Ian Thomas (speedway impressario)
The charming speedway showman and gentleman Ian Thomas has passed depriving us all of his wit, love of life, people, honest opinions and his skills as a close-up magician. Genuinely a privilege to have met Ian and briefly known him. A unique man. Rest in Peace!
With a larger-than-life personality, quick wit, insight and enviable verbal dexterity, Ian Thomas appears in all of my books. Some highlights are below:
From Shale Trek
Whatever their club allegiance, someone everyone is delighted to see back at tonight’s Birmingham meeting is Comets club promoter Ian Thomas who, recently, was on the critical list in intensive care after a minor operation went awry. His irascible character, quick wit and enquiring mind indicate that he would probably be a fighter and, fortunately, this proves to be the case. Dressed for the occasion in a garish multi-coloured Wulfsport Workington Comets anorak – when I ask for a photo of Ian and charming wife Dot he tells me, “Let me take my jacket off so I don’t look like a Christmas tree!” – Ian looks fit and remarkably youthful. So much so that you half suspect the talk of intensive care is really a smoke screen to disguise cosmetic surgery! As he comes out of the gents’ toilet he proffers his hand and greets me with the words, “It’s only water!” Like many other people within speedway I worried for him and tell him so. He bats off such concerns in a typically self-deprecating manner, “I wasn’t too pleased at it either! When I was awake that is – the rest of the time, I didn’t care! Three people died in intensive care when I was there! It was a nothing operation that turned into a something operation! I’m going in on Wednesday again – I couldn’t be that unlucky twice! How did you do at Workington? [five copies sold] That’s better than you used to do!”
[Jeff] “Well to put it in context, I did ten at Glasgow and two at Belle Vue.”
[Ian] “They don’t buy books at Belle Vue. I did 50 or 60 in a season and even Chris Morton didn’t do well and, if he can’t sell them at Belle Vue, who can? Jason Crump was disappointed at his sales and he was top of the world then! You picked a terrible meeting to go to [Workington v. Glasgow]. Last night’s was brilliant! We beat King’s Lynn by the biggest number of points anyone has beaten them by.”
[Jeff] “They didn’t have Ward though!”
[Ian] “They had Proctor and he’s pretty good.”
[Jeff] “But not as good.”
[Ian] “He’s a real talent. I haven’t seen Ward ride yet. Topinka had a bad night last night and he usually goes very well round our place. Based on last night, they won’t win the Four’s and neither will our lot! What does Quantum of Shale mean?”
[Jeff] “Quantum means small like the amount of shale on some tracks.”
[Ian] “There’s tons of shale on my track! Next year call your book something I can understand!”
[Jeff] “Methanol and Mayhem.”
[Dot Thomas] “That’s good.”
[Ian] “Mayhem and Worse.”
[Jeff] “I can’t call it that, some promoters don’t like what I write anyway.”
[Dot] “Only ’cause they’re trying to put words in your mouth.”
[Ian] “Call it what you want – write what you like!”
Ian and Dot move off to meet and greet with the gaggle of Workington fans who mill about the bar refreshment and trackshop kiosk area. Ever the entertainer and always ‘on’, Ian is engaged and affable with everyone he meets. He definitely looks much fresher faced.
From Quantum of Shale
The gods have decided to smile on the Cumbrian town of Workington so, three hours before the scheduled start time, the sun beats down in blistering fashion upon Derwent Park Stadium. Home of the Workington Comets, this evening the club will stage one of the prestigious Super7even BSPA shared events, namely the 2008 Premier League Four Team Championship (sponsored by Moss Bay Metals). Workington is a proper speedway town and it requires, whatever direction you take to travel there, that you pass through some splendidly spectacular countryside. Recent years have seen the Super7even events plagued by traffic difficulties and, in keeping with that tradition, there has been an accident on the A66. This is the main road many people use to access Workington (via the Lake District) and, as a result, by mid-afternoon it’s blocked in both directions. To further complicate matters, this weekend the nearby town of Maryport stages the acclaimed Maryport Blues Festival. Billed as the UK’s premier Blues event, it has taken place in Maryport since 1999. Its importance, recognition and success has grown exponentially over the years to the extent that every hotel, B&B, village hall and performance space has been fully booked or occupied for its duration from early Friday until late Sunday night. Even Workington promoter Ian Thomas was tempted to join the throng to go and see Chuck Berry. “He was on last night at 11 but it was too late for me! They get 60,000 or 70,000 people come along during the whole weekend.” Ian made a good decision not to go to the concert, “Chuck Berry got panned. He was contracted to do an hour and, though he did that, he didn’t do it enthusiastically. It’s a high quality event plus the main attraction on another night was Jools Holland and some American bloke [Jimmie Vaughan], whose name I forget. People underestimate Cumbria – whether it’s the coastline or the cultural events. Status Quo played at Whitehaven Rugby League club but, I had to miss it, ’cause it was a Saturday and I was at Workington. It hit our crowds too which is typical of my luck!”….
