I investigated, only been tested as an "airbag" system - ie by being laid flat and having items dropped on it. This lack of testing in "real-case" scenario is beyond questionable and into the realms of negligent in my view. Combine that with the fact that a lot of these fences are supported using "ratchet straps" - actually designed for securing loads to the rear of lorries, NOT for withstanding sudden impact, and that those self-same straps for the most part have a tested safe working load of 5 tonnes (an impact from rider and bike hitting the fence together, from a speed of 60mph would almost certainly well exceed that loading) and as and when a rider is finally (and I suspect inevitably) killed, and the HSE investigates, our sport is setting itself up for some extremely serious problems.

  2. Sadly I feel the chance to re-invent the sport in the UK has passed.
    This should of happened around the time that Sky got involved and showed a genuine interest in broadcasting it.
    They took a gamble, nailed their colours to the Speedway mast and we've been getting a regular speedway fix ever since - despite the commentary team / pit girl / presentation being sniped at from day one by the sports seemingly ungrateful fans - and what have the Speedway powers done in return?
    Have the seized this opportunity of high profile media coverage and movement into a new age of technology to move the sport along with the times? to encourage new younger fans through and shed the image of mainly old people on the terraces with clipboards and a thermos flask? Not really.

    Even now very few speedway clubs truly embrace modern technology such as the internet, smart phones and the like - I'll use the fantastic Speedway updates site as an example, it's run entirely by fans and volunteers that give up their own time at meetings and at home for the sake of others, this is something that could of been done "officially" by each team on race nights (either home teams, or by the BSPA) so those fans unable to attend but who have a interest in the sport can follow the meetings as they happen albeit in text form with some snippets from the texter, obviously it'll never replace being there (neither will watching it on TV) but it's certainly miles better than the old days of looking on Teletext or in the paper the next day and just seeing the numbers with no real grasp of what happened during the meeting.
    Has Speedway as a product moved with the times since those Teletext days?
    I'll say no, there have been changes such as airfences, dirt deflectors, rear wheel guards, quieter silencers - all good in their own right and for their own reasons, but what has there been for the fans? The lifeblood of any sport, what appeal has there been given to the UK fans to attend and spend their hard earned cash on going to their local track? I can see nothing has changed whatsoever since I went as a child (and I'm as good as 37 now!).
    Speedway is a sport that should have youngsters clambering to go, it's an adrenaline fueled sport - 500cc motorbikes with no brakes going furiously round a dirt track elbow to elbow, it's high speed, it's high risk, it's 60 seconds or so of balls to the wall all out action with no margin for error.

  3. Yet where are the young fans that should be looking at the likes of Woffinden, Holder, Ward, Cook and thinking "I'd love to try that one day, those guys are cool!"?
    I'll tell you were some could possibly be found - at the Ally Pally for the darts......wait, hear me out!
    Darts, a sport that is literally two guys taking turns to throw three small arrows at a board made of cork from almost 8' away over and over until one has scored 501 points. Repeat this process over the course of 90 mins or so and you get a match winner, now don't get me wrong, it takes a lot of skill, practice and dedication to be good at it, and I do like watching it on TV every now and then - but on paper is it exciting? No, not in the slightest!
    It's also a sport that was in decline until a few years ago when a boxing promoter turned the sport around, it was glammed up, it became the razzamatazz American WWE wrestling compared to the previous World-Of-Sport Big Daddy UK wrestling.
    They identified they needed a younger audience so they went out and got sponsors that the younger audience could relate to and added in the superficial stuff, players "escorted" to the oche by bouncers added an element of danger and rivalry, the promo girls added a dash of glamour, loud music, flashing lights and pyrotechnics brought the atmosphere and as a result the PDC is now thriving and yet the sport is just the same as it was before the decline - the difference is the promoter - and this is Speedway's problem.
    It has an image of being followed mostly by statistic geeks and old people, football has those same type of fans as speedway, the one who can tell you how many assists Gareth Bale provided in 2010 just like we have ones who could tell you how many points Troy Batchelor scored on his last visit to Monmore at the drop of a hat but the promoters of our sport don't do near enough to highlight the "cool" side of the sport, the adrenaline, the young trendy riders, the fastness and furiousness of it all (Yep I made that up) and have just let it plod along.
    Sky have tried with slick looking intros to their TV programmes and they've been great - until the cameras get to the crowd and it's sparse.

    It'll be no surprise to anybody if Sky don't renew the contract at the end of the 2013 season - except maybe the BSPA who refuse to see (or at least ackowledge) anything wrong with the sports image, and who are the BSPA? A body made up of various individual Speedway club promoters who run the sport, so if they don't see it then nothing will change. Turkeys don't vote for Christmas but Christmas happens none the less, the sooner the BSPA realize this the better, their "Christmas" is coming and they're not ready for it.
    As has been muted by many fans for a long time - the sport needs to be run independently by a Barry Hearne type, someone who will freshen up a sport that has its image still well and truly stuck in the 70's. Somebody with vision to turn what is - on paper and in reality - a genuinely exciting sport into something that the youth of today want to see, the youth are the future and they're simply not interested.

  4. Quite honestly Jules, I'd rather Sky passed on the rights to the League coverage now and let Eurosport get involved there too - they have at least shown some enthusiasm for showing something a bit different, and at least now when a GP is shown and you record it you can be fairly sure of getting the whole thing, rather than half an hour before they sack it off to the red button to put something more lucrative or glamourous on instead!

  5. On the subject of crashes, my main point is that, regardless of how safe you can make a airfence (or not, as the case may be) it's putting the cart before the horse. More attention should be paid to making the bikes more rideable.

    As for reinvention and rebranding, it's not too late. But more emphasis has to be placed on attracting and KEEPING young fans - with a ridiculous pricing structure that penalises ageing without considering whether the young person is earning, you are not going to keep hold of any but the most dedicated and/or wealthy.

    We also need to reposition the image of the sport - for Christ's sake stop the commentators referring to Hancock & Karlsson's ages!!! If it looks like a sport for old men, old men is all that will come to see it!

  6. In fairness, they do cancel out every one of those references several times over with another orgasmic tirade about Darcy, not to mention "Young" Nick Morris!

    Speedway doesn't learn from its mistakes - and from a health & safety perspective especially, but also from a continuation aspect (ie attracting new, young fans) it really needs to.

  7. I'd like to see Eurosport screen league meetings but I can't see it happening (assuming Sky don't renew of course, I think how Speedway has been moved from it's Monday night home to Wednesday nights for the past few weeks might be a hint of what to expect if the contract is renewed) - Eurosport, as the name suggests, cater for as much of Europe as possible, Sky Sports tend to cater more for our domestic market. Surely if Eurosport want to invest in league Speedway they will look towards Poland? Obviously the Polish media rights will cost a lot more than the British ones (although is Ronnie Russell still involved with those?) but you're getting all the big names every week no matter what meeting is screened, dedicated Speedway stadiums with plenty of spectators on the terraces and overall a much more "professional" appeal.
    I know it's be an easy choice if I had to choose between Leszno v Tarnow or P'boro v Eastbourne for example!
    Sky started screen Speedway (2002?) and the only change since then it less people on the terraces from a televised meeting, oh and weaker teams of course!

    I'm afraid I think the BSPA haven't just missed the boat, they've not even checked the sailing schedule for it yet!