Sky Sports Speedway 2011 season starts on a high
I missed the first few minutes of the first Sky Sports speedway broadcast of the 2011 season. Since the last time I looked they call it the ‘Sky Sports Elite League’, I expected Nigel Pearson and Kelvin Tatum to provide a clear explanation of what was going on with Coventry and Peterborough now the season is upon us? During the close season, the Sky Sports graphics department definitely haven’t let the grass grow under their feet. They’ve excelled themselves again with more pointlessly inappropriate graphics. By the time I tune in for the team introductions, War of the Worlds fashion giant ladybirds strafe disembodied mug shots of the Birmingham team! Apparently inspired by Star Wars and bathroom/kitchen surface cleaner adverts, jets of something or other rain down on the riders for reasons as unclear as the final 2011 Elite League line up. To match the innovative graphics, Nigel and Kelvin have new paramilitary meets Man at C&A style shirts (with on trend misplaced logos) to further spruce up our 3D viewing pleasure. Out on the track, Chris Louis lurks by the start line and sounds surprised to find a lot of dirt there. Even the track enjoys a new graphic. Five criteria, I fail to take in, produce a track rating of 81%. Quite what this tells us and how this will impact on the racing is hard to fathom? In a world that loves figures and a sport that relishes statistics, it is, perhaps, enough that we know.
Quickly billed as both David vs Goliath and a baptism of fire, Birmingham get off to a suboptimal start when Krzysztof Kasprzak falls on the first corner. Predictably (and correctly under the rules of the sport) he gets disqualified. As usual, Kelvin’s hair trigger reaction lacks thought or any real basis in fact or the rulebook, “should have been all four back – I dunno what Jim Lawrence is thinking?” At least, as you’d want, the ref applies actual knowledge of the rules. The déjà vu of yet another processional Poole win would be the last thing Sky want, so Kelvin’s plea for the rules of the sport to be set aside and, in the interests of Sky and the armchair audience, Krzysztof offered a mulligan is commercially sensible. Worse still – and possibly an offence that requires some low level corrective form of capital punishment for Jim Lawrence afterwards – Kelvin testily barks, “Why didn’t he look at the replay? He should have looked at it!” Blimey, (like they do at every meeting every night during the speedway season) referees making their split second decisions based on what they see! Whatever next? Why should Sky Sports introduce television replays by the backdoor without consultation with speedway clubs at Kelvin’s behest? Hold on, I remember now, it’s because different camera angles give different perspectives and, often, result in different decisions (we’ll ignore that Sky don’t film every single meeting). Backing up his commentary partner’s advocacy with a hint of sitting on the fence, Nigel reassures us about the technology question no one asks, “it’s available to him!” Seconds later, confirming that he hasn’t lost any of his old ability to hold two contradictory thoughts simultaneously (often in the same sentence), Kelvin studies the replays he so vehemently believes in to contradict his opinion of a minute previously, “fair enough, he didn’t really touch him!”
While we wait for the rerun, Nigel wonders, “what a hard to predict Elite League this year?” Kelvin’s equally bemused, “Yeh, looks evenly matched.” Hold on a minute, something that makes it hard to predict is that we still don’t definitively have confirmation of the number of teams that will take part – is it eight or ten? Similarly, since we don’t know the answer to that question, we don’t really know the number of EL fixtures that will make up the 2011 campaign or, for that matter, the format that will determine the end of season play off qualifiers? Luckily, the riders interrupt the need for further analysis when they take to the track for the rerun. Sight of Ales Dryml inspires Nigel to embrace his inner Alan Partridge, “Ales Dryml’s father used to ride for Birmingham at the old track over the road that is now a shopping centre!” Sadly we don’t hear anything about the special offers they have there or learn about the terms and conditions that govern the free parking. Nigel doesn’t hesitate to often remind us that it’s Birmingham’s “first time in the top league for 30 years!”
