ITEM: So we’re a month into the new season, and each Elite League club has raced at least four times. The pre-season predictions are largely coming true, with the hotly-tipped King’s Lynn and Poole blazing a trail at the top of the table, while unfancied Leicester and Birmingham occupy the bottom spots.
The new race format has been broadly welcomed, with only the quirk that sees the away number four wait until heat 5 for his first race, up against the home team’s top riders, coming in for any criticism. Hopefully that can be ironed out soon enough, maybe even in time for the B fixtures, and we can declare the experiment a success.
Of course, the biggest talking point has been the Fast Track Draft (FTD) reserves, and the effect their efforts are having on their teams’ fortunes. Nothing ever works perfectly first time out, but it’s been – to my mind, at least – an unqualified success thus far, the only issues a result of poor research and draft picks than any real fault with the system.
Most fans are realistic about the aims of the FTD. It was never designed to create twenty fully-formed Elite League riders, and going with so many after years of majority neglect of British riders by the two senior leagues was never going to produce an even spread of talent. The gulf between the likes of Kerr, Newman, and Garrity at the top end, and Clegg, Reade, and Ritchings at the bottom is bigger than you’d hope, but a necessary evil.
My own hope for this season is that five of the twenty make it into top fives next season. On 3.00 averages (or thereabouts, depending on how the BSPA decide they will transfer), there are already five or six who could make that step, and that’s without accounting for riders included in FTD positions who will mature as the season progresses.
For the rest, I’d hope that all bar a few are invited back, and the numbers made back up to twenty by riders who opted out of this season’s draft like Olly Greenwood, Josh Bates, and Liam Carr, as well as improving National League talents like Luke Crang and Nathan Greaves.
Although Leicester fans may disagree (and how ridiculous of them, by the way, to blame their team’s poor start on the new format and FTD reserves!), the FTD lads have added an extra dimension to the season, and those who follow me on Twitter may have noticed I’ve been keeping track of those FTD reserves who’ve claimed scalps from riders in opposing teams’ 1-5. That some of these 1-5ers are the type of rider that the draft is – in the long term – designed to make obsolete makes it all the sweeter. Here’s a list of those riders who’ve claimed 1-5 scalps so far:
6 - Lewis Kerr (Richard Lawson, Ryan Fisher, Claus Vissing, Jakob Thorsell, Adam Skornicki, and Daniel Nermark)
5- Adam Ellis (beat Nicolai Klindt, Nermark, Peter Ljung, Robert Lambert, and Nikolas Porsing)
3- Kyle Newman (Mikkel Michelsen and Kyle Howarth, twice), James Sarjeant (Simon Gustafsson, Nermark, and Simon Stead)
2 - Stefan Nielsen (Ljung and Thorsell), Tom Perry (Richie Worrall and Michael Palm Toft)
1 - Lewis Blackbird (Palm Toft), Benji Compton (Gustaffson), Jason Garrity (Klindt), Ben Morley (Skornicki), Ashley Morris (Lambert), Charles Wright (Gustafsson)
And to show things the other way, here’s the 1-5ers who’ve been beaten by FTD reserves:
3 – Simon Gustafsson (Benji Compton, James Sarjeant, & Charles Wright), Daniel Nermark (Lewis Kerr, Adam Ellis, & Sarjeant)
2 – Kyle Howarth (Kyle Newman, twice), Nicolai Klindt (Ellis & Jason Garrity), Robert Lambert (Ellis & Ashley Morris), Peter Ljung (Ellis & Stefan Nielsen), Michael Palm Toft (Tom Perry & Lewis Blackbird), Adam Skornicki (Kerr & Ben Morley), Jakob Thorsell (Kerr & Nielsen)
1 – Ryan Fisher (Kerr), Richard Lawson (Kerr), Mikkel Michelsen (Newman), Nikolas Porsing (Ellis), Simon Stead (Sarjeant), Claus Vissing (Kerr), Richie Worrall (Perry)
Of the latter group, Nicolai Klindt has already been given his marching orders – replaced at Swindon, disappointingly by Dakota North – and there must be a few others on borrowed time even at this early juncture.
One pleasant side-effect of the FTD riders occupying the reserve slots has been an end to those reserves who – through injury, poor form, incorrect assessment, or other nefarious means – score sixteen or seventeen points from their maximum seven riders, a far more imbalanced situation than any difference between the top and bottom FTD reserves could ever produce.
Whatever your opinion, the FTD reserves are here for this season at least, and hopefully beyond. It would be folly not to get behind your team’s reserves, and the new system as a whole, although wishing failure on brave experiments is very much an English disease. If you’re still sceptical, why not join the great majority of us, and (hashtag) Back The Brits? You never know, you might find an extra dimension to your evenings out at the speedway, supporting these young lads trying to make that next step. You know it makes sense.
