Newport New Year Classic 2007 Rain Off
Inevitably as soon as Tim Stone, the promoter of the Newport New Year Classic, spoke in congratulatory fashion to the Speedway Star about the fact that this winter speedway event could and had run in all weathers, he was bound to irk the speedway weather gods. In other years whether the wintry conditions ranged from just plain cold and cloudy to snow throughout the Newport area or even when there was sleet, rain, overnight frost and snow, the show must and did go on. This morning with the rain coming down heavily four hours before the tapes were due to fly, the track looked decidedly soggy. In fact, the track looked decidedly very wet to my untrained eyes as puddles near the inner white curb of the track – that on the golf course would be called ‘lateral water hazards’ and would definitely merit a dropped ball – lay visibly on all the bends and on both straights while the track surface itself looked generally sodden but not waterlogged. But then this isn’t golf and I’m not a track curator, so everyone was quick to inform me at every opportunity “the track wasn’t a problem, it was the weather.” This was the party line peddled by all and sundry, so much so that I’m happy to be a believer and would have repeated it to anyone, should I have been asked. Not that I was ever consulted since I was asking the questions though a quick glance at the expression on Tim Stone’s face suggested that it might be politic if I kept these to a minimum with him and generally kept out of his way. Not that he has much time to talk as his mobile trills constantly and when it’s not, he charges about the place in a frenzy of activity. Given the weeks of preparation that have already been put in on the track continuous rain is the last thing that he needed.
The centre green looked waterlogged but then the riders don’t race on that so they’re unlikely to use it unless they pull up with an engine failure or end up on the podium spraying the cava round with gay abandon. Already working on the heavy infield attending to the electrics in the downpour were Peter Brookes and David Dean. As far as their hooded anoraks went, they both sensibly favoured the attire worn this season by the more fashionable deep sea trawler men in contrast to Tim who favoured the florescent yellow jacket beloved on motorway maintenance people everywhere, albeit without anything so jaunty as a baseball cap or hood. Before I left a rain swept Cardiff to travel to the Queensway Meadows Industrial Estate, I conducted an extensive search of the Internet in attempt to get conflicting accounts of the weather in the vain hope that the forecast heavy rain wouldn’t materialise. Some forecast showers and others a downpour. The night before my favoured forecaster of choice, ‘Metcheck’, had promised a deluge of 4.8 millimetres between the New Year Classic speedway witching hours of noon to 3pm but now apparently veered towards a light sprinkling for the NP 19 area. Though, that said, other forecasters spoke in more generalised terms of passing bands of rain throughout the day so my hopes sprang eternal when it came to the possibility of selling a few more copies of my books by the turnstiles as the crowd surged through to bagsy their key spot on the grandstand. Inside the stadium, this looked decidedly unlikely especially as there was a giant puddle-cum-flood directly by the turnstiles. The arriving fans would have had to splosh through it to access the paths to the grandstand or the bends and also for that matter the downstairs toilets inside the bowels of the stand where the bar used to be located (where they would also have been confronted by a further water hazard of a lightly flooded corridor).
The optimism and dedication that it takes to run your own stadium and found your own speedway club – in an area subject to a severe economic buffeting over the years by the closure of the traditional local industries of coal and steel – requires stubbornness, bloody mindedness, resilience and a cast of mind always prepared to look on the bright side. Tim is that optimistic man and consequently has an indomitable view of life that the continuation of Newport speedway in the Premier and Conference Leagues is a continuing testament to. Understandably enough, his approach to one of his major revenue earning speedway meetings of the year was one of determination in the face of difficult odds (and weather conditions). In fact, there was some brightness just before ten at the stadium – sadly not in the speedway office where Tim was, but in the far distance to the West in the general direction of Bristol. At the behest of Tim’s disembodied voice (“what way is the flag blowing?”) I stood on tiptoe and peered over the barbed wire topped perimeter fence of the stadium towards the flagpole of the nearby car dealership on this light industrial estate to establish the wind direction. I reported back that it was favourable since it was blowing roughly from the West and theoretically should bring the fair sky towards us shortly. Preferring the evidence of his own eyes (“not that I disbelieve you”), Tim came out to inspect the brightness and the billowing flag for himself before he retreated back to the inner sanctum of the dry Speedway Office but noted, as he passed, “it’s not the track it’s the weather.” Some people had prepared for the eventuality of rain, notably track shop entrepreneur John Jones who was ever a “freaking professional” and so was organised enough to have strategically pitched his stall with its sensible waterproof covering for the roof and sides on the slightly higher ground in the corner by the steel gates and adjacent to the catering facilities, just to the side of the giant puddle by the turnstiles. Like the puddle, no one would miss his stall. With his delightful lady wife busied elsewhere with the van doors, my greeting of “alright” was greeted by an automatic response of “fine” belied by his tone of voice, the weather conditions and the scowled look on his face as he sploshed towards the bowels of the grandstand.
Earlier I’d spoken to the always cheerful Dave in the new “upper bar” area that has been installed on the top level of the grandstand since my previous visit last summer. He didn’t hold out much hope that the racing would proceed but like so many of the other loyal volunteers that the club relies on throughout the season to ensure it runs successfully, he’d still turned out and busied himself helping with whatever was to hand or was required. The bar occupies a good sized section of the grandstand and overlooks the track magnificently and also provides a restricted view through the windows of the away side of the pits to the left. I welcome the shelter inside and quickly gather that some last minute outfitting is still in process as another man is crouched working busily in the far corner, though by all accounts the bar has been “fully operational” since October. It’s a splendid addition to the ongoing gradual development of the Hayley Stadium facilities and in this week’s Speedway Star Tim proudly expected that some riders would have libations there after the meeting, when he felt that the lure of the new facilities would inevitably cause them to “take liquid refreshments” on site.
