Embodiment of the Ethos

10th June

It’s already a warm day when I arrive at Sittingbourne though it’s still only mid-morning. One of the first people to greet me is Chelsea Lee-Amies who tells me rather proudly that she “got here at half eight with my dad to help with the track”. Her father Stuart (aka ‘Rat’) is one of many people who rush purposefully about to ensure that all the last minute tasks that need to get completed get completed before the tapes rise on this afternoon’s Conference League clash between the Sittingbourne Crusaders and the Buxton Hitmen. Arguably these two clubs most embody the ethos that originally led to the creation of the Conference League itself – namely a desire to ensure young riders can get the match action they require to hone and develop their riding skills as part of an apprenticeship, where winning remains an option but isn’t the obligatory be and end all of the equation. Whenever you visit them, both clubs have a very homely atmosphere along with a make do and mend attitude that places the greatest emphasis on safe enjoyment for the riders as much as cut throat success or instant results. If this Conference League fixture were to be symbolically transplanted to the world of Spanish football, today would represent the clash between Barcelona versus Real Madrid in the imaginations of the participants and fans in attendance in this part of Kent.

In fact, Sittingbourne don’t win that often at home (let alone away) so any club that visits invariably expects the chance of a comfortable win or, if they adopt similar team building policies like Buxton, this represents the best chance the visiting club will have of an away win all season. Consequently, pretty much all opponents arrive charged up and keen to compete in this flat part of Kent. The whole place has been built on the willingness of volunteers to commit their time and energy to the club. This morning is no exception as some scamper around or, in the case of Graham Arnold (dressed in his trademark green boiler suit that makes him look like a pilot or paramedic), politely issue requests to others in a laconic fashion while he matter of factly gets on with filling the adapted transit van that serves as the bowser from a well apparently located by the rider changing rooms. It’s a well that’s usually covered by wooden planks that have been temporarily cast aside for ease of access to thereby create a hole that would fascinate any curious child and horrify anyone with a proclivity to worry about Health & Safety regulations. However, the children in proximity are either distracted by the games they’re playing among themselves, pretending to be speedway riders on their push bikes and executing a series of skids and wheelies or else they’re crowded round my display table. They’re ignoring my new photo book since Chelsea is showing the curious gaggle of her friends my first book Showered in Shale, “look I’m in it [leafs excitedly through the pages], I have a copy at home and it’s signed and everything!”

I’ve set my table up just by the slope that would allow disabled people to just about squeeze into the portacabin that serves as the tea bar and refreshment room that overlooks the finish line which, at Sittingbourne, is staggered some yards ahead of the starting gate. Some people stop to buy a book and others just want to chat. One man gives me a potted history cum lecture on the history and brilliance of the now defunct and often lamented Cradley Heath speedway club as well as an unasked for geography lesson on the technical definition of the whereabouts of the Black Country. I know that rivalries throughout the Midlands are complicated, deep-seated and often bitter but I had, rather stupidly, always considered West Bromwich if not Wolverhampton as part of this unique country-within-a-country location. In fact, I’m told in no uncertain terms that neither are within the boundaries of the two square miles that constitutes the Black Country with Tipton somewhere on the periphery of its ideological border in an area apparently famous for “chain and nail making and foundries”. Fortunately conversation soon moves onto the bile and hatred that allegedly characterises the typical Wolverhampton speedway club supporter – strangely, as a counterpoint, I’ve often been told that many people had an abiding memory of unfriendliness and implied menace at variance with the often held popular view of the iniquity of Cradley’s demise doesn’t mention – brought on by the enviable success of its local rival. “As a club we produced more world champions – Bruce Penhall, Eric Gundersen, Jan O Pedersen, Billy Hamill and Greg Hancock – and won more trophies than any other club. Cradley were always in the Inter-League KO Cup every year, oh and I forgot that Schwartz and Penhall won the World Best Pairs!” It’s a managerial truism that lions are always led by donkeys but in the case of Cradley, the perils of planning permission (according to this man) are compounded by the alleged ideology of geographic purity of the chief campaigner in charge of the quest for its resurrection. “Bob King or Andrews or someint, I’m not quite sure – whatever he’s called – he’s holding it back cos he wants it to definitely be in Dudley Wood and that ain’t gone happen whereas it might elsewhere if only he’d listen!” I mentally thank my lucky stars that I don’t have any part to play in this campaign since I’ve too quickly got inadvertently embroiled in passionate debate some might see as bald men fighting over a comb territory.

Luckily Lakeside’s Adrian Kearney strolls by and I can instead talk about the impact of the changes that there has been at the club since Stuart Douglas took over from Ronnie Russell and the experienced Jon Cook also joined the club. “It’s refreshing to have someone who will listen and try new things. With Ronnie – love him to bits – he was old school so he just used to open the gates and expect people to turn up. Whereas now we’re trying all sorts and trying to get people to notice how things have changed.”

