Speedway Grand Prix: Paul Bellamy speaks on past, present & future (apparently from parallel universe known as Bellamyworld)
The recent tenth staging of the Grand Prix at Cardiff prompted BSI/IMG head honcho and ‘visionary thinker’ Paul Bellamy to ruminate in self-congratulatory (beyond parody) fashion about the reasons behind its continued ‘success’. He also provided some thoughts on the likely future development of the Speedway Grand Prix series. The calibre and implications of his deliberations wouldn’t really matter but for the ongoing massive impact that the SGP continues to exert on the way the top tier of British Speedway is actually able to run, the riders that nowadays participate in this country and, of course, how all this influences how speedway in general is perceived by the general public as well as the media.
One thing is for certain – no one else makes the revenues (and profits) from British Speedway that BSI/IMG do every year – and in a recession – on some levels – this could be cause for admiration. However, as an organisation BSI gives little or nothing concrete back to the sport at any level, let alone the grassroots. Nonetheless, conveniently forgetting the BSI/Reading fiasco of a few years ago, Paul Bellamy seems to think that riding speedway merely requires the rote-learnt skill level required by Monster truck racing or the like, judged by the ease with which he insouciantly believes it’s possible to train riders from scratch (albeit provided that there’s a prior good level of moped use in their country of origin). “Could you get a couple of Indian nationals riding speedway bikes? Could you get some moto-cross guys, and I’m talking about a ten-year plan now, and put them on a speedway bike? Get Barry Briggs, Ole Olsen or Leigh Adams to spend a bit of time with them, and make them speedway riders.”
If Paul Bellamy wasn’t serious you could just laugh this “ten-year plan” off as condescending twaddle. Does he really seriously think for a moment that you can just ‘manufacture’ a speedway rider without a grassroots infrastructure and many years of apprenticeship? Surely, if that were really the case we’d already have a slew of British speedway tyros thrusting ambitiously to be World Champion? Having a few hopefuls go on an enhanced, but glorified speedway training school run by an expert ex-rider isn’t going to produce a decent pipeline of speedway talent, let alone a World Champion. In Red Dwarf, Kryton used to have to explain to the more hapless members of the crew that though their ideas sounded attractive they often had no basis in reality. Sadly, no one apparently serves this function in Mr. Bellamy’s world.
Clearly if you’re in the business of selling television rights and providing broadcasters around the world with numerous hours of low cost programming – apparently peopled by performers you consider to be as easily trained as performing monkeys – then finding new markets is going to have to be part of your strategy. Even ten years ago, there was loose (but, as yet, still unactioned) talk from BSI about taking speedway to “new markets”. Wildly optimistic chatter about rolling the franchise out to places such as North America, India, China and the like still springs to mind. “To move it forward you’ve got to look at new venues, whether they’re in Europe, or Australasia, or the Pacific Rim, or the Middle East or North America”. Africa must be missing from the BSI atlas since it’s the only continent Mr. Bellamy fails to name check as a ‘possible’ area for expansion. Come to think of it, Africa is just as likely to come to fruition as those named. So far – apart from a short-lived abortive foray into Australia – this publicly stated ambition has remained beyond the competence of BSI, even post their much-heralded link up with IMG and its often valorised worldwide network of offices. Expanding the SGP series would, of course, be to the further detriment of top tier speedway in Britain but, based on past performance, this is a likely as seeing unicorns gambling across the car parks of the Metro Centre.
Still, though it’s yet another BSI dog that’s failed to bark, when – eventually – it does, I think we can all forecast that it’ll be the usual BSI Lion roaring like a mouse scenario. So lets bet now that rather than a country with a huge population of people with a massive television audience and a wealth of possible new sponsors for the sport – growing markets like India or China, mature ones like the USA or Canada – it’ll probably be somewhere marginal and comparatively Mickey Mouse like Hawaii or New Zealand, where sunsets or sheep out number people.
After 10 years’ exposure to speedway, during his recent interview sadly it becomes clear that BSI’s Managing Director hasn’t figured out that the surface the rider’s race on is actually called shale. “Ole Olsen and the track-building team have been monitoring the dirt on a monthly basis. I can tell you what the moisture content of our dirt…the optimum moisture content of that dirt is 7%.” No wonder that historically the tracks have been so poorly prepared or that racing can be so processional – particularly on the temporary tracks – since they’re made of “dirt” not shale.
Straight facedly, Mr. Bellamy also identifies a key factor behind the success of his team, “the fans may not realise it, but it’s attention to detail”. Like a mediocre self-help guru or an embittered hypnotist grinding out a career on the end of the pier in an obscure provincial town, Paul advises, “you have to train your mind to think about what you’re doing rather than what can go wrong”. Historically, lots has gone wrong – frequently indoors – processional meetings have gone ahead on sub-standard tracks or even been abandoned as un-rideable or too moist. The important questions usually remain unconsidered; let alone, we’ve yet to learn the exact moisture percentage of the famously damp “dirt” at Gelsenkirchen?
