Darcy Ward: Conference League Riders’ Championship debut (aged 16)

The meeting starts thrillingly when the 16-year-old Australian with the dashing, film-star first name – Darcy Ward – shows verve and determination when he zooms from the back of the field to the front. Although he rears and nearly falls at the start, over the course of the four laps he thrillingly picks his way through the field to emerge victorious! It’s a performance that impresses the crowd and Craig Saul, “You know, I think we already have a contender for Race of the Night!” Maybe the second heat is also a thriller. However, I’m unable to see it when a group of portly bikers with receding hairlines arrive and stand on the fourth-bend wall to completely obscure my enjoyment of the racing, except for a small section of the track that comprises the entry to the third bend to the exit of the fourth. This does allow me to see Tom Brown’s fall on the last bend of the last lap before he remounts to trundle home third. Throughout his commentary tonight, Craig Saul plays ‘Spot the ex-Rye House rider’ and the first sight of Rob Smith at the edge of the track (about to take to the shale for the third heat) gets him almost breathlessly excited, “and the second ex-rider on show here so far his evening is Rob Smith!” The third heat is so dramatic that it takes three attempts to complete and, almost, becomes a case of last man standing, wins. First time out the referee orders a rerun after Kyle Newman falls on the second bend. In the next attempt to run the race – when Rob Smith reaches the apex of bends three and four on the second lap – he smashes through the fence with virtuosity and some dramatic élan. Next to me a lady helpfully remarks to her friends (who’ve never been to speedway before), “I’ve seen them crash there before but never seen one [Rob Smith] go straight through the fence like that! The yellow one [Kyle Newman] had fallen off again and got up [only to be excluded for not being under power]” Eventually Lazarus-like, Rob Smith rises from the shale and as he trudges gingerly back to the pits he must have passed within sight of Craig’s commentary position, “well, he has managed a smile on his face and he’s had the appreciation of the home-straight crowd!” There’s a short break for the track to receive some TLC and for the fence to be put back together by all the king’s horses and all the king’s men aka the smartly attired Rye House track staff. Craig fills the time with some promotional announcements. The owners of Paradise Wildlife Park are pronounced “very good friends of speedway” before he proceeds to compliment my work, “Jeff Scott the personification of speedway penmanship. I nearly called him the Stuart Hall of speedway but that would be unfair. Yes, it’s all true, it’s all in there – Concrete of [sic] Breakfast! And, of course, the book that started the whole odyssey, Showered in Shale. As I said earlier, talk to him, he doesn’t bite – go and sample his wares!” Craig has a wry sense of humour and earlier he’d proudly told me “I’ve used tenacianos when interviewing Henning Bager – I warned him beforehand!”

The line-up for heat 4 thrills Craig, “we’ve got a Devil, a Barracuda and two Crusaders lining up for this heat! The veteran of the field at 39 – appearing for the third time in the CLRC – Dean Felton!” Afterwards Pete Hill would say in his report on the meeting for the Speedway Star, “At 39, Felton cut a fatherly figure among a young field.” Short of dad dancing or sight of an enormous beer gut, I’m not exactly sure how you cut a fatherly figure on a speedway bike! Whatever his style or age crimes, Dean was definitely involved in a exciting last lap when he diced for second place with the noticeably far-from-smooth Simon Lambert who rides his bike throughout the meeting in the manner of a bucking bronco. Though rougher than a rough thing, Simon hammers round the outside line for the whole lap and eventually gains second place on the line, just fractionally ahead of his fatherly older rival. By the time the race concludes, Aaron Baseby has retired after a spectacular tumble on the fourth bend of the second lap. This sight prompts the lady next to me to exclaim, “Ooh, look, there’s another one falling off!” Apart from determined racing from pretty well all the riders, the other thing that you can definitely count upon at any CLRC is a fair share of crashes, falls and near misses. The fifth heat gets as far as the second bend of the third lap before Richard Lawson falls off his bike in virtuoso fashion and then, although he is thrown free from his machine, his riderless bike continues to be in the wars when Tom Brown smashes into it and appears to completely wreck it. Unusually for him, Craig suddenly gets a slight touch of the Kelvins and makes a minor howler, albeit of the lesser identity kind (rather than a malapropism), “and that certainly is a sight to see – William Lawson walking away to the pits!” In fact referee Dan Holt has excluded Richard Lawson and awarded the race. With only 3 points from two rides, things already look a bit dickey for Tom Brown and his pre-meeting requirement of just five good starts suddenly appears a mantra that fatally mixes wishful thinking, self-deception and blind optimism.

