The first leg of the double header Easter Sunday meeting between Reading and Swindon is enticing enough to attract a good sized crowd to Smallmead. The number of spectators through the turnstiles has been swelled by a good sized contingent of Swindon fans who gather on the third bend, which allows the keener ones to press themselves against the perimeter fence and try to catch a glimpse of what’s happening in the pits. The meeting was originally advertised to start at noon but was put back by half an hour during the week before “for the crowd”, though many Swindon fans see conspiracy everywhere and claim it was to allow extra leeway for Matej Zagar, who flew in this morning. In the programme, Jim Lynch is full of optimism and hopes for “ a win under our belts this afternoon [to] ensure that people sit up and take notice that it’s not just the Robins and the Bees that are the teams to worry about this season.”
The jet set life of the modern speedway rider is such that they’re at a different track almost every day and so encounter a huge variety of track surfaces. At Smallmead today, they will get to face a range of these conditions all in the space of a couple of hours since the perils of staging a meeting during the day is compounded when it’s beautifully hot and sunny. The track staff have soaked the track – which looks to have a good layer of dirt on it, particularly towards the safety fence – in the full knowledge that it will dry out quickly. Out in the first heat is Leigh Adams who Greg Hancock in his programme notes describes as “such a fair competitor”, which I assume is a tacit reference to Nicki Pedersen and is always easy to say about someone who fails to transfer their league form to the individual stage and so never challenges you in the Grand Prix series. Leigh wins this latest race according to the Queensberry rules and when he drives aggressively into the third bend for the first time – wet gloopy lumps of the stuff are thrown over the crowd stood closest to the greyhound track wall. It sticks to everything it touches including the kevlars of Simota and Hancock who spend the race trailed off behind the fast gating Aussie Adams. The end of the race is the signal for the first of many track grades to commence.
The absence of Mark Lemon at reserve has brought together an interesting partnership for Reading since they’ve paired guest Jason Bunyan with Danny Bird. They have some previous together since during the Spring Bank Holiday of 2005 Bunyan aggressively crashed into Bird in a manner that prematurely scuppered his season and some felt was deliberate. Such is the nature of the guest system and the frequent movement of riders from team to team that bygones are mostly bygones. They get little chance to find out how they will ride together as a partnership since Bird soon falls and thereby incurs the wrath of Mads Korneliussen (“Mads hasn’t scored less than eight for us all season”) who lays down his bike with alacrity but leaps to his feet equally smartly to gesture his annoyance. The referee today is Ronnie Allan and he allows extra time before the rerun for Mads to fix the silencer that he damaged when he laid down his machine. It gives me the chance to chat to Darcia who works at Blunsdon and who joins the contingent of travelling Robins fans whenever she can. Big things are forecast for the Robins by the bookies and pundits this season (“everyone’s desperate for it”) and this has been reflected in the early season crowds “we had a big one on Thursday night [for Poole] that was bigger than when we had the World Cup. They’ve been great ever since they first talked about the stadium closure, though they say the crowds haven’t been great here.”
This is the theme actually taken up in the programme by Joel Hufford of BBC Radio Berkshire who is blunt in his assessment, “only a couple of weeks into the season and already concern has arisen over the size of the crowds the Reading Bulldogs are attracting.” He goes on to make a fallacious apples with oranges comparison with the attendances at the football club and grants only limited validity to the commonly held explanations that these low numbers are to do with the “weather, the price of admission and the move to racing on a Wednesday or Friday.” Joel prefers to claim the explanation is the exciting heterogeneity of alternative sources of entertainment available to the modern consumer (“movies on demand, the internet, video games etc tempting people to stay at home”) and, “if speedway is to flourish”, calls for “much more aggressive and innovative” marketing. Ignoring that it was always thus, just more so nowadays, Joel then undermines his case with his suggested solution – the hardly revolutionary proposal of a few school visits to help “ensure a new generation of fans will be around in the coming decades”. Sadly fans today and not fans tomorrow are needed to fulfil the BSI business plan. This desire for increased marketing expertise is hugely ironic when you consider around the time of the creation of BSI Reading in early 2006 it was put about in the media that John Postlethwaite had a proven track record in this particular area and, consequently it was implied, would really shake things up around here. We all looked forward to him sprinkling some of the bountiful quantities of marketing magic dust that lined his pockets onto Reading speedway, but sadly we’re still waiting for what he has done to bear fruit. To be fair to him he has tried since he invested in the team, the management as well as aggressively marketed the club on television, regional radio (BBC Radio Berkshire, for example!), experimented with free entry for kids (abandoned in 2007) and changed the name of the club without effective market research to supposedly appeal to a wider demographic/more affluent audience. It must be galling for BSI Reading to have assembled a strong team to take the club into the Elite League only to encounter apathy, if judged by average crowd numbers, though some initial thorough analysis prior to the purchase, name change etc might have highlighted this as a possibility!