… Though he’s got a huge number of tasks still to attend to, Ian Thomas kindly takes the time to leave his speedway office adjacent to the pits area/pits gate to give me a tour of the terraces and proudly show off the new hospitality area on the second bend. Ian explains, “We’ve only had it four weeks – we didn’t open it for Mildenhall but the sponsors love it! They get treated really well by the ladies with the refreshments and, of course, by the club!” The hospitality room itself has a substantial number of tables and chairs. This afternoon each table is covered with an immaculately ironed white tablecloth and a lone refreshment lady is already hard at work. An impressively large buffet awaits it fate and remains fresh underneath its cling-film covers. Ian also takes me to the doorway of “the bar next door for the fans”. This has been slightly reduced in size from its previous capacity on account of the building work that created the hospitality suite area. However, the piece de resistance of the whole second-bend development at Derwent Park Stadium is the outdoor viewing platform which, due to its elevation and length, provides a fantastic view that overlooks the first- and second-bend action as well as provides the ideal platform from which to appreciate the drama of the rest of the circuit. Ian claims, with only a hint of hyperbole, “Look at that – it’s the best view in speedway! He [Keith Denham] damn well wanted the best for his sponsors and hospitality suite and the views from here are panoramic!” Though he’s delighted with the facilities, Ian is, by his standards, gloomy about Workington’s prospects in tonight’s meeting. Many people’s pre-meeting favourites, they have suddenly been hit by misfortune. “Stoney’s riding but he’s not fit! Until Thursday night [when Daniel Nermark got injured in a crash at Redcar], we’d have walked this but now we won’t even make the final! Injury is a part of speedway but it’s definitely gonna jeopardise our League bid. When Daniel crashed he landed on his neck. The First Aid man who got to him first said to me after he’d gone to hospital, he thought he was dead when he first got there! Touch wood, we haven’t had any bad crashes here this season. Obviously we’ve changed the shape and we took all the shale off and sieved it right through. That means, it’s slick most weeks and, I think, there’s not been so much overtaking. Crowds dropped off last year but, this season, it’s evened out to well over a thousand or so each week. Good for most places but bad for here! To win things, you need to avoid injuries. As I say, touch wood, the doctor hasn’t had his car out on the track all season. He has been on the track – when one rider did come off on bend 1 – but, before he got to him, the rider had got up!”
……….. With many more riders in the pits than usual, the logistics of the rider parade and introductions take some organisation. The riders wait patiently by the pits gate and then crowd onto various modern-style open-top 4x4s for a slow circuit of the Derwent Park Stadium track and a brief wave to the crowd. They then return to the pits to wait for the widely advertised arrival of Miss Cumbria in a helicopter. Away from the speedway track, Workington promoter Ian Thomas is, of course, a “close-up magician”. He’s also a show-business impresario since he books and manages various types of entertainer through his company “The Ian Thomas Organisation”. Apart from close-up magic, customers can book the bands, caricaturists, party bands, disco and comedians. Ian has often used his show business experience and expertise in his parallel speedway career. Indeed, over the years Ian has invited many personalities to speedway tracks where he has worked. These include Ken Dodd, Max Bygraves, Jim Bowen, Bill Maynard, Bill Crompton, various look-alikes (Del Boy, Prince Charles, James Bond, Matt Ford) Blondini (“blows himself up in a coffin”), Henry la Mothe (“belly-flopped from 20 feet into 12 inches of water – he was a support act for Evel Knievel – he must be dead now as he was 69 then”), Dan Limburger (“fell 60 feet on fire into six foot flames”) and a one-man band who played 104 instruments while he ran the 100 metres in 14 seconds “though he fell over when he did it! It was a great thing to say though – ‘104 instruments’!” For tonight’s 4TT meeting Ian has chosen to play the glamour card in the form of 18-year-old Natasha Cooper who presently holds the title of Miss Cumbria 2008. She beat nine other contestants in the final round of the Cumbrian regional competition held at the prestigious Armathwaite Hall country house. Born in Whitehaven, Natasha lives with her grandmother in Eskdale and studies for an IT degree at the Lakes College. Much keener on horses than speedway, the 5ft 8in brunette is about to make a grand entrance from the helicopter that presently hovers above Derwent Park Stadium. The green helicopter circles and makes a stately