ELRC to remember

30th August

The advent of the Super Seven series format in 2007
has reinvigorated many of the events that have been
included under its umbrella. The super7 concept is the
brainchild of the King’s Lynn co-promoter Jonathan
Chapman whose name, whenever it appears in the
speedway press, invariably has epithets like
‘ambitious’, ‘dynamic’ or ‘young’ appear in the same
sentence. Whatever your opinion – and opinions vary –
there is no denying that this rebranding idea has breathed life into what was becoming a moribund series of events with no real organic connection with each other that has now caught the imagination of the speedway public and
benefited from a more professional presentational
package. So much so that for the sixth event of the
series – the Elite League Riders Championship – that
the great Sky Sports have deigned to decide to cover
the event. The meeting will be held at the Norfolk
Arena after it moved from the original venue due to
stage it – Owlerton in Sheffield. The reasons given
for the move in public included some blather about air
fences but the rumour mill stepped into overdrive to
come up with a few conspiracy theories that are too
tedious and/or libellous to repeat here. Suffice it
say that by 4pm the Saddlebow Road car park had already started to fill with cars and a line of keenly expectant fans had formed at the turnstile entrance well in advance of 5.30pm when the gates were advertised to open.

A number of things have been advertised as part of
tonight’s menu – the chance to meet, greet and briefly gain the attention of the riders involved (along with the sexy super 7 girls) as well as gain their autographs or have your photo taken with them is something that is quintessentially speedway and one of the real appeals of watching the sport – namely the accessibility of the talented performers. Inside the stadium all the last minute preparations were being panicked about, completed (or had already been done) and the stadium looked even more professionally spick and span than usual, albeit that it was more crowded than normal because of the extensive amount of bulky/necessary equipment and people that Sky invariably bring along to any outside broadcast. Fortunately for them and the governing body of the sport – the Chapman’s – Keith (Buster), Cheryl and Jonathan – have transformed the place from what it once was into a venue that, when shown to a national television
audience, enables a picture to be definitely worth a thousand words (and puts the best foot forward for the sport).

However, the Super7 series so far has – at some venues
– been somewhat jinxed, beset by teething problems and other difficulties that, if you were filling out an
insurance claim, would be classified as ‘Acts of God’.
Rain caused the original staging of the PL Four Team
tournament to suffer a postponement and the restaging
was plagued by an infestation of tiny biting insects
that strangely weren’t mentioned in any of the reports
that I read after the event. The PL Pairs meeting just
before the Cardiff GP was staged in Somerset and soon
found itself at the vortex of a weird combination of
freak traffic accidents that shut the M5 motorway in
both directions and made the road outside impassable. This had the emergency services and meeting organisers in something of an anxious fluster. Tonight the meeting was to fall victim to a double whammy of circumstance/preparation and, more worryingly, precisely the problem that the reinvention of the series was ostensibly supposed to address – the reduced status of the ELRC from a blue riband event to something to be endured under sufferance by the speedway superstars that form the icing on the Elite League
cake. Well, this isn’t true of all ’superstar’ riders
– only the vast majority. If we accept that speedway
at the highest level in Britain has declined in status
and importance among the internationally based and
itinerant speedway riding community to almost an after
thought or, at least, to just their lower priority bog standard bread and butter source of income behind the Polish and Swedish speedway leagues (and the all pervasive Grand Prix series), then this 2007 version of the meeting has been billed/hyped as something that would gainsay the opinion of those who claimed that this could be put right with a fiercely contested event that showcased the best of the talent on display in the Elite League live in front of a domestic speedway audience on a track suited to
attractive racing. Unfortunately, in every walk of
life cash is increasingly king, and although the
product and presentation have taken a quantum leap
forward the attitude of some riders hasn’t when it
comes to appearing in an event automatically
downgraded in their eyes by the sub-prime level of pay offered for taking part by the BSPA. In simple terms, the pay rates don’t appeal to the wavering financially focussed rider who increasingly races in this country – though, that said, some other riders like, for example, Leigh Adams and Nicki Pedersen recognise the publicity/sponsorship benefits and aura of success that victory or a successful showing in such an event provides.

