Wither speedway in 2008? Part 2

With the annual BSPA conference only days away, the collective anticipation of the speedway world in Britain is almost breathless and enlivened by a variety of rumours circulating from sources apparently ‘in the know’. Interest outside the rarefied world of speedway remains constant at zero. The consensus is that something has to be done and problems were even acknowledged live on Sky Sports – usually a see no evil hear no evil environment – by Nigel Pearson, “in what, shall we say, is a tricky year for the sport.” A sign of things to come at the conference, particularly with regard to the points limit (particularly as it applies to the Elite League) is indicated by the Allen Trump’s decision to lease the Coventry speedway assets for 2008 with a view to purchasing them from owner Avtar Sandhu. Or, put another way, we’re seeing the phased withdrawal from the sport of one of the outside investors drawn to the sport in the twenty-first century. In the last few years in speedway we have seen ambitious businessmen arrive with their new brooms to possibly revolutionise the sport only to find that they stumbled and had their bank accounts get severely dented in the process. The fanfare Mr. Postlethwaite made upon his arrival at Reading – and, to be fair he nearly did succeed in buying his way to glory – contrasted markedly to the reaction and announcement of his ignominious departure. In the case of Coventry – described by Allen Trump, the purchaser of the Coventry Bees speedway assets, as the “Manchester United of speedway” [I thought that was Poole?] – trophies and success have arrived on a regular basis. Due in no small part to a mostly settled team aided by their band of behind the scenes staff and well regarded, experienced management. Even more importantly, the hallmark of a thriving business is that it is usually founded upon a sensible, carefully thought through strategy that aims to achieve its goals incrementally with appropriate levels of investment to ensure profitability. However, all this sensible progress, a bulging trophy cabinet and the ongoing profitability of the speedway component of his business hasn’t persuaded Mr. Sandhu that his long-term future remains within the sport. Indeed, no one has ever doubted Mr. Sandhu’s credentials and success as a businessman away from the shale and has run things at Brandon with hallmark professionalism that others have thought to or could well try to emulate. The sport can apparently lose a Postlethwaite from British league speedway without pause but the departure of a truly entrepreneurial businessman like Mr. Sandhu must give fans and the authorities alike some pause for worry as to his implied view of the likely future direction (and profitability) of the sport. Indeed, unless some of the hardy perennial and long standing (oft discussed) serious issues impacting the future development or reinvigoration of speedway are really acknowledged and properly addressed, things could decline further and make this look like another golden age. Based on past experience, mostly likely the departure of Mr. Sandhu will, Matrix-like, soon be forgotten and the need for lessons to be learnt from his departure overlooked. One thing that perhaps shouldn’t be forgotten was that Mr. Sandhu was, in fact, someone allegedly unafraid to question the rules and regulations that govern the sport and even threaten recourse to legal action. Often such a suggestion gets results and clearly some within the association thought the courts in the country might uphold, so this led to swift resolution of the matters under discussion.

It’s often mentioned that failures at an international level can be handily blamed on the large number of supposedly culpable ‘foreigners’ who ride here. This is frequently cited as a key factor in our arrival at the stage where we enjoy a fundamental lack of British speedway talent capable of excelling on a world stage rolling off our own previously productive speedway production line. Sadly for more xenophobic types, the law of the land and EU law in particular as it relates to freedom of movement and employment within the European community effectively legally scuppers any mooted plan to exclude undesirables. Leaving aside the vexed issue of the ownership of rider assets and rider contracts themselves (at least until someone brave enough to contemplate gaining a speedway version of the freedom of contract enshrined by the Bosman ruling in football employment law), the best that the BSPA can do as an association is to collectively agree rules and regulations that ensures that said problem foreigners will voluntarily – because of the conditions attached – decide not to ride in this country. In his thoughtful Speedway Star article, Terry Russell pointedly identified the problematic relationship between the British (BSPA) and Polish (PZM) authorities – along with a lack of collective action expressing dissatisfaction by the British, Swedish (SVEMO), Danish (DMU) and Australian speedway governing bodies – as the root cause of many rider availability problems that has, for some seasons now, beset the Elite League in particular. This lack of a reciprocal “federation agreement” means that “at the moment, Poland are walking all over us” and, rather hopefully flying in the face of recent experience, he thinks, “that can’t be allowed.” At the Elite League level, the other huge problem is the massively deleterious impact the extended Grand Prix series has upon fixtures in many key weekends during the season as well as upon rider availability and motivation. Some rail against the injustice of it all and advocate a future zero tolerance policy of the series (‘get rid of all GP riders’), whereas Terry R is a member of the more pragmatic school that doesn’t really want to address the issues that would result from a confrontation with the GP series or the riders who take part. “The Grand Prix has been totally devastating on the sport here, but we can’t go against it so we’ve got to try and work with it.”

