Rugby Score of a Speedway Meeting

2nd April

The latest televised broadcast from the speedway lovers at Sky Sports was mostly notable for its absences. New presenter Abi was very obviously missing from Sandy Lane – hopefully only for a further visit to the famed Sky presenter’s finishing school – as were any banal or meaningful interviews conducted in the pits. Even Kelvin appeared to have cast aside his new fangled technological gizmo – basically an action replay with indistinct random arrows without any real explanatory value overlaid with small pop-up head shots to mark who each rider actually is – in favour of its verbal equivalent. Also absent was any sign of a competitive meeting, a credible team for Oxford and, as is traditional so far this season, a properly raceable track surface. For once, the difficulty the riders faced coping with the track hadn’t been inflicted upon them by the commercial imperatives of a live outside broadcast that invariably demands ‘the show must go on’ no matter how abysmal the spectacle it creates when raced on a wet or difficult surface. Instead the track staff in Cowley had managed the seemingly impossible in that they had created a surface that on the inside mimicked the lumps and bumps more associated with a scrambles meet when combined with a ploughed field. Such was their achievement that the surface was even worse than that traditionally produced for the BSI for their Grand Prix meetings in ‘one-off’ stadia that invariably ensures the subsequent racing is mostly processional.

Interestingly, the opening images used to headline tonight’s show chose not to emphasize the bravery or skill of the riders but instead stressed their proclivity for dramatic crashes and fights. This all makes good television of course but doesn’t show the sport in its best light to the ‘new audience’ we always hear so much about but see so little evidence at speedway tracks round the country. The breathless voiceover informed us it was “time to rip up the rule book” which ironically is also the approach Sky take to negotiations with the SCB about the many aspects of the sport they don’t like and wish to ‘improve’ or ostensibly change for the better (helmet colours, tactical ride rules, referees in charge of rain-offs etc). After the introduction fades we cut to the Sky booth at trackside where both Kelvin and Jonathan are stood besides a remarkably small table that is fully occupied with the sleek black computer screen they each have. Maybe it allows Jonathan to google the Met Office since he soon brings us the big meteorological news of the evening, “yes, the temperature’s gone down a bit but it’s still a beautiful evening” Ever professional and keen to bustle on he rhetorically asks Kelvin for additional insight, “it’s not going to be easy for Oxford is it?” Kelv zings back the reply, “you’re dead right – it’s going to be a difficult home fixture for the home team!” With the promise of excitement like this ahead, it wouldn’t be surprising if the phone lines burnt red hot across the country as the ‘new audience’ rang other potential ‘ new audience’ members to say ‘drop everything and watch what’s about to happen at Sandy Lane on Sky Sports 3!’

Further reason to watch goggle-eyed doesn’t take long to arrive when we learn of a “few changes to the track” which now excitingly sees a staggered start and finish line. Refreshingly this is, for once, a measure put in place for the always paramount issue of “rider safety” rather than just lip service, especially since the additional yards to the first corner might reduce the incidence of first bend tangles previously seen at the track. Jonathan draws the logical conclusion, “one thing’s for sure, there’s going to be a new track record!” A run through the team line-ups has Kelvin temporarily don a metaphorical doctor’s white coat to explain Ales Dryml’s brush with death last year after his televised crash which caused “that nasty, nasty life threatening injury” (it’s an insight that bothers Jonathan enough for him to return to it rather philosophically later, “I suppose when you’ve only been given a five percent chance of survival, everything is a bonus!”). We’re also to be treated to news of the hot stuff that is the present form of the Bees Rory Schlein who has “started the season on fire”.

Every week there’s one ‘new, big story’ that irrelevantly dominates every waking moment of the presentational team’s coverage of the live meeting. A fortnight ago it was the temperature (though Jonathan seems reluctant to ever leave aside this brilliant presentational device) and last week it was the track. Our trope of the night for this fixture is the news that Coventry have exactly the same team as they had in the 2006 season. This is unusual (but hardly a revolution) in speedway because of the continuous gerrymandering of team averages/strengths every winter but shrewd choices and some rider averages artificially held down by absence through injury has created this one-off opportunity for the Bees. Kelvin is almost mystically lyrical and burbles away delightedly, “we’ll talk about seven – seven riders retained from last year!” Jonathan is similarly keen to parade his insights and look to possible future excitement for the ‘new audience’ sat up at home on their sofas, “a lot of people are saying [who? the editor in his ear?] Coventry could come here and win!” before he goes on to identify that they might encounter some resistance from the Cheetah’s veteran Andy Smith “who’s always good for some points”. In case we’re in any doubt as to the magnitude of this fixture, Jonathan adds, “it’s a big night for Oxford [electricity and the railway have arrived in the town?] – lots of fans have come out to see them ride though it’s a cold night!”