Given it’s late September and that Rye House speedway stadium is located directly next to a canal, it’s probably shouldn’t be a surprise to find that my books have become completely sodden by 8 o’clock. The trackshop owner Andy Griggs treats me to the benefit of his experience on this dampness problem: “Yes, that’s why we have all our books and clothes in plastic bags ’cause there will be dew and the books will be buggered!” If Darcy Ward thrilled us with his first ride then he quickly repeats the medicine in heat 6 when, once again, he makes a start poor enough to find himself marooned at the rear of the field. However, judged by this display, he’s a born racer. Darcy’s clever use of the inside line round bends three and four of the second lap sees him progress from third to the front. Heaven knows how well he would do if he could only gate well! Craig’s admiration reaches a stratospheric cruising altitude “Another fourth to first performance for Darcy – we’re going to run out of superlatives!” We all might soon run out of superlatives but, in the pits, Richard Lawson has run out of bikes or, to be exact, bike (singular) so he withdraws from the remainder of the meeting with “severe bike damage”. Heat 7 has no sooner started than it’s stopped again when Daniel Halsey and Scott Richardson decide to indulge in some formation safety fence demolition work. Craig sounds unimpressed, “Well, [humph] race number seven has been stopped.” Rye House speedway has an old-fashioned safety fence that – to the untutored eye – has something of the look of strawberry bird-netting about it. It definitely doesn’t appear as substantial as some safety fences you see in tracks around the UK but, given looks aren’t everything, it really does its job every time I’ve seen a crash at this stadium. This year’s crop of CLRC riders appear determined to give it a good test and the track staff definitely get plenty of practice putting it all back together again. After considerable industry on the second bend, we’re told, “Well, the safety fence is up and running again”.

The fence survives intact for the duration of heat 8, though a couple of unsatisfactory starts ensures that referee Daniel Holt has to issue warnings to riders overly keen to predict the rise of the tapes. The first stoppage sees the blue-helmeted Jay Herne warned about his future conduct and the second stoppage has the red-helmeted Byron Bekker similarly admonished. It strikes me as only fair and proper within the rules that Daniel attempts to eliminate movement at the start line. However, a man close to me remains distinctly unimpressed, “The ref’s just trying to make a name for himself!” Once the race is under way, Kyle Newman provides some drama with a fall on the fourth bend though, for once, the fence isn’t decimated. Kyle remounts but trails in last. Heat 9 stands out for the work of the Flag Marshal who decides to wave the chequered flag at the end of laps three and four. Fortunately, the riders can count better than he can and sensibly decide to continue to race for the full four laps. I fall into conversation with Tony Mint who’s begun to view himself as something of a liability because any speedway club he decides to support invariably goes defunct, once they’ve properly excited his loyalty. So far he’s seen off Rayleigh, Rye House, Crayford and Hackney and, given his previous record, his recent allegiance to Lakeside might cause the promotional team there some anxiety. “My first recollection of speedway was in 1967 at West Ham, where I went to a few meetings before it shut down. I can’t remember a lot about it, really! Just the vastness of the crowds of 30,000 plus. I can remember the World Finals at Wembley – the old Wembley that was – and I used to go and watch the old National League Riders’ Championship at Wimbledon.”