but textbook landing in the middle of the centre green. With the rotor blades still spinning, the riders (along with the crowd) wait expectantly for their first glimpse of the beauty queen. The door opens and out springs Peter Toogood! Given his diminutive stature, Peter rather melodramatically but unnecessarily ducks to avoid the rotating blades and then, ever the chivalrous gentleman, helps Miss Cumbria from the helicopter. Peter has clearly decided beforehand that a fear of compromising paparazzi photos allied to the exalted status of his position within speedway dictates that he keep a neutral fixed expression on his face. Harry Pearson’s wonderful description of Newcastle’s “rotund retail maverick” Mike Ashley immediately springs to mind (“wearing the sort of blank yet benign expression adopted by the queen when attending a break-dancing display by disadvantaged youngsters”). When Natasha embarked on her quest to become Miss England and, thereby, possibly get to enter the Miss World beauty contest, little could she have imagined that her bookings/duties would include a trip to the speedway, let alone the joy of a helicopter ride with the Chairman of the British Speedway Promoters’ Association! Andy Povey suggests that Peter’s arrival would have made greater impact if he’d jumped commando style – in fatigues rather than knickerless – from the helicopter, though he doesn’t specify whether this should be with or without a parachute. Peter’s spectacular arrival is the ideal moment to quiz Neil Machin about his earlier highly animated conversation with the Chairman of the BSPA. Always quick-witted and canny, Neil provides a plausible explanation. “Peter Toogood said to me: ‘I dunno why they wanted me to be here at quarter to six!’ and I said, ‘They want you to wear women’s clothes!’ He was ‘freakin’ hell! No! Women’s clothes!’ I think I’d touched a nerve! Rather than dress in women’s clothes, he went in a chopper and got to touch Miss Cumbria instead!” His Sheffield partner in crime, Dave Hoggart, chimes in “They say the chopper pilot is a real nutter!” Shortly afterwards, Ian Thomas issues me with a brief staccato version of events for this chapter, “You got some copy about the helicopter? There are 28 races and we’re aiming for quarter to ten. We’ve an extra doctor, ambulance and paramedic. Alright, Berwick didn’t turn up but the few riders missing are all injured.”
From Concrete for Breakfast
On my first reconnaissance trip to inspect the rink, I bump into the avuncular force of nature that is ice speedway co-promoter Ian Thomas. He’s on his way to change into the cream-coloured “Savile Row suit” and dark collared shirt he carries on coat hangers along with the slip-on white dress shoes that will complete his showman’s attire. Old theatrical habits die-hard for someone schooled for many decades in (what Ian invariably calls) “showbusiness” who has forgotten more than some people will ever know about the entertainment industry, let alone about the speedway promotional game.
[Footnote 1 Almost as I walked in back home after Telford, I logged onto Ian’s website (www.it-org.co.uk) to find out more about ‘The Ian Thomas Organisation’ – tagline “a whole world of entertainment”. Given the site had only just gone live, it wasn’t quite the sleekly refined version that you’ll find nowadays, nonetheless it still had the music hall feel or, at least, the completely different era of theatrical entertainment atmosphere it still retains. Listening to Ian’s wealth of “showbusiness stories” (and for Ian, you sense the word is always split into its constituent parts of show and business), you quickly gather that, despite his comparative youth, he’s part of a long-standing theatrical tradition of hard-working, jobbing performers who travel from venue to venue – whether it’s a club, a works function, corporate event or a birthday party. Our quick fix, always-on-the-run-culture has no real time for the dying tradition and ethos of the somewhat slower acts and performances that require participation as a group or being together as part of a community rather than the more modern atomised, individualised consumption in your own home approach that increasingly dominates. In some ways, Ian is unintentionally (rather than self-consciously) following a similar trajectory in his showbusiness life as he is in his speedway one since he manages and, in a sense, performs in both spheres with each, ultimately, part of a rich tradition but slowly stumbling to extinction in competition with other media for the limited free time of its patrons. Even more spookily, in authenticity terms you could argue that speedway is only authentically appreciated when seen live at the track rather than enjoyed in the modern way as a viewer at home (since, unlike football, community live screening in pubs and bars is non-existent) served up with an ersatz version – albeit an enhanced simulacra – of the experience.
