A Night of Flying Haggis and Fire Starters
Having worked in Harlow, it’s always an embarrassment not to be able to find a short cut through the town to the toll bridge by the sewage works that leads to the speedway stadium in Hoddesdon. This time I even managed to go past the rather posh Harlow greyhound stadium, the football club and golf club before realising I’d gone the long way and then eventually found myself as practically the first to arrive in the hot, dusty car park outside. Inside Andy Griggs was already setting out his stall for the evening and when, a short while later, he was joined by Doug Boxall – for all the world it looked as though they were restaging the photograph of this trackshop that appears in my book. Not long afterwards, Edward Kennett would arrive and ask, “am I in it?” Though I’ve taken many photos of this rising star of the shale – mostly at the Bonanza – operator error, the shakes and poor light has dramatically hampered the end results. Andy delights in the situation and tells Edward a number of times during the evening, “I’m in it and you’re not!”
As ever at Hoddesdon, the behind the scenes activity is frenetic on race night and with the track shop right by the speedway office I get to see first hand how hard Hazel Silver and her staff work to ensure everything runs smoothly. Len buzzes enigmatically about before the gates open but he’s soon away down to the pits to conduct the speedway end of the race night performance. Before he heads off, Hazel looks at Len and says, “we have a collection for Garry….” “Stead” adds Len as though part of a speedway mind reading double act before he continues, “Tai will help with that”. The horrendous news that Garry will be confined to a wheelchair as a result of his crash at Somerset has shocked the sport generally in a week when news has circulated that two European riders have been killed when riding in Continental Europe league meetings. Everyone knows the dangers of speedway and bikes without brakes – but the level of carnage there has already been this season has provoked many people to wonder about the actual cause, along with some talk of the need for (unspecified) safety improvements.
When the jovial Rye House and Peterborough speedway track announcer Craig Saul arrives he lets me know that the Rockers unofficial speedway forum have thought up an innovative way to raise funds for the also badly injured 30 year old Sunderland born Rye House ‘veteran’ rider, Stuart Robson. Namely they have sponsored Craig for every time he can work the words “fire starter” and “flying haggis” into his comments during the night. On the surface, these don’t sound the most propitious words to casually drop into any speedway conversation until you remember that Craig, as a part of his race night spiel, has a pet name for every speedway rider who ventures through the Hoddesdon pits gate. Luckily tonight’s visitors the Glasgow Tigers feature Shane ‘fire starter’ Parker and David ‘flying haggis’ McAllan. “Even Len is in on it and promises to get in a few mentions during the rider parade” smirks Craig before he heads off to the referee’s box with his trademark banana and comprehensive notes (plus my book) in hand. Craig is being unduly modest since although the Glasgow nicknames are the invention of others, he has deserved reputation for ingenuity and creativity when it comes to the invention of rider nicknames, which then subsequently become the moniker that stays with a rider throughout their careers. You only have to think of Flyin’ Ryan Sullivan, Jan “The Hammer” Andersen, “Speedways Most Wanted” or “The Total package” (Hans Andersen) and “The Thunder Down Under” (Jason Crump). Though I have to say that this always calls to mind farting or Rod Stewart’s ex-wife Rachel Hunter who described her orgasms as something along these lines in respect of the tremors it caused in her pants.
Craig is deservedly known as one of the country’s foremost announcers and, if truth be told, there was need for some aural entertainment on a night when not so many of the Glasgow riders put up anything like a real fight against a Rockets team supremely confident on their own track. As usual at Hoddesdon, Len Silver leads out the track staff and riders in mock military marching on parade fashion to the sound of ‘Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines’ before he treats us to some slightly idiosyncratic introductions in true Master of Ceremonies fashion. Naturally, we’re introduced to each rider in turn, “Robert – I can’t pronounce it – SEA-ACK. Is that it? You know who I mean”. All this happens before Len reprises his thoughts on the recent performances by the club, particularly the cup meeting at Birmingham during the week, where Rye House ended the night with only three fit riders (out of the six they started with) and hopeful appeals to the referee to call a halt the meeting fell on deaf ears. It was a defeat that still rankles with Len days later, “on Wednesday – when we raced at Birmingham – we raced on a track that was a disgrace!”
The racing is soon underway and the Rockets open with a 5-1 that effectively ends the meeting as a contest before it has hardly even really started. If I were a Tigers fan – and there weren’t many in evidence on this leg of their mini-Southern tour – I’d be irked by the lack of fight shown by the experienced George Stancl. The race is won by “they call him the English German – Robbie Kessler” (now in Hertfordshire as a replacement for Ray Morton having started his season at Stoke before going via Workington to now end up at Hoddesdon) who forms an exciting and dominant partnership with “Mr Big Stuff” himself, the diminutive Chris Neath.
