"I wish I was an engine" – speedway returns to the telly

After their winter break Speedway returned to Sky Sports and treated us to a double dose on successive nights of the latest Panthers versus Racerdogs encounter. They say lightening doesn’t strike twice and these programmes were living proof of that adage though they did give absolutely everyone the chance to repeatedly demonstrate their meteorological skills. At least Tony Millard managed to introduce us to the new star of British Speedway, Paddington’s friend, Kenneth “Bear”.

There were a number of new features to the programme and this included the slightly peculiar strap line “the greatest show on dirt”. Something that was trailed beforehand as a revolutionary advance in the technological presentation of the sport – think what Channel 4 did for the viewers appreciation for cricket and then marvel how little Sky accomplish with speedway when they decide to leave Kelvin Tatum, who has just signed a three year contract with the channel, in charge of slow motion pictures with large green arrows on them to aid our understanding. In fact this aid to comprehension is the ‘Sports Writer’ technology used to great effect in the Sky football coverage by Andy Gray. Sadly it doesn’t transfer successfully but then, perhaps, speedway doesn’t quite have the same tactical nuances. On these performances Kelvin falls short of the goals he set himself “part of my job is to de-mystify the sport to new viewers and this tool will help me explain the different race lines used by riders and enhance the coverage generally.”

For the people who don’t comprehend the most basic and long-standing rules of the sport, we’re frequently helpfully told in the tone of voice reserved for a particularly slow witted child that “the home team always ride in red and blue helmet colours”, “there’s an aggregate bonus point up for grabs” (be still my beating heart) and something I really struggled with – the points scoring system – where apparently you get “three points for a win, two for a second and one for third”. Blimey, how are both new viewers supposed to keep up while the rest of us are induced into a state of narcolepsy?

While Sophie Blake is on maternity leave – I don’t think we heard anything on air to explain her ‘mysterious’ disappearance – we’re introduced to the new pits interview lady, someone I eventually gather is called Abbey Griffiths. Though sadly she’s treated like a second half rider since she gets on with her work without any real introduction or fanfare. I did look on the speedway section of the Sky website for more information about her but instead we’re still treated to she replaced Suzy Perry, there were many priapic viewers who complained that she wasn’t as good. Understandably enough, Abbey made a similar debut and came across as simultaneously nervous, keen but not sufficiently knowlesecond night, she’d lost some of her woodenness and relaxed more into her job although whether she’ll embrace her research into the culture of the sport with the dedication and gusto with which Sophie threw herself into it remains to be seen.

Anyway the speedway television season commenced at Smallmead and it was a night notable for the fact that there was absolutely no sign of the usually media spotlight hungry John Postlethwaite. It’s rumoured that he will year and allow those with many years service at the club to run the show. On screen the stadium looked rather spick and span alsomewhere between sparse and meagre if judged by what we saw of the terraces. BSI Reading’s wonderfully original marketing initiative (apart from the popular name change) from the previous season of “kids go free” has now been abandoned for the less ore pragmatic “kids U15 £5”. This doesn’t quite slip off out the pocket) so easily and the ‘fans of the future’ were conspicuous by their absence on the shots of the terraces we were treated to.

Kelvin apparently forgets that the BSPA last season appointed an additional layer of officialdom at every Sky meeting. A person whose job it is to essentially rule that almost every meeting goes ahead almost no matter what the conditions are or even what the riders and referee in charge of the meeting think, though graciously they are ‘consulted’. If the motto “rider safety comes first” only receives lip service then the concept of customer entertainment or showcasing the sport at its best are both completely forgotten when these meetings on obviously deficient tracks goes ahead. Kelvin sounds amazed at the English climate, “we’ve had all sorts of weather this afternoon [rain, hale, little bit of snow] but the important thing is that we’re on” although he then does have the good grace to completely give the game away when he admits that the racing “might be a touch processional”. Ultimately, it never fails to astonish that these meetings do actually go ahead on such wet tracks that are completely unconducive to speedway but then the language of the ‘show must go on’ inadvertently gives the lie to our own claims that it’s a genuine sport. Should there be any first time viewers or potential sponsors among the armchair audience they couldn’t help but be un-thrilled by the processional spectacle served up as speedway at Smallmead. Still those valuable commercials must be shown and the rider’s equipment and their kevlars are festooned with sponsor’s logo’s (Meridian Lifts we love you) that must always get their valuable airtime. Plus, it was such a struggle at Reading for crowds last year that the rumoured £3000 Sky payment fee per meeting represents 200 customers at the new de facto oligopolistic Elite League entrance fee of £15.