Luckily, under Mr. Bellamy’s leadership most stones remain unturned, “we have a think tank, a day away from the office with some of our key TV people”. My brain would hurt if exposed to too much of this rarefied strategic ‘thinking’. I must say that it’s interesting to note that neither riders nor fans – the so-called lifeblood of the series whose every whim (in the week leading up to Cardiff) BSI breathlessly pretends to promise to try to satisfy – aren’t involved in this rather marvellous consultation exercise. Then neither fans nor riders would have come up with some of the innovative “great ideas” Paul kindly outlines as if trying to read his business plan in translation, “we looked at the logo, how could we make it more edgy, a bit cooler, so that people who see the logo don’t think it’s 30 years ago. It’s 2010 now, we’ve got to keep moving on.”
Now the truly burning concern of the logo issue has been sorted it’s fortunate that the fans remain so loyal and easily fooled, “Cardiff is their Mecca if you like.” Like the best Japanese car manufacturers business philosophy, BSI values “uniformity across the whole series” – yes, it’s often all too dully predictable – and “we kept on improving it, if you stand still, you go backwards”. So, what has been improved that Mr. Bellamy is so fulsomely and platitudinously proud of? Apparently in 2009, it was “the way the track was built”. Holy Cow Batman! Sooo, this man is really worth the money if it took him nine years to figure out that the track might be an important factor in staging an indoor speedway meeting! Fortunately, the innovations don’t just stop there, but also involve “understanding about the dirt, buying the dirt” – Paul really loves his “dirt” – and also “putting more racing lines on”. Surely, someone should let the riders know about these additional “racing lines”?!? Possibly no one did since – in 2009 – it was (again) trademark Cardiff: mostly first out of the gate and almost no passing.
This year’s triumphs included the inaugural (actually well regarded) “fan zone” and also – something few would suspect had been included in BSI’s list of things to transform – the “speed of the event”. Given there’s only approximately 23 minutes racing action to stage, even with this quicker 2010 version, it’s still amazing how the demands of television “partners” (and their frequent commercial breaks) ensures that these meetings easily often last well over three hours. All these developments are nothing compared to the promise for 2011, when the big revolutionary plan is to install “multimedia big screens”. That’ll really help the edgy logo stand out during the long gaps between races and also achieve the laudable ambition, “we want to be at the pinnacle of the speedway world” (I’m sure that the BSI website said that they already were some years back?)
Mr. Bellamy hasn’t completely forgotten about BSI’s oft overlooked, but always ‘valued’ key partner: the children of the ‘little people’ (otherwise known as the fans of the future). He’s thoughtfully moved the Cardiff start time forward to 5 o’clock since “it gives the fans the chance to see the whole evening and get home that night”. Paul claims this revised start time avoids families getting in at midnight when “the kids would be shattered”. If this really is the strategy, then why on earth do all the other Grand Prix in the series start later?
Public transport is supposedly another area that deserves the laser-like stare that is his famed “attention to detail”. Complaining about ill-timed engineering works, BSI’s MD whines, “it’s madness, but they don’t care about any sport or the revenue it brings”. Firstly, if BSI really ‘cared’ about fans arriving at SGP events by public transport then – to name but three – they wouldn’t stage meetings at Goričan, Terenzano or Vojens. More importantly, does BSI, IMG or Mr. Bellamy really “care about” speedway, British or otherwise? No, of course not. Do they reinvest the revenues in – for example – stadium infrastructure, rider development or, even, increased prize money? It’s naïve to think they would or should since BSI (successfully) seek to exploit the sport, the goodwill of its fans, riders, sponsors and advertisers for private commercial gain.
There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but there is with hypocritically claiming otherwise. Half the time, BSI can’t even manage to find recognised global brands prepared to recognise the nonsense they parrot about expanding global audiences. They’re much too hard-nosed to be fooled by an almost irrelevant regional sideshow with global pretensions. Not content with borrowing the riders, sometimes ‘new’ SGP sponsors appear to be existing British Speedway sponsors and advertisers who spookily suddenly start to work with the series organisers. Lakeside worked hard to interest one of the Armed Services in their club and the next year, lo and behold, “the Navy, who are sponsoring the GP, are involved”.
All these cavils aside, the present organisers look here to stay. Well, at least until IMG see through the paucity of these promises or the BSI leadership kill off the golden goose of television rights sales through their own confident mismanagement. In the meantime, if the SGP series really is going from strength-to-strength – let alone finding itself balanced on the cusp of a renaissance in its burgeoning worldwide popularity – can we, at least, hear a better calibre of strategic thinking piffle (as well as have a more competent, more charismatic leader) rather than the puerile lazy tosh presently passed off as management insight?
This article appeared in the Newcastle Official Matchday Magazine (31st August). Isn’t it time you went to Brough Park to see the Diamonds and see for yourself what all the talk is about? For new and fixtures, click here