Cardiff Speedway Grand Prix 2013 track problems with added damp shale communication masterclass
Inside the Cardiff Speedway Fayre, it’s déjà vu all over again prior to the 2013 Cardiff Speedway Grand Prix that, nowadays, we’re instructed to by the organisers to call #BritishSGP on twitter. My rhetorical question to Johnny Barber (“are you looking forward to the meeting?”) – since I suspect he’s not going – elicits some potentially astonishing news. “If it’s on? The meeting might not be on tonight! The official story is that they’ve put down some wet shale and the track isn’t rideable, unofficially they left the roof open on Monday night – though that’s since been denied. Freddie Lindgren on twitter last night was saying the riders would refuse to ride. They have another practice at 10 am this morning to see – after working on it all night. One bend is like the Himalayas. Andreas fell off there badly. They would run it at 10 am on Sunday, if they can’t run it today, which isn’t good news for anyone not staying the night!”
Since the last Cardiff track snafu in 2008, it would be fair to say that careful planning and track preparation expertise has seen a smooth consistent surface provided for the event inside the Millennium Stadium and the series elsewhere. It’s a difficult job usually done carefully, diligently and skilfully (it’s also covered wonderfully every year on the Blunsdon Blog). Nevertheless, one off tracks are notorious for not performing with same the verve as regular tracks. Equally that is part of the price BSI Speedway Ltd require (without consultation) speedway fans pay to enjoy the luxury of seeing the SGP in modern all seater stadia. Sadly, when it comes to inappropriate moisture content in the shale at a one-off indoor meeting, we’ve definitely been here before with BSI (in Gelsenkirchen*). At that time Paul Bellamy, Managing Director, BSI Speedway Ltd told us: “We are very sorry for all the fans who have booked tickets and were looking forward to a great night of speedway. If there was any way we could have put this event on we would have, but the decision of the FIM Jury with regard to rider safety is paramount and we fully support this decision.” The Speedway Star was quick to note, “The time for a post-mortem is not now but must wait until the 2008 World Championship has been concluded.” Shortly afterwards in an all holds barred interview conducted in trademark docile fashion by Philip Rising (wearing his Managing Editor, Speedway Star hat rather than his other BSI SGP one) was straplined on the magazine cover with the banner headline “Bellamy in the Dock”. With all the hard questions unasked, we do (at least) get told that the promised post-mortem was apparently underway “still an ongoing process but a number of valuable lessons have been learnt”. While much information “gleaned” from “considerable time and energy going over everything” is digested, we were reassured by news that luckily “no stone is being left unturned” (and no shale uncovered?). With extensive temporary track experience then and even more so now, with straight face Paul Bellamy could claim “we know how tracks perform under conditions”.
Even as recently as just after the tenth staging of Cardiff, Paul Bellamy ruminated in self-congratulatory fashion on the reasons why the temporary track at Cardiff is so successful. “The track-building team have been monitoring the dirt on a monthly basis. I can tell you what the moisture content of our dirt…the optimum moisture content of that dirt is 7%.” Like a speedway version of a self-help guru spambot, Bellamy continues with a stream of consciousness that suddenly looks an ill-advised hostage to 2013 fortunes. The nostrums Bellamy robotically spouts include, “the fans may not realise it, but it’s attention to detail”, “you have to train your mind to think about what you’re doing rather than what can go wrong” and, my personal favourite, “we kept on improving it, if you stand still, you go backwards.” BSI Speedway Ltd do this for the SPG series event at Cardiff not for money or glory but for religious reasons because for the fans “Cardiff is their Mecca if you like.”
Complete dryness is an impossible target anywhere on planet earth but, with the normal moisture range for shale reported to be 5%-7%, Cardiff track moisture content levels of (allegedly) 17% should have set alarms bells ringing a long time prior to the Friday practice session. Whatever the shale storage rights and wrongs, Nicki Pedersen kindly tweeted a photograph of the nighttime remedial track work. Though various SGP riders provide the fans with some news via the social media, sadly there was no immediate official comment from the organisers and, by the morning (according to Steve Miles) BSI and or IMG had swung into full news lock down management mode that is the default setting of dictatorial regimes worldwide. “I think they’ve told all the riders not to say anything because they all were yesterday – Nicki Pedersen had a photo on his twitter last night but since then there’s been silence!’.