Sadly for the majority of fans who queued outside
early to enter the stadium and claim the best vantage
positions, news that there have been a significant
number of withdrawals from the meeting didn’t really filter
through to them until they’d paid their £20 to come into the stadium. Some of the absent riders missed the event for bona fide reasons – injuries and the like – but others (if this was the Grand National) went tactically lame beforehand, fell at the first or, really, failed to even show up in the stalls at the start let alone unseat their riders (to carry this horse racing analogy just a little too far). No sooner are people through the gates than they’re greeted by resident aural wordmeister in the form of the dulcet tones of Mike ‘Scintillating’ Bennett from Mike Bennett International (home of “professional speedway DVD’s”) who soon informs them of the copious changes that they’ll have to make to the centrefold scorecard in their
souvenir programme. Some of the missing riders have been replaced with teammates or reserves of comparable skill and ability whereas others have not been replaced on a like-with-like basis. The overall effect is to diminish the competitiveness of the assembled field, reduce the
significance of the event and, overall, devalue the notional level of the product on display. I’m sure that the
BSPA and King’s Lynn speedway are as equally frustrated with some of these absences (but can’t acknowledge this in public) as are the disgruntled fans who complain to me about it at my book stall by the track shop where I establish a new record for my lowest ever sales [one book], particularly shocking in the context of the size of the crowd – put at various estimates between three and four thousand people. Even Mike ‘Scintillating’ Bennett kindly deigns to demonstrate his professionalism and, for the first time this season, promote my wares (on more that one occasion), though he did hole his promotional efforts below the waterline with the observation, “I don’t like the man myself and I’m sure he’ll put it in his blog!” For some reason, upon hearing this opinion I suddenly felt like Mrs Thatcher and immediately recalled what Denis Healey said of the famously critical speech about her by Geoffrey Howe, “it was like being savaged by a dead sheep”. Such comments are an improvement on my recent treatment by Mike ‘Scintillating’ Bennett at the Norfolk Arena since he studiously didn’t even acknowledge my presence on my previous visits (other than to pull an expression that hinted that he’s encountered an unpleasant bouquet). Apparently he’d behaved like this because of an ongoing hissy fit cum sulk about my observations about his unique retro-blast-from-the-presentational-past of his typical but slightly anodyne speedway meeting presentation style in my latest book ‘Shifting Shale’. “I know that you’re always whinging on your blog that I don’t announce you at the right time [you did tonight – thank you kindly Mike] – so I’ll do it again later.” A strangely hypersensitive reaction, particularly when others have complained about his reading the complete words of Shakespeare in the style of an airline safety briefing approach. Indeed, I noted I found watching and listening to him so compelling/entertaining (and suggested others go out of their way to purchase one of his many DVD’s to properly take the opportunity to bathe in this aural Jacuzzi of speedway repartee). It was enough of a perceived slight to apparently cause him – so a people have told me – to contemplate and publicly speculate upon the possibility of legal action in the track shop (which, around here, counts as the equivalent of the European Court of Human Rights). Just to clear things up, I can say without fear of contradiction that Mike really is the best speedway presenter in Norfolk, though just to announce this fact immediately also reminds me of when Alan Partridge said, on his fictional radio show, “and next up Norfolk’s youngest dentist!”