In the commentary box Nigel is joined by the always bubbly mind reader ‘Sudden’ Sam Ermolenko who notes, “I don’t think there’s any kind of advantage in speedway unless you make the start” before he later shocks us with the revelation, “it’s all about winning races, you just have to get in front”. Obviously, Scott Nicholls and Sam share the same sports psychologist or a love of positive thinking since they mostly both strenuously try to avoid any public acknowledgement that the track conditions might in any way be really awful or use this as any sort of flimsy excuse for a poor performance. Though from race one, no riders wins a race from this gate and any rider who ventures onto the inside line of the track has his bike buck like a bronco while they enjoy a ride as smooth as you’d expect from a severely rutted or ploughed field. Scott remains adamant that you have to just “ride it hard”. It’s an insight that chimes with the invariably easily suggestible Jonathan even though he never has to ride a speedway bike, “keep riding it hard that’s good advice from Britain’s number one”. Nigel Pearson can’t help but inadvertently speak the truth when he verbalises the evidence of his own eyes, albeit with some understatement, “the riders seem to be taking it somewhat carefully in the early stages”. Sam briefly accepts the need to “battle the track” before he switches to the more gung ho, tough love ‘hear no evil, see no evil’ school of rider motivation, “you can’t blame the track” as everyone has to ride it. Nigel takes on board what Sam’s saying but just can’t quite shake his doubts throughout the meeting, “I can’t help but think that the track is more than playing its part!”

Luckily the viewers are distracted by an endless series of triumphant rides from the Coventry team that appears to have their riders win at will, whether or not they make the start or even when they’re lumbered with the ‘less effective’ inside gate positions. When Smolinski wins a race he thrusts out an arm (once) and then crosses himself – it’s an understated but deeply orgiastic celebration that captures Nigel’s imagination, “Smolinski knows how to celebrate!” It remains a tough track in a tough sport for tough men – when Olly Allen comes to grief Sam guesses that some discomfort might have resulted, “his face planted itself into the track a little bit”. To receive judgement on who’s to be held to blame for this fall we cut live to the small camera mounted in the referee’s box, where Mick Posselwhite is only too painfully aware that he’s about to be broadcast live on national telly so is inadvertently caught nervously and fastidiously smoothing his hair as though he has to cope with the recalcitrant curly locks that Russell Brand suffers from.

With the Oxford team providing an awful display to match the awful track, Nigel Pearson has to draw deeply on the reservoir of his speedway knowledge and professionalism to attempt to inject some excitement and to attempt to retain the flagging interest of the viewers. He cleverly suggests that live in the flesh speedway action is available around the country every night, highlights the first Super 7 meeting on Saturday and clutches the wonder of the team riding straw (“he continues to look across – that’s very clever”) when Schlein escorts Smolinski to another easily won five points for the Bees. In the season long battle to remain the bluntest knife in the drawer, the J & K dream team of speedway presenters then vainly search for things of interest no matter how blindingly obvious or banal they are. Kelvin puts on his deerstalker and gets out the magnifying glass to deduce from the action replays they painstakingly talk us through, “to be honest the track played its part there” before Jonathan wonders, “will the grading make that much difference?” Back in the commentary box by Heat 4, Nigel is reduced to calling a straightforward pass by Chris Harris, that’s followed by another equally pedestrian manoeuvre later in the same race by Smolinski, as “breathtaking speedway”.

There’s so little to talk about that Sam and Nigel accidentally spill the beans – in the manner of revealing that Father Christmas doesn’t exist to a small child – about Chris Harris’s chances of success in the Grand Prix series. “I think it’s going to be a bit of a tall order for him” appears politely optimistic compared to Sam’s, “he doesn’t really have the starting skills”. That has set up the thrill of watching the forthcoming 11 rounds of the 2007 GP series up a treat for the legion of patriotic armchair viewers and effectively holes the ‘Back the Brits’ campaign below the waterline before it’s even had the chance to set sail. When he has Bomber in the trackside booth, Kelvin tries to pick up the pieces, so eases in with a few of his pithy observations about the track (“it’s a bit tricky….you were bouncing around”) before he follows up with one of his trademark facilitating questions, “it’s a big season for you domestically and internationally – you must be excited?!” sadly this only elicits a sleepy, “yeh”. Later J & K double team Scott Nicholls to effectively savage his tarnished World Champion credentials with pointed mention about his historically poor performances in the recent few GP series. This cunning ruse forces out of him the tactful admission, “I’ve been disappointed and I know you have”. Kelvin is then forced to blather on about anything that comes into his mind that will appear later in the summer on Sky as though it heralds the Second Coming, “there are some exciting matches coming up on the international scene – what about the World Cup?”