The ongoing safety fence rebuilds have taken their toll upon the length of the meeting. Consequently, Craig Saul informs us that there won’t be an interval. Heat 10 finds Tom Brown excluded for a fall and, shortly afterwards, he withdraws from the meeting. The race is won by the wonderfully impressive Darcy Ward to take his tally three wins from three races. The contemporary cultural need to find polite circumlocutions to disguise the base reality of situations has become all too prevalent nowadays. We’re no longer passengers on trains (instead we’re customers), the Bank of England doesn’t print a lot more money (it indulges in quantitative easing), the SGP organisers respect the disappointed Gelsenkirchen fans (really we’re mug punters), and Craig Saul briefly decides to call the ambulance something else completely (“One of the falls necessitating the use of the Healthcare Vehicle!”). While our use of language changes beyond recognition, it’s also safe to say speedway is full of idiosyncratic characters who, for reasons that may have something to do with the way we score in our programmes or keep detailed rider averages, often appear to have an obsessive interest with tabulation and comprehensive record keeping. This can manifest itself in a whole variety of compulsive ways and mannerisms from obsessive programme collecting to the development of ever larger, more complicated spreadsheets to record all the ‘essential’ data. Another marked characteristic of dedicated speedway fans is the sheer number of meetings that they attend in a season as well as over their lifetime. Though I’m absolutely positive that compared to some people, Nigel ‘Noddy’ Fordham’s attendance record is merely a footnote in history, I’m extremely impressed by his dedication and fastidious record keeping. “This is my 41st year in going to speedway; I’ve been to 4,747 meetings in this is my 94th meeting of the season. I’ve been to 1,135 meetings at Ipswich and I have all the programmes from every meeting I’ve been to! I used to be an official but it was too much trouble and I gave up two or three years ago. You get treated like a piece of shit by the promoters who don’t respect you and take everything for granted! You get promoters like Len Silver and Buster Chapman, they’re genuine speedway people ’cause they put money back into the sport. Rye House, King’s Lynn and Lakeside all do Juniors. None of us [unpaid helpers] get paid ’cause we don’t want to be paid but respect would be nice. It’s a word: RESPECT. Anyway, it means I can travel round more. I’ve been to most places in the world that stage speedway and this includes places like Russia, the Czech Republic and Italy. This year will be my 25th year going to the Czech Republic. It’s basic speedway in the raw over there! The Golden Helmet is the star meeting. There’s 32 heats and there’s six riders in each race. It starts at 12 and there’s tons and tons of passing. They even do moped speedway out there! Oh, you want to see it, it was funny! I haven’t got a favourite rider although I used to follow Zdeněk Tesař around everywhere. I went to see him one winter and stayed in a hotel nearby so I could see him play ice hockey. He told me, ‘I’m a good goal minder!’ After the first quarter he’d let none in and after the second quarter he’d let five in! Ha! Ha! I like all speedway riders ’cause they’re supplying me with my sport that I enjoy. Plus, people don’t realise how dangerous it is and that they put their lives on the line. I used to follow John Louis everywhere. In 1975 I had my hair dyed with tiger stripes when he went to Wembley. He came third. It once took me 61 hours to hitch to Lvov – which was Russia but is now the Ukraine – to see Chris Louis ride in the World Under-21 Final the year that he won it. The golden rule of hitching is never walk! Always stand in the same place under the lights or by a roundabout. It’s rarer here but easy in Europe. This is a bad year, this year, as I’ve only been to 94 meetings. My best year was 1983, I think, I did 210 meetings that year. I’ve got a 632 page record book at home. I can tell you every mile I’ve done! Every track, every rider, every ref and, today, is my 948,000th mile. In the winter I rewrite it all again! There’s train miles, tram miles, hitch-hiking miles, flight miles – I always try to think of new things to record. It’s been my life and I love it! I know too many promoters just take the money but, it’s all about the riders and the racing really, so I’ll always keep going.” We’re interrupted by news that Tom Brown has exited the Healthcare Vehicle and, after consultation with the track doctor, has withdrawn from the meeting. I’m not exactly sure why the doctor’s note subsequently makes its way into Craig’s possession (rather than the Incident Recorder’s) but it allows him to tell us, “The doctor’s note here says it’s a weight-bearing injury!” According to Noddy some of the more-experienced riders should by now have won the CLRC, “Benji Compton should be up the top there. He’s been riding too many years – he’s been up and down. He ain’t gonna make it! Tom [Brown] has tried too hard tonight and then you get out of control, don’t you? That Darcy Ward does look good but I can’t believe he’s Australian – that’s the worst thing!”

Darcy Ward’s marvellous evening at Hoddesdon comes slightly unstuck when he falls on the first bend of the second lap in heat 14 and, since he’s unable to clear the track, he’s then excluded from the rerun. These lost points dent his championship ambitions. Suddenly, the permutations can boggle the mind. Heat 16 sees the safety fence take a further punishment – this time on the back straight – when Kyle Hughes gives it a good thump on his second lap. He is also excluded for his troubles. The vital race of the night turns out to be heat 17. A win for Jay Herne could take him into a run-off for first place with Benji Compton. However, if Benji finishes second or third, this would give Herne the outright title. To further complicate the situation, if Benji Compton wins heat 17, he will be crowned Conference League Rider’s Champion, no matter where Jay Herne finishes. Though Herne makes the gate, a hard move by Benji Compton on the second bend of the second lap takes him into a lead he fails to relinquish and secures him the CLRC crown. To take part in a run-off for third place, Darcy Ward needs to win his last outing and actually does so when the race is awarded (after Scott Richardson falls and is excluded by the referee). Daniel Halsey wins heat 19 to ensure the third place run-off is a three-way affair and Byron Bekker wins heat 20 to guarantee his podium place for second place in the championship. The additional three-way run-off race sees Darcy Ward make no mistake from the gate and his performance on the night gains favourable comment from Arnie Gibbons. “Darcy is an amazing talent for 16! It’s the riders who experiment and fall off – who find that line and look for that extra 10 per cent who go all the way! Those that play safe mostly don’t!”

27th September 2008

Conference League Riders’ Championship Winner: Benji Compton


(taken from Quantum of Shale)


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