Tatum & Pearson live 2016 Tour – Poole event
The Kelvin Tatum & Nigel Pearson 2016 road show sees the renowned television speedway commentary duo return to Wimborne Road – the home of Poole Pirates Speedway and location of their inaugural speaking event – for the fourth of their six date Sports Talk Events Tour. With doors open at 7pm, thirty minutes before metaphorical tapes up, in the stadium back straight grandstand most of the key seats and viewing locations are already occupied. Apparently the event format has altered this year. It’ll be a game of two halves with guest interviews before the interval with Q&A afterwards as well as keener audience wannabe commentators getting to publicly test their commentary skills muscles using silent footage from the 2015 semi-finals and final of the Cardiff Speedway Grand Prix. Entry costs £8 and the tour programme costs £5 (with £1 for every copy sold tonight kindly donated to the Darcy Ward Foundation fund). With speedway fans known to obsessively collect commemorative souvenirs, there are even tour t-shirts on sale in two colours that feature ostensibly notable signature quotes from the Lads: “Speedway from the Gods Nige!” (in red) and “Sensational Speedway Kelvin!” (in navy blue).
Each leg of the tour features special guests – often the venue promoter along with a past/present rider or speedway personality with local connections too – Chris Harris at Coventry, Mark Loram at King’s Lynn and Alun ‘Rosco’ Rossiter at Somerset. The Oak Tree Arena crowd was up on last year and this evening it looks like circa 150 people have ventured out on a cool late February Dorset evening to enjoy the bantz. As a comparison, the three-hour Sunday BSPA Fans Forum event in Rugby only attracted 48 fans along (though 200 had pre-booked) to discuss issues, problems and the way forward for the sport with promoters. Tonight Kelvin and Nigel are to be joined in the bar area (that I always associate with Dean Barker post meeting disco dancing) by Neil ‘Middlo’ Middleditch, Matt Ford and Monster Energy’s Joe Parsons (so keen to be here that he flew in at his own expense from Torun in Poland especially to take part).
In the popular imagination, after dinner sports speakers (even if there is no dinner) to some extent spill some of the behind the scenes beans, settle scores, try to curate their/our understanding of key happenings, reveal their feelings and tell some funny stories along the way. The possibility of a speedway event with some real behind the scenes revelations or insight would appeal to the ordinary fan since the sport notoriously ensures those ‘in the know’ traditionally interact cosily within the charmed circle but on a need-not-to-know basis with the paying punters. If the participants were retired from speedway or had no ongoing commercial relationships this would probably be the case here tonight but, instead, insights and revelations will tend to reveal themselves when people ride their hobbyhorses or respond to thoughtful questions rather than come fitted as standard within the show format. This is a structural issue, hopefully, to be made up for in the promised laughter.
To entertain us while we wait, before the talent takes to the stage, speech bubble ‘jokes’ tailored to the audience flash up on a screen alongside the standard advert/programme image of the lads standing arms crossed together in their matching Sky Sports track suit tops. Retaining the wit that makes the tour t shirts stand out from the crowd, one of these local interest speech bubble bantz-cum-jokes starts, “OOOH. I think Starman just came a cropper on the stairs”. Poole Pirates centre green announcer Nigel Leahy warms up the crowd and trails the talent (“Kelvin who’s been with Sky since it started – 17 years behind the microphone”), guests, format and content of the evening as well as promoting the tabard auction and separate raffle draw (“many great prizes – tickets only £1 a strip”) in to fundraise for the Darcy Ward Foundation. Replica signed tabards on offer include a Mark Loram Great Britain (not Team GB!) tabard, an attractive Mark Loram era Poole Pirates #5 tabard and also one worn by Tai Woffinden representing his country, maybe possibly it’s even a copy of one of those Team GB items actually worn by Woffinden relentlessly sold on eBay a while back. News from Nigel Leahy that each tabard already have the same reserve prices of “£50 bids” elicits a groan, “£50 is half my pension!”
Just after eight, the boys tiggerishly bound on stage aka the area adjacent the grandstand bar. Similar to the structure of their live broadcast work, Nigel assumes the lead Master of Ceremonies role within the duo while Kelvin does the knowledgeable experienced sidekick additional colour work. Understandably enough, they perform in relaxed fashion together – comfortable with the medium, the messages as well as their respective company and styles. Nigel welcomes us wistfully, “the venue where we started our tour 12 months ago as guests of the stadium, club and town.” Many of the crowd here tonight are returnees, “is there nothing to do in Poole on a Wednesday evening?”
