‘Richest ever minute in Sport’ reconsidered

13th October

Downtown Gelsenkirchen isn’t the first place that you’d choose for a weekend break as, even in the sunshine, it has more of the feel of Basingstoke town centre than any self-respecting holiday resort. Tonight will be the first ever Grand Prix staged in Germany, the eleventh of the season and the 100th since BSI bought the rights to stage this championship. Like Sky Sports amnesia when it comes to its recollection of the fact that top-flight football existed comfortably for many long years before the advent of the Premier League, there is a similar tendency for the organisers of the SGP to completely overlook the rich tradition that existed for so many years prior to their arrival. As a publicity gimmick, tonight the riders will race for a prize of $100,000 in the final and, undoubtedly, this will add a bit of spice to proceedings as well as ensure at least one competitive race and possibly a few inches coverage in the UK. The adverts have billed it as the ‘richest ever minute in sport’ though, as ever with statistics, it really depends on how you decide to calculate this. It’s certainly more than the prize money than is regularly doled out to the riders if they win a Grand Prix during the regular season. With the Nicki Pedersen already crowned the World Champion, there is already a sense of anti-climax that the one-off prize slightly mitigates.

It will also be the eleventh Grand Prix meeting of a long and fractious season and, despite the pedestrian fare often on offer, the town centre appears to reflect that more obsessive (or wealthy) speedway followers from throughout Europe have congregated on the streets of the town to enjoy the sunshine (13 degrees centigrade), downtown ambience of Gelsenkirchen and the various street cafes. In fact, everywhere I walk I bump into people I know or see faces I recognise. At the railway station, there’s a mini-crowd of Edinburgh Monarchs loyalists (and regulars from supporters coach trips) in the form of Ella MacDonald, Dennis, Eric and his son whose name I don’t catch. They had enjoyed some local hospitality with a lock-in the previous night and had already been on a reconnaissance mission to the stadium to check out the facilities, entrances and the like. Like much of mainland Europe, there is an integrated public transport policy and use of public transport is included in the cost of our admission tickets, so a tram to the stadium located on the outskirts of the town is smoothly straightforward and economical. They tell me it’s the home of German football club Schalke 04 and is such a modern facility that it boasts a completely removable pitch that can be wheeled outside the stadium so that the arena itself can be fitted out for special events, whether these are concerts or speedway meetings. Further down the main shopping street also crowded with local shoppers as well as brightly attired speedway fans, I bump into referee Margaret Vardy and her partner Steve. I expect him to be the only person in town who sports a replica Walsall football shirt. Their talk soon turns to televised speedway on Sky Sports and Margaret firmly qualifies the situation by insisting that Sky sponsor the Elite League and therefore have a say in the running of the thing, whereas at the GP’s they’re merely one broadcaster among many and thereby don’t enjoy the exulted stature their coverage would lead you to believe they do. Nor do they (allegedly) have sufficient leverage to ensure coverage from exciting camera angles of their own choosing but instead have to use the standard pooled footage. Luckily later, unlike the television audience, since we’re actually at the event we all get to see the speedway from the start of proceeding unlike the viewers at home who suffer from an inexplicable delayed start to their viewing pleasure (and a reduction in the number of orgasms they hear Kelvin have during commentary).

A few hours before the official scheduled start time of 7pm, the U Bahn tram platform in the railway station is crowded with a boisterous group of Polish speedway fans who loudly advertise their presence and excitement at the evening ahead. Also on the platform is speedway author and Edinburgh fan, Gary Lough who has a few questions about the legitimacy of the Premier League play-offs and the arbitrary workings of cut-off date. “King’s Lynn won the league! I don’t agree with the play-offs. If they do them for TV as they say, how come the play-offs never get shown then?” Adherence to the agreed cut off date (for once, refreshing to find a rule that isn’t bent), has ensured that Birmingham failed to qualify for the PL play-offs, despite the fact that when they complete their fixtures they’re likely to finish second in the final league table. Though, that said, it’s rumoured that promoter Graham Drury would welcome the financial benefit a possible run of four additional home meetings that progression through to the Young Shield Final would permit rather than the maximum of two meeting the play offs provides. Whatever the merits or otherwise of Birmingham’s experience, Gary views the world through Monarchs blue and yellow coloured spectacles, “we missed out on the [Young] Shield on points difference to Stoke and Mildenhall, but if Stoke get humped in their remaining fixture at Glasgow, we should really be in it on points difference. There are anomalies at the top and bottom of the [Premier] League.”

