Big crowd and reports of the laws of physics being defied by an absent rider

16th April

The new era at Arena Essex has seen the club name change to the Lakeside Hammers and for the first visit of the Sky Sports cameras the new promotion at the club have taken the innovative step of offering completely free admission to the meeting. It’s a decision that has rightfully garnered them considerable publicity, the biggest crowd in nearly two decades and, hopefully after this visit, many more people might be persuaded to come through the turnstiles on a regular basis in future. It’s also a handy topic of conversation that answers the weekly challenge of ‘what on earth will the Sky presentational team of Jonathan and Kelvin find to talk about for two hours?’ Jonathan is beside himself, “what a buzz we have here tonight!’ and Kelvin notes, “a sense of expectation that you can cut with a knife”. For reasons that aren’t (ever) clarified Kelvin continues, “it’s a big night in prospect” before Jonathan cuts in with “a big night next week as well!” In fact, it’s a perpetual “big night” every week when the cameras show up, no matter what the fixture it can never be admitted that things are anything less than stupendous. Though, Kelvin forgets that slightly when he admits that speedway riders find it hard to motivate themselves when they “sometimes ride in front of an empty stadium and no atmosphere”. Ironically, the arrival of the Sky cameras traditionally decimates the crowd levels at practically every Elite League meeting they televise, so perhaps Kelv is unconsciously trying to warn us about the standard of fare served up to the armchair viewers?

Sam Ermolenko is out on the track and has noticed that the Arena Essex raceway has been prepared with more shale on it this year, particularly “the little bit of dirt on the outside line” that might encourage “moves from the brave”. Not that it’s ever an easy track to pass on because of its compact size. Loyal servant of the club, Leigh Lanham, admits as much, “starts are vital around here!” Kelvin also rode here for years so he adds his gloss on the task ahead “tricky track – really technical one”. It’s a comment that remains untranslated into plain English but effectively means whoever gates usually wins and overtaking is rare. Cleverly experienced broadcaster Nigel Pearson, in the manner of an illusionist directs our attention one way to distract from these issues, “it’s absolutely breathtaking…not for 15-16-17 years have we seen an occasion like this at Arena Essex”. The importance of a fast gate causes interminable delays when first Paul Hurry lives up to his surname and bursts through the tapes to be excluded by referee Chris Gay and, in the rerun, Craig Watson repeats the medicine to also get excluded. Nigel questions whether the unusual size of the crowd intimidates, “we’ve seen these riders on a knife edge – I wonder if the size of the crowd is getting to them?” Jonathan attempts to join in with an explanation but rather mysteriously blathers on with a request for a technical clarification from Kelvin, “you can explain – the clutches, 500 cc’s behind you?” Conjuring up an image of riders balanced on the tapes themselves rather than on the start grid Kelvin replies, “they’re so keen to get off the tapes”. Jonathan remains amazed, “er, normally on a Monday night 500, tonight it’s five-six thousand” and Kelvin switches theories to surmise that the riders have become distracted by “the cameras”. In the pits Sarra Elgan tests out the theorie du jour about nerves, the crowd and broken tapes on World champion Jason Crump, “it’s hard to say – probably not!”

Back in the commentary booth, Nigel hopes that this ‘free’ night out for new or long lost fans is a highly addictive and thrilling experience that they’ll long to immediately repeat, “let’s hope it works for Lakeside and British speedway in general…that these people get hooked.” Just like it’s often claimed that cannabis is a ‘gateway drug’ that automatically leads to heroin use, so it is with a trip to Thurrock when it comes to repeated consumption of speedway. Jonathan repeatedly excitedly talks over panoramic shots of a traffic jam on the M25 and on the traffic island that has the slip road to the entrance, almost as if jams are unheard of on this stretch of the motorway, before he turns to Kelvin and says, “having ridden for this side, you know how important it is to win!” Important or not, Kelv is concerned with the track (“bit greasy on top”) but looks excitedly ahead, “triffic line up in heat 3 – I can’t wait for that one!” I’m sure the hearts of the armchair viewers practically leap from their chests at the mere thought of a race that features Bjarne Pedersen, Edward Kennett, Krzysztof Kasprzak and Leigh Lanham. It certainly excites Nigel who says afterwards, “as did we saw- see” before the third place battle between Lanham and Kennett causes him to exclaim involuntarily in a roared answer to imaginary critics [and Leigh Lanham minutes earlier], “who says speedway races are all about who makes the start first!” Sam is in no doubt of the approach needed, “that’s how you’ve got to ride this track – really aggressive”. Synchronistically, next up is a race that features Craig Boyce, so Nigel alludes to his recent proclivity for controversial incident and Sam laughingly agrees, “he’s a character and a half as you say”. [Funny they never laugh about Nicki Pedersen in that way] Unfortunately for the more macabre minded viewers, but luckily for the Lakeside and Pirates riders, the “technical” nature of the track deprives us of the entertainment provided by the traditional speedway sight of Boycie’s opponents getting plunged into the air fence.