With the riders suddenly conspicuous by their early morning silence on twitter, BSI Speedway Ltd decide to ignore the first lesson of modern media management: to get clear unambiguous honest messages out there from (as Kelvin would say) the get-go. The SGP organisers (and BSI Speedway Ltd) have the ideal platform already – a website they love to fill daily with turgidly dull often poorly written SGP hyperbole they laughingly call “news” – plus the services of their experienced Media Manager Nicola Sands known for her extensive range of media contacts. On twitter, fans also have investigative speedway reporter Paul Burbidge renowned for his insight, knowledge and independent news reporting skills. Oh, hold on, actually he’s on the SGP payroll (“I write news for Speedway GP website”)! So sadly – though all his views invariably adhere to various corporate party lines, they are (apparently) his “own” – after Paul tweets to inform us all that he’s just bumped into Andreas Jonsson prior to practice, strangely he goes completely offline for over 24 hours until after the event has finished. We don’t even get his trademark ‘the boy rode well’ truisms or updates on the food quality served by the Mayor of Prague. Any actual information or news from Paul about what is going on (not even another favourite Burbo pre-SGP Twitter topic: the weather) for curious SGP fans wanting updates is completely non-existent. Looking at the twitter account of Torben Olsen (son of Ole and “Operations Director of BSI Speedway Ltd”) is similarly update free with no tweets since May 26th (“Sunny Cardiff… Less than a week until #speedwaygp Track build is fully underway…”). Completing the social media communication triangle**, BSI Media Manager Nicola Sands offers absolutely no official or personal thoughts whatsoever on the situation. Clearly the SGP organisers, their staff and hired hands are content to ignore the fans and bury their collective heads in the damp Cardiff shale.
During the morning of the event, all any fan can really rely on for anything like an update on whether the Cardiff SGP 2013 meeting will actually run is the understated and fully informed reactions of posters on British Speedway Forum (feverishly hammering away on their keyboards) or various on the ground first hand accounts that in any court in the land would be deemed gossip. Prior to the 10am practice, even accredited photographers had been banned (refused admission) from the stadium. “They dug it all up and relaid it last night. The riders only did a practice lap because there were people in there otherwise they wouldn’t have rode at all because it was dangerous. At the moment they’re not letting any photographers in – well except Jarek from Poland and Dave Fairbrother (they know they’re not going to say or tweet anything) – only people with green passes can get in and photographers have blue.”
With over a decade of experience laying indoor one-off tracks, it’s hard to believe that BSI might some how manage to yet again potentially preside over another gigantic Gelsenkirchen style cock up! Though, to be fair, cancelling an indoor meeting on the day of the event because the shale is wet (!) does take verve, imagination and some doing. Fortunately, BSI have the asleep at the wheel track record and cost cutting talent this requires. It goes without saying, of course, the report into the previous Gelsenkirchen fiasco still remains unpublished and it appears apparently unread by the management team. In the extremely unlikely event Cardiff 2013 doesn’t go ahead, there are only three certain outcomes. Paul Bellamy will be promoted and given a pay rise; ‘compensation’ for the lost time and expense for any speedway fan will be derisory; plus any subsequent investigation guarantees to leave every stone unturned. Last time I seem to remember that the compensation offered by BSI after the Gelsenkirchen SGP debacle was a free ticket (for a limited sub-selection of future SGP events) along with a lovely signed photo of Paul Bellamy lying naked footballer style on a bed with his modesty covered by a small pile of the £50 notes that speedway fans help pay him monthly for the brilliance of his strategic vision, business acumen, leadership skills and fashion sense.