Jonathan Green has further honed his bombastic presentational style and insight-lite approach over the winter with some additional commentary for Sky on Pool tournaments but he’s in no doubt “ITS GONNA BE A BRILLIANT MEETING”. We’ll probably have to wait a few more meetings before we learn “BOTH SIDES REALLY WANT TO WIN TONIGHT”. Kelvin gives us a brief run through the betting for the Elite League crown to identify possible candidates. His former club the renamed Lakeside Hammers take his fancy as possible contenders because “there’s been massive changes there and I fancy them as outsiders”. With that it’s on with the racing and continuous references to the weather or track conditions from everyone involved to create a kind of weather channel meets gardeners world type atmosphere. Heat 1 has Niels Kristian Iversen fall off in the conditions and the always good value Steve ‘Johno’ Johnson – who they didn’t let go for the traditional track walk on camera beforehand – remarks “look at that! For a rider like Hans Andersen to slide off shows how bad conditions really are” The diminutive Abbey interviews race winner Greg ‘Mr. Nice’ Hancock who’s just about managed to prise his frozen fingers from his handlebars to inform us, “my fingers were kinda chilly, the tracks quite wet and really hard to ride”. The perpetually modest Matej Zagar rides at the back of the field in heat 3 in a manner that suggests he truly belongs in the second half. Johno is quick to identify this “Zagar doesn’t look very comfortable in the conditions” and that he’s “a more untidy rider than anyone else”. When Matej returns to the track in heat 5 he wins so imperiously, Johno is confident he has made “major changes to the bike” though in fact Zagar admits “I didn’t change a thing, its all about the gate” before he outlines his own ‘looking after number one’ philosophy that will gladden the heart of any fan “I don’t want to over-react or do anything silly, it’s only the second meeting of the season”.

Hans Andersen notes “track conditions are a bit tricky” and Tony Millard doesn’t dress it up either “the track’s looking like a ploughed field”. Thankfully one rider relishes the conditions – Travis McGowan. As a team Redin collectively apply the pedal to the metal and apart from Hans Andersen effectively encounter no resistance or, more mysteriously, little use of the tactical options available to them by the Panthers team manager Trevor Swales until their position looks truly hopeless. Like the commentary team and after a lacklustre display from his riders, Trevor admits, “we’ve run out of ideas it’s damage limitation time!” Luckily Hans soon lets us know “tomorrows another night!” Ever keen to ham it up, Jonathan (along with Kelvin) repeatedly presents this encounter – rendered almost meaningless by the conditions and the sheer number of fixtures ahead – as some sort of fight to the glorious death grudge match and an opportunity for Redin to address their Play-Off Final defeat last season. Though this happened within the pre-agreed rules of the sport, this is repeatedly talked of in a manner that might lead you to think that there had been some sort of human rights violation suffered by the Racerdogs that the UN should swiftly adjudicate upon (rather than the use of a tactical ride rule ironically brought in at the whispered behest of the television people). Jonathan brandishes the metaphorical sword of truth on behalf of the vanquished and attempts to understand the psychology of their self-employed team members “Reading are determined to right the wrong of last season!”

If the spectacle served up on this unraceable track is pedestrian and processional but cunningly enough to make to you want to only watch speedway live, then the new BSI interval adverts take the art of commercials into uncharted territory. [Apparently there is some sort of speedway event held on an annual basis in Cardiff – can anyone supply details about this mysterious event?] John Postlethwaite’s creative team aren’t satisfied with the standards set by their path breaking homo-erotic speedway-riders-as-ASBO-youth adverts of 2006, but wish to challenge convention yet further in 2007 with a script apparently designed to instantly and spontaneously lobotomise the viewers and (doubtless sincere) cast of this ‘fun’ advert alike. Anyone who has had the misfortune to hear the National Home Buyers advert (catchphrase: “want to sell your home, we will buy your home”) will struggle to believe that 2007 could produce a worse or more annoying commercial. But with the Cardiff GP entry there is now real rivalry for the mantle of the most irritating advert of the year. The question that most springs to mind is who on earth is that Aussie so-called Leigh Adams fan? Come the revolution, he’s not going to last long but in the meantime he does a real disservice to the image of his country and speedway! He assaults us with his advocacy “wake up your senses” and spuriously claims, “British Grand Prix – it’s a white knuckle ride” (well maybe for the riders). It imitates a sound track stolen from Guantanamo Bay and is hardly likely to arrest the stable but managed decline of attendances in Cardiff since its 2002 high point. Some of the other real speedway fans assembled for the advert chant “we love it –so will you” [though it’s specially pronounced “wee vuf fit, so wil ewe”]. While Aussie man has his own ditty “”I love it – so will you” that’s surely enough to make people boycott the event in case they have the misfortune to sit near him. Though at least you get issued with earplugs inside the stadium. Blimey, it’s a relief to get back to Smallmead to watch the riders strung out like a line of washing throughout the night.