With little or no to do, Nigel – after a quick gleeful zinger to his Internet and social media critics (“and I’ll watch, so I’ve got the easy job”) – anticipates the post-interval opportunity members of the audience will get to try their hand at speedway commentary so they and we can experience first hand how “easy” it is. I’m sure no one is under any illusion about the skill, knowledge, verbal dexterity and acute timing required to make live commentary sound even vaguely entertaining. Managing to achieve the conversational naturalism and effortless ease that is the Pearson-Tatum trademark belies the professionalism and complex skill set it necessarily requires. When broadcasting as the action on the Speedway Grand Prix “world feed” unfolds in front of them, not only do they have commentate upon the event/action as it happens but, simultaneously, on their headphones they have both the additional verbal assault of the broadcast producer and also the broadcast director issuing instructions, warnings and advice. This tripartite communication is, apparently, known “open talk back” in the broadcast business. Basically it requires speaking aloud live to a satellite television audience while wearing headphones with, “in one ear the director and one ear the producer”. Rather than the riders, fans or television audience, Kelvin reveals that, “the director and producer are the most important people to us”.
These important technical details are one of the many significant factors frequently overlooked by those on social media or fans forums with sufficient confidence, temerity and ignorance to criticise the live broadcast speedway work of Nigel and Kelvin (whether Elite League or Speedway Grand Prix). Unable to decide whether they’re Marmite, Millwall or want love and respect, Nigel metaphorically thrusts out an insouciant chest to run with a water-off-a-ducks-back-comes-with-the-territory-tall-poppy-we-don’t-care defence of their (self-employed) art. What appears to aggrieve Nigel most are idiotic accusations of bias towards so-called favoured clubs or riders. Quite what these dim bulbs are doing making such claims, who they are, what they specifically say/write where or why they even merit a reply isn’t discussed. Whether it’s Leicester or Poole (“red blue white yellow as is usually the case here at Poole”), Ben Barker or Tai Woffinden – Nigel stresses that, like Kelvin (“this man has no loyalty to anyone!” [“except my wife” corrects Kelv]), he has no biases since basic broadcasting professionalism dictates and requires impartiality to come fitted as standard at all times in broadcast careers.
Nonetheless, Nigel believes that there is an important broadcast philosophy worth properly explaining to us all, “Whenever I cover sports where people win, I shout about them! I enthuse about them…because they’re champions!” There is no doubt that across the board that a trademark style of live sport broadcast by Sky Sports is brilliant camerawork allied to expert insights (usually from ex-pros) and relentless enthusiasm/boosterism by the commentators to retain viewer interest, irrespective of whether or not the action shown merits the hyperbole. It’s a broadcast strategy that really shoutily celebrates sporting achievements but also blurs the distinctions between the mediocre, everyday, great and exceptional to extent that the commentary is often no longer able to distinguish between gold or the polished or glitter covered proverbial.
When you think of great sports broadcasters – their approach, verbal armoury and dexterity enables them to still find room for some justifiable overdrive when required rather than spend each and every event in overdrive hovering on the cusp of orgasm. We all have our favourite sports and commentary litmus tests to use for comparison purposes. The work of John Arlott, Sid Waddell or Bill McLaren sets a standard that, perhaps, modern contemporary broadcasting in general no longer requires and that commercial/satellite broadcasters haven’t even left themselves the commentary space to actually emulate? Perhaps the structure and format of speedway – with its frequency of races and race action – defies really thoughtful broadcast work? Maybe, sadly, speedway just doesn’t merit this calibre and intelligence of broadcast commentary work? As (print) sports journalist Hugh McIlvanney told David Walsh when looking back over the sports stars of his illustrious career, “Forgetting what happened in the past, imagining everything occurring now to be the best, is just a failure of intelligence….I react against the feverish celebration of the now, it makes me resistant to the automatic deification”.