Anyway the absences clearly haven’t best pleased Mike and,
when he outlines the programme line up changes, he adopts the querulous tone of voice of a man who has fallen into a pool full of tits and come out sucking his thumb. In
fact, as tonight is an Elite League night and not a
Premier League one – Mike adopts a completely new and
comparatively less simplistic presentational approach.
Rather than use the language you would when speaking
to aging distant relatives with hearing and IQ
problems, he adopts a more matey, men of the world
together style (without the swear words) traditionally
used by Police informers to gain the confidence of
their suspects. Nonetheless, it’s strange that someone with the vehemently stated antipathy and contempt that Mike has
for the poor entertainment value of racing at the Elite League level – if judged by his comments at the PL Pairs at Somerset where he criticised the inferior quality of the racing often served up at the EL level compared to the PL [he has a point, mind] – actually still has been assigned this EL gig. However, with his retro, stuck in a time warp, inadvertent speak down to the punters style – when I believe he’s trying to be upbeat – along his publicly stated antipathy towards the lacklustre ‘superstar’ riders you find in the Elite League means that this meeting is as close as he’ll ever get to the pinnacle of many presenters (unstated) ambition – to perform at the Cardiff GP. Tonight Mike does share the presentational duties, so his interventions are leavened with nuggets of factual information provided from the referee’s box by the exotically named Edwin Overland as well as by his regular presentational co-partner at Super7 events with the inadvertently defective (or sabotaged?) roving microphone – the always informed and informative professional Craig Saul. A man who Mike renames as a fish all night as “Craig SOLE”, seemingly unaware that you should never perform with animals or children

Soon the crowd learn from a peeved sounding Mike that Peter Karlsson (“he’s burnt his hand”) will be replaced by his Wolves team mate Freddie Lindgren – a good like-with-like swap, especially given Freddie’s all action style and
present good form – and Jason Crump, despite having ridden to a maximum for Poole against Swindon the previous night,
won’t ride and will be replaced by Troy Batchelor. I
had heard from kindly Poole press officer Gordie Day
before I set out for Norfolk that Jason has withdrawn
because of a severely (or ginormously as Terry Wogan
would put it) swollen knee that he’d further
aggravated by riding through the pain barrier for his
club. Mike doesn’t mention this context but instead
speaks darkly about his non-arrival albeit with faux sympathy , “you know all about Jason Crump’s recent knee operation”. I don’t catch exactly why Matej Zagar isn’t riding tonight – though I guess it’s either his time of month or that he can’t be f***ed. Mike lets us know that Travis McGowan will take his place, though he’s reputedly a nice bloke this isn’t a comparable high calibre replacement. Quite properly, Mike reserves the greatest scorn for a rider who still hasn’t yet formally withdrawn when the gates open – Lee Richardson – who “has apparently broken down en route to the stadium”. It appears he must share that same special AA or RAC breakdown insurance that Billy Janniro used last year when he was a ‘no show’ for the third and decisive leg of the Craven Shield Final. Having also driven up from Sussex, I would have believed that Lee had been held up – like I was – by “escaped animals” on the M11 motorway but unless there had been a van fire – the ‘dog ate my homework’ rarely washes as an excuse and indicates a contempt for the pay rates, status of the competition, the speedway public or all three.

As befits his ebullient manner and short attention span, Mike soon moves on to speak over the tannoy on other weighty philosophical matters, namely the vox pop he’d
promised earlier to thrillingly investigate which fan
supports who at today’s meeting. Invariably he relates
everything he encounters towards himself, something
he’s done or somewhere he’s been recently (we
repeatedly learn that he’s apparently been to Poole
speedway recently) or, failing that, he relentlessly provides frequent references to his regular employer – King’s Lynn speedway club. When he encounters a fan who believes that Nicki Pedersen will win he passes on quickly
but not before he’s said, “former King’s Lynn rider,
of course, Nicki!”. Mike then interviews a larger lady
whose Scott Nicholls T-shirt he critiques for its
sartorial appearance before ironising the pride Scott
must feel at this display of her allegiance to him,
“I’m sure he enjoys that”. It’s a comment greeted with
guffaws of laughter at the track shop, “I can’t
believe he’s criticising someone else’s clothing”.
This is all said without apparent irony by Mike who is
dressed tonight in his dark trousers, trademark black
shirt set off with a delightfully garish ‘greed-is-good, lunch is for wimps’ eighties style tie that might have been borrowed from the props box of recent local repertory performance. Later Mike’s whole ensemble is capped by his specially chosen Super7 item of clothing – a frighteningly bright holiday camp red jacket that would fit seamlessly into Butlins but instead stands out magnificently at a speedway meeting. There is no need for him to draw further
attention to himself when his stream-of-consciousness observations do that so effortlessly entertainingly all night.