“This will be my third GP of the season if you include Cardiff and the Garry Stead one in Sheffield. They say they’ll be 20,000 for the 100th GP – you’d hope for many more!” BSI probably share his point of view privately, though in their public statements there will be no acknowledgement that this ‘brave’ foray into Germany – a new speedway television, sponsorship and advertiser market – has failed to excite the public imagination of many speedway fans, let alone the local populace. When I speak to many of these during the afternoon, they’re almost oblivious to the existence of the event in their town (but know about the forthcoming trip to Chelsea in the Champions League). Though it’s rumoured that BSI have had to give away a large number of tickets (or heavily discount others) to try to fill an acceptable number of seats in the 66,000 capacity stadium. The level deemed acceptable isn’t so much a financial measure – especially when you think the reputed costs of staging any speedway GP are alleged to be in the range of £230,000-£280,000 (excluding prize money), with Gelsenkirchen held to be at the upper end of this scale – but rather what it looks like on telly and/or how effectively the camera angles manage to disguise the acres of empty seats.

When we collectively arrive at the stadium gates, there are so many people milling about or queuing to get through the first set of entrance gates that I imagine it will actually be hugely crowded inside. This is a misperception as the crowd appears to be caused by the late opening of the gates (undermining another misconception about German fastidiousness over punctuality) and the subsequent complete mismanagement of the admissions procedures by the stadium staff – despite the availability of a variety of entrance gates – who appear never to have seen a crowd before. I’m sure that this will be explained afterwards in terms alluded to at the time, namely the need for increased security and personal searches brought on by recent wars, terrorist outrages and political conflicts rather than poor-planning and incompetence. Whatever the reason, it was chaos and far from a good first impression to create, despite how plush and modern the stadium architecture itself appears and comfortable the seating. The crush at the gate I use is such that I worry that there might even be a Hillsborough like accident caused by the sheer weight of the crush of people at the only two turnstiles open (at that gate, though there were similar experiences elsewhere) should there be a sudden cause for panic. I employed the completely non-British approach of pushing in and queuing impatiently, Consequently, I manage to get inside the stadium after nearly half an hour. I’m one of the lucky ones judged by the crushed crowd of fans who still remain outside, though I’m ultimately more irked at the confiscation of my water – all liquids – during my security check. In an ironic inversion of the usual English lack of facility with foreign languages, the stadium staff decide to repeat apparently clear instructions, but only in German, about what to do to with increasing loudness and irritability to frankly baffled but still patient fans.

Once inside the stadium concourse, further bafflement and annoyance is to be had by anyone wishing to buy food or drink (or to replace the water confiscated on arrival) since after queuing for some time you then get turned away unless you have a pre-purchased smart card (cum credit card) available from a different nearby booth. This system might stop staff thefts and speed match day purchases by regular attendees who come to see Schalke 04 play in the stadium, but for one off visitors, it means you have to queue again (and again) elsewhere to top up said card with euros (in 10 euro tranches only) before you have to rejoin the long queue you’d already just experienced to buy your goodies. The wait is enlivened by the playful frivolity of the Polish fans (all apparently in drink, as they say) before you finally make the front of the line once more to then pay an inflated cost of 3.20 euros for a small bottle of water. Should you have underestimated the costs of your purchases you’ll have to queue once again to top up your card further and, sorry to bore you, afterwards queue again to get reimbursed for any monies you haven’t spent since the bar staff have no cash. In the programme, John Postlethwaite wrote that the venues added during the BSI reign are “fun to visit” and, though the British supposedly love to queue, I imagine this is just the sort of fun many people could really do without.