Something that doesn’t get covered (asked or even alluded to during the no holds barred ask anything you like Q&A) as a possible explanation for some of these social media critiques is the impact of the cosy one-hand-washes-another nature of our British and SGP speedway world. It’s an environment where (for example) hard work, knowledge, networking, ability and entrepreneurialism necessarily also mingles with commercial self-employed self-interest. It’s a journalistic balancing act that ignores the commentators work ethic and valorisation of the sport. Instead doubters question the strength of the partitions and/or Chinese walls that exist to rigorously separate these hear-no-evil-see-no-evil various commercial interests from its governance. From the outside, and possibly with some ignorance, critics seek to decry the inbred no degrees of separation world of speedway journalism and reporting as both symptomatic and emblematic of ongoing ills and modern decline of the sport.
Technical commentary descriptions temporarily out of the way, Neil ‘Middlo’ Middleditch is first up to receive some notably gentle bowling. It’s a fortnight since a hugely successful Darcy Ward Foundation fundraiser was also held at this venue (“I was ripping it out of Davey Watt all night – which is easy to be fair”). The Poole Pirates are the winningest team of the modern era so it is presumed in the questioning that there must be some secret sauce or team managerial motivational excellence (“we have a winning mentality”) to discover behind this ongoing enviable track record of success. If said secret sauce exists, like Coca-Cola, the Pirates keep their recipe under close guard. The structural foundation of all this ongoing success might really be something much simpler, “If you’re happy where you work, you work better.” Possibly attesting to the leyline that runs through the Pirates side of the pits at Wimborne Road or, maybe, some historic Druid connections, Neil goes slightly woo woo on the notional synchronism of the Pirates recent hat trick of Elite League Championship triumphs in 2013, 2014 and 2015. “Third year in a row hasn’t been done in 43 years which is Darcy’s number!”
Like sports talking heads everywhere, Neil prefers to look forward rather than back. Kelvin is keen to look there too so runs through some of the new riders that make up the Poole one-to-seven roster with Neil. We quickly learn that there is a strict division of responsibilities, Matt Ford sources and selects the riders, while Neil manages and motivates them once rostered. For the 2016 season, the Pirates welcome back Hans Anderson. He “could be a key rider” reckons Kelvin. The crowd give a strong mixed reaction to talk of Hans though it’s impossible to tell if this crowd dissent is home grown, merely playful or bitter fruit imported from elsewhere (either fans of previous clubs or ex-fuel sponsor). Continuing the production line of exciting Aussie riders in Pirates team tabards, high expectations surround 2016 reserve Brady Kurtz. Kelvin worries if the likely initial tough going of the Elite League will see the 20-year-old “get down” about his inevitable race defeats. “That’s something that me as a manager will have to control,” Neil reassures Kelvin and the section of the Wimborne Road crowd here tonight.
Warming to a theme that also characterises their perception of the wider reception of their own speedway commentary work, Kelvin notes of Poole, “with success not everyone looks on you fondly!” It’s a rub of the green you must ignore advises Kelvin, “I don’t care what people say about me.” Exciting racing always has and always will light Kelvin’s commentary fire to the extent he suggests anyone not similarly attuned should stay away, “if you can’t get excited by that, don’t pay your entrance money!”
Though rarely absent for any length of time from Wimborne Road during the speedway season, tonight’s Tatum and Pearson roadshow lures the often reticent Poole club owner and promoter Matt Ford – the Major Major of British speedway – into a comparatively rare public appearance (“I know he doesn’t often attend events like this”). Held by rival fans to be a master of the speedway dark arts roughly equivalent to an Ernst Stavro Blofeld (albeit with more hair and no cat) or Lord Voldemort, Matt Ford is the most successful (in terms of trophies and finance) promoter of the C21st and sets the standard by and to which his friends, colleagues and competitors must adhere. Completely au fait with the rules, regulations mores and dynamics of the speedway industry as well as the relationship of his business to and within it, antipathy, jealousy or questions about his veracity often blinds critics to the deliberate, thoughtful analysis that underpins his strategy and decision making. Whether judged by the metric of revenues, profitability, crowds, teams, sponsors, regulatory savvy, staff or rider contracts, Matt Ford currently sets the standard for successful speedway promotion in Britain.
