Jon Cook – thoughts on speedway & speedway life
Jon Cook 24.08.05 (Oxford Speedway)
Jon’s thoughts on speedway & speedway life (from 2005) as they appear in Showered in Shale
JON COOK “began watching as a kid” at the age of thirteen when he was taken to speedway by his dad. He fondly recalls going to Wimbledon (“the jewel in the crown”), along with Reading, Rye House and Cradley Heath, which he fondly recalls as “fantastic” and as a track located among the houses (“it wouldn’t happen now”). Though he’s now nearly forty [in 2005], Jon remains as excited as ever at the build-up to any speedway meeting. He believes that the “build up is always as exciting as the first time you went or the previous time. It’s a very intensive fifteen minutes in two and a half hours; the fastest hours of the week, and the whole thing builds up during the evening. It’s so different from other sports – there’s the noise, the cranking up of the bikes and the butterflies; the theatre of it all, plus it’s very intensive in snippets. These feelings never lessen over time, so you don’t ever think ‘oh here we go again’”. If pushed, Jon feels that the only comparable sport is dogs – “because it has a similar programme with bursts of action, though the difference is that between the races there’s nothing to watch and just boredom, cos there’s no cumulative build up”.
Talk of the uniqueness of speedway sparks Jon’s over-riding anxiety of a gradual decline in public interest, which he believes inevitably means, “there’s unlikely to be twenty tracks existing in ten years time”. The variety and number of speedway stadiums of his youth immediately remind him of the gradual death of the city centre track within the sport, which he views as a result of “health and safety getting their claws in over noise, dust and danger” but also as indicative of part of a general trend away from the concept of community. “Speedway is treading a fine line and carries on okay until someone tries to stop it” and inevitably bring up concerns about noise, dust or spectator safety. The stadiums that he visited as a youth have become defunct or fallen into disrepair. The latest to go the way of all flesh is Wimbledon, “sadly they have to face the facts that the era of speedway in the area is over – like many places the area has changed completely and is no longer the white, working class place that it once was”. There were high hopes among the Elite League promoters that Plough Lane could have become the neutral showpiece stadium for the whole sport, but sadly the reality was that it didn’t fulfil expectations and leaves the search for such a venue still ongoing.
Jon supports the idea of my book [Showered in Shale] and believes that it is a good one, especially if I can manage to capture something about the values of the people and country “through the eyes of sport – it’s a good way to look at England through the perspective of speedway”. For him speedway, like Englishness, is something to take pride in and to be protected; since both share the same values of uniqueness and, in some ways, both are bastions of a particular way of life under threat through the rapidly changing mores of a more disinterested and throwaway society. Jon is keen to stick up for speedway and he passionately believes that we should celebrate our “British values” and he worries that it’s increasingly the case that there’s “no respect left for the country and our history”. He sincerely believes that we should strive to hang onto our values, local communities and traditions. Also that we should take pride in them rather than be apologetic, while we still endeavour to pass them on “down the generations” so that they too can grow up “safe, secure and happy”.
Where Jon lives and where Jon works he views as a redoubt for an English way of life and an outlook on people and their communities that is under pressure within contemporary society by ‘modernising’ outside forces. His involvement in a speedway life is his way of escaping and protecting himself from these rapid changes elsewhere in society and the country (“I’m very fortunate to work in speedway to be able to escape from things in the country that really wind me up!”). He and his family have been part of the Shoreham Beach community for some time and consider themselves fortunate to be part of something that is comparatively cosseted from the dilution of the national values of our culture, as it happens throughout the rest of society. Locally he supports his local traders, schools and neighbours and he’s concerned about the impact on the delicate local eco-system of his community that will be wreaked by the incoming people that the development of the nearby industrial units will attract. When he ventures around the local area in search of sponsorship for the Eagles he’s shocked (“things have gone in such a short space of time”) by the changes he notices in Central Shoreham, Eastbourne and Brighton; which he already knew extremely well from when he ran a contract cleaning business, “I’ve seen all sides of it” from its glamour image to its seedy side.
Jon’s strong desire to maintain and retain the vibrancy of his local community also finds clear expression in the make-up and constituency of the Eastbourne Eagles club, which he characterises as unique, which he characterises as having “an unorthodox look to our speedway” and a make-up that “flies in the face of the average professional team”. He views Eastbourne as the “team of the South East” and as a club that is still strongly tied to and meaningful to the people within its local community. He believes that this is also aided and exemplified by the genuine and old-fashioned team spirit that’s fostered by the predominantly English make-up of the squad. Many modern Elite League teams are composed of a heterogeneous group of riders who just fly in for the day of the meetings (and fly out again), but have little or no real connection to the place. Jon believes its essential to have riders who are local born/based or are part of the community because they live and socialise there. Therefore, it’s still possible for the fans and neighbours to get first hand contact with the performers in everyday community life, particularly since the riders aren’t closeted away in their huge houses with security fences. The heroes you admire at your local track are still part of “real life” and still part of your life. This is also carried on at the track before and after each event, since contact is still highly likely and easy to achieve every week. The Eagles 2005 squad has David Norris who is “really local whereas Dean [Barker] isn’t but appears to be”. Deano lives in Lancing and is very much part of the area. Jon himself was born in Brighton and grew up in nearby Portslade; he believes that if “you can’t have Brit riders then the next best thing are Aussies and New Zealanders” of which the Eagles have Adam Shields and Davey Watt. They both live with their partners in Poole (“which is unfortunate”), while Steen Jensen has a Scottish mother and has often shown himself to be “totally besotted with the Eastbourne scene when he goes down town, where’s he’s loud and proud to be an Eastbourne speedway rider”. Nicki Pedersen is the only real superstar and foreigner with a demanding travel itinerary to match (“wherever he puts his head down during the season is his home for the night”) but, nonetheless, he’s just one of the lads when he’s with the Eagles, mixes in well with the leg pulling team spirit (“[British] humour runs through our pits”) and has absolutely no airs and graces. Jon views Nicki as a special talent and a gentle person “who’s earnings might be right up there with the top sports people but the fans are still able to share a beer with him afterwards or to be in the same room because, like the sport, he’s approachable and you don’t need to be one of the chosen few to get access – like in football for example”. He believes the fact that both Trevor Geer and himself are ex-riders (“I made my debut at the Old Berwick track with Eastbourne”) helps with the understanding of the riders and that this in turn aids team spirit and bonhomie. However, even Eastbourne Speedway has slightly lost the camaraderie gained when they “used to tour together as a team” but, unfortunately, the changed nature of the Elite League means that is no longer the case, since they only ever “go for the night and then return”. Nonetheless, Eastbourne under Jon’s management and promotion still strives to retain the visibility of the riders in the community, their understanding of the local area and the fans and thereby retain the “lovely feel” of the club and the sport of speedway.