Interestingly and against the run of play, Craig arguably wins the award for the phrase that you least expect to hear at a speedway meeting when he utters, “we can tell you that there’s no queue at the pasta bar at the moment”. This catering outlet must be Jonathan Chapman’s concession to the power of the organic and macro-biotic food movement that has swept the country and gradually percolated down into the speedway world. Or, alternatively, he’s trying to rival the success of Leaping Len Silver’s famed ‘fish and chip bar’ at Hoddesdon (a stadium also advertised as the only site in British speedway where you can purchase a kebab). Mike is soon back over the loud speakers (and they are loud at Lynn) to run us back through the amendments to
the scorecard and combines them with some thoughtful
predictions, “Troy Batchelor – don’t write him off I
saw him ride at Poole a few weeks ago so he’s got to
be one of the favourites now!” The ongoing mechanical
problems for Lee Richardson continue though nowadays
it appears they’ve migrated from his engines to his van,
“there’s still a question mark over Lee Richardson we
hear he’s broken down en route”

Elsewhere in the stadium, the riders and sexy super7
start girls attract a crowd of rubber-neckers and
autograph hunters. Scott Nicholls signs so many
autographs he almost gets repetitive strain injury and
smiles for phones and cameras so often that his grin
becomes almost as locked as the rictus versions of synchronised swimmers in the Olympic pool. After the riders depart to get ready for their on track duties, the girls pose patiently with all and sundry in their tightly fitting
jump suits with the flame motif on the leg. After
they’ve posed at some length, they break off to
collect their complimentary air horns from Johnny
Barber at the track shop. It’s enough to suddenly
seize him with the wandering spirit of the fabled
Bennett wit and repartee, “I’ve given them the horn!”
Elsewhere Mike has found Jonathan is available for a
brief interview and some joint admiration of the
diversity of the crowd:
[MB] “There are even some Poles here”
[JC] “Yeh, they’ve probably just come down the road –
there’s a lot of Poles here”
[MB] “You’ve just spoiled the illusion I was giving
Talk soon turns to the riders and Mike (again)
solicits opinions on who will win. Jonathan talks up
the last minute substitutes, “when they said Troy was coming here to replace Crumpie, I thought it was a good swap!” before he goes on to nail his colours to the
Leigh/Nicki favourites mast but not without hedging
his bets, “the dark horse I fancy is Davey Watt”.

Once the meeting starts it’s quickly obvious that
there is a severe problem with the track. Heat 1 sees
the riders collectively struggle for a lap before
Chris Harris falls on the first bend of the second lap
and only a split second later Freddie Lindgren and
Troy Batchelor come to grief on the second bend. The
race is comprehensively stopped, unfortunately for
race leader and the only rider still standing – Davey
Watt. It’s a complicated situation to adjudicate upon
and one that Edwin Overland carefully explains, “after looking at the replay, two riders have been excluded by the
referee [Jim McGregor] in separate incidents” Rather harshly one of the guilty parties is adjudged to be Chris Harris who must count himself rather unlucky since he’d swiftly remounted after his fall and appeared to be under power when the red lights came on. If he hasn’t already suffered enough, he’s then subjected to additional scrutiny from Mike B, “so, Chris, is the track tricky to ride?”
Thankfully the presence of the Sky cameras ensures
that there will be little time between races so, luckily, any will to banality is held in check by the lack of
available questioning time. That said, Mike soon
prises out of Davey Watt the revelation that, “the
track is tricky to ride”. A glance at the first race
leaves Johnny Barber confident on a number of fronts
“Scott Nicholls will do well, it’s just his sort of
track: wet, with dirt and difficult! You can write
Chris Louis down for nought in your programme now if
you like, he’s not so good on the dirt.” The next few
heats treat the large crowd to a series of virtuoso
falls from a variety of usually smoothly elegant
riders as well as sight of some riders suddenly
‘straight lining’ across the corners (rather than broadsiding through them) as though they’ve rarely been on a speedway bike before. The exception that proves the rule is Travis McGowan who immediately takes to conditions like a duck to water and looks every inch a future World Champion in these conditions. Nicki Pedersen also shows his credentials with an untroubled race win in the third heat. On the centre green before heat 4 provides another example of this slip-sliding version of the sport we all know and love, both Nicki Pedersen and Leigh Adams can be seen gesticulating in wild semaphore fashion at fawn jacketed ‘meeting steward’ Terry Russell as they all stand by one of the many Norfolk Arena tractors on display. Whatever they suggest, not that we can hear it though we can easily gather the import from their flailing arms, is effective. However, they are arguments that don’t come in time to stop us all – the crowd in the stadium and the audience at home – being treated to the sight of Hans Andersen (no less) and Chris Mills completing the last two laps of this race without even the pretence of an attempt to slide their bikes (later we learn that this is called “two-wheeling” in speedway parlance among the riders) because of the treacherous and hazardous track conditions!