One key factor behind this longevity and ongoing success is an old-fashioned loyalty that used to exist widely in speedway circles but has been progressively undermined by the rise of a more toxic individualism enabled by the expansion of the Speedway Grand Prix series, the geographic spread of lucrative racing opportunities along with the short termist chop and change nature of contemporary team selection (especially in Britain and Poland). The here today, gone tomorrow aspect of team composition has hit home early this season in the Ford household, where news of the recent pre-season rustication of (Poole asset) Bjarne Pedersen from the Lakeside team hasn’t been taken at all lightly. All sharp objects, except for Matt’s tongue, have had to be removed from his house and place of work.
“I’m on suicide watch because one of our friends has been dropped without turning a wheel”
“Ah, yes, Lakeside”
“What a bunch of tosser they are!”
Luckily the newishly appointed Lakeside team technical and motivational guru Kelvin is on hand to speak on behalf of the club and vaguely set the record straight. “I thought I’d make changes straightaway” he jokes before adding soto voce, “not an easy decision but not mine!” Things might have turned out differently for Bjarne, “I wanted to keep him and Lewis as well – and wanted to get rid of another rider – but the purse strings wouldn’t stretch to that.” Not easily placated or diverted from his righteous annoyance, Matt asks Kelvin, “What’s it like to look out there and see a Lakeside crowd?”
Always willing to bathe quickly and deeply in the real, misrepresented or imagined travails of British Speedway but especially the Elite League (excluding Poole), Paul Burbidge’s interview in the Speedway Star published the next day (dated 27th February) reveals further detail of Bjarne Pedersen’s “plight” regarding equipment, parts, labour and service expenses. Notably buying and building two specially prepared “Arena Essex” bikes, getting three engines suitably tuned and hiring a full-time UK mechanic. The value of free dictation typing that masquerades as ‘news’ or features coverage is well understood and often exploited, “Paul Burbidge is here, one of speedway’s top journalists, I can see the headlines now, ‘Lakeside – a club in crisis’.”
Ever a keen judge of speedway rider horseflesh – especially Australian talent – Matt Ford sings the praises of Brady Kurtz, “the best rider Australia has produced since Darcy!” Whether or not this proves to be correct, Ford has simultaneously praised/motivated the rider while giving the Poole faithful yet another reason to attend on a regular basis. Kurtz arrives from Somerset, “sometimes it’s best to leave riders on other [Premier League] clubs retained lists.” We learn this approach is a mutually beneficial strategy, apparently based upon altruism, “we help them out with that.” In 1999, when Ford assumed the Poole promotional reigns, Wimborne Road attendances were said to be around 600. The subsequent growth is, understandably, a matter of some pride though Ford remains coy on specifics (“to go from that to what we’ve got now”). This growth in popularity and revenues hasn’t diminished his “hunger” or desire to enjoy for further professional success in speedway (“I want to keep winning for my family”).
There are, of course, naysayers, “I’m probably not the most popular person in the sport – or in this room – but it’s water off a ducks back!” Rather shockingly – especially for Poole evangelists, disciples and boosters in the trade press and also for those on the British Speedway Forum – their often extravagant, serial brownnosing cuts no ice with Matt Ford, “I don’t read social media, I don’t read the Speedway Star.” Since the club usually makes its own rain, Ford has no business or contractual need to pretend to play nice with his critics, let alone take account of their opinions, dictates or rituals. That said, Ford clearly understands the importance and utility of frequent favourable local media coverage and the column inches of the Daily Echo reflects that close symbiotic relationship. The toothless embedded stenography regularly served up by their almost in house national trade press reporter also often has its commercial uses but, nonetheless, for all the zealous tonguing continues to be viewed with indifference by Ford, “the Speedway Star is sent to my house but I don’t read it!”
Sometimes the urge to see what you’re missing out on or what’s being blandly written about your industry proves hard to resist, even for a self-confessed serial abstainer like Ford, “I took four or five on holiday” and, in the secretive privacy of his own room, “read it at night.” Sadly, this occasional guilty pleasure only irks, “I read Poole weren’t invited to the World Speedway League – and that’s utter rubbish!” Peculiarly, Matt Ford read this in an interview with Neil Middleditch conducted by the Speedway Star’s Chief News Writer and resident embedded Poole journalist Paul Burbidge. According to Ford, basic fact checking would have revealed the reality that Poole has been asked on, “four separate occasions to be in it.” Before he exits stage left, Matt thanks the audience in Big Brother fashion, “I recognise a lot of you from the photos from your season tickets!”
