Fencing and an important tip on how to handle equipment

I have had a long-standing invitation from Graham Cooke to come along and help the Swindon Robins track team with their winter work on the Blunsdon track. When he said “fencing” I imagined that I might have to buy an epee or foil specially or even perhaps help with some stolen goods but apparently he meant the air variety. Graham is the author of arguably the most unique speedway Blog in the country – the Blunsdon Blog – that covers the trials and tribulations of the track team as they fight with the elements, the track and the staff that have responsibility for the greyhound. Well, more the battle with the sand that forms the grey hound track surface and how the rain makes it run and leech onto the hallowed shale surface. Not that I want to get too technical here as this has all been covered with humour in a wonderfully informative way by Graham on a week by week basis throughout the long winter months of the close season. It has become a hugely popular site and Graham informs me that traffic is an incredible average of 5,500 visitors per week to their home page (just the sort of numbers I’m incredibly envious of)! I’m keen to meet some of the characters that I’ve learnt about on the site and get to appreciate first hand the dedication, hard work and artisanesque levels of skill that goes into the maintenance, upkeep and creation of the Blunsdon track. It’s something that as speedway fans we almost take for granted. How can you have speedway without a track? Though we all know that this doesn’t necessarily mean that it will have been prepared to the exacting standards that the Swindon track curator Gerald Richter demands at Swindon (and Lakeside where he also works).

I think that some fans believe that the promoter just throws open the turnstiles of a race night, the tractor twirls round the track a few times and some lines are painted at the start gate and once the riders have got changed and warmed their bikes up then you’re just about ready to go. Graham has told me that they make an early start and I arrive along the foggy road that is the A420 from Oxford and then via the A419 (North) to Cirencester into the almost deserted but well coned car park of the Blunsdon Stadium before 8 am. A quick walk inside through the partially open gate reveals a totally locked up grandstand and an apparently deserted stadium. After a sit in my car and another brief foray inside I meet a bloke who cheerfully directs me down the road to the smaller sky blue painted gate that provides access to the pits. Apparently everyone will be there already. I quickly find that everyone has already assembled for an early morning hot drink and banter inside a hut by the pits. It’s a room of sufficient size to easily seat seven people, has space for more to stand as well as a table, sink, work benches – with an impressive display of mugs and a varied array of sandwiches boxes piled up for later by the track team – and a kettle. There are four framed speedway action photographs on the wall directly in front of the entry door and on the adjacent wall the famous Blunsdon calendar. This can be downloaded from the website and each month features a photograph (luckily clothed) of a member of the close-knit track team. Like the speedway season, it doesn’t run the full year and so only covers the months February to October. Though, that said some bloke in Cumbernauld hasn’t quite grasped this since he bombards Graham with emails saying that every time he downloads it, the months of November and December are missing.

I’m soon introduced to everyone in the hut and a friendly, unassuming group they are too. They remain completely unaffected by their new found notoriety on the Internet and Ernie makes the point to rib Graham about how news on the site about future work has got him in trouble with his wife (Rita) since he chose to spend his free time at the track rather than round the house or the shops. Like many people involved in many unsung tasks of the speedway world, they work without payment for a love of their club and the chance to be involved behind the scenes. Ernie Poole explains to me that the blokes who helped paint the changing rooms are mad keen Robins fans convinced that the 2007 season will see Elite League Championship success “and they know if we lift the trophy that they’ll be able to say that they played their own part in that too”.

All the regulars are here inside the hut mug of tea or coffee already in hand. There’s the legendary track curator Gerald Richter who’s presently incapacitated by his recent hernia operation – something that the rest of the crew correctly predict will definitely irritate him as he’s a man of action – and so ruefully tells me that he’ll “be standing in the sun watching” today in an accent that I could mistake for South African (when in fact he’s from Rhodesia/Zimbabwe). There’s the exceptionally hard working character Rod ‘Punch’ Ford whose age is variously put between 67 and 69. Whatever the exact number he has the confident demeanour and physique of a man younger than his years who’s unafraid of hard work. As if his work at the track wasn’t already enough he has also three giant sized allotments to tend to though he has yet to get to work on them “as it’s too wet up there”. John Nobbs is in his thirteenth season on the track staff at the club and is of the opinion “you know I can’t see us losing at home this season – not once”. The others are pretty confident also but reserve the right to look out for possible unexpected pitfalls through injury and mechanical failure. John tells me “on race day I’m on the tractor with Gerald blading the track between races”, while away from Blunsdon like many round this neck of the woods he’s a Swindon Town football Club fan as well as a machine operator for a recycling and quarrying company. Graham, the Blunsdon Blog Webmaster far better describes everyone in the track team with more insight and acuity than I ever could and so it is when it comes to himself in one of the early Blogs:

“The fact is that I am not used to manual work, having spent 25 years teaching at a Wiltshire Comprehensive school, the last few years of which were spent behind a desk as part of its management team. I now spend my time working as a ceramic artist, designing commercial web sites, resourcing and purchasing IT equipment for individuals and teaching basic IT skills to those unfamiliar with computers. None of these are physically demanding and I admit, I have become soft in middle age.”