According to people that I’ve spoken to who were there – the atmosphere was fantastic to experience live (even though the burgers ran out early) but this totally fails to communicate itself to the armchair viewer. Sadly every week we’re overwhelmed with hyperbole and told the most dull as ditchwater yawn-fest is speedway gold, so rather like the boy who cried wolf, when there is arguably something special to emphasize you just dismiss it as yet more special pleading. Everyone on the commentary team is amazed and Jonathan, like you do when you spot a huge tailback in the opposite motorway lane to your own, takes almost endless delight at the shots of many fans queuing in their vehicles just to get in the Arena/Lakeside car park. “Cars are still coming into the car park to try to find a place to park” is his mantra capably echoed in variant form by Nigel Pearson after heat 4 when he says, “the fans have had a great start already – those that are in the stadium!”

The contest sparks to life on the way back to the pits after heat 5 when Jason Crump decides to remonstrate with Krzysztof Kasprzak about his apparent lack of speedway manners/lane discipline on the track that has seen him to slew across the Aussie to block any prospective charge. As I understand the rules, since the Pole was ahead, these were perfectly legal manoeuvres albeit ones generally frowned upon as not quite the done thing. Jason finishes second and is captured on camera giving his tuppenceworth worth to his victorious opponent in a manner that has ‘bad loser’ written all over it. His ire still burns enough for him to continue this conversation in the pits and emphasize his point with a few brief raps on his rivals’ crash helmet. Later we learn from Nigel (“Jason Crump has been on the phone unhappy about the way he cut across the race line”) that he had then immediately scuttled off to complain to teacher in the form of match official Chris Gay. Jonathan can barely contain his glee that the meeting has a brief flicker of controversy that he can bang on at length about to Kelvin, “tap, tap, tap – ‘what are you doing mate?’ – that’s my speedway speak” says Jonathan rather self-referentially. Kelv expresses ‘understanding’ and scowls at the camera to communicate the full seriousness of the notional offence, “in the back of his mind he doesn’t want to get caught up in an incident and get an injury with the World championship coming up in a few weeks.” Later in the meeting Jonathan inadvertently, in true Freudian style, unconsciously reveals his true motivations as a broadcaster at a speedway meeting, it’s not about the racing really but the spectacle of the crashes and fights, “there’s nothing like a bit of needle speedway style!”

Sadly this particular hint of controversy soon subsides, despite the best efforts of the Sky team to fan the flickering embers of its resolutely storm-in-a-teacup status, so they have to resort to talking about the crowd once more:
KT “you’ve got to say the racing has been triffic and this crowd have been entertained!”
JG “there’s no doubt about it”
They must have an entertainment threshold almost as low as the gnat like capacity that they perpetually assume the armchair audience possesses.
JG “it really is a fantastic atmosphere – it is something special!”
NP “look at that crowd here!”
KT “it’s triffic”
NP “so many people sampling speedway for the first time tonight”
JG “and they’re queuing to get in!”

Once the thrill of this crowd – well below what relatively nearby Essex neighbours Colchester United achieve every time they play home matches at Layer Road – has subsided, talk moves onto a wave given by a man at the meeting. That man is Troy Batchelor and since he hasn’t appeared on camera much before, Jonathan decides to interview him as though he’s dealing with an imbecile, so he contents himself with telling Troy what he’s just done and why he’s done it “a very happy win – you punched the air with excitement after that one!” A subsequent interview with Jason Crump (conducted by Sara) is more illuminating. Thanks in no small part to the articulacy and wry self-absorption of the interviewee, who’s able to hold forth entertainingly after he’s been asked a question he’s heard a thousand times before (about his approach to defending his World championship crown). Jason very modestly notes last year he “achieved a level of consistency in the GP’s” (“you always aim to be perfect”) and he’d like to ensure that this form is repeated but can’t guarantee it, “I’m under a lot of pressure to replicate that but, at the moment, that remains to be seen.” It’s a statement that mixes honesty and the psychology of gamesmanship in a single sentence for any of his rivals who happen to have struggled through the broadcast to this late stage of the meeting in the hope of an illuminating insight into the mental approach of one of their erstwhile rivals. It’s a shame that Kasprzak isn’t in the GP series – maybe Jonathan could start another one of his guerrilla campaigns to influence key decision makers, namely that nice Mr Postlethwaite in this instance, to push for his inclusion – since in heat 12 he adds the scalp of Bjarne Pedersen to that of Jason Crump.

Before the nominated race, a deeply tanned but camera shy Jon Cook finally has to appear on screen to watch Sarra toss the ceremonial shiny Sky coin to decide gate positions in the company of Neil ‘Middlo’ Middleditch. Despite his close season transfer to Thurrock, old Eastbourne habits die hard with Jon, “where I come from, there’s no better feeling than beating the Pirates”. With the result beyond doubt and the last race yet to start, Kelvin’s mind wanders as he tries to big up the drama of heat 15, “it should be interesting when the tapes fly up!” he tells Jonathan and the spellbound armchair audience. As an ex-Hammer himself, his pride at the possible resurrection of the clubs fortunes after a few fallow years is hard for him to disguise. When talk moves onto the further improvement that the eventual return from injury that Henning Bager potentially promises for the results of the team, we’re quickly drawn into Kelvinworld. “[He’s a] tall, gangly guy who sometimes turns the big inside out and defies the laws of physics at times, to be perfectly honest!” If news of this spreads, surely this would be enough to attract crowds this size every week to Thurrock?

16th April Arena-Essex Lakeside v Poole (ELA) 48-42

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