Next up for gentle questioning is Monster Energy’s Joe Parsons. Like the signature beverage of his employers, Parsons is an acquired taste. Some drink deep draughts with relish, some are paid to do so, while others only experience bitterness. According to recent media reports, Parsons – especially on Speedway Grand Prix race day – divides opinion with his over enthusiastic approach. Luckily Nigel Pearson manages the (national media) interviews and publicity of Tai Woffinden and, even better, holds any sponsors prepared to invest (“their”) money into speedway very highly – so, understandably, the lead representative of the headline sponsor of both the Speedway Grand Prix and the Speedway World Cup (he also regularly covers as a self-employed broadcaster) is no exception. In the cloistered world of the SGP, even a hint of personality beyond blandly vanilla stands out. Those drawn to or haloed by the glare of SGP celebrity are viewed as even more distinctive, “Monster Joe Parsons is one of the sports great characters.” Though an American national, “He lives in Torun, volunteered to pay his own airfare and paid for his own hotel…he’s been a major driving force in the careers of Chris Holder and Darcy Ward” Though unlikely to be news to most attendees, Nigel also emphasises that handily Joe has also supported other Monster Energy team sponsored riders: Greg Hancock and Tai Woffinden. Like so many modern era speedway riders, Joe Parsons is a frequent flier. He nearly didn’t make it from Torun, “flight was cancelled is quite common in my business”. Joe called ahead to warn the road show and, though it isn’t an image to conjure with, Kelvin gets a laugh with news of his reaction to this shock development, “he actually dragged me out of the shower”.
As “just a kid from the beach, no one special”, Joe Parsons actually comes from Orange County close to where yesteryear speedway champion rider Bruce Penhall originates from (“a hero in our town”). With speedway tangentially part of his own backstory, Parsons tells us that he takes pride that Penhall has “passed the torch to me”. Parsons needs no second invitation to speak openly and sincerely about the extremely high regard he holds for Chris Holder and Darcy Ward. “To me, they’re like my kids. I love them. I bring them in my house, I cook for them, take them out to dinner….[they’re] full of energy, full of spunk, just great humans, you just wanna have fun with them!” They have very different characters. Darcy was initially very reserved (“took ages to open up”) with Mr Parsons before putting his natural reserve aside to reveal curiosity about Joe’s life, “he wanted to listen to my experience and adventures!” Though “Chris is Mr Stubborn – he only wants to eat chicken”, under Joe’s influence he’s nowadays massively broadened his dietary palate.
Life living and working in Europe is both work and fun for Joe Parsons. “Living in these crazy shoes, travelling around the world, I just give the best I can and speedway is fun.” Like Nigel, Kelvin is also impressed with Joe’s employer and their sponsorship involvement with speedway. “Monster Energy is a major brand,” Kelvin notes before joshing, “you don’t like getting beat often!” Results count off the track as much as on it for this US based beverage company. “It is a business. I’ve been with Monster 16 years…whatever I do I have to convince corporate America to write that cheque in what I believe in…I’m no expert in anything I do [but] what has allowed me to continue is to convince corporate America to believe in what I love! If you wanna yield credibility, you have to have results. In order to achieve credibility, you have to have results. Second, third, fourth doesn’t matter – you have to have the brand” [that wins]. Number 1 is clearly the only target and ambition for both Joe and his employer. Since they got involved, Monster Energy sponsored team riders – Holder, Hancock and Woffinden – have all done Joe, corporate America and their brand proud with their successive world championship wins.
Away from speedway, there are numerous other adventurous sporting activities where Monster Energy also sponsors the number 1 performer or team. To illustrate his point, Joe proudly lists a long roster of (biddable) motor ‘sports’ where Monster might is right and also triumphant. Frankly, he might as well be speaking a foreign language since the welter of acronyms Parsons uses to identify these disciplines, events, champions and championship crowns are remarkably obscure. Though designed to impress, to my mind, it only serves to illustrate that speedway at ‘world’ level – for all its notional history, specificity and specialness – is really just another easily/cheaply purchasable motor sports franchise for this particular sponsor to run through the formulae translator of their very effective cookie cutter sausage making image machine. Each barely noticeable motorsports gets the ersatz buzz of notional Monster Energy glitz, glamour, speed, stars, daring