Sat on the chairs behind me are some members of the Moss family – Buxton co-promoter Jayne, her mother in law, Janet, whose husband set up the club and Jayne’s baby son Kieran who is now nine months old. He’s already a veteran of many speedway meetings and is clearly a happy, smiley baby who is content to thoroughly gum his plastic key ring. Also scampering about the vicinity is her elder son Josh who has shot up and is a bottle of pop in energy terms as well as knowledge about speedway along with being club mascot and a hugely enthusiastic fan of the club. As ever he wears his Buxton Hitmen tabard proudly. Baby Kieran chooses to break the minute’s silence that is observed during the rider parade to pipe up with a few cute gurgles. Jayne notes that she always enjoys her visits to Buxton and that both clubs continue to exist on a financial shoestring held together by devotion and dedication. She’s mystified by the spate of severe accidents that have afflicted the sport this season, “there’s been so many crashes this year everywhere – lots of different tracks and riders so you can’t say it’s for any one reason!”

Before the meeting can get underway there is a further delay for what announcer Steve Ribbons mysteriously calls a “paperwork problem”. This requires the first of his relatively frequent pits interventions by the SCB Official for this fixture, Chris Gay. When the racing gets underway – because of the intensive watering of the track there has been – there are no eddies of shale dust thrown up by riders as they pass our position during the first race but instead there is a slight splattering of gloopy shale. Jayne remarks that she believes that one of the conditions of being able to stage speedway at Sittingbourne is “not having any dust – I recall one farmer is zealous about it – though it’s hard to keep the dust down at any track, never mind on a hot day like today”. Kieran’s grandmother Janet agrees that dust and speedway go together like gin and tonic, “you get dust everywhere!”

During the delay we learnt from Steve Ribbons over the tannoy that Ken Burnett has won the raffle and my attendance is mentioned, though mysteriously for reasons I can’t explain I’m described as a “bon viveur” which – for some reason – reminds me of the advert for Listerine that features Clifford the Dragon with the bad breath. Once the racing has started at 12.25pm, Sittingbourne immediately concede a 5-1 to the James-Roberts partnership in a race won very impressively in some style by Jack Roberts. The swift arrival of the next heat has Buxton reserve Lewis Dalloway endure a frustrating start to his afternoon. First of all he fails to get his bike to start – despite some vigorous pushing of it by his mechanic in the reverse direction around the fourth bend – and is excluded under the two-minute time allowance for his troubles. He’s then pushed out again in an optimistic attempt to join the rerun off a handicap of 15 metres but still finds himself excluded once more when his bike again fails to start. Sittingbourne’s Luke Goody also endures an engine failure in this race but is already so close to the line that he is able to gain a point for third place.

Heat 3 has the Crusaders claw back some of their deficit with a heat advantage and features a win for Mark Baseby that is described as “fast or what?” by Steve Ribbons whose announcements are so brief I begin to wonder if he charges by the word. Another heat advantage in the next race restores the scores to parity at 12 each when Sittingbourne’s Danny Warwick wins comfortably. I’ve been in a long conversation with a well-spoken man (“I would buy one of your books but haven’t brought any money”) and Danny’s win inevitably brings up the topic of his distinctive white man with dreadlocks hairstyle. Admittedly I playfully gild the lily with my claim that Danny is, in reality, as bald as a coot – it’s a claim that’s soon rejected but incredulity still seizes the man at the fashion news this unique tonsorial arrangement might involve artificial help in the form of hair extensions, “you don’t mean they clip on, do they?” The next week he makes a point of coming over to tell me “I asked Danny about his hair afterwards and he said they’re real!” (before he tells me, “I might buy one of your books later in the season but haven’t got any money today”). It’s the kind of remark that Christine Keeler rhetorically answered so famously during the Profumo scandal, “well he would say that, wouldn’t he?”

The lead briefly see-saws until Heat 8 when, given his imperious form up until this point, I would have expected Jack Roberts to win convincingly. It was a good theory but sadly, though he shot away from the tapes, Jack then hammered spectacularly into the safety fence at the apex of the first bend. In fact he bounced off the fence and somehow performed an acrobatic manoeuvre with his bike that saw him somehow somersault over it before he swiftly leapt to his feet to try to clear the track of his equipment. Chris Gay stops the race in the interests of safety and Roberts is excluded, despite his much-appreciated efforts to clear the track before the arrival of the remaining three riders on their next lap. With a drawn rerun, the next race provides a real test of referee Chris Gay’s observational abilities and knowledge of the rulebook since it requires him to be almost able to simultaneously watch incidents on two different sections of the track at once. Though Mark Baseby led comfortably, the real action of the race was an intense two lap battle between Jonathan Bethall and Andre Cross that eventually led the Buxton rider to come to grief and fall but not get excluded for his troubles. This was because race leader Mark Baseby received this honour since he had fallen unchallenged seconds beforehand on a different section of the track. To my mind, referee Chris Gay made the right decision though a split second either way would have altered his final judgement. After the meeting Chris takes the time to puff thoughtfully on a thin cigar carefully and outline his thinking to keenly knowledgeable speedway fan Arnie Gibbons who’d questioned this by helpfully outlined every possibly scenario and ramification of the sequence of events that led to the stoppage of the race. Intuitively the decision made felt right to me at the time, though it was only listening to Arnie’s encyclopaedic outline of the permutations that I realised how complex the rules are and how much had to be instantaneously weighed up by the referee on this occasion.