Fast Track Draft Reserve averages (up to, and including, April 22 2014, draft numbers in brackets):
01(03) Kyle Newman............2...10...20...2...22...8.80
02(01) Lewis Kerr.............5...22...43...4...47...8.55
03(04) Lewis Blackbird........4...19...31...4...35...7.37
04(06) Adam Ellis.............8...37...54...5...59...6.38
05(12) Steve Worrall..........3...14...19...2...21...6.00
06(08) Paul Starke............3...12...15...3...18...6.00
07(02) Jason Garrity..........6...25...32...5...37...5.92
08(07) Ashley Morris..........5...21...26...5...31...5.90
09(17) James Sarjeant.........7...25...27...9...36...5.76
10(10) Tom Perry..............9...40...45..10...55...5.50
11(09) Joe Jacobs.............3...11...13...2...15...5.45
12(05) Stefan Nielsen.........7...31...36...4...40...5.16
13(20) Lewis Rose.............5...18...19...4...23...5.11
14(16) Daniel Halsey..........6...23...24...5...29...5.04
15(18) Ben Morley.............9...33...35...6...41...4.97
16(11) Simon Lambert..........5...21...15...3...18...3.43
17(21) Max Clegg..............7...24...14...4...18...3.00
18(23) Dan Greenwood..........3...10....5...2....7...2.80
19(14) Ben Reade..............5...19....9...2...11...2.32
20(13) Lee Smart..............4...13....6...1....7...2.15
--(NA) Charles Wright.........1....5....9...1...10...8.00
--(NA) Matt Williamson........1....4....2...2....4...4.00
--(NA) Benji Compton..........3...12....8...2...10...3.33
--(NA) Tim Webster............1....3....1...1....2...2.67
--(22) Darryl Ritchings.......2....5....3...0....3...2.40
--(19) Ben Hopwood............2....6....2...1....3...2.00
ITEM: Over the winter Chris Holder joined the ranks of those Grand Prix riders who have chosen to opt out of British racing, citing the cluttered schedule as a distraction from sitting around all week between Polish and Swedish fixtures, and the odd Grand Prix. He probably needs British racing as much as it needed him (and your opinion on both those things may differ from mine), but both seemed resigned and happy to go their separate ways, even if he was still hanging around Wimborne Road like a ghost of Pirates past.
The thumb injury suffered by Darcy Ward in the opening Grand Prix in New Zealand, however, brought a quick volte face from Holder, and suddenly he was very interested in racing for Poole and in the Elite League, which probably told its own story. Estimates of the length of Ward’s absence changed on a daily basis, but it turned out to be just a two-week break from racing for the Nanango numpty.
Two weeks without a number one – just four fixtures, three of them at home – is something most teams will face at some point this season, and such absences are covered well by guests and rider-replacement. With Ward second only to Niels-Kristian Iversen in the Elite League rankings, Poole could have used Matej Zagar, Peter Kildemand, or Tai Woffinden at home to Eastbourne, any EL number one bar Iversen or Woffinden at home to Coventry, all bar Woffinden and Zagar at home to Swindon, and Zagar or Woffinden away at Swindon.
Poole, though, sort to circumvent the regulations (plus ça change!) and insert Holder into their team, despite having taken him out of the team days before. Oh, yes, this is where it gets a little complicated, so stick with me…
Poole declared their 1-7 at the start of the season with Darcy Ward at number one. With an eye on the “Champions’ League” meeting later in the season, they replaced Ward with Holder for the Elite Shield meeting with Swindon, scheduled to take place on March 27, which was lost to a waterlogged track. On April 4, the day before Ward was injured in New Zealand, they switched Ward back into the team, ready for the start of the Elite League season. One problem, though: Ward, having been re-declared in the Poole side, would not be eligible for any facility covering his absence other than a 6-point Premier League rider, and so the guest scenarios outlined above would not apply. They could switch back to their previous declaration, with Holder, but he, too, would be ineligible for guest cover until he had ridden in a fixture, and he was unavailable for their upcoming clash with Eastbourne.
However, and you know there’s always a “but” or a “however” when it comes to Poole, they were allowed a guest for Ward against Eastbourne, and then were given special dispensation by the BSPA management committee to include Holder for their next three fixtures. This in itself is curious, because the special dispensation should have been sought prior to Holder’s initial declaration on March 26 because the regulations governing team building (regulation 16.3.3, to be precise) expressly forbid a rider in a team's declared 1 - 7 at the end of the previous season being subsequently re-introduced into that team without the express permission of the BSPA MC. Murkier and murkier.