Confirming the evidence of our own eyes, Craig mentions, “the tractor is on the track already”. It’s the first of many track grades on a warm night when the heat of the atmosphere makes control of the dust difficult, even on a track normally not known for the thickness of the shale that covers its surface. It gives me the time to catch up with uber-fan Arnie Gibbons who is nearly half way through composing his exciting sounding manuscript on the ‘History of Reading Speedway 1968 Onwards’. As a long time fan of the Racers I’d be interested in his book anyway, but from how Arnie describes his thorough but eclectic approach to research (so that he can properly place each year in its own local social and historical context) it sounds like it will fascinate many fans, even those who feel they want to learn nothing about the club. I wish it had already been written so that I could read it now. Arnie hovers by my table and when I occasionally sell a copy of my book he repeatedly makes my favourite (well-worn) joke to every customer, “it would be rarer to have an unsigned copy!” Perhaps my sales would have been helped if I’d chosen a different night to attend since tonight Andy Griggs finally had stock of the Rye House history book (that I’d seen elsewhere) on sale at Hoddesdon. The pent up demand is such and allied with the enthusiasm for all things Rockets among the fans in this neck of the woods meant that he’d sold all 30 copies he had before the tapes had even risen. Blimey is all I can enviously say.
With frequent breaks in the proceeding we’re kept well entertained by Craig but also treated to some virtuoso riding of the dusty but regularly graded Hoddesdon track by the home riders. They repeatedly and ruthlessly exploit their home knowledge of the circuit on those occasions that they haven’t already established their dominance by the first corner. Heat 3 sees the return of “the ‘Tommy Gun’ Tommy Allen – back three days after that knee ligament injury” though he can only finish third behind second placed Shane Parker. As ever, if any Tigers rider is to shine, it will invariably be Shane but, though he is the highest points scorer for the visitors on the night, even he looks slightly out of sorts. To my mind, the most impressive Glasgow rider of the night is – rather surprisingly given he couldn’t catch a cold last season – Lee Dicken. That said, Robert Ksiezak and Trent Leverington also ride with verve and some determination that ultimately isn’t quite reflected in their final points totals.
The next race features “the Boxmeister Steve Boxall” but the race ends before it has started, “heat 4 didn’t quite get off the ground as Adam Roynon was guilty of tape touching or, rather, tape demolition.” Luke Bowen then replaces him in the rerun of the race. He’s a rider who apparently is involved in his own unique ‘elbowing’ fund raising scheme, if judged by the aggression he shows towards the ‘flying haggis’ as they enter the first bend in the re-rerun. It’s an approach that relegates McAllan to last place but allows Sea-ack to escape for second. The series of harsh manoeuvres is continued next time out by Tommy Allen who super aggressively rides George Stancl wide for a really close inspection of the links of the first corner wire safety and thereby maroons him there in flurry of dust. It knocks out any remaining nascent desire Stancl might have had for this contest and, with ostentatious glances down as his engine, he pootles slowly round to the fourth bend before he retires without even completing a lap. Arnie notes matter of factly, “that’s one thing the Elite League does – it gives you a lot more ‘rigour’ on the first bend! – to put it politely”.
The Neath-Kessler partnership fires in another 5-1 to take the score to 25-11 after six heats, “they’ve already shown what they can do in heat one – their message is quite simple, ‘if you want more of that, you can have more of that’!” The Tigers then throw their dice and send out Shane Parker in black and white but the race is stopped after Luke Bowen hammers into the first bend safety fence and comprehensively demolishes it. He appears less than happy with Trent Leverington but, in fact, gets a reprieve from the SCB official that greatly surprises me. It’s a decision that Craig diplomatically describes as “a very tight entry to that first bend – the referee has ordered a rerun with all four back”. We’re then treated to another extensive trade grade session and a painstaking repair of the fence that I’m sure is completely unconnected with Luke Bowen having to get himself and his equipment back together for the rerun of the heat. Craig kindly promotes my book with a description that includes the phrase, “shows the sport in a light it’s rarely seen in”. I chat with a bloke by my display table who has come along as a tribute to his recently deceased Rye House supporting father. It has been an emotional experience for him – memories of his dad and going to speedway with his late father have come flooding back, “when the first race started I was nearly in tears – my dad loved speedway!” Though Luke Bowen takes to the track in the rerun, the real excitement is provided by Steve Boxall who aggressively steams past Trent Leverington on the second bend before he closely tracks Shane Parker for the next couple of laps. The experienced Aussie uses his guile and accumulated years of track craft to remain in front but, after another blocking manoeuvre on the penultimate corner, has no answer to a magnificent blast round the outside for victory perpetrated by the determined Rocket. Because of the use of the tactical ride option, it is still the first Tigers heat win of the night.