Another benefit of a predominantly British or English domiciled team is that, as Nigel Wagstaff pointed out to me about the Eagles, it keeps costs down that otherwise might have to be spent on airfares, hotels and accommodation for foreign based riders. These costs have to be borne by any club that chooses to look outside the UK for its riders, irrespective of whether they ride at reserve or are the team’s best rider. Cost control is also an issue for a team like Eastbourne which finds itself out on a limb in East Sussex, unlike many other Elite League clubs, when it comes to nearby large sized conurbations from which it might attract regular or floating support.
Jon believes that while speedway is a minority sport in this country as a percentage of the total population and, for that matter, when judged against the size of its attendances; it, nonetheless, still engenders strong personal feelings among the fans and enables close links and connections with the performers. To maintain this it’s Jon’s idea to have an open pits policy before every meeting for the general public at Arlington, so the fans can meet the riders in their place of work on a regular basis; though sometimes the riders ”don’t like it” and this level of close interaction can have unintended consequences. Earlier in the season, one fan innocently and in an attempt at encouragement, said to David Norris “good to see that you actually got going [last week]” which was a well-intended point that upset Floppy. However, on balance, Jon views it as “the beauty of the sport where fans have the contact and feel that they can share an opinion”. He also highlights that the down side of this accessibility, particularly because speedway is such a community based sport, is that fans can have the opportunity to take against riders, often for the most minor, innocuous and “personal reasons”. If the fans didn’t have the expectation of being able to interact with the talent, then it is highly unlikely that they could even fall out with a rider because they once ignored them or spoke to them rudely.
Not that Jon is a great fan of interaction when it concerns speedway forums on the Internet. “I don’t tend to look at it, except very occasionally when things have gone well. I’m the promoter and the team manager, so why bother to read about it when I’m the one who has to do it, along with Trevor? Some of the people who give their opinions you wouldn’t take seriously in person, so why bother when they’re in writing?”
Technology has had a big impact on the visibility of the sport and nothing has had greater recent impact than television and the Sky Sports television contract. This season the BSPA had organised a seminar for the promoters about “how to properly present yourselves on the telly” which Jon felt was “strangely timed” given it’s the sixth season of live coverage. However, laudable though the aim of this coaching was, Jon believes that a key reason the Sky programmes have worked in the past is precisely because its “endeared itself to the viewing public by being off the cuff and often cringeable – the still ‘untouched’ and ‘real’ feeling appeals when so many other things are false or scripted”. Jon tries to avoid appearing if possible, but realises that along with the print coverage in the Evening Argus that “people do notice locally more and appreciate what my job is” as well as what the club does and he takes pride in their pride in that. He does wish that people would come along more consistently to watch the Eagles at Arlington; though he believes that their absence is more of a function of “their available free time rather than the importance of the meeting”. The lack of attendances is a problem that the sport has in general, though the lack of new fans coming into the sport is the real concern. Jon affectionately mentions the “eclectic group of fans at Eastbourne speedway”, which he thinks is the case with the diehard supporters round the country, though he also believes that “some of the newer tracks get a better cross section and representation of the general public”. The sport desperately needs to find ways to “appeal to a new group of supporters who don’t usually attend to improve your crowd”. How this might happen is open to debate and no one has yet to find the magic solution. Anything that increases local awareness should be embraced and even rider selection can play a part. For example, he thinks that both Coventry and Wolves missed an opportunity when they failed to sign Antonio Lindback, who might have attracted more new fans within their catchment areas than in the more ‘blue rinse’ area of Poole. Though, in many respects, Jon believes that “speedway has an identity crisis – what is this Team GB nonsense? It’s an English team – the Swedes and the Poles are proud of their country and identity and so should we”.
When it comes to the regulation of the sport there are always lots of theories about what could be changed to make things better. These debates of create more heat than light though Jon thinks that it’s self-evident that there should be an immediate change to ensure that “BSPA rules should ban promoters from betting as they can influence the result”. Apart from that, decisions are taken collectively and should be lived with on that basis, even when these decisions don’t necessarily benefit your team…….
Jon Cook RIP