Graham’s work as a ceramic artist has its peaks and troughs, so the next day he will find himself “making 200 fingerbowls for an East Anglian restaurant chain” but he relishes the variety that his early retirement permits him.

Completing our small team today is the friendly Ernie Poole who has followed the Robins since 1974 when he was 17. He met his wife at the track and, apart from a couple of years when the kids were younger, has followed the club obsessively. “With me wife, son and daughter we never missed a meeting for two years in 2000 and 2001. I can really honestly say I’ve enjoyed myself here and met a lot of true friends through speedway. I love coming here and I tried for years to get on the ground staff here”. Demand for these voluntary positions is huge, not only for the closeness to the/your club but also for the involvement behind the scenes and the insight it confers. It’s definitely a case of dead man’s shoes at Blunsdon. Away from his work here – and he is a tireless, metronomic worker – Ernie is a HGV lorry driver, “if every I’ve got any tension or anger I just save it all up for here and put all that energy into some shovelling or hard graft. It’s wonderful in lots of ways here.”

When the talk of the tearoom isn’t the Robins prospects for the coming season we also get to learn quite a bit about the reinvigorated atmosphere and enthusiasm that has swept the organisation and outlook of the Lakeside Hammers where Gerald also works. He praises the newly formed partnership of owner Stuart Douglas and promoter Jon Cook, who he speaks exceptionally highly of for his energy, insight, pragmatism and commitment. Together they’ve been like a whirlwind in every department of the club and the future outlook looks extremely rosy. Not that Gerald doesn’t also acknowledge the huge contribution made to the club by Ronnie Russell “you couldn’t ask to meet anyone who knew so much about speedway and cared for the club so much – we’ll all miss him terribly. If there could be any criticism of Ronnie, and it sounds a silly thing to say, he was too nice sometimes. He had six different riders wanting six different track conditions and you can’t promise them that they’ll all be happy. The change in management is going to be good for the riders who’ve been there for ages too – Leigh Lanham rides the same line every race, its like he’s on rails, you could shut your eyes and still overtake him. In the past riders would be able to come in and say ‘its too wet’ but now Jon Cook won’t sympathise he’ll say ‘freak off out there and ride the track!’ Some riders are about to have the best years of their careers with him in charge. Hopefully this year we won’t suffer with injuries either. Last year we lost four riders in ten days – people said sign some more but where the freak are you supposed to find them, Ronnie looked but its easy to say not do – if that happens to Swindon they’ll finish bottom of the freaking league too!” One thing is for sure, in Gerald’s considered opinion, there’s a new enthusiasm at Lakeside that is really going to take the club places this and future seasons. “We want to beat everyone this season and with Jon around I think we can” even more interestingly as Gerald works at both tracks, “you know, I think the one he really wants to win is Swindon!”

When it comes to predictions of how other teams will fare in 2007 these come thick and fast. The consensus appears to be that either Ipswich or Belle Vue will snatch the wooden spoon, though they’re keen to tell me that they think Eastbourne won’t fare so well nor, perhaps, will Oxford. Incredulity is expressed that on the forums there is a ground swell of opinion that has Coventry as likely champions. I preach the gospel of a settled squad but this only gets a “yeh, but who’s going to really improve their averages?” My answer is their American not so secret weapon Billy Janniro though this gets the more elliptical response “maybe but it all depends which Billy turns up”.