My seat in the second row on the entrance to the first bend cost £45 – the men next to me in the crush at the turnstiles had one that appeared to cost considerably less at 39 euros, though it was widely talked about that many Polish fans boycott the GP’s because of the perceived extortionate cost of the GP tickets – and, though the view is good, its arguably too close to the track. All around me in my section of the stand are English voices and an array of branded clothing that indicates allegiance to British clubs. There’s a contingent of 50 Ipswich fans a row or so behind me on a coach trip jointly organised by the friendly lady from the programme stall at Foxhall Heath and the club presenter, confirmed bachelor and dapper dresser Kevin Long. The night before he’d had a late conversation in the bar of the hotel used by Team Crump with an emotional Phil Crump, “things aren’t all they appear – its all smoke and mirrors in typical speedway fashion” he mentions mysteriously. Warmly affable and vocal “supporters of Tobi Kroner” (technically Tobi Euro here), Pat, Robin and Hayley outline their excitement at the prospect of a GP race, let alone a race win, for their idol. They feel the jovial sharp side of Kevin’s tongue, “your three arses together would be as big as Scotland!” There are also a number of (humble) promoters in this section of the crowd including John Louis who has come along on the Ipswich trip and, sat in the front row, Buster Chapman who’s philosophical about the recent defeat for his club in the PL play-off semi-finals, “**** happens!” Away to our right is a large and colourful contingent of Polish fans who have unfurled a variety of banners and flags as well as put up a large poster in tribute to the country’s talismanic rider, Tomasz Gollob. In the photo they’ve chosen he looks rather like a Pope.

With still well over an hour before the pre-meeting parade commences, the choices are to talk speedway with your neighbours, queue for refreshments/smart cards or to luxuriate in the musical warm up artists for this event, Right Said Fred. They typify the choice of recherché artists the BSI apparently feels best suits a speedway audience. Time hasn’t been kind to these one-hit wonders if judged by the gigs they now play, the markets they’re still vaguely popular in, their less svelte appearance and, most importantly, the awful sound they manage to create. In fact, Right Said Fred easily manage to look bored while sounding out of tune, out of key and simultaneously look out of place as well as slightly truculent. They go through the motions without any real conviction. Later, to continue the theme initiated by this choice of music – something that you might well hear as a soundtrack to a German soft porn film shown on your hotel pay for view channel – the pre-parade theatrics involves dimmed lights, roving ‘Colditz’ style searchlights and a parade of the riders on vehicles in a gladiatorial fashion that is partly redolent of a seventies war film but also suggests a night at the circus. Subsequently, the drama of this entrance isn’t matched by the action on the track.

Unaware of this impending let down with regards to action on the track itself, I instead decide to study the “FIM Speedway GP 100TM Grand Prix” souvenir programme (cost: 10 euros) that is a pleasant mix of racecard, interesting or worthy features, self congratulation dressed up as history and, most pleasurably of all, some wonderful identikit, cut’n’paste corporate piffle fresh from the alternative parallel universe that appears to be Planet BSI. On the ‘well I didn’t know that’ front, there’s quite a useful guide outlining which motors the lads programmed to ride tonight actually drive. These range from the most popular choice of Mercedes (Greg, Nicki [who doesn’t list the optional extras he’s had fitted but does specify that his is a CLS 320 CDI], Leigh, Hans, Tomasz, Rune and, possibly with build up cushion on the drivers seat, Bomber) via a rich variety of other vehicles that excludes vans but also features BMW (Jason, Leigh, Jaroslaw), MB Sprinter (Matej), Ferrari F430FI (Andreas), Mini Cooper S (Scott), Volvo V50 (Bjarne), Toyota RAV4 (Jagus) and an apparently soon to be garaged Subaru Impreza (Antonio). These are a vast contrast to the aging Fiats, Renaults and Fords that traditionally populate speedway car parks the length and breadth of the country.

The programme includes a variety of bi-lingual welcomes accompanied by photographs where the smiles are betrayed by the eyes. Paul Bellamy – “Managing Director, BSI – looks exceptionally chuffed as though caught at the moment his bonus cheque arrived. He doesn’t hesitate to give a few standard business platitudes a casual canter out “ultimately, the people who make these events are you, the fans” before he much more unfeasibly claims to have noticed and acted upon a burgeoning but nascent “demand for bigger events in world class stadiums you can bring your family and friends to”. This is something that has completely passed me by but “is what drives me, my team and everyone connected with the Series on a daily basis”. Blimey! He advocates that we make a “huge noise” though the ban on air horns – a traditional signifier of support or item of aural torture depending on your point of view – that, at Cardiff can be an occasional irritant but here very notably conspicuous by their total absence, makes impossible to fulfil. In fact, despite the voluble Poles, the vast display of empty seats combined with the processional racing and the aforementioned lack of air horns creates a lack of atmosphere more similar to that found on the moon.