Only a minute of conversation with Ian will quickly reveal that while he performs, the primary function of ‘The Ian Thomas Organisation’ is to manage and gain bookings for other performers. There is a wealth of choice offered to any potential customer including; close-up magic, caricaturists, comedians, tributes, speciality acts, look-alikes, named groups, party bands, discos, 50s-60s-70s bands and, of course, the most recent addition to the stable Mr Woo. I believe Ian is a close-up magician, something I initially thought was magic for the short-sighted, but is a definition more to do with the dexterity, wonder and skill the performer possesses (qualities that would, elsewhere, qualify you as a pickpocket). Like his speedway persona, Ian has strong, plainspoken opinions on what should or shouldn’t be done and who is “quality” and who isn’t. So for him, illusionist Derren Brown and Poole co-promoter Matt Ford are both quickly dismissed as hoaxers or charlatans rather than the genuine article (albeit Ian is much more vituperative about Matt). The site nowadays has honed and refined its mission statement (what sort of sad world is it that someone like Ian Thomas is forced by commerce to have such a thing?). “Fronted not surprisingly by Ian Thomas, we offer a personal service, quality and importantly, value for money. We provide entertainment for virtually any type of event. We will always give you an honest opinion on whether any particular act is suitable for the function you are organizing. You will find our prices competitive. We only offer top class performers. After many years in the business and a first class reputation to maintain, it is important that you are satisfied with the acts we supply. Please feel free to contact us to discuss your proposed function.”]
Unlike many other contemporary speedway promoters, Ian has the gift of the gab, a keen eye for a storyline and a natural flair for creating news or controversy (usually through his plain speaking). He’s definitely someone who always puts his heart into his work and also metaphorically puts a capital P into Promotion and then double underlines and highlights it in yellow for additional emphasis. The well-oiled machine that is the Telford International Indoor Speedway on Ice promotional partnership of Thomas/Drury (or Drury/Thomas, I’m not quite sure which order they should appear in) has been burnished and perfected over many years to the point of second nature. Nonetheless, both men have a fastidious attention to detail and take nothing for granted. Getting dressed up is all part of the day and an essential component of the overall effect. “I always try to wear a satin collar at every speedway meeting. I bought my cream Savile Row suit from the Middleditch’s [salvage] business. It was £120 but should have been £1,000 on Savile Row. I shop at the same place as Terry Russell – when I saw him I said ‘I buy my suit at the same place as you!’ ‘What Savile Row?’ ‘Nah – the Middleditch’s!’ He didn’t say nowt to that.” Ian then manages to surprise me on two counts – firstly with news that he’s embraced the world wide web thingy and gained his own URL but secondly, and with a show of proprietorial pride, Ian invites me “to have a look round the changing rooms – come on I’ll show you while I get changed!” Inside the changing room he quickly strips down to his large sized Y-fronts and socks (dear reader, I won’t give you a description but you’ll have to conjure your own image of a man of a certain age undressing and then sprucing himself up) while carrying on talking throughout. As ever, Ian has a wealth of engagingly told or witty stories and his recent cruise holiday with his wife was no exception. “They say things happen in three’s. On Boxing Day, we went to a Christmas Party in India and, when I arrived, a farking dog bit me! On the 29th of December, I was shat on by a monkey at Singapore (it’s a lovely zoo) – there was a Singapore television crew filming who creased up when they saw it but kindly helped clean me up. Then I bumped into a man on Orchard Road who said ‘ I know you and I’ve just bought your book’. He’d bought the book second-hand on Amazon for £2.50 signed (To Wendy) and everything!” If Ian was unlucky during his travels abroad, then recently he’d been much luckier on the UK road system when involved in a car crash. “I was slowing down and was crashed into from behind. I got four broken ribs – they were wonderful at Chesterfield Hospital where they gave me an MRI scan that showed an ‘abnormality on my kidneys’. Thank fark I’m in BUPA! I was delighted when they said it wasn’t cancer.” By now Ian has transformed himself from a figure in giant Y-fronts into his smart, impresario persona with showtime threads to match and project that image. He waves expansively at the 16 specially produced tabards for the later ice speedway meetings that hang in numerical order on individual hooks in the cavernous and deserted changing room, while they await the arrival of the riding talent. “After so many years, this thing runs itself!” says Ian confidently as he escorts me out of the changing room and points me to the Press Centre housed up some stairs at the far end of the ice rink…..