Almost immediately the meeting is temporarily but sensibly held up for some remedial but essential curatorial work that is estimated to require about fifteen minutes to put
right. Jonathan soon has a microphone thrust under his
nose. “It’s not looking ideal out there on the track
is it? We expected some rain that didn’t come so we
got on water a little bit too late. It’s made it
terribly hard for the riders. Now they’ve [the track
staff] got their first chance to get out there and mix
up the dry stuff with the wet we should be alright.
It’s a real shame to start the meeting like that but
the riders are confident it’ll get better!” I’m not
sure what the commentators on Sky made of the track
conditions but, hopefully, they weren’t too critical
since I later hear it alleged that their insistence
that the meeting proceeded promptly compounded the
late watering issue as their understandable keenness to stick to the scheduled start time of 7.30pm apparently prevented the track staff from adequately mixing in the dry shale with the wet before the meeting got underway. This allegation that their keenness to stick to schedules for understandable commercial reasons caused the long delay and thereby affected the quality of the spectacle provided during the early races was subsequently categorically denied by Terry Russell (following media reports I didn‘t see), though his statement specifically only referred to events after the meeting had started. “This is completely untrue and not only was it not the case last Thursday, it is [sic] the case in all televised meetings…I must emphasize once again that Sky Sports quite simply adhere to whatever decisions have to be made by the meeting officials
[Terry Russell & Tony Steele] and at no time did they
have any influence on decisions made over track work”.

Fortunately, after the remedial track work, things improved
dramatically and the surface returned to the quality
you’d usually find on any race night at the Norfolk
Arena. Chris Mills filled some of the dead time with an
interview, “it’s a shame about the track at the
moment, it’s a little dodgy, let’s hope they can fix
it back to normal and we can get a bit of racing. When
you see riders like Hans Andersen two wheeling that’s
bad!” Terry Russell is called upon to give his
perspective and then explains that the track was
watered later than usual because Buster “was worried
about the black clouds”.

After nearly 20 minutes of grading, the track is dramatically improved and much more recognisably a surface fit for the contest everyone has come to see (or watches at
home). The return of the surface to its normal state
provides a modicum of satisfaction for Keith ‘Buster’
Chapman and, unlike snafus in corporate life or other
sports, one of the delights of having a person in
speedway like Buster is that he’s prepared to hold up
his hand and take responsibility for his actions (as
well as reveal his Howard Hughes type obsessiveness
about dust and cleanliness). “Yeh, I cocked it up
didn‘t I? I tried to get it too perfect and have no
dust. We couldn‘t work on the track yesterday cos we
were putting the air fence up. It‘s my fault you‘ve
sat around for 15 to 20 minutes and had a few bad
races. Sorry!” When interviewed Jonathan also looks on the positive side, “I’m finally quite happy. The riders are happy. We tried to get through a few races which was the
wrong thing to do. We’re now ready for a match of
proper speedway.”