“Vice President, BSI”, John Postlethwaite is much more fun to read and in his welcome he cogently highlights that, “Und ich meine, Wer’. Die Leute reden über BSI, sie reden über mich, sie reden über Ole Olsen und in Zukunft werden sie über IMG reden, die in diesem Jahr die Vermarktungsrechte für den SGP und den SWC übernommen haben.“ ^ And who are we to say otherwise? Elsewhere, in a longer but no less self-deprecating article on the recent history of the SGP Series, John highlights the crowd growth at live events (and claims “in 1999 the average crowd at the GP rounds was probably around 7,000 even allowing for the bigger crowds in Poland. It wasn’t a big enough series for the TV companies to get involved with so we knew we had to grow it”^^), something he attributes to the perspicacity of commercial strategic vision. John also justifiably delights that, “meetings are run very professionally, the riders look better, the paddock areas are better, the rider presentation is better, our presentation is better, and the TV product is superb”. Sadly, he appears to have put the cart before the horse and thereby forgotten that, in reality, we come to see exciting racing. Not to put too fine a point on it, most purpose built one-off tracks in these lovely venues John venerates consistently provide a **** surface, often matched by a shockingly poor product to watch. Sadly, he’s read too many of BSI press releases and manfully remains in denial about this seemingly disputable fact. “Nobody can say that racing on a permanent track is better than a temporary track anymore. I have seen sensational and poor speedway on permanent tracks and the same on temporary ones.” I’m not sure what colour sky there is in John’s world but, while its true to say that you can have poor racing on a permanent track, over many years now BSI have a proven record in often staging processional meetings on specially built temporary tracks on a Europe-wide basis. Gelsenkirchen is no exception to this tradition since we’re served up with a ‘bald’, dirt less track that results in a series of primarily first from the gate races where there is little or no true passing after the second bend. The last race prize might be $100,000 but you have to wonder if some of this money could have been better spent to ensure a more acceptable surface (especially given its not like Ole hasn’t had quite a bit of practice by now at these things). Afterwards, it’s absolutely no consolation to learn that the track was excellent in practice the day before on the Friday. Like other riders, Nicki Pedersen often charged to the outside to try a wide line in the hope of finding some additional speed and traction from the (elusive) outside dirt line, only to find himself effectively becalmed and going backwards. Another feature of these one-off surfaces is that they cut up – mercifully this one didn’t rut up as much as we’ve seen– or, at least, develop a variable and inconsistent surface that hampers riders almost immediately and as the meeting progresses. This did happen to some extent and Nicki almost unerringly found his own off-putting bump on the third bend that then threw him off his chosen trajectory or, in the case of Hans Andersen with a different but close by glitch in the track surface, help catapult him from his machine.

To be fair, we did see some exciting racing with the arguable race of the night featuring Tomasz G nearly catching Andreas on the line in heat 16. Another dramatic race was the GP run off between Scott, Bomber and Rune for the final two qualifying spots for the 2008 SGP Series. It was also a night that featured a truly shocking display from the chosen FIM referee Wojciech Grodzki – allegedly selected to officiate at the meeting due in no small part to his family connections rather than his renown or skilled as an official. Throughout he exhibited vague familiarity with the regulations that govern the sport and continually let the tapes rise almost immediately the riders had lined up at the tapes. If there were difficult decisions to be made he bottled them, plus he really excelled himself by failing to exclude Scott Nicholls for a heavy-handed manoeuvre that saw Chris Harris unceremoniously thrown from his bike in the vital run off. It was a fortunate piece of incompetence from the point of view of the organisers since the demands of the advertisers and the lucrative UK television market demands home grown riders to appear in the competition, even if they have no chance to become World Champion (or, sometimes, even re-qualify). After this debacle, it would be easy for the BSI to award Bomber one of the four nominated places in the 2008 GP series. Whereas, if Scott had failed to qualify, he had already arguably exhausted his get-out-of-jail-free, sneak in through the back door chances in previous years unless, of course, the organisers were to come up with some sophisticated justification. No doubt, they would have still managed. We also collectively enjoyed the artificial tension created by the $100,000 finale albeit that Andreas’s leap off his bike and over the fence afterwards in delight on his warm down cum celebratory lap was probably the real highlight of the race 9along with news of his mum’s impending holiday afterwards). Elsewhere there is real sporting drama in the rugby World Cup semi-final as England defeat France in Paris.