……I retreat to the inner sanctum of the Press Room and take a seat by the massive boardroom table. Having bagged seats in a prime position by the windows, despite the fact that the racing has stopped, many of the reporters seem reluctant to move that far away and, instead, stand around forlornly in the manner of train spotters temporarily without trains to spot. Before the catering arrives, Ian Thomas tries to tempt assorted members of the media to try the cakes he’s brought with him but claims to be unable to manage to eat all on his own. The one-man sports commentary empire (stretching to speedway via darts and football) that is so ably and knowledgeably fronted by Nigel Pearson, also requires him to file copy on a weekly basis for the Speedway Star on Wolverhampton, Workington and, from this season, Birmingham. Ian Thomas is in no doubt about what the content of the Workington copy should comprise next week if judged by his conversation with Nigel, “The headlines write themselves! Branney head butts the fence and afterwards says he didn’t feel it! Oh, and Tony Jackson on his first night as team manager takes the Rest of the World side to their largest ever defeat!”
The Comets are up against the Somerset Rebels and the drive to work at Derwent Park for any rider is a long but beautiful one. The first cars have already arrived in the car park by the time I set up my bookstall outside the entrance gates. I snatch a few brief words with one of my favourite promoters, Ian Thomas, “look at the farking sky – it’s farking bad enough running on a Saturday against the GPs without that!” Prospects also don’t look great with the talismanic Comets rider Carl Stonehewer – the “comeback king” as he’s rightly hailed by Workington team manager Tony Jackson – out of action for the rest of the season with a broken vertebra sustained in a crash the previous week at Edinburgh. Consequently Ian has almost immediately signed Ulrich Ostergaard, who presently is as popular as a rattlesnake in a lucky dip with Birmingham promoter Graham Drury. With some understatement Ian notes in his ‘This Is It’ column in the programme, Stoney’s injury is “not good but it could have been a lot worse”. Luckily for the club with a series of important fixtures ahead that will define the success or otherwise of their 2007 Premier League campaign, Ian “heard a whisper on Saturday night that Danish rider Ulrich Ostergaard was going to get the sack after Birmingham’s visit to Mildenhall”. The Dane fell out of favour at one club and back into another within 24 hours, a change in affairs that is remarkably quick even by the standards of speedway circles.
However the signing that has got Ian really excited isn’t Ulrich but “Mr Woo – not a speedway rider but the World’s Greatest Football Entertainer!” Once show business is in the blood, you’re forever an impresario and salesman. In reality, Mr Woo is the World Keepy-Uppy Champion (!) who’ll make his speedway debut at the stadium before the August Bank Holiday encounter with Berwick. “I’m his agent but it’s difficult to communicate as his English isn’t that good – he’s from Korea – and already has the football market sown up! But I can bring him to speedway (here and at Sheffield and elsewhere once they hear about him) as well as night clubs, country fairs and the like.” I need no second telling since I’ve already seem him in half-time action at a Sunderland away game at Carrow Road (Norwich), where wags in the crowd suggested we should immediately sign him. Ian’s patter is never far away, “he used to play for Stuttgart, dunno how good he was but the only autograph Ronaldinho has ever asked for is Mister Woo’s and that’s good enough for me! He’s performed everywhere – the Olympics, Pele’s birthday, done TV adverts, the lot and now he’s coming to Workington!” It’s certainly a rare skill and one that, hopefully, will capture the collective imagination in this part of Cumbria, though I worry that in nightclubs the height of the ceiling might be an issue. Whatever my anxieties, Ian has no doubts, “former England captain Bryan Robson says, ‘he’s unbelievable’ and he’s never seen anything like it!” Given he now manages Sheffield United that sounds an entirely plausible reaction.