At least, international referee Chris Durno has some news and insight. “They really must have been that close to not running it if they call up Breedon on a Friday night and say ‘we need 18 lorries of shale now!’ They’re really going to get charged for it. Breedon can charge what they want. Finding 18 drivers prepared to go to work to drive over night to Cardiff won’t be cheap. They’ll run it and, if it cuts up a bit, it’ll make it more exciting. These last few years it’s been so packed down, it wasn’t like it used to be!”
With the biggest revenue generating event of the SGP calendar in jeopardy, Chris Durno is right to forecast that the organisers will ensure that it definitely goes ahead. Obviously, this will happen irrespective of the implications for entertainment or comparative rider safety. Plus, the 2013 version of the Cardiff track also won’t even meet the usual indoor track standard BSI set themselves. Inevitably, it’s likely to be rideable rather than raceable as well as encourage even more processional SGP races than normal. Of much more concern to the riders – for their future earnings over the remainder of the 2013 speedway season – is that with so little preparation and settling time (no matter how skilled the track workers are collectively) it may even be a greater danger than usual to the participants. As self-employed professionals in an already dangerous sport, they will (of course) ride! Albeit riding in the knowledge that additional random unexpected bumps and lumps may potentially unexpectedly throw them from their equipment (and, may possibly, cause injury).
As we now know, the meeting went ahead as ‘planned’. The Speedway Updates website reports a mostly processional affair with around 15 races won from the gate. Suddenly able to operate his Twitter account again, Paul Burbidge congratulates “everyone involved” in getting the meeting on before adding, “The track wasn’t ideal. But the riders still entertained.” On the British Speedway Forum, Philip Rising is similarly corporate, “The riders were happy while accepting it would not be 100 per cent perfect….not that such a track necessarily makes for good racing anyway.”
Despite the deleterious impact on their margins from increased shale and staff costs, nonetheless BSI have just about managed to protect their 2013 revenues – albeit at a damaging reputational cost at the operational and organisational level. They’ve clearly raised further questions about their own competence, communications and crisis management skills. Any sensible sponsor or broadcaster, could either review their future interest/support or demand a steep discount for this (further) devaluation of the credibility and status of the Speedway Grand Prix series. Any fan is in future going to have to balance what they’ll see against the financial outlay required to attend any SGP Cardiff event. Ignoring the event race and points format, the ongoing question remains how can anyone really be crowned a true “World Champion” if forced to compete on a track where the advantages of skill, equipment and ability are negated and replaced by such a strong element of pure chance?
Ongoing self-congratulatory guff from BSI about their strategic mission/vision to (try to) stage rounds of the Speedway Grand Prix series in assorted world class venues might convince the odd ill-informed sponsor but looks a pitifully misguided allocation of priorities if they can’t manage to prepare a raceable surface – and, historically, the SGP series organisers set the bar very low – for the actual competitors! Worse still for their increasing moribund and careworn SGP series, the Cardiff track the organisers prepared for their flagship event has seen Tai Woffinden get injured in a season when it looked like he had found the speed, confidence, back room staff and ability to possibly become a British Speedway World Champion! Such an eventuality would give speedway generally plus BSI Speedway Ltd and the SGP series in particular a huge much needed lift. It would also significantly boost attendances, viewing figures, sponsorship rights revenues, television rights revenues and media profile for the immediate and foreseeable future. With fan opinion and experience almost an irrelevance (but without real credibility to lose), the absence of the increased revenues and benefit of any Tai Effect is the real business cost for the SGP organisers and fans alike after this latest Cardiff track debacle.
*Nicki Pedersen commented on his website at the time. “It’s a huge scandal for speedway. I mean, we have all looked forward to this race, to give all our fans from all over the world a spectacular show. Instead we now have to explain how a final in the World Championship could be cancelled because of rain on a indoor track. That’s a scandal and for speedway it’s a big blow. All riders are frustrated by this situaion. We work hard every day to give our best, but unfortunately it’s out of our hands to decide how to make the tracks”
** It goes without saying that the official twitter account of the SPG (@SpeedwayGP) can no useful information or news about the track except an enthusiastic but anodyne late morning tweet “Today’s the day! The riders took part in additional practice this morning so we’ll see you at the Fanzone & Millennium Stad”