Holder was given special dispensation to take his place in the Poole line-up for the fixtures against Coventry and Swindon, and although Ward rode in Poland at the weekend and is presumably fit to race in the UK, Holder will keep his place for 28 days – an injury replacement for a rider who is no longer injured!
Putting aside the legalities of the issue – and we always have to regarding Poole, because the BSPA and SCB turn a blind eye wherever possible – I’m not sure I feel comfortable with a rider who has turned up his nose at British speedway picking and choosing his fixtures when it suits him. The same could be said of Greg Hancock last season, racing in the Elite League only after his Polish club had sacked him for being too expensive, and Adrian Miedzinski the year before, using the Elite League as a tune-up for his Polish endeavours.
I’m not unrealistic. I know where British speedway ranks against the Grands Prix, Polish EkstraLiga, and Swedish Elitserien, but that doesn’t mean we have to prostrate ourselves before these part-timers. British speedway needs – and deserves – riders who are fully committed to a minimum 36-meeting season, and should give short shrift to those unwilling to make that commitment.
You may argue that we need the world stars, but it interrupts the narrative of the season if we allow them to make cameo appearances at the expense of building our own stars. The 2014 Elite League should be about Darcy Ward, Niels-Kristian Iversen, and Tai Woffinden, not Chris Holder, Greg Hancock, or Jarek Hampel when they fancy the odd meeting to top up their paypackets.
We need to stand proud of what we’re re-building here. The Elite League is not the best but it’s a fantastic product when done right. Let’s make sure we don’t let outside influences and distractions affect that. Say no to rule-bending. Say no to guest stars. Say yes to British speedway.
ITEM: Richard Hall is just over halfway through a 30-day ban imposed by the Speedway Control Bureau for his actions at Scunthorpe on Sunday April 6. Hall accepted the ban – on top of a “red card” from that meeting and a £300 fine – without complaint, and will presumably resume his Redcar career in the Tweed Tees Trophy against Berwick next month.
Hall was banned for assaulting a prone Josh Auty, after Auty had been excluded for bringing both riders down on the first turn at the Eddie Wright Raceway. Hall claims that - as a result of the crash - his cut-out failed to work, resulting in an expensive blown engine, and then heard Auty swearing at him, causing the red mist to descend. The referee threw Hall out of the meeting, although Redcar were able to replace him with reserves for the rest of the afternoon.
Hall’s actions were decried by many (although not by as many as you’d have thought, which says more about the two riders’ relative popularity amongst fans and fellow riders), and was a form of retribution rarely seen in modern speedway. In times past, Hall – or his team’s “enforcer” - would have waited until Auty was fit and put him into the fence during a race, a “revenge” far more dangerous than a kick to the midrift (and one that many fans applauded Chris Holder for doing to Nicki Pedersen in the Best Pairs meeting a week earlier!).
The day before, half a world away in New Zealand, Darcy Ward saw his Grand Prix end early thanks to an error by Martin Smolinski, who crashed into the hapless Australian, causing a concussion and a broken thumb. Ward went off to hospital, Smolinski was excluded from the race, but went on to win the Grand Final, lifting the first GP trophy of the season. Ward later suggested, on Twitter, that Smolinski ought to have been further punished for his actions, with some sort of “yellow card”, which would presumably carry on into further GP meetings. Another incident like that in Western Springs would then see Smolinski receive a “red”, and suffer some sort of suspension.
The card system is used in Polish speedway, with mixed results, but has never been seriously discussed anywhere else. The referee – as with Hall – does have the authority to exclude a rider from a meeting if he considers their conduct to have been extreme, but this is largely reserved for non-racing incidents (although Magnus Zetterstrom was thrown out of a meeting for Somerset some years ago for violent conduct whilst racing!). The logical extension of such a system would see riders suffer suspensions, and – in theory, at least – punish those more prone to wild or over-riding, of the kind – ironically – Josh Auty has been accused of in the past.
We’ve all probably seen incidents that would be worthy of yellow, or even red, cards. However, speedway is largely a “friendly” sport, with rivalries between riders generally conducted in an orderly fashion. Occasionally it can spill over into handbags on the track – much to the delight of the crowd – but the respect between fellow racers is evident to see when they take to the track. To include a system of punishment beyond what we have now risks upsetting that delicate balance between competition and comradeship, and would be an unwelcome addition to our sport.
It’s rare to say that something in speedway, particularly on the regulations side, works well, but it really does. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Leave the red cards, and everything that follows with their introduction, to football, and let’s get on with the racing.