From Shifting Shale
On the way back from the pits I bump into Ian Thomas who is mooching by his car and, when he sees me, immediately barks out interrogatively, “what’s the freakin’ forecast?” It doesn’t please him to learn that it’s not good, “I hope to freak it’s on, it’s a freakin’ long way to come”. Ian and I get on famously nowadays. I find him very good company as well as a mine of information and engaging stories. He insists that I accompany him for his tea in the café – a destination that is already crowded with the great and the good that have dutifully pitched up here in Thurrock tonight. He waves to and briefly greets referees Tony Steele and Jim Lawrence as well as Dave Fairbrother from the Speedway Star. His main focus though is to order some food and bolt it down quickly before the rain or the meeting starts. Pleasingly and rather endearingly, to my mind, Ian is very fussy about what EXACTLY he wants for tea. The girl behinds the counter is left in no doubt as to his requirements though the failed battery in his hearing aid doesn’t exactly smooth the path to understanding. Ian is unable to locate his spare battery, which frustrates him. He tells me he’s deaf in one ear. Stupidly I say, “you’d better get it sorted before the meeting otherwise you’ll not hear what’s going on in the pits”. He retorts as though dealing with a particularly dense child, “I never freakin’ wear it in the pits, do I? With the sound of the bikes, I’d get freakin’ deafened in the one freakin’ good ear I’ve got left!”
Aside from our all-too-human frailties, we discuss the world from our shared perspective as ‘speedway authors’ punting round the various tracks of Britain, while Ian concentratedly eats his tea with some gusto – eggs, bacon and unbuttered bread washed down with a cup of tea. He feels the need to explain his fastidiousness unaware how similarly fussy and pernickety I am. His dietary choices have been dictated to him on the advice of his doctor because of his high cholesterol and diabetes. “When the freakin’ doctor tells you that you could lose your freakin’ eyesight and lose your freakin’ legs unless you change, you freakin’ take notice!” He pats the slight paunch of his stomach proudly and notes, “I’m now the same freakin’ weight as I was in 1998”. Ian’s book has sold far better than mine but he very courteously pretends that we are equals. I discuss his appearance in my latest book When Eagles Dared, which is an account of the Eastbourne Eagles 2005 season but is, also, in many ways a book that could really be any fan’s experience of the highs and lows of following their speedway team. Ian features in this book for a meeting at Arlington when he got embroiled live on national television, in a dispute with the Eastbourne Eagles Clerk of the Course (Malcolm Cole) and the SCB Official on the night, Chris Gay. The upshot was that he took umbrage and loudly decided that he had, in effect, been called “a liar”. His word had definitely been doubted and things didn’t go his way on the night. I assured him that I’d been balanced to all parties in my presentation. “Freak it, say what you want, I don’t freakin’ care – just make sure that you put in that I called the Vat man, he’s a Vat man that one you know, a freakin’ liar. It’s not often you can get away with calling them anything, let alone a freakin’ liar!” I don’t recall that he did since I remember that Ian claimed the referee had implicitly called HIM a liar by not accepting his word/version of events. Nonetheless, Ian’s delight in being irascible is one of the many genuinely endearing things about him. Being so strong-minded is also a touching and typical attribute. We could have chatted on for ages but I’d just spotted that the gates had opened and my book display called while he had to rush off to the pits for his managerial and promotional duties.
From Showered in Shale
This club of all British Speedway clubs, having appointed Ian Thomas as their promoter, should be able to seize and maximize the opportunities presented by the television coverage in this present incarnation of the sport. There’s the name of Belle Vue itself, with the strength, resonance and reputation of the rich tradition of success of their club and its famous riders within the sport (and beyond) allied to the show business background, connections and credentials of their promoter. I’m very excited about meeting the man himself and learning more about the factors behind his success in the sport in general and specifically at Belle Vue as well as learning his vision for the future.