Some of the Oxford riders appear to be sponsored by the ‘M4 Van Centre’ and spend most of the night on their own metaphorical hard shoulder. Mention of motorways and the bumpy condition of the track reminds me that when the M1 first opened the vibration from the road surface used to cause cars unused to such long drives to break down when the vibration caused screws to loosen and sheer off. Such is the state of the track tonight, they would struggle to get past the first bend at Oxford. Without Abi to break the monotony with a few wooden questions of her own in the pits, Jonathan is left to flounder during each break between the processional races like a goldfish thrown from his bowl. He even appears to become self-conscious about his lingua franca – the “obvious reaction” – when he accidentally utters what’s on his mind, “well, it’s an obvious reaction, three 5-1’s for Coventry it’s looking ominous”. It’s so bad that JG can’t believe that Sky haven’t already thought to put in a mid-meeting request to counter the boredom of the contest on display by further altering the rules to suit their own televisual purposes, “Kelv, do you think with the new tactical rules Oxford don’t really have a chance to come back?” KT is too busy humming the mantra of stability (“that continuity factor”) to contemplate any overhaul of the rules. It’s a wonderful insight and an irresistible theme that Sam also runs with “Coventry kept their same seven riders” before this theme again returns again to the booth were Jonathan Green reveals his belief that cleanliness is next to godliness, “Coventry look really together as a team…[they] walk out together, walk back together, the pits are clean!” Later he confuses the banal facts for statistics, “the only league team to keep the same seven – that’s an interesting statistic!”

In the booth Sam has been seized by his own brand of enlightened mysticism, “he was riding defensively not offensively as he should have been”. Nigel chunters back, “what fascinating insight – you’re the expert” in a tone of voice that suggests he means it but reserves the right not to believe it, if quizzed by the police about it later. On the subject of filth and offence, the peril of live interviews with verbally expressive speedway riders provides some entertainment when the important issue of team togetherness is further done to death, particularly when J & K interview the rejuvenated Billy Janniro. In his soothing American accent (compared to Sam’s more strident, betcha-by-golly-wow version), he gives us a real litany of the real and imaginary advantages: all know each other/how each other rides blah blah “we all have the same place in the pits, we take the piss out of each other”. J & K both pull expressions like they’ve drunk something that tastes bitterly awful and immediately end the interview sharpish. Kelv laughs nervously, “he he he – he’s full of it, isn’t he!” while Jonathan comes over all Mary Whitehouse and issues a fulsome apology to the viewers that would normally see him commit seppuku if he were Japanese, “I think he meant taking the mickey, it’s just his accent!” (I hesitate to think of the swearing by the editor in Jonathan’s ear) It obviously spooks the ultra urbane JG so much that he later apologies after another incident with Rory Schlein that, in fact, only actually happened in his suddenly remarkably vivid imagination, “we might have heard another word we shouldn’t have – I apologise once again!” What is it with this modern will-to-apology? Tony Blair expresses regret all over the place about long forgotten events but won’t admit that there might be contrary opinions about the Iraq conflict. Similarly, Jonathan contritely apologises for swear words that don’t happen but doesn’t ever utter a peep when the riders processionally race on substandard tracks or the demands of the GP television schedule gradually wrecks the vibrancy of British speedway.

Sadly, there is no mercy killing available for the Oxford fans unfortunate enough to be present in the stadium and even the uber-professional Nigel admits, “we’ve seen a scattering of decent racing now”. In the manner of someone preparing for an exam with some last minute rote learning he does find numerous but only slightly different ways to say, “it’s very, very rare that we see score lines like this!” The fact that the home side eventually hit a commonplace milestone nearly overcomes him, “Oxford hit the 20 point mark – that’s an achievement in itself”. Sadly, it’s an achievement too far for me and I switch off.

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