This complex knot of competing interests is also often linked to the so-called ongoing problem of unfettered ‘rider power’ that manifests itself in high payments and a feckless attendance record. The reality is that demand for riders has often outstripped supply – an effect often exaggerated by the latest BSPA winter rules changes – though this short-termism and a lack of collective action by the promoters themselves to address these issues (rather than grumble about them) is often forgotten. Terry rightly identifies that “the problem is, everybody’s own business is the most important thing to them.” It’s only human nature to advocate the rigorous application of stringent rules for others but to view yourself as an exception to the norm should one of the aforesaid regulations interfere with your own view of what you or your business need to do. Many have pointed out that promoters often haven’t shown patience with struggling riders (of any nationality), have frequently used the quick fix of switching their rider allegiances to alter their teams according to helpful team averages, rider availability or their present view of how their own ambitions for glory are best served at that precise moment. Changing horses mid race is the speedway way and always presented as a necessity rather than the knee jerk reaction it often is. Also the situation whereby overseas riders command a raft of benefits including premium pay rates, flights, signing on bonuses and the like is a situation introduced, condoned and regularly practised by practically all EL promoters for competitive advantage reasons. Regular shortages of certain riders on amenable averages that fit with that years version of the organisation of team strengths has exacerbated the problem of wage/benefits inflation beyond profitability for all but a small minority of clubs. This is a stick that the promoters have invented for their own backs to be beaten with. Given how precarious their careers, contracts and team places historically have been and continue to be, no rider is ever going to self-denyingly refuse to maximise their earnings if these opportunities are offered. Some riders do indeed take the proverbial with regard to their fluctuating availability and commitment to their British teams – this cheats the promoters and the paying public alike – but, when all is said and done, this remains within the remit and control of the promoters to collectively solve. Jon Cook puts the problem succinctly in his thoughtful responses to 20 questions posed by Hammers fans on the Lakeside website, “we need tighter agreements with foreign federations so riders can’t take the mickey with dodgy medical certificates…the problem is to make sure that you don’t punish the innocent clubs at the same time.”

The solution of what to do with Johnny Foreigner ranges from the drastic – ban all Poles (“they don’t like it up ‘em!” as Corporal Jones used to say) – to the more likely change to the stricter enforcement of the latest revised rules of the association on missed appearances. Most speculation anticipates that possibly even a first offence will result in a fine, 28 day ban from British speedway (with no facility to replace them in the team except with a junior rider) and, if really draconian, compulsorily forced to watch Jonathan Green loudly gurn his fact-free way through a month’s worth of Sky televised fixtures. [In fact, Jonathan has a lot of bows to his string as glance at his website and his clients reveals though – for some reason I can’t quite put my finger on – I just can’t help recalling the time Clive Anderson famously interviewed Jeffrey Archer about his alleged talents.] A second offence would cause your promoter to have a heart attack, your team to fall like a stone from any form of contention for speedway glory that season and, possibly, a lifetime ban allied to a compulsory exam to answer questions about John Postlethwaite’s vision and impact on speedway. This should please Peter Collins and soon sort out all those pesky riders with tactical stomach upsets (saying you have a migraine was a better class of excuse until this was devalued by Danny Bird) but, when it comes to vexed question of ‘Where are all the talented British speedway riders of the future?’ this will be as effective as a sticking plaster on a wooden leg.