We all troop outside where it’s a remarkably sunny morning and Gerald notes “the forecast was for rain today but I don’t freaking see any clouds”. I had already noted over the winter that Blunsdon was apparently twinned with Siberia – though today it was temporarily twinned with Barbados – and dressed according in strong boots, waterproof trousers (with long johns underneath) and numerous layers to protect against any wind chill. I’d also brought my trusty gloves worn with distinction these last couple of years at the Brighton Bonanza, plus I’d invested in some knee pads – not quite a la Martin Dugard but fit for purpose as they rarely say about the Home Office nowadays. I’d bought these as I’d gathered from the latest Blog entry that today’s task was most likely to be the back breaking nightmare that is fixing the kickboards to the air fence on bends one and two of the Blunsdon track. Once you get out and walk on the surface you appreciate how huge this circuit really is. I also gather how proud Gerald is of what has been achieved here, “this year we’ve used the motorway blade all winter – we started in October and we’ve been doing a bit every week and packing it down properly. I’m really really pleased with it this season [waves arms expansively], put a top dressing on and you won’t even see a different colour. Last year Reading borrowed the blade and returned it with the gears broken, they paid for it but it took months to get repaired so I couldn’t do all that I wanted. This year we could and it shows.”

By now we’ve arrived at the far end of the track from the pits – bends one and two – and I find myself in a small but perfectly formed gang that comprises Graham, Ernie, John and myself. Ernie professes great optimism unaware that I could potentially be a handicap to smooth progress through my innate cackhandedness, “this is great if we all work as a team, there’s more of us today, we’ll really be able to build up a pace and get it done quickly”. The “it” in question sounds simple enough – attach the kickboards to the air fence. In practical terms this means unfurling shale covered thick black rubber sheets from the pile in the nearby wheel barrow to then place them at the base of the air fence, which is itself studded with metal ringed holes through the length of each inflatable panel. These ringed holes, with the addition of another one drilled one inch away, will be used to attach the rubber kick boards to the air fence by the cunning use of cable ties. Though these are fiddly to attach since they require a pair of matching holes to be drilled in the kick board to then attach it via the cable tie to the actual base of the air fence. This requires a lot of bending down or work on your haunches as well as patience, strength and dexterity along with aptitude to ignore the cold wet gloop that is the shale surface on this part of the track after the previous few days torrential rain. There are 22 panels that form the Airtek (motto “working for British Speedway”) air fence for this particular bend all clipped snugly together in position and slowly starting to inflate. Well, it is now that Graham has staggered round with the incredibly heavy military looking generator that is the air pump itself, then filled it with petrol and fired up the noisy motor. The panels have been modified for this season with the addition of a bright yellow coloured inflatable base cushion that will adapt them sufficiently to overcome a previous design flaw. This will thereby make each section almost stand as tall and proud on race day – like Len Silver at the head of his rider parade – and so allow the rubber kick board to attach almost seamlessly to work much more effectively as a barrier to the shale deposits that rapidly accrues with each bike that broadsides past during the races.

I suggest that I would be best suited to the grunt work that requires little skill or patience so with Graham I get the task to unfurl and drag the kickboards into position by each panel. Ernie soon points out in jovial fashion that I somewhat lack common sense since rather than drag each of them greater and greater distances to place in position, I could transport them close by on the wheelbarrow I unload them from. Doh! He is already crouched at work with John in the slop that is the damp shale surface and alternates between use of the drill and the cable ties. Earlier I’d overheard them comment that Charlie Gjedde had borrowed a brand new battery powered drill but hadn’t treated this equipment in a respectful fashion and returned it in a somewhat battered condition. There was a collective tut and raised eyebrow that I gathered indicated that this was probably typical of the thoughtlessness of the breed. After a while we get into a rhythm with our individual tasks. Once I’ve laid out the kick boards, I drill the additional holes in the air fence, Ernie drills them in the altogether trickier and thicker surface of the kickboards, John inserts the cable ties and Graham tightens them. I definitely have the easiest task. For a break, I go back over their work and clip off the excess ends of the cable ties – this is the speedway equivalent of pruning the roses.

When we’re hard at work a cry goes up and I mistakenly hear them say, something about Norman Cook but instead it turns out to be Rosco. He chats animatedly to Punch for a while and I pop over and introduce myself. Rosco belies his slightly mardy reputation to be very friendly and welcoming though he’s clearly pigeonholed me as a vague representative of the Eastbourne Eagles rather than an independent minded writer. He jokes, “Have you come to sabotage our fence?” When I point to the entry to the first bend and say, “yeh, just there is where Nicki is gonna put your riders in the fence” he laughs and points to the second bend “nah, it’ll be over there” before he goes on to make a point to stress how much he respects and admirers (“I haven’t got a problem with him at all”) the Eagles Danish destroyer. The team banter with him and among themselves after he’s returned to the speedway office to make the first in a lengthy series of continuous mobile phone calls. “Whenever Terry Russell’s around he always says look what we’ve done!” Ernie relates a hilarious story about the stress levels everyone felt before Sky televised the World Cup at Swindon that has the punch line “I said to Rosco – stick a freaking brush up me arse and I’ll sweep the freaking pits for you too!” everyone is a joker at Blunsdon it seems and so it’s no surprise that bearded Robins senior Start Marshal Stan Potter has soon joined the track team for a bit of further banter that Ernie stops to bat off politely, fiddles with his tin of mini-cigars but resists before he carries on with his painstaking work.