From the sounds of it, though Kelvin enjoys gainful employment as a professional speedway commentator, he hasn’t bothered himself with anything so irksome or time consuming as research before the new season starts. “It’s the first time I’ve witnessed the new silencers! They don’t sound very good but they certainly go fast enough!” Not so long ago, we would have cut away to a pre-recorded segment of Kelvin in his workshop explaining in painful detail all that we didn’t really want to know about the history, mechanics, and optimum performance of said silencers. Sky Sports cost management must nowadays dictate that they spend the budget on the War of the World ladybird invasion graphics (with matching shirts) rather than let Kelvin get his hands oily.
Down in the pits, Charlie Webster sports a new look hairstyle apparently modelled on Davey Watt’s impressive 2010 tresses. Possibly reading from a nearby PowerPoint presentation, Charlie decides to drop into management speak to impress the perma-laid back first race winner Chris Holder. “The one thing that was so IMPACTUAL for the Poole Pirates was the team spirit”. Is this a posh way to describe many nights out in European bars and fleshpots the younger members of the Dorset based Aussie fraternity enjoy? Or something to do with the airfence?
The second race features Kevin Wolbert so immediately prompts the lads to try out their ‘Allo! ‘Allo! comedy German accents. Kelvin insists that we’re seeing “Volberg”, while the linguistic in Nigel tries to subtly correct his partner in crime by stressing the Bert in ‘VolBERT”. Why they choose only to try authentic pronunciations of new riders names when there’s so many other foreign surnames to mangle remains something of a mystery? Like a connoisseur of fine wine, Nigel finds the taste of heat 2 verging on the passable, “that was a decent race that emerged”. Kelvins retains some early season, early meeting doubts, “not too bad!”
Though, we’ve only had two heats of the Sky Sports televised Elite League season (ignoring the EL season itself is only around 19 races old or that 2011 is a year where we don’t yet know how many teams or meetings there will be), amazingly Nigel believes heat 3 at Perry Barr carries great significance, “a big race for Birmingham coming up!” It’s special enough for Nigel to repeat again moments later. Before a huge – season defining – drawn heat, Kelvin remains unimpressed with the evidence of his own ears, “just got to say that the new silencers don’t sound good!” Kelv just can’t help giving the rapt television audience some much-needed technical insight, “some riders will have it dialled in and some riders won’t!” For some reason, this early in the season Kelvin has yet to ramp up his usual hammy repertoire orgasmic squeals and yelps at every least little hint of an overtake. Even Ben Barker’s fall fails to get his juices going, “oh, Barker out of shape inexplicably in the middle of the corner.” In addition to praise from Kelv (“that epitomises a rider who has the right bike set up”), the race win for Danny King earns him a post ride interview with Chris Louis, “it looks grippy – is that a request from the team?” Too polite to laugh in his face, Danny’s diplomatic, “Yeh, I think so.”
Prior to heat 4, Nigel struggles to contain his delight at sight of Davey Watt “inspirational skipper of the Poole Pirates!” Quickly forgetting that the last time we saw Davey on Sky, he ‘led’ his team to a surprisingly lacklustre defeat in the Grand Final against Coventry. Ever the canny professional, Davey tries to predict the rise of the tapes to sneak away to a flier. Barely credibly, Nigel ascribes this twitchy movement to Davey’s ‘big’ meeting “nerves”. Kevin Wolbert proceeds to win nervelessly with speed and some élan (followed home by Daniel Nermark) to level the scores. To celebrate, Charlie continues with another of her ad hoc post race fast speaking colloquial tough love impromptu language classes that she uses to bamboozle foreign riders on air when they return to the pits. Steadfastly ignoring their panicked expressions or that English is their third or fourth language, Charlie ploughs on with her trademark interrogative colloquial ‘questions’. Responses vary but tend towards poor or incoherent. Kevin Wolbert initially makes a good fist of things, “I am so happy in my second ever heat here”. He follows this with news, “and then we ride so perfectly” and a sweet observation, “so great – all people help me and very nice”. In Poland, the pits interviewer speaks to the rider in their own language to gain their insights/thoughts before they then translate the answer back into Polish. This makes for much more intelligent and nuanced answers for the television audience. Sky Sports prefer Charlie asks, “Are you going to improve your average?” Illuminatingly, we learn, “Yeh, I ride points”. Realising that Kevin is potentially dazzled by her questions, bright smile and the television arc lights, Charlie cuts short the interview to reveal gaps in her knowledge of the German education system, “I’ll leave it there – never mind because you’ve only been learning English for a year isn’t it?” Luckily, there is a sophisticated translation service on hand, albeit it must have hit a glitch since, despite the fact that Kevin didn’t say so, Kelvin translates his mention of a slick track and confuses then with something altogether different – what we saw him do on the track! “Wolberg showed in his interview that he felt fast.”
