Qualification conundrum

Given that the Speedway Star and the Speedway Grand Prix appear wedded at the hip, it’s astonishing to read some reasonably strong criticism of this event within its pages (both on September 13th as well as the subsequent meeting report on September 20th). Let alone to find that the chief critic is Philip Rising! Beyond some cavils about the odd refereeing decision, reports usually indicate that everything is invariably wonderful with the SGP so what on earth can have provoked his ire? To the casual observer there are many likely candidates ranging from: the boring predictability of the event in recent years; the endless almost obsessive tinkering with the rules in true rearranging the deck chairs on the titanic fashion (this year producing the situation where the GP winner doesn’t necessarily leave the stadium with the most points); the danger to rider safety posed by either the weather or one-off tracks: the poor state of one-off tracks; its declining popularity signalled by falling attendances; the failure of the ‘excellent stadium facilities attracting huge crowds’ speculative model advocated by Bellamy/Postlethwaite to bear fruit; the predictability of the knockout stage line ups; the frequent choice of poor quality also rans as wild cards to appease local audiences and television companies; the condescending marketing of the events and tacky presentational gimmicks. The list is a long one from the sublime to the ridiculous and everyone has their favourite hobbyhorse. Though it might be a trick of memory, ignoring this worrying list, mine is that the cutthroat nature of racing appears to have dramatically declined in the last few years. Even the first bend cut and thrust with its perceived do-or-die zeal appears to have vanished in favour of a blander professionalism. It’s a decline in excitement that implicitly acknowledges the demands of this particular speedway circus requires the consistency of regular attendance rather than the genius of superlative daredevil all out racing.

Anyway, the “questions” Philip Rising raises aren’t of the disinterested variety that usually concern of an ordinary fan but the anxieties of someone instrumental in the formation, set up and structure of the SGP who sees the signs of its wane because of the way it’s run today. Philip has a key role within the warp and woof of the SGP due to his position as the Grand Prix Race Director’s Assistant (this doesn’t sound senior but is), never mind his influence as the managing editor of the Speedway Star. Amazingly, given what concerns could legitimately be raised, Philip turns the telescope round to look through the wrong end and blasts away about his worries concerning the quality of the assembled field for the GP Qualifying Final BEFORE it has even taken place.

Though I’m not sure where these have been asked or aired previously – except possibly in the rarefied circles of the management ranks of the SGP and IMG/BSI – Philip wasn’t afraid to pre-judge, “already questions are being asked about the quality of those who will get through no matter who they are”. It’s a damning judgement of the months of effort and expense put in by the sixteen riders who’d competed in many rounds in different countries to get that far. Who exactly was asking these “questions”? It certainly can’t be the fans as the Speedway Grand Prix style under the management of Bellamy, Olsen and Postlethwaite has been to tell them what they want and what they’re getting rather than engage in any form of proper market research or debate. But then, nowadays, the fans like the riders are incidental dressing to the real business of the series – the sale of television rights and advertising spots.

Looking to what bugs Philip about any qualifiers from this event could be summarised in a nutshell as:
1. Proven track record of non-success in GP
2. Too old
3. Qualifiers unlikely to be a “force”
4. Behaviour, deportment and “outstanding credentials” – apparently needed on & off track!
5. Need for youth
6. Random capricious nature of who actually qualifies

Philip puts these allegedly widely held concerns in almost lawyerly language, “Sunday’s field at Zielona Gora includes a number of riders who have already raced in the SGP and who, in all honesty, might be considered past their best.” He then later rhetorically asks, “Would any of these riders actually enhance the 2009 SGP? Or would it be better to inject some fresh new talent into the series, riders like Holder, Jurica Pavlic, Tai Woffinden and the exciting Russian Emil Sajfutdinov?” I agree these riders should be given their chance to shine on this stage but the risk of burn out remains incredibly high. You don’t have to think hard to recall riders who’ve been selected to take part because of their ‘promise’ and then signally ‘failed’ to make an impact or justify the hype. You only have to think of the exaggerated expectations that surrounded Antonio Lindback or Matej Zagar when their latent talent and entry into the SGP immediately saw them erroneously tipped in the pages of the Speedway Star as potential future world champions.

At it’s most basic the present organisation of the SGP prizes consistency over the whole event rather than rewarding brief examples of flair. A qualifying competition run over a number of rounds similarly values consistency, albeit with the added zinger (nowadays removed from the ‘World Championship’ SGP itself) that one poor night will lead to elimination. This might not be ‘fair’ – and clearly is disliked by the SGP advertisers and organisers – but that’s a more authentic version of speedway and the one that until recent years held sway for many decades.