The referee also had cause to visit the pits a couple more times during the afternoon. Speedway is a dangerous adrenalin based sport where feelings often run high and things are said or done in the heat of the moment that more sober reflection might have avoided. Also, younger people are involved so there can be an element of the nightclub confrontation about exchanges of opinion (“what are you looking at”). One such incident reportedly had Aaron Baseby brush Jack Roberts that resulted in an exchange of mutual staring followed with a threatening offer from Jack. A shake of the hands soon calmed the situation. Later, Sittingbourne team manager Chris Hunt drew the referee’s attention to a confrontation between Scott James and a member of pits staff – a situation resolved with a word in the shell like of those involved and with both team managers.

By the start of heat 12, Buxton have again edged into the lead after Jack Roberts resumed his normal service to defeat the Crusaders most impressive rider of the afternoon, Danny Warwick. Though the possibility of a Sittingbourne fight back arguably floundered on the last bend of the third lap when Andre Cross fell unexpectedly and lost position when placed second. The home fans groaned and a man on the centre green – that I took to be Sittingbourne team manager Chris Hunt – threw his arms into the air in a disgruntled and exasperated fashion. Salt was comprehensively rubbed into this wound when Buxton secured a 5-1 in the race that took the score to 33-39 with only three heats to go.

Not that all hope had been extinguished and the flame started to flicker once more with a third win on the day for Danny Warwick and a heat advantage. From the commentary box, after the race Steve Ribbons was keen to ask some rhetorical questions over the tannoy, “you must ask yourself – does that give us a sporting chance?” In the absence of any crowd response, Steve waits a minute or so before he replies to his own question (is this one of the sign’s of madness?), “the ansa is yes!” It’s a hope of a fight back that turns out to be misplaced when plumes of exhaust smoke belch from Luke Goody’s bike prior to the start of the race, only for him to then be excluded for touching the tapes. He’s replaced by Aaron Baseby, though surprisingly because he rears at the gate it’s his more experienced brother Mark who finds himself placed fourth before a stunning burst of speed has him overtake the whole field ahead of him before he’s barely reached the middle of the back straight. The Buxton riders pack in behind him for a drawn heat and thereby leave Sittingbourne requiring a last heat 5-1 to draw the meeting. Sadly this possibility ends when Mark Baseby quickly falls, though we’re still treated to the spectacle of a forceful pass by Jack Roberts on Danny Warwick (on the last bend of the penultimate lap) to definitively secure the race points, although the overall result was already a foregone conclusion. Buxton mascot and vocal cheerleader all afternoon, Josh Moss is amazed and delightedly pipes up, “Buxton won away – for once!!”

Afterwards I catch up briefly with referee Chris Gay when we’re joined by a man with wet hair who interrupts to quietly say, “I just wanted to tell you that these are the best showers in the league – they’re warm, clean and powerful and also to say that you’re the best referee in the country – honestly! – the lads in the changing room were talking about you and the way you handled things today. It was lovely that you came down and consulted in the pits with us. It makes all the difference – thank you!” I’m still not exactly sure who this polite and sincere gentleman is? Later the invariably modest Chris says, “you must think I plan these” since it’s the second time I’ve had a post meeting chat with Chris that has been interrupted by riders who wish to congratulate him (the last time was a Plymouth) on his diplomacy and skills as an SCB Official. “Young riders don’t want to lose face in front of each other and as referee I can give all an opportunity to move on without losing face”.

Before he leaves for his van this rider turns to me and says, “yours is the best speedway book ever – honestly! My mum has read every single page and, even though you gave me a right going over, I still think it’s the best. As a matter of interest, how many has it sold?” Jonathan Bethell (for it is he) looks disappointed when he hears the actual figure and consoles me, “well it should have sold more!” I’m not sure that I can imagine any other sport where the referee is so sincerely thanked by the participants – it’s the kind of thing that makes you proud to follow speedway and reflects so creditably on the young men and volunteers that go to make Buxton and Conference League speedway so special!

June 10th Sittingbourne v Buxton (Conference League) 42-48

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