If the crowd the numbers are missing at the typical fixture held at Smallmead so, disappointingly, are the start girls! Maybe they’re on holiday or, perhaps like the lack of a Sporting Director (Sam Ermolenko) or an Account Manager (Torben Olsen) on staff this year, they have been let go as part of a rumoured cost-cutting exercise? Something that also gets let go today is the score when the Bulldogs suffer four consecutive lost heats. Talk before the third heat was that Sebastian Ulamek and Matej Zagar had “a bit of a history” together and that Charlie Gjedde’s variable performance this season was down to his “engines – when he borrowed Moore’s he got 14, they say he’s putting all his money into his house in Denmark.” The bad blood that supposedly exists doesn’t get any further expiation since Ulamek wins from the gate and Gjedde has a “sensational ride” when he uses his track knowledge and general cunning to gain sufficient speed to pass both Zagar and Kolodziej on the fourth bend of the penultimate lap. At least Smallmead is a track where some passing is more likely, unlike Blunsdon where Darcia notes, “at the end of the day if you get on the line you can’t really get passed”.
Another point of interest in this race is provided by Zagar’s red helmet or, to be more exact, the black stripes that are incorporated in its design on the side of the helmet. Only two days previously the same referee Ronnie Allan had showboated in the pits and made a song and dance about Nicki Pedersen’s green helmet and insisted that he wear a helmet colour though it’s surface was less obscured by a design feature than Zagar’s. If the same referee can be so inconsistent from one day to the next in the application of the rulebook when it comes to helmet colours, you have to wonder how they will manage to apply the more complicated rules and regulations. This is the kind of inconsistency in the application of the rules that gives referee’s in general a unfairly won but nonetheless bad reputation and confirms that Ronnie sometimes prefers to be ‘the big I am’ rather than consistently judicious. Luckily for the fans and both sides, the need for interpretation was minimal and so controversy was absent from this meeting.
What wasn’t absent was the frequent sight of a puzzled Jim Lynch (who fated himself when he sympathised with Belle Vue and Oxford, “it’s been tough for all the tracks up and down the country trying to get track conditions right”) or a gaggle of Bulldogs riders (first Hancock, Zagar and McGowan, later Hancock and Kolodziej) deep in puzzled conversation stood on the third bend of the track. Everyone who conducted an inspection repeatedly kicked the surface, as if this might help, and every man and his dog had their say as though the track surface were solely to blame for their astonishingly poor start to the meeting. It seemed a bit rich to obliquely blame the track surface when so many riders in the Reading team appeared uninterestedly lacklustre. It would be easier to concentrate on those riders that performed well – they were both out in the fourth heat: Travis McGowan (who fell when in good position) and Jason Bunyan (who departed from the team script to ride with verve and determination). If the start had been put back to better suit Zagar’s schedule he looked disinterested in his first ride, after which I confidently expected that he would have the gained the measure of what whatever troubled him to then buck up, kick on and perform in his usual highly capable manner. After another lengthy track grade he did return to the track for heat 5 but finished stone last without even causing Leigh Adams to have to aggressively accelerate under him on the third bend, as he consistently did with any rider who had the brief temerity to challenge his pre-eminence. The score is now an embarrassing 9-21 and the Bulldogs play-off credentials look somewhat suspect, if judged on this performance.
If there’s an apology for a performance on the track, then off it Tadley based announcer Paul Hunsdon fulsomely acknowledges the speaker difficulties the club experienced at the Good Friday meeting with Oxford, “we apologise for the speaker failure and for those of you that experienced sound problems, particularly on bend 3 and bend 2, so apologies for that!” Part of me is happy to acknowledge that the new corporate Bulldogs feel the need to offer regret but, the other part, hates the infantalisation of modern safety and customer announcements that pervade so many contemporary experiences nowadays. I much prefer the old style way of doing things where speaker (and lighting) problems went with the territory at Smallmead and, therefore, weren’t ever really acknowledged enough to merit an apology. Before you know it, Paul will be asking us to ‘ensure that you take all your belongings with you when you leave the stadium!’
The ‘weaker’ Robins pairing of Lee Richardson and Andrew Moore tempts the energetic Jim Lynch to use the black and white tactical option as early as heat 6 to great effect when he gives this to the experienced Greg Hancock. It’s hardly an innovative choice but supremely effective in quickly reducing the overall scoreline to a much more acceptable 17-22. In this race Richardson relived his early Smallmead years by falling and being excluded, Darcia like the rest of the Robins fans isn’t that bothered by Lee hitting the deck, “you don’t mind if he’s trying!” After the race, a small cameo between the returning victorious Bulldogs riders and Jim Lynch gives an insight into his current level of authority with them. In the manner of an impatient geography teacher dealing with stragglers on a day out to broaden the educational outlook of his bored charges, as Greg and Sam return to the pits gate Jim ostentatiously waves an instruction with his programme board that they continue round again for a (rare) victory lap. Greg pointedly ignores him and just carries on straight back to the pits but Sam, still at an earlier stage in his career, obliges.