It’s only recently that the SGP has managed to avoid the severe loss of credibility to its erstwhile ‘World Championship’ credentials that the fact of it being an invitation only event caused. How can someone claim to be World Champion after winning an event for which there is no qualification process? Even now, over 80% of 16 regular places are by invitation only (albeit with the fig leaf of a justification that they ‘qualified’ from the top 8). Remember that this is an often over-hyped competition where the wild cards and reserves are chosen by the organisers without need for explanation or scrutiny merely to maximise local interest in the fans/media in the staging country rather than on overall talent. Invariably these riders don’t ‘entertain’ or add to the ‘quality’ of the racing but are just fodder to make up the numbers. It’s worth remembering that the SGP hierarchy don’t have a good track record in identifying speedway talent. It’s only a few years ago that they got egg on their faces when they decided to deselect Hans Andersen (allegedly to punish him because of displeasure at notionally critical but accurate comments he made in the Danish press) only to then find that he made their considered evaluation of his comparative speedway talent look silly when he then excelled as wild card and beat many of the ‘regulars’ that BSI had preferred to entertain the paying public with. If he’d been allowed to compete for the whole series from the start, he’d possibly have been World Champion. This combination of youth, skill, determination and results might never happen again in his career, so Hans might find himself in retirement robbed of glory but the petty non-speedway based decisions of those in charge.

Even more damaging to the SGP concept in recent years is the sheer predictability of the line-ups in the knock out stages. The same riders appear time and again (I would note too that they’re invariably aged 30+) and you could almost pick them beforehand. The rest of the field scrap merely for the minor places in the hope that their season long accumulation of points will ensure they make the top 8 or get so close that they have a convincing claim to get preferment and thereby receive a mulligan from the organisers for entry into the event the next year. If Philip’s stated concern is the quality of the field, then he already has problems with the sheer number of passengers who’ve already been selected to take part.

Perhaps one solution is that these riders could be replaced with the “fresh young talent” he’s already identified? We do have to bear in mind that the ambition of these stars of the future has to be set in the financial context of the huge investment in equipment (bikes, staff and off track equipment) contrasted to the pitiful pay rates on offer at each meeting, even for the winners (these rates are truly shocking, paid in a weak currency [US dollars] and have remained frozen for many years at the same level so have even been eroded by inflation). Interestingly, even within the pages of the Speedway Star this summer Chris Holder has expressed reservations about becoming part of the SGP in the near future on the basis of the sheer expense of the investment in bikes, staff, logistics and equipment as well as the realisation that this will ramp up his complex travel schedule yet further. Only this week, Bjarne Pedersen lifted the lid on the difficult cost equation facing any rider outside the top 10 places and, by extension, highlighted the pitiful rewards accruing to riders who ‘fail’ in the SGP when compared to the cash filled pockets of the organisers. Just recently within its pages, Kenneth Bjerre has stated that – aged 25 – he deems that he is still probably many years from his ‘prime’ as a Grand Prix rider. If we look at the 30+ average age of all competitors, let alone that of the final qualifiers, the evidence appears to bear out the claim that experience trumps youth on a regular basis.

The canard that’s usually trotted out here to justify things is the usual ‘what about the sponsorship they’ll get?’ Well, while the real speedway superstars have the installed base of staff and equipment along with the financial muscle to protect their positions, which sponsor in their right mind really wants to associate themselves with a rider who’s eighth or above in the ‘World’ in an event that attracts little real print or broadcast media coverage and effectively remains an invitation only event? (I’m ignoring the dog that hasn’t barked here – namely the ongoing embarrassment of the failure of the SPG to attract really authentic and generally ‘known’ brands to partner with them)

If quality was really the aim then lets take Philip at his word and dump the proven passengers who’ve shown that they won’t win a series or, most likely, even a GP round. Instead, lets just limit the field to 8 competitors and include only those five or six riders who perform at pretty well every GP plus some young talent for the future to leaven the mix? The racing would be more high calibre, less predictably processional and arguably more competitive. It’s a logical outcome based on Philip’s stated concerns.

One last thought – if objects may be closer than they appear in the mirror, then the past is also a foreign country. It’s useful to cast our mind back to a ‘What if?’ moment – in this case from Heat 9 of the GP Challenge in Lonigo on the 17th October 1999. The silly orthodoxy in those heady days often saw riders eliminated when they finished third or fourth in certain races. This race saw a line up of Gollob (J), Loram, Richardson and Sawina. After the first lap Sawina lead Gollob with Richardson third and Loram fourth. In the remainder of the race the joy of randomness (allied to luck and skill) saw Sawina suffer an engine failure and Loram pass Richardson and go on to later qualify from the event for the GP series proper. Who’s to say that Mark Loram couldn’t have passed two riders if there had been no engine failure? Nonetheless, the point remains that a combination of circumstance and ability saw Mark through the event and then go onto win the Grand Prix the next year (without actually winning any round). Without the GP challenge he wouldn’t have done so and, using Philip’s criteria, would have never been World Champion since he was surplus to requirements!

Lastly, with their track record, can we really trust the men in suits to pick the entire field for the SGP according to their inclinations and retain any last remaining vestige of credibility for our sport in the outside world?

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