Back at my table, Arnie is worried that crowds at Reading remain poor though he’s of the opinion that the promotion haven’t helped themselves with the monumental stupidity of sometimes running Smallmead fixtures either side of a weekend, often resulting in a choice of watching the racing on a Friday and/or on a Monday. “Even ignoring the impact of Sky, people simply choose to go to whatever meeting looks the best one and ignore the other. For Reading versus Lakeside I counted the crowd – I’ve often counted Conference League crowds, that’s not difficult to do – and there was only 752 there.” I query the exactitude of this figure but, even if you allow a significant margin for error, these aren’t the type of attendances that will keep the club bank manager happy or puff up Mr Postlethwaite’s fragile ego.
Speedway justifiably enjoys a reputation as a genuine family sport and, whenever I visit Hoddesdon, I’m particularly struck by the truth of that statement. The terrace outside the bar (close by to my table and the track shop) is thronged every time I’m here with younger families absorbed in the racing or their own conversations, while their kids run around happily near by. There is also always a real mix of generations throughout the stadium and high proportion of children enjoy themselves by playing in the sand of the dog track that circles the speedway track here, oblivious to the threat of what my dad would call “dogs muck”. Unlike many of other stadiums in the country, the children can easily access it to play on it and, since it’s uncovered, it also gets doused in healthy quantities of flying shale (though I believe that this isn’t so good for the delicate feet of the dogs). Tonight we’re all getting showered in a thin film of dust and the Tigers riders feel more shale than most as, on the whole, they trail their Rockets counterparts. However, they do enjoy a mini revival that starts in heat 10 when the talismanic Shane Parker rides skilfully to pass Robbie Kessler and then pressures Chris Neath without quite managing to get past him. This is the signal for successive 4-2’s for the visitors teed up by wins for Lee Dicken and Shane. Naturally, Craig takes the opportunity to mention incendiary activities as often as possible. Normal service is soon resumed when, in heat 13, Stancl finishes third and the ‘flying haggis’ finishes last behind the fast gating Neath-Boxall partnership, “the Tigers were picking up a bit of steam but the Rockets soon squashed that!” Craig notes triumphantly.
Glasgow gate well in the next heat but the race has to be rerun after Tommy Allen smashes into the perpetually collapsing first bend fence. I felt he was fortunate not to be excluded something that Craig’s neutral and diplomatic announcement obliquely confirmed, “with Tommy Allen running out of room, we can tell you it will be rerun with all four riders”. There is another delay for fence repairs, though after it has been restored to its former glory, we’re treated to a fascinating duel that has Luke Bowen repeatedly try to find a route past Trent Leverington for third place position. Luke uses the entire track to probe and harry but never quite passes his opponent until he makes one final desperate burst for the finish line only to lose out by a tyre tread width. With the Rockets already twenty points ahead this level of effort isn’t required and has the unfortunate consequence that he crashes and careens into the (first bend!) safety fence during the so-called warm down. Craig notes soto voce, “Luke Bowen giving 120% – better make it 130%, you know what you get every time he takes to the track!” The meeting closes with an almost four lap exhibition of confident team riding from the Neath-Boxall combination, who both end up with paid fourteen points on the night. “A triffic race to sign off tonight’s Premier League racing – entertaining for all the right reasons: pride, passion and determination!”
The news of the Garry Stead collection is excellent and Len Silver sounds genuinely delighted at the generosity of his fans, “I can tell you it’s a record collection for us – £2600 – a wonderful, wonderful gesture, thank you!” Afterwards I learn from Craig that the sponsored use of the words ‘fire starter’ and ‘flying haggis’ has also raised £320 from the members of the Rye House unofficial forum for the injured Stuart Robson. Since we all watch a sport with a strong statistical emphasis, it’s really no surprise that Craig can immediately tell me that he used “32 fire starters and 10 flying haggis’s – which was good when you think neither of them rode well tonight!”
9th June Rye House v Glasgow (Premier League) 57-35