In Heat 7, Reading manage their second drawn heat of the meeting after a win by Travis McGowan but, with Danny Bird trailed off at the back looking completely out of sorts, the heat is drawn. The unseasonal warmth of the sunshine has completely dried the shale surface of the track and the dust clouds are starting to mount (“the dustbowls coming – it’s getting dustier and dustier” chokes Darcia). A trio of riders return to the track as the Paul the announcer tries to drum up interest among the Reading faithful for the return trip to Blunsdon in the evening (“they’ve been getting some excellent crowds down there”), though at this point many bookies would already pay out on the Swindon win without the formality of a contest. Jason Bunyan gives another display to the rest of the team of how to aggressively ride a circuit that he won’t have placed a wheel upon for over 18 months. Paul Hunsdon the announcer attempts to create some excitement before heat 9 with some welcome talk of horses, “sponsored by our good friends at Equestrian Vehicle Services – so give them a call if you’re interested in equestrian!” A glance in the programme shows that the level of heat sponsorships has improved at the club from the poor level of last season as only four of the fifteen slots remain unsold, though suspicions remain that some adverts may have been included gratis. Matej Zagar finally stirs from his inexplicable torpor to win a race, though I’m still much more taken with his ostensibly red helmet that has a large black motif on its sides (though the rest of the field only see the back of it) after the first bend when he cuts across them all from gate 4.
An unexpectedly early interval for more work on the track allows Paul Hunsdon to feel pride at the second prize in the Reading prize draw (free entry for the next meeting), poke fun with an old joke and distract from the pitiful nature of the home performance with mention of the even more execrable local rivals, Oxford. “I heard in the prize draw at Oxford, first prize was free entry to the next meeting and second prize was two free entries” ‘Boom! Boom!’ as Basil Brush might say. Track conditions deteriorate further despite the additional attention and TLC lavished on it to the extent that it’s hard to watch through the dust cloud that thickly billows over the first corner every time the riders circuit the track. The cloud is so thick, it’s like the London fog in old black and white films, albeit that at Smallmead you have the added bonus of choking shale dust. Paul employs some understatement in his latest public service announcement, “we must apologise for it getting a little bit dusty – you can see we’ve been watering and apologies for those of you on the bend getting a little bit filled in!”
Like the earlier races, the Robins riders continue to approach each race with vim and gusto. Seb Ulamek wins from the start in 12 and in the next Leigh Adams brooks no argument in the first lap when he cuts hard under McGowan on his favoured third bend. Even Lee Richardson appears comparatively indomitable as he holds Greg Hancock back in last place, though he looks from side to side so often (in a kind of deranged green cross code for the hyper-aware speedway rider) for the challenge that never comes you worry that self-induced dizziness might soon cause him to fall.
When we learn over the tannoy just before heat 14 that “Danny has unfortunately withdrawn from the meeting due to illness” a loud cheer bursts from the large contingent of Swindon fans on the third bend as they realise a three rider race in heat 14 eliminates the slim mathematical possibility of a Bulldogs win. The race itself is a cameo in miniature of the difference between the attitudes of the two teams since Mad Korneliussen really aggressively harries Janusz Kolodziej – the leader from the gate – for two laps before he manages to pass him as they hit the bend for the third lap. Charlie Gjedde follows in his wake for the third 1-5 of the meeting. It’s a dispiriting spectacle for the Reading fans and many of them walk out of the stadium at that point without waiting for the nominated heat that will also result in another maximum heat win for the visitors. Wavering fans won’t feel like rushing back after a performance as appallingly lacklustre as this and, if by any fluke some new fans had actually ventured along to Smallmead for their first ever meeting (doubtless attracted by the family friendly and benign Bulldog brand name), they’ll probably think twice before returning if they anticipate a dust obscured spectacle albeit provided with the possibility of some free pneumoconiosis. Fortunately, we’d already learnt that there would be no post-meeting press conference in the bar afterwards, otherwise you’d have had to suspect that severe embarrassment and the absence of a plausible explanation for this display had led to its cancellation. On principle rather than with deep conviction, announcer Paul Hunsdon looks ahead to the return fixture at Blunsdon, “let’s hope the Bulldogs can re-find their form and push the Robins all the way!”
8th April Reading v Swindon (ELA) 39-54