Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Home Advantage (and other things)

ITEM: Home advantage is a thing. It exists, and a glance of the scores of just about any sport proves it. In some sports, like basketball, where it is literally a level playing field, it's familiar surroundings and the atmosphere generated by home fans that counts. The same is true of top class football now - where once pitches varied wildly in shape, size, slope, and playing surface, they're now manicured to within an inch of their lives, and that home advantage is now generated by a partisan crowd, and the fear of letting them down.

Speedway, more than any other team sport, is ripe for home advantage. Although they are subject to the whims of the British weather, a good track man can prepare a surface exactly to the specifications of his bosses. Got a bunch of riders with fast engines and quick reactions? Make it slick. Employ those riders who can't gate to save their miserable lives but have that much-sought-after ability to hunt down and pass those opponents who do? Make it grippy, with plenty of dirt wide, where only the bravest dare venture.

Enforcing home advantage on some tracks is easier than others. Tracks that have a - how shall we say? - unique shape, that can take some time and no small amount of laps to master, are obviously more of an advantage to the home side than those of a regular shape. Similarly, those tracks that are smaller - or much, much bigger - than the norm also afford a home advantage not found on the 300-metre "average". The velocity generated on the straights of the larger tracks can be intimidating, and the bend positioning on the smaller ones - to maximise speed - is something not quickly learned. Come July, with the home team having had plenty of laps under their belts, tracks such as Lakeside or Berwick (at opposite ends of the scale, shape- and size-wise) should not be giving away too many points to opponents, save those who prefer that kind of track as a default for their racing.

And that's another thing - within teams there are riders who like slick tracks and ones who like grippy tracks, racers who like big tracks and others who like small tracks, riders who shit themselves in the wet and those who can't ride if it's not wet... the list goes on. Even given all that, and even if your track is of average size, and a shape that suits most styles, you should still be able to ensure it is to a consistency that will reward regular outings. What I'm saying, then, is that it should be possible to prepare your track to give your team a home advantage, and many, many clubs do - there's a reason why you get more points for an away win than a home one, after all!

So nothing annoys me more - except perhaps the old adage, "they do it for our entertainment" - than when people trot out, "the track is the same for both teams" after a meeting. Usually it's after a home team has completely fallen apart, showing no sign whatsoever of a familiarity with their home track, and not always because the track has been hastily put together because of inclement weather. Yes, the track often is the same for both teams, but it shouldn't be, not unless your idea of preparing it to the advantage of your own riders robs it of all entertainment.

Last Friday, at Brandon, we were treated to the dullest of dull meetings. Somehow our track man - who hasn't exactly had the quietest of introductions to British speedway from whatever he used to at Bydgoszcz (and the jury is out on whether he actually prepared the track, raked it a few times, or simply drove Tomasz Gollob about here and there, presumably absorbing experience by osmosis, or something) - managed to serve up a dull, one line track which didn't favour the home team. Not only was a home defeat an inevitable consequence of a poor gating performance by the Bees, it didn't even have the comfort of a decent meeting to cushion that blow.

Worse still, the track was different once again from the last time we raced on it. Brandon has become the lucky bag of racetracks, never the same twice, and never quite what the home team wants. I'm told the track staff were told in no uncertain circumstances that they hadn't done their part on Friday night, but you wonder how much effect it will actually have when there is no sanction on them, and when the Bees take to the track again - against Eastbourne on Friday week - it will probably be different again!

No-one wants one-sided racing, heat after heat. If they did, they'd watch their speedway at Exeter in the 1980s, or do a tour of National League tracks when Scunthorpe are in town. But you have to expect that a home team will put up a fight, and its up to the away team to try to best them. What's good for business is sending the majority of your customers home happy, and unless you're Buxton when Cradley Heath visit or Birmingham when Coventry are in town, that means the home team winning, or at least not being hampered in their quest for points by their own track staff.

Coventry has always been regarded as a "fair" track. There's not a team that visits Brandon without a few track specialists in it, and that's because Brandon really isn't difficult to ride well. It's an unchallenging size, and a comfortable shape. If every track in the country were as fair, I'd have no truck with the, "it's the same for both teams" crowd, but it isn't, and most promoters are smart enough to ensure it never will be. Speedway is, above all, an entertainment. People don't stand around in the cold/luke warm for hours between races because they can't wait to write a number 3, 2, 1, 0 next to a rider's name. They want to see those riders earn those points, and be challenged in doing so.