Having spoken briefly with him on the phone the previous week I’d learnt that he’s also in the process of writing a book but didn’t want to reveal any details about this top secret forthcoming project. Ian is much smaller than I expected in the real life as he comes across on television (and in the press) as larger than life and slightly combative. This was clearly evidenced during his last television appearance when he had a difference of opinion with the referee, which resulted in Ian questioning whether the referee was effectively calling him “a liar” by doubting his version of events. I’m only seeing Ian to get some answers and useful information on all things Belle Vue for this book so resolve, as I have with every other time, not to provoke his ire during my brief arranged visit to his office. Ian is seated behind his desk with a phone that rings endlessly throughout the time I’m there with him, mostly to confirm that the meeting will be going ahead despite the overcast conditions in the local area. When I arrive he has a full office with the presence of two casually dressed stars of his present team. His well established, young but diminutive Danish number 1 rider Kenneth Bjerre along with the even young but upcoming Russell ‘Rusty’ Harrison. Both are clutching envelopes with their names on, which I gather are their pay packets for the previous week, which is a visible sign (if any more were needed) about the healthy financial keel the club is on, comparative to the alleged situation at some promotions, under the auspices and guidance of their new owner Tony Mole. The Sky commentator Kelvin Tatum is just leaving saying that he “felt sorry for Jesper” which I take to be the end of a conversation concerning the unfortunate denouement to the previous weeks meeting on the TV where Poole suggested that the secret of Jesper’s success for Peterborough that evening had been down to an oversized carburetor. I gather Jesper is quite a topic of conversation between Ian and the riders. Whatever the topic is it involves Ian laying great stress on the public recognition of the integrity and veracity of his opinions. “I’m an honest man and straightforward as you know” he prefaces his remarks to Kenneth before observing “if I let you go and Peterborough double cross me I’m ******”. The solution to this possibility seems to be for Kenneth to have a word with Jesper about how he sees the situation when they next run across each other which Kenneth thinks will be soon and of no problem. When we get time on our own together, except for the interruptions of the constantly ringing phone or a brief visit of the clubs experienced Australian rider Jason Lyons popping in to collect his pay envelope (“I’ll give you some money”), I try to take full advantage of the opportunity he’s kindly provided to use some of his limited time on an important and busy work night for him and his team in front of the cameras on national television. To some extent my questioning turns into an experience like trying to box my own shadow with Ian limiting his answers to a rather literal minimalism or somewhat acerbic replies given in the full knowledge that they could be used against him as evidence in some yet to be convened speedway show trial. I’m not sure if I was fundamentally failing to understand and missing his sense of humour or if the calibre of my frequent asked questions struggled to get past the banally platitudinous. Nonetheless, we both persevered in that polite British way to try to get the most out of the meeting while getting it over as quickly as possible at the same time. With regards to the prospects at Belle Vue this season Ian replied “I’ll tell you at the end of the season” while entering the caveat that he “never makes forecasts”. Looking back over his involvement in the sport Ian feels that he “just fell out of speedway”. Having returned to the sport once more the only positive changes or “strange things” he’s really noticed relate to technical matters. Specifically the advent of “fixed gate positions which we didn’t have in the 70’s and 80’s” and the arrival of “aggregate bonus points”. Having come back and become fully involved once more as a promoter and team manager, he can’t identify any detrimental changes to the sport during his absence. In fact, in his view it remains a remarkably straightforward sport with “four riders still doing four laps turning left” although he does concede that the “quality of the riders” has improved if judged by the fact that they’re “a couple of seconds quicker than they used to be”. This is most significant in the “first 50 yards out of the gate”.
Ian was sorry to leave Workington as he’d spent a “long time” there and “knew a lot of people”. He particularly misses “the riders and the fans” and rather modestly suggests that “I haven’t done so bad”. The opportunity to return to Manchester was impossible to resist and at Belle Vue there have been many positive changes, most visibly to the track. Which previously, it’s been widely acknowledged, “was awful” but now it’s been “totally relaid with 270 metres of drains” but Colin Meredith, the track curator, in the “if you want him is the man in the red overalls” is the man to quiz about the specifics of these developments. The secret of his success with Belle Vue this season is simply that he “put the right team together” and that “they stayed away from injuries” although they’ve “just started getting them now”. This has caused the absence of Joe Screen from tonight’s meeting after his fall at Eastbourne two days before where his shoulder popped out of its socket but, displaying that legendary hardiness that characterizes speedway riders, he popped it back in a gain to win the rerun of his race. Ian notes “he only rode on adrenalin” and anyway Joe’s absence isn’t only his shoulder as “he had flu as well”. All this talk of injury reminds Ian that he has to get on with hid evenings work, which is to his mind totally different from his work in show business as a magician and entertainer except that in both areas of is life “knows lots of people which comes in handy”. As I leave Ian’s guard relaxes sufficiently for his curiosity about the price and extent of my book to briefly surface.