A love of meteorology continues when the action moves to the East of England showground and we frequently learn that it’s a bit parky (minus four wind chill, no less). Nonetheless, Kelvin manfully struggles to offer insightful analysis with his newfound toy of the green arrows though perhaps he could have borrowed some surplus snowflake motifs from the BBC weather people – now that they’ve revolutionised their maps – to add some more context. Jonathan remains so relentlessly hopeful throughout in the manner of someone on strong anti-depressants but, since its still too early in the season to have ratcheted up the hyperbole levels to kill, is a tad too honest when he hopes for better after “not the best of meetings last night”. Kelvin “can’t believe the Panthers will be as poor as last night” and, in the convictionless manner of the speaking clock, kindly informs the soon to be comatose armchair audience “there’s a lot riding on this, a lot of pride on it!” After a race he won with a cunning but well executed dramatic overtake, Greg Hancock lucky doesn’t again explain the thinking behind the helmet colours but after some wonderfully enthralling banter about the team goal of the “aggregate bonus point” offers the rather obvious insight “to win the meeting means two more points”. He then comes over all live interview Zen about the track “its best not to be too easy on it, sooo I guess we’ll not be too easy on it!”

Anything Greg can do Hans can do better – on the track at least – though in the interview afterwards it appears that both Abbey and Hans have communed with trees in order to get themselves into character for their insightful interview. However, it is an unintentionally entertaining nights television. Jonathan joins the fray with a rather gnomic “there’s Hans Andersen – such a key role” and Tony Millard, after he’s listened to some technical information from Kelvin, reveals a love of the Dada movement with his surreal “cold air – the engines love it, Chris, I wish I was an engine”. When interviewed Lukas Dryml sounds like an Eastern European version of Sylvester Stallone. Trevor Swales completely bamboozles everybody’s favourite referee Tony Steele with the apparently simple question “how did you arrive at that decision?” Tony has just studied the film of the crash Sky have kindly provided in order to deliberate long and hard to arrive at his decision for rational reasons that he outlines in a calm voice. Then, the worst nightmare of live television strikes, when he brain suddenly insists of the use of words it randomly chooses itself. “The track is yellow..” There’s then a pause that seems to go on for an eon as Tony sort of corpses on live television as his mind goes blank and brain whirrs violently in the search to find the correct word that’s not “yellow” but is in fact “sticky”. The correct word uttered, his cogency then immediately clicks back in and he’s soon back in full flow “I’m not going to stand there and say it was the easiest decision in the world”. Afterwards, Trevor continues Abbey’s ongoing education into the sport “that’s speedway, you’ve just got to get on with it!”

Though the visual presentation of speedway is wonderful and Sky have incredibly set high standards, there’s something kind of flat about watching the sport on telly compared to the real thing. People often say “ah – but you don’t get the replays” but then tonight when the most significant overtake of the night was that by Mark Lemon on the line in heat 6, we didn’t either since all we got was Chris Louis repeatedly explanation about the first lap action from three different angles. In fact you could argue that the modern penchant for fast clip editing and the virtuosity the Sky speedway editors have developed sometimes renders the replayed action almost unwatchable (this was also a complaint about their Christmas highlights programme that was dismissed as “too arty” in some quarters). However, with the Sky coverage, we do still get the benefit that we see behind the scenes but on a “freezing cold night” it’s not enough to stop me turning over to watch Life on Mars. Though I learn afterwards that I miss the exciting final few races that features some brave outside runs and thereby after 25 heats as numbing as the cold weather, the show arguably lives up to its own relentless hyperbole. I might have also missed Kelvin say “it’s a big ask” or Trevor Swales say “fair play to the other side” as is traditional on these occasions but these had been sadly absent up to the point I turned off.

19th March Reading v Peterborough
20th March Peterborough v Reading

One Response to "I wish I was an engine" – speedway returns to the telly

  1. Anonymous
    March 23, 2007 at 6:46 pm

    Welcome back Jeff. It’s been a long winter. So what with this and your Eastbourne job, have you got time to eat, drink, sleep and hold onto a ‘paying’ job ? Best of luck for the season and I look forward to reading your stuff, everywhere !

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