Another unexpected nuisance that has hampered the steady state approach to the work round the stadium over the winter has been the arrival of giant moles in the form of a phalanx of archaeologists who proceeded to dig trenches pretty well everywhere. Four were dug on the centre green, another took up the entire length of the pits yard and car park and these were joined by another set of two elsewhere in the car park. Scotching rumours from rival clubs that this site is so old that the last trophy won by the club was buried at the stadium, it transpires that apparently Blunsdon is the site of an ancient burial ground – well a Roman or pre-Roman burial site – of some interest to archaeologists. The council were spurred into action by the immanent closure and redevelopment of the stadium to hire Cotswold Archaeology to conduct a survey on their behalf. Their interest in the local heritage that is possibly buried hereabouts has been spurred by other very visible developments in the nearby area, which includes the extensive workings of what will ultimately become the Blunsdon bypass and also the giant Motorola building that has been erected. The company logo dominates the horizon sightline, though the building itself looks much more like a remand centre than anything that approaches delightful office space. Still it’s handy for the speedway this season! Initially Graham thought that the sudden appearance of the trenches on the centre green were part of an elaborate joke concocted by Punch but the sight of some almost clichéd archaeologists on a dig soon persuaded him of the earnestness of their intent. Sadly, the site had long been desecrated when the stadium was originally constructed in 1948 so all they found for their troubles was the random detritus that the bulldozers and levelling work originally created (and buried). The track staff had taken some quiet satisfaction when one day in torrential rain they watched a “lank haired youth dressed in trainers, jeans and t shirt but no coat – your typical archaeology student” continued to dig with great persistence while his trench rapidly filled with water. He eventually abandoned the task and when asked ‘ did you find anything?’ replied “nah, only trench foot”. Unfortunately, though the trenches have been filled, the centre green still bears the scars of the excavation and remains slightly hazardous to walk across. Graham confides, “it’s still a mess and we’re unlikely to do anything with the training track this season.”

A subject much closer to Graham’s heart is the vexed problem of the sand that leeches from the greyhound track onto the track surface. He has been politely asked by Rosco to tone down his comments on the competence of the greyhound track maintenance people but clearly struggles to remain diplomatic about their attitude and approach. To be fair, they do seem to wilfully ignore the work on the drainage and gullies that have been put in by the speedway track staff (“we dug a channel to run rainwater off the greyhound track and down to the centre green where it can do what it likes to that surface”) and resolve any loss of sand by piling the stuff ever higher to combat this shrinkage. Sand and shale don’t mix at all. In fact, “their sand runs off over the track – it’s washed off every week – the water runs through but the sand is deposited throughout the shale. This stops the shale binding. This a real problem in the corners as the riders hit the corner at full revs, kick into the corner and, as they are hitting an area of weakness in the surface, they’re literally bouncing when the shale comes away in cakes. So the bike goes down, grips, bounces and lands again and, last season, the track couldn’t cope with the speeds. Leigh flew into the fence last year cos of it and broke all the spokes in his wheel!”

Back in the tea room, Gerald is ensconced on his chair with a copy of this weeks Speedway Star (“there’s a photo of Rosco in it this week – so it’s half price!”) in his hand, close by to the container of cakes that the friendly and helpful Shirley – the club tea lady and the behind the scenes powerhouse – has brought along to tempt the hungry and thirsty track workers and Rosco, who affects some introductions “this is the legendary Shirls – well that’s what they call her on the Internet!” As you’d expect the news that there is in the Star attracts comment, “what is it with this Daniel King thing? Peterborough say one thing and Ipswich another – they both can’t be right!” News that the Reading programme has been voted the best of 2006 is greeted with some incredulity but some resignation though still some pride that Swindon tied joint second with Somerset. There is an element of an apples with onions comparison here in final points scores awarded by the Speedway Star reviewer with excellent looking Reading version judged to be worth a mark of 980 points (with 20 points lost for the “Quality/Racecard”) and the Swindon version 945 points (with 25 points lost for “page paragraphing” and 15 points for both “Visitors” and “Design”). Something that immediately sprang to my mind is that not only is the Bulldogs programme 20% more expensive – so cost an additional £10 or five Swindon issues extra during the season – but a meeting I attended used an ‘old’ programme with a less impressive insert, though this is a common customer unfriendly ‘Spanish custom’ practiced throughout the sport. Still, the anonymous reviewer has to make decisions/distinctions based on the actual issue of the programme placed in front of them – though perhaps another year price and/or value for money could replace or be added to some of the more recondite categories.