At Düsseldorf airport the next day, I queue to check-in for my BA flight back home when I’m joined by a good portion of the management team of BSI who travelled out to the event, as they also arrive to take this flight home too. To look at them collectively – with their sharply cut business attire, insouciant frequent flyer manner and stylish luggage – and without knowledge of their actual business employment, you would quite properly guess that they were all management consultants travelling home from a client site visit. I don’t expect them to wear branded anoraks with the pride that speedway fans the world over do (though they do have some rather natty SGP ones), but this look is symptomatic of the organisational lack of connection with the sport they are actually so intimately involved with (and whose Elite League they increasingly scupper with an ever expanding schedule of practices and events). But, business is business and tradition counts for nothing pretty well anywhere nowadays in the pursuit of profit, so there is no reason to expect speedway to be any different. But clearly with such affinity, this organisation could just as likely be involved with promoting monster truck racing or mud wrestling, while their culture and level of real engagement would remain similarly disconnected. The speedway romantic in me feels disappointed at this visible confirmation of this sad realisation, even after I’ve doffed my metaphorical hat in acknowledgement of the professionalism they have brought to the GP series. Though, that said, claims that BSI have hugely raised the media profile tremendously sits at odds with the continuing lack of mainstream print and broadcast media coverage in, for example, the UK – a more competitive and mature market than, perhaps (lets say for example) when they achieve extensive coverage in Croatia or Denmark.

If blokes in suits are the nondescript business norm, then the ladies in the BSI group at the airport really stood out. They looked stylish and, being chauvinistic for a moment but nonetheless stressing their great skill at their jobs, you can forget the glamour of the Sexy Super 7 start girls, since these ‘BSI babes’ put them to shame. These besuited and distinctive employees were Nicola Sands (Marketing & Communications Manager), the striking Joanna Klein (Events Manager) and her always friendly freelance assistant Anita Dennington – along with John Postlethwaite’s wife, equally noticeable and confident in a continental style patterned dress that Englishwomen rarely wear. Though also dressed immaculately in their tailored and sharply cut designer suits, Paul Bellamy and BA silver cardholder John Postlethwaite looked frumpily careworn in comparison. Despite their executive sheen of contentment, they appear to hover on the cusp of impending middle age as well as teeter on the edge of the traditional personal health crisis of most men of a certain age, let alone executive management staff – the problematic issue of an increasing will-to-paunch. I can sympathise.

Like the stadium that this meeting has just been staged in, this group are emblematic of both the speedway present and possible speedway future since they are far removed from the true grassroots of the sport as it is lived and experienced on a weekly basis in the major/traditional speedway nations like Britain and Poland. The shiny future has arrived and you can’t help but think that speedway should be careful what it has wished for, the pacts it has signed or wary of the consequences of increased television coverage. Particularly since we’re increasingly likely to be served up professionally presented and packaged “entertainment” – and told to like it – starring remote and more manufactured superstar riders that have effectively ceased (apart from lip service) to be part of the traditions of the sport that saw riders, track staff and fans all roughly relating to each other as equals.

13th October German Speedway Grand Prix – Winner: Andreas Jonsson

^ “And I do mean we. People talk about BSI, they talk about me, they talk about Ole Olsen and in future they will talk about IMG who acquired the commercial rights for both the SGP and the SWC this year”

^^ The Official Attendance figures issued by the F.I.M. tell a different story. The averages (excluding 2007) are as follows:
1999 14,750
2000 13,672
2001 15,750
2002 20,100
2003 17,274
2004 15,793
2005 16,940
2006 15,639

I assume that these official figures are for paying customers (but I don’t know) and we must also leave aside the coincidence that venues appear to mostly report exact numbers (i.e. exactly 40000 travel to Cardiff in 2003, 2005 and 2006). Based on this evidence, the actual average crowd for the BSI era is 16,452 and using the base figure of 1999 advocated, the percentage increase in crowds is a meagre 11.5%. Plus average attendances have had at four-year slump to the end of the last series since the high point of 2002. Obviously, I have no idea about the increased size of the television audience over this period but it is clear that, as a live event, the SGP hasn’t exactly fired the imagination of the ticket purchasing speedway public. For a complete breakdown go to my source here

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