For now the only liquid easily available is falling from the sky. Constantly occupied throughout my time there, the dedicated track staff in the form of the always welcoming Peter and David are busy painstakingly sweeping and tidying the covered areas of the pits – of sawdust on the home side and of sizeable puddles in the more exposed away section. Peter reckons the forecast is “rain, rain and more rain” and my thought that I might be a bit of ‘Jonah’ is met with, “but, at least, he had a whale to shelter in and you seem to have forgotten yours!” Listening to the collective chatter, the general opinion comes down on the side that “Tim should have called it off yesterday cos of the forecast but didn’t.” Though, early cancellation would also probably have brought complaints from someone. It’s clear that in the unlikely event the racing can proceed smoothly, then the crowd levels will suffer from the uncertainty and the weather. The arrival of the SCB official Craig Ackroyd is expected to take this decision out of Tim’s reluctant hands in the next few minutes as the rain remains heavy and the track continues to look sodden though, again, I’m reassured “the base is dry and firm below the surface so the riders’ll be able to race – we’ll put on a show – the track holds up well and with a bit of sawdust, it’ll be no problem.” I had hoped to check this confident opinion with the experienced Newport track curator, Andy Dean, but he’s absent and his son tells me “he don’t work here no more cos he had a falling out with Tim over some things”. Though I don’t learn what these were, I do learn from David, when talking about the objections that the S.W.A.R.M. ladies expressed about the comments I attributed to them about the club in my book Showered in Shale, “there’s always problems when you mix women and sport.” Unable to comment, I imagine that this afternoon the mixture of shale, water and sawdust would be the problem that will most occupy everyone here.
Not that there will be any need to spread out the sawdust as by the time I wander round to the circle of umbrella’s by the catering outlet, it’s clear that the referee has abandoned the meeting. It will be now run, weather permitting (“we’ll postpone it on the Saturday next time if it’s this bad again”) at the same time in the same place in a week’s time. The diminutive Chris ‘Bomber’ Harris chooses that moment to arrive with what, in his hands, appears like a giant umbrella only to be greeted with Tim saying in his singsong Welsh accent “sorry Bomber, it’s off! We thought the rain would hold up but it’s carried on so we’s had no choice.” In his own rich regional accent (Cornish), Bomber remains nonchalant and unbothered, “yeh, I’ve already looked at it – I just wonder why I’m not still in bed.” After some chatter among the officials and Tim (“thank you ladies for all coming in today!” he calls to the retreating helpers before his mobile rings “ah, Lubos, sadly it is off!”) I wander back along the edge of the grandstand with Bomber and his friend. Our talk moves jokingly from the track conditions to take in his selection for the 2007 GP series. His reassured “we’d have been alright, we could have raced” is wittily interrupted by a man I assume to be his father, “it’ll get us used to it for the GP’s” and – ignoring this sly reference to the television induced habit of the GP series organisers to apparently continue to run these meetings with scant regard for the always “paramount” rider safety, irrespective of actual weather conditions or track quality – Bomber laughingly retorts, “I’ll just knock a few people off!”
Back under cover on the home side of the pits David Howe, with his mum in tow, has arrived to immediately and gleefully stake his chosen place in the pits with, in the absence of his bike, a small pile of his possessions in the form of his bike stand, an empty fuel can and a dirt deflector. I’d heard how polite, conscientious, thoughtful and thorough David Howe was when interviewed from the excellent Tim Hamblin, the ace speedway reporter of the Wolverhampton Express & Star. He’s a shrewd judge of people, so I’m not at all surprised when this judgement on his character is borne out when David warmly congratulates Bomber on his selection for the GP’s. Though he then appears, despite the weather conditions, genuinely shocked and amazed at the news that the meeting has been cancelled. His incredulity is touching and he seeks confirmation from the chain smoking older man sat next to him with a clipboard of official paperwork (“don’t ask me – he hasn’t told me yet and I’m the freaking one signing everyone in!”).
“You’re freaking kidding! That means I’ll have to wash the bloody bike again as it’s on the back of the car! Seriously, I was ready to race – I was just getting the driest bit of the pits, I was ready to go – I’ve been training hard.”
“Doin what?” asks Bomber
“Heavy bag boxing, you know, with the big bag on the rope – it nearly killed me. It’s the hardest training I’ve ever done! Me hand swelled up and everything. Look it’s stopped now; perhaps he’ll run it. There’s not much grip out there though”
“Just you and me, David!” grins Bomber
“It always was anyway [smirks]. I can’t believe that I’ll have to clean the bike again! I haven’t even unloaded it but its been on the back of the car held on with a couple of bungee straps and board – retro style just like the old speedway riders used to.”
The talk then moves onto Bomber’s trip to Denmark for something to do with his engines before they rather illuminatingly get down to casual gossiping about when a certain rider whose name I didn’t catch rode at Redcar, “you only get away with three or four moves like that a season and he tried them all at once. Gary and Freddie have been around, so they just thought, you can have that if you want it that much!”
Entertaining though this banter is, the lure of a long drive home in the rain proves too much for me to resist. It’s not until I reach the Severn Crossing that the rain temporarily stops and the skies brighten but then – like the notorious hugely dangerous currents of the river below – the weather around here obeys the laws of its own microenvironment. Just like Hayley Stadium runs to its own uniquely engaging rules and rhythms – those managed, dictated and generated by the proud, energetic Welshman Tim Stone – except, of course, when the weather gods occasionally intervene to rain on his parade.
7th January 2007 New Year Classic – postponed rain