As long as the league rewards away wins, and draws, more than their home equivalents we have to embrace home advantage. Although certain tracks are really not to my liking, they're there to be conquered. I just want my track to hold up its end of the bargain.

ITEM: Two years ago, after a crash when riding for his Polish club two days before, Lee Richardson passed away. His name is still remembered fondly, and not only by those clubs he rode for. While Richardson the rider could be a divisive figure, there's barely a soul to be found with a bad word for Rico the man, although as a human being we must be careful not to lionise him too greatly.

While fan acclaim is all well and good, one simple way of paying tribute to a fallen rider would be to immortalise his name. This happens frequently, and with some prestige, in other sports. Preston North End named one of their stands after Tom Finney even before his death, the leading money winner on the PGA golf tour is presented with the Arnold Palmer Trophy, and the Super Bowl winners' trophy in gridiron is named for legendary coach Vince Lombardi.

In speedway, however, we're very, very bad at this. The one time we did give it a go - with the Craven Shield, celebrating Peter Craven, a two-time World Champion killed racing in his prime - was allowed to drift into obscurity and, let's face it, never really captured the public's attention with its awkward three-way action. Other than that, Swindon have the Bob Kilby, and Wolves have the Gary Petersen, just a couple of a handful of memorial meetings still held at club level, and another shameful example of great sport hiding it's magnificent history. But it can't just be a speedway thing, though, because Poland and the Czech Republic remember their heroes with much greater weight, and the FIM Speedway World Championship trophy is named in honour of Ove Fundin who isn't even dead yet!

So it looks like a British disease, and it's about time it stopped. It may be too late to honour our long-fallen, but surely we can start with Rico? Maybe as one of only a handful of British riders to win the World Under-21 Championship, it might be fitting to name our own junior championship after the Sussex racer? Or perhaps - given his 2003 win in the Elite League Riders' Championship - we might like to name the top flight riders' championship after him? Who knows, it might make some of the more flaky riders take it seriously! Or maybe there's room for a brand new competition, one that can set its stall out from the beginning as the Lee Richardson memorial Trophy?

Speedway is an insular little sport. Some prefer to call the tight links formed between fans and riders, and fans and other fans, a speedway "family" (though you'll never catch me using it, or "pride"... but I digress). What family forgets its own like we do?

ITEM: The Wild Cards were announced today for the British Final next month, and they've gone to Edward Kennett and Stefan Nielsen. Both riders finished 8th in their respective semi-finals, and so you wonder quite why we have wild cards at all. Okay, a couple of years ago we used one for Tai Woffinden when he was too injured to contest his semi-final, but other than that it's been a fairly standard application of the qualifying rules.

The whole point of having a Wild Card system is to correct a non-qualification through injury, ill-fortune, or shenanigans, or to enhance an event with riders who might not otherwise have qualified but who could make a difference, entertainment- or crowd-wise. Kennett - and, indeed, Nielsen - do not fall into any of the former categories, and while Kennett has been a decent rider around Monmore in his time, he scored just two points there earlier this season and has been in truly woeful form ever since.

The inclusion of Kennett and Nielsen also takes the numbers of riders representing Belle Vue up to 4, and Coventry and Rye House up to 3 apiece. More judicious use of the wild cards could have found places for Cradley Heath's Ashley Morris (one place below Kennett) or Steve Worrall (chose to ride for his club, Swindon - who are also without a qualifier, rather than in his semi-final), King's Lynn's Lewis Kerr (one place further below Morris), or Somerset's Charles Wright (one place below that). All have ridden well at Monmore this season, picking off second strings as part of the Fast Track Draft system, and could be seen as worthy recipients of that wild card. The inclusion, in particular, of a Cradley Heath rider would swell the crowd and facilitate a better atmosphere for an important TV showcase.

Similarly, British Under-21 Champion (a very late call-up to the semi-final at Sheffield) Josh Bates and runner-up Adam Ellis (who was injured at the time of his semi-final) could also stake a claim for a place ahead of Nielsen, who finished fourth in the same competition. While erring on the side of Kennett and Nielsen prevents too many arguments about the fairness of their selections, you have to wonder why they have the wild card system in the first instance if they're going to play it so safe...

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