The problem of attracting British youth onto a bike without brakes in the first place has baffled the greatest speedway minds of this generation and is hard enough to answer without the added complication that, for vast swathes of the country, they literally have nowhere to practice regularly. This is a fundamental flaw that is going to require ingenuity to solve, given that history has shown that the popularity of speedway as a spectator sport has declined at a rate equal to the burgeoning awareness of noise pollution and/or health & safety regulations. A perception of increased noise and dirt invariably frightens the council horses (let alone their voters) and has severely hampered the opening of new tracks throughout the United Kingdom. Worse still, very few promoters own their own stadiums and so remain beholden to their landlords or some way down the queue of priority users of various stadia. Even then, those tracks lucky enough to surmount the necessary local authority planning hurdles – who after all are only asking to race one night a week throughout the season – often have strict curfews. More worryingly many promoters have little of no desire to run second halves let alone races for the juniors. I’m sure that I’m going to miss out some places but you don’t need much more than one hand to count the number of speedway tracks that could offer all the year round facilities and tuition to enthusiastic or ambitious young riders. Sheffield’s training track closure was mitigated by the opening of another comparatively nearby in Scunthorpe, but this is the exception not the rule. Apart from Scunny, to get regular track time in or out of the season determined young riders and their parents are going to have to travel to Sittingbourne, Stoke, King’s Lynn, Buxton, Newport and Eastbourne to name the ones I can instantly recall (and apologies for missing any tracks out here!). Even then, the level of tuition and support varies. This is hardly a comprehensive enough network for a country of 60 million people, let alone anything like adequate to have the Swedes, Danes or Poles taking fright or fearing their speedway schooling is no longer adequate. Johnny Foreigner might skive off his British speedway but his government, sports governing body and speedway teams all recognise the value of investment in a structured nationwide youth (speedway) education policy and infrastructure. Obviously, it’s no good bleating on about the urgent need for comprehensive lottery funding for speedway training tracks, especially if we have to compete in an environment where the government concretes over school playing fields or reduces grants to cultural activities in order to funnel funds towards the 2012 Olympics. Particularly when we so clearly haven’t got our own house in order as a sport with regards to agreement upon how to support, structure and finance youth development within British speedway. Until we have a plan for the future we can agree among ourselves as fans, young riders and promoters, we won’t get suitable funding from ‘outside’ sources.

The imperative to find more young British riders capable of serving a lengthy apprenticeship and having the skill to make an impact on the international stage is, in the short term, a cost without benefit for the promise of jam tomorrow. However, this is the inescapable building block for any sort of long-term brighter future for the sport in the United Kingdom. Home grown talent would be markedly cheaper for the promoters and, pragmatically, success in the GP series or for the national team is one of the few remaining ways that speedway can, once again, grab the national print and broadcast media spotlight. This is important since most agree that increased visibility usually means greater levels of sponsorship and more lucrative advertising. This is something that still remains a dog that hasn’t yet barked when it comes to actual revenues produced by either the comparatively obscure/specialist audiences that watch the Sky satellite coverage or the GP series. In his philosophical piece in the Speedway Star, Terry Russell acknowledges the impact of the Chris Harris win in Cardiff in heightening interest among the mainstream media before he talks of a “cash-in” and pragmatically notes, “if we get a consistent run going both individually and with a British team, the fact is the nationals [papers] will take notice.” Given that no British rider has made the overall top five of the GP series in recent years or the latest poor display of the British squad in the World Team Cup, the rider production line definitely needs to get running sooner rather than later.