Though Danny King has still to start his second ever Elite League race for Birmingham at Perry Barr, already after only one race Nigel can’t help but feel his joy and ecstasy, “Danny King is loving life here as a Birmingham Brummie!” At the start of heat 6, once again Davey Watt tries to game the system. Nigel manfully sticks to his tenuous explanation, “Davey Watt jumped in his first one – maybe he’s nervous as it’s such a big meeting?” It’s an idea that gains Kelv’s approval, “you were right with that, he was nervous in that one”. Though Jim Lawrence is vastly experienced and referees internationally (let alone Sky Sports only use a small subset of the British refereeing talent available to them for televised meetings), his ongoing strict application of the rules fails to meet with the approval of the commentary team. “The lights were on very quickly – should the referee have waited until the second corner?” Singing from the same imaginary rulebook, Kelvin solemnly agrees, “I could go with that.” After KK wins the re-run, Charlie grabs him for a few words, “Kelvin Tatum and all the viewers saw how high you were riding – why was that?” Krzysztof’s bemused, “When?” Charlie won’t be put off, “you won the final with Coventry, what do you think you can bring to Birmingham?” Politely Kasprzak replies, “The same! I want to go to the play offs and win the final!”
On the track, the racing continues to catch the eye and present the sport in an attractive manner. Jason Doyle and Daniel Nermark race heat 7 in a truly exhilarating manner. Understandably, Nigel enthuses, “it seems the riders are getting wider and wider and the racing better and better!” Kelvin – unusually, given how often a processional EL or SGP race brings him close to nirvana levels of ecstasy – refuses to celebrate in this spectacle, “Yeh – at the moment! It might get to the stage where riders go too wide and come back to the inside”. Equally, they may be abducted by aliens mid-race but, until then, perhaps Kelv should get back on happy clappy message? Apparently channelling the spirit of Mystic Sam Ermolenko, Kelvin projects untrammelled joyous contentment onto the reactionless race winner, “Jason Doyle – clearly delighted that he’s now a mainstay of the team.” Sight of the Belle Vue versus King’s Lynn interim score (32-22) prompts Nigel to gloat, “that scoreline shows we’re at the right place tonight!” Never needing a second invitation to blow smoke up the backside of Bomber, Kelvin follows up his earlier ludicrous assertion, “Chris Harris literally carried his team to honours” to aver, “led for Chris Harris, of course, whose inspirational performances will help them no end.”
During some of the processional speedway meetings shown live on Sky, commercial breaks often provide a welcome distraction from the fare on offer. With the pictures and the excitement from Birmingham speaking volumes without need of translation, there’s no real need to see the usual diet of third-rate companies trying to flog obscure or unwanted products. That said, they seem to show better quality commercials in Eire. The Sky News iPad advert had a strapline that some promoters would welcome as a cri de couer for speedway media everywhere, “expert opinion – amazing graphics – you choose what news you watch!” Hair Restoration Black Rock really caught the mood with their hard to argue with statement, “hair is a natural part of who we are!” If Kelvin had to sell hair restoration, he’s regularly cream his pants at the merest hint of growth from a hair follicle, no matter how unevenly spaced out these were on any given bald pate. In contrast, the staff at Hair Restoration Black Rock prefer honest understatement, “If you’re happy with it – fine!”