Since the meeting is being televised and has fallen so
massively behind schedule, each heat is run at even greater breakneck speed and the two minute warning for the next race often sounds before all the riders have
left the track. Nonetheless, despite this need for urgency, Mike is repeatedly amazed every time that the
riders don’t come round to salute the crowd with a
victory lap of celebration – though I’m personally mystified how a brief wave from a rider sets the pulses racing or caps off the entertainment on offer. His surprise is endlessly replayed, though his hectoring appeal for acknowledgement continues to fall on deaf ears all night, “you know you want him to come round but he just went straight back to the pits!”. His presentation partner for the night, Craig Sole, has the unenviable task of trying to interrupt Mike long enough to try to snatch a brief post race interview with riders from inside the pits. It’s a task hampered by a defective microphone (which has the
consequence that it allows Mike to share more of his ad hoc
thoughts and observations with a captive audience) and
the fact that the riders naturally give Sky Sports
priority when it comes to their attention since the
oxygen of national publicity is better for their
sponsors and their own profile.

When Louis, Mills, Topinka & Batchelor line up for heat 10 Mike tries to inject some thrill into our jaded perceptions of its importance and informs us breathlessly, “in case you didn’t realise – that was the King’s Lynn class of 2006 revisited!” I hadn’t realised that Chris Louis rode in Norfolk and Suffolk. By heat 12, as though the ELRC has transmogrified into a horror film set in a graveyard with zombies rising from the dead, Mike exclaims, “it’s coming
alive”. The most eagerly anticipated heat of the night –
the encounter that pits Nicki Pedersen (gate 3)
against Hans Anderson (gate 2) and also includes Leigh
Adams (gate 4) – is unexpectedly wrecked as a spectacle of on track mayhem and aggression (that we can all tut about afterwards) by Jason Crump’s replacement Troy Batchelor. The young Aussie demonstrates the benefit of this seasons Elite League experience with a sharp departure from the gate and even sharper elbow for Hans before bend 1 – from the inside while his rivals attention was focussed towards his outside on Nicki – that thereby totally throws the Dane off his stride and relegates him from contention to a forlorn fourth place. It’s a manoeuvre that has Troy occupy second position until the second bend of the third lap when
Leigh Adams drives hard underneath him. Afterwards
Mike accurately notes, “interesting first turn but not
what we expected”. When he wasn’t bemoaning the lack of
celebration laps after each victory, Mike endlessly
repeats “well, we didn’t see that one coming” so often
you begin to wonder if he has any predictive powers.
Craig Sole does manage to snatch an interview with Nicki
who cannily notes that he doesn’t see the GP series as
a foregone conclusion and had intention of taking
anything, let alone Leigh Adams, for granted. We learn
Nicki’s race philosophy is “you want to be faster even
when you are fast!” Before his last outing, after four
tapes to flag victories, Mike informs us, “all Nicki
has seen in front of him is fresh air all night!” As
it happens, heat 20 sees his access to fresh air temporarily abated when Davey Watt passes Nicki on the
first bend of the last lap – something that has the
fans near me mutter darkly about “letting him through”
– to ruin the five ride maximum and allow Mike to note
once more, “well, we didn’t see that one coming”.

With Nicki and Leigh straight through to the final,
the semi final line up illustrates in miniature the
problems that beset British speedway since Chris
Harris was the only person from these islands at the
start gate. Also competing where Bjarne Pedersen (“I saw him the other week at Poole”), Davey Watt and Krzysztof Kasprzak. Before this race Mike excites the crowd
with news that they will be able to mingle with him
and the competitors on the centre green afterwards,
“we’ll be doing a quick presentation for Sky and then
we’ll open all the gates to the centre green so you
can get up close and personal to all the riders!”
Before the final Mike mentions for the millionth time (was it a contractual obligation?), “former King’s Lynn rider of course, Nicki!” and predicts, “stand back it’s gonna get messy!” Unsurprisingly enough, given his form all night, Nicki wins comfortably and takes part in the double presentation of the trophies celebration afterwards one version that is made for television and the one put on for the actual fans in attendance. After an initial unexpected blip, the meeting is a credit to the sport, the organisers and would make you want to attend future super7 meetings.

30th August ELRC Winner: Nicki Pedersen

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