That supply of talent was supposed to come from rider development and progression through the leagues, starting out at the Conference League level. Neil Machin believes that the ideal of regular “track time” allied to a “pre-determined level of pay structure” that the league laudably started out with as its aim has been replaced by “chequebook speedway”. Neil is someone who didn’t exactly thrill to the sight of ‘Buzz’ Burrows passing riders half his age (with a fraction of his experience) to win races at Plough Lane since it signalled the arrival of the ‘winning is everything’ mentality. Though the fig leaf that the youngsters learnt from rubbing shoulders with experienced riders, in reality this placed individual club success equal to or above the original more collegiate emphasis of the Conference League of young (British) rider development. In Neil’s view this happened when, “you saw Wimbledon come in, start chucking the money about ‘let’s have all the old stagers and guarantee those 15 points, winning is everything’, then Mildenhall decided to lock horns with them.” Whatever the reasons or whoever the culprits [and neither of the clubs Neil Machin identifies any longer exist at this level], some other clubs remained true to the founding ethos of the Conference league – Buxton and Sittingbourne spring to mind – but many have not done so and have been allowed to dilute the original founding ambitions. Arguably, the consequence of inflated wages and the vain pursuit of transitory glory is that British rider development has been stymied or stalled. Terry Russell has outlined some of his vision for the future to ensure the Conference is “at a level where Sittingbourne, for instance, should be able to operate at and not be forced to sign some ex-star from the Premier League just to be competitive.” He believes that there is a need to try to compete with better-structured and funded approaches of other European countries and advocates that the authorities start a “six year apprenticeship scheme”. As ever, details are sketchy and still need to be agreed (and stuck to) but if keen/talented teenagers are identified, “put them in the Conference League, where they’re on salaries, but they’re in workshops and they’re spannering, they’re learning their trade.” If they then have the ability they can progress through the Premier and Elite levels but “always on wages, always in protected positions, always racing against each other.” Some will argue that this reduces rider quality at the PL and EL levels but everything must be considered. Another suggestion is that every Premier League team should compulsorily field two British riders at reserve to encourage their talent without fear of poor performances resulting in their being sacked. Others have pointed out that this suggestion might lead to another auction over wages/benefits, plus it will seriously disadvantage clubs in the North or the further flung extremities of the PL compared to their more geographically fortunate southerly/centrally located brethren who’ll tend to attract the cream of the talent.

Someone who has become frustrated at opportunities for young people to try out or take up the sport in this country is Andy Higgs. He’s another man who feels passionately about the need for a structured nationwide approach to the present problem and has recently tried to innovate by channelling his frustration and doing something about it by setting up the Speedway Training Company. He told me, “In terms of youth development, I think there are some major issues to be addressed. The Academy League served little purpose last season. The aims and objectives set out at the start of the season just weren’t met. We had completely farcical situations where riders of grades 4 to 6 in the Conference were riding regularly in the Academy. The Academy League needs to be a designated training area for riders with limited second half experience who have not yet broke into a Conference set up. Until this happens, then there is little chance of riders progressing through the Leagues. I think the Conference is in for a difficult time in 2008. With three teams looking to move up into the Premier, it is going to be an enormous task, not only to run a competitive league but also accommodate the 21 riders (plus squad members) released from those squads elsewhere. I’m of the opinion that all Elite and Premier clubs should have to enter a four man junior team, made up of Conference League riders, just like we saw in the early 90’s with the creation of the BL2 which brought some superb prospects through the ranks. The Academy League should be a separate entity and organised by Conference League clubs. They have an excellent model in Sweden, with some of the Elitserien Clubs running teams in the Allsvenkan, which is a feeder league. All of the Elite clubs there have a partner club in the lower Leagues and there is a constant feed into the system. Though they have the luxury of unlimited track time that, obviously, we don’t have over here.”

Although some clubs still run competitive second half races, the vast majority are shocking at offering laps after the meeting. Often with no tapes, no organised programme; that is, if they run at all. I understand the pressure of track time and of curfews, but many clubs finish their main meeting and shut up shop, sometimes with an hour to run. Now it maybe that they can’t get any riders to compete or it maybe they need that time to prepare the track for the following meeting. If it is the former, then we have real problems. We need to be canny and try and get youngsters from off cycle speedway tracks, grass track, club motocross etc. Until we exploit these area’s we will continue to have a short fall in riders. One of the aims of the Training Company is to try and entice riders from other disciplines, particularly as awareness is up after Sky’s coverage. I would also like to see Lottery funding applied for or TV money re-invested to purchase at least three stock bikes for each track for riders to come along to open days and have ago. Until the doors are flung open, people won’t come. Speedway is a closed shop. Everybody is viewed with caution and we certainly don’t like ‘outsiders’. This backwards view has held us back for 30 years or more and now we are paying the price.”

As ever there’s plenty of comments and food for thought but exactly what this years BSPA conference will deliver remains to seen.

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