With the break all too soon over again and as we walk back to the track, Graham confides the pride and fastidiousness with which Gerald prepares the track and areas of the stadium for which he is responsible. “It has to look good as well as be good! He takes huge pride in his work and it’ll be doing his head in that he can’t work as normal today cos of his operation. Punch and I try to work to his standards. By the way, Punch loves to drive the JCB, once he’s in there you can’t get him out though you’ve got to be a little wary of him in the JCB – the power steering doesn’t work, the brakes judder and it often violently veers to one side”. I make a mental note to keep a close eye on Punch when he’s in the vehicle as I don’t fancy getting run over. Later when Punch works with the energy and strength of a much younger man shovelling gravel at the first bend curb, Ernie asks “how many other freaking 69 year olds could you imagine doing that? He’s unbelievable! He doesn’t know when to stop sometimes though. I worked with him one time and we shovelled all day and I just about kept up with him. My hands came up in huge blisters whereas his were without a mark. He said ‘you gripped that too tightly, hold the shovel like you would if you were, you know, w**king’ It’s advice I’ve never forgot!”

Another vehicle that makes it onto the track for an outing is Gerald’s silver BMW. He drives round and round the circuit – hugging the white line – in an effort to further tyre pack down the surface and find something that he can usefully do. Never judge a book by its cover and in my brief conversations with him I quickly learn that to pigeonhole him as a track curator would be to seriously underestimate his background, skills and experiences. Before I leave he outlines a brief history of his speedway life that includes track curation, 12 years as a referee, the resurrection of a derelict track in South Africa (Walkersville) plus he also ran his own Insurance and Financial brokerage company. No wonder Stuart and Jon at Lakeside have ensured that he continues to be involved with the marketing, branding and promotion of the Thurrock based club. He’s also not frightened of hard work or a full week. Just as well really since Monday and Tuesday finds him at Lakeside, while Wednesday and Thursday are taken with work at Blunsdon before Friday night it’s Lakeside again before he returns to Swindon (where he lives) on Saturday. It’s not uncommon for him to be at Blunsdon over the weekend as well. Many people underestimate what the level of work is that’s required to create the ideal racing surface.

Our work on the kickboards is drawn to a premature end – with the additional help of Roy who saw the first ever meeting at Blunsdon in 1949 when his father took him and, impressively, has been a loyal Robins fan ever since – when we start to run out of cable ties, so under Ernie’s expert guidance we have to improvise and only attach alternate holes. Gerald notes sardonically, “it’ll be another temporary job that’ll last the whole season”. Nonetheless we’ve attached the kickboards to 14 sections of air fence and, for the statistically minded, each section has an average of 13 cable ties that have to be laboriously attached by hand. When you consider the sheer size and surface area of the air fence here on both bends at Blunsdon, this is a mammoth task. Though we could have finished the job on the first and second bends should more cable ties have been available. The remainder of this particular job will be completed on Saturday and there won’t be a shortage of alternative tasks for those so minded to volunteer. Talk turns to who exactly will be the first rider to test the cushioning effect of this safety feature at Blunsdon. Gerald’s in no doubts, “the first in will be freaking Bager or Gjedde!”

Back in the tea room the cast of helpers has increased further but Shirls flutters capably about to ensure that everyone has some refreshment and is well looked after. Sadly I have to desert the crew so don’t get the chance to join Graham – or Punch as he works like a man possessed – in an archaeological dig of his own (with shovel gripped in the correct manner under the expert tutelage of Punch) on the first and second bends where further work is required to “top dress” the drains with shingle and stones. I haven’t helped that much really though everyone kindly claims that I have done so. However, I do have a much greater appreciation of the sheer difficulty and complexity involved in speedway track preparation. I also know how lucky the Swindon management and riders are to have such a hard working crew of volunteers to ensure that these and so many other thankless tasks get completed with good cheer and considerable élan. I would almost say that I can’t wait to get back there next week to help these lovely people some more…

For Graham’s account of this day at Blunsdon go here

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