Apart from Krzysztof’s first bend first race exclusion, the inconsistent performance put in by Ben Barker appears to cost Birmingham their chance of victory in an exciting night of racing in the second city. That’s what we’re told, anywho. Ben’s four rides feature two falls but no submission or, more accurately, remission from his wholehearted lurking on the edge of disaster racing style. Kelvin rarely wastes any glimmer of a chance to bemoan any real or perceived lack of “maturity” amongst riders. With a distinctive voice to match his unique approach to ‘responsible’ riding, Ben is unapologetic when interviewed after his second fall costs the Brummies yet more points. After noting his early meeting technical adjustments (“I made loads of changes”), Ben strikes a defiant almost falsetto note, “I just came in there a bit too hot and had nothing to hold me up – I’m here to entertain people and I’m doing that by crashing!’ If his promoter and team manager Graham Drury disagrees with Ben’s points-lite version of entertainment, he’s much too diplomatic to voice his concerns publicly. Instead, prefers to accentuate the positive and motivate his young charge, “Well, Yeh, very talented, he’s got a lot of ability and, at the end of the year, he’ll make a lot of people sit up with what he achieves!” Nigel admires Ben’s relentless (albeit sometimes thoughtless) optimism, “I have to say it’s a very good interview by Ben Barker – he could have his chin on the floor.” Soon with no points from three rides (including two falls), you could forgive Brummies fans with their collective mouths agape. After bemoaning Ben’s lack of concentration, Nigel reminds us of his own predictive abilities, “I did say at the time that could cost Birmingham the meeting.” Typifying the insightful repartee of the Sky speedway commentators, Kelvin immediately retorts, “oh, you’re right, that could cost Birmingham the meeting!” The commentary team like to obsess, so it’s hardly a shock when they develop something of an obsession with Ben Barker. Nigel ponders, “Desperate to impress, I wonder sometimes does he try too hard?” Kelvin immediately echoes Nige’s cogitations, “definitely, he tries too hard…just a little bit too hard!”
Between races we’re treated to intermittent news of the camaraderie enjoyed by the Dorset based Aussie community. Honorary larrikin Denis Andersson tells Charlie, “Darcy and me is living at the same place and I have ridden with Chris Holder for the most years”. Later Jason Doyle informs the armchair audience how “all the boys from Aussie” find collective motivation together on the track and off it, “we enjoy ourselves afterwards as well!”
Early doors, Nigel wonders philosophically, “will it be a win for Birmingham or Poole or a draw in our first Elite League meeting of the season”. Later the conclusions are more obvious, “it has been brilliant speedway tonight!” Justifiably, Nigel awards high marks to the staging club, “Birmingham have put on a good show – nice stadium – good racetrack!” Nigel definitely can’t always say this with sincerity (let alone a straight face) weekly throughout the live televised speedway season. “Poole are the winners but, I think, speedway is the winner generally!” It really is! Jason Doyle identifies what he considers to be the key requirement for success at Perry Barr, “I was making good starts, I think that’s the main thing around here!” Kelvin sees other factors at play, “there was just some bike room – room for the bike!” By his own standards, for most of the night Kelvin restrains himself from his trademark excess hyperbole and orgasmic screeching at the merest sight of any banal racing manoeuvre. Despite this newfound restraint, he still can’t stop repeating back what Nigel has just said (or with slightly different wording) in the mistaken belief that this is an essential part of his job specification. Though, Kelvin no longer regularly requires the services of Lionel Logue, he still loves to harness that latent skill to invent nonsense words on air, “Davey Watt wasn’t very IMAGIN-INNAT-ATIVE!” Overall, if the racing shown on Sky Sports Speedway remains at this quality level throughout the season, viewer numbers will quickly rise from the worrying depths they’ve mostly sunk to over recent years. Nigel looks forward in pro-forma fashion to the viewers coming back for more but then closes the show with a nod towards the intense close season discussions that continue to impact upon the Elite League level of British Speedway. “We hope that next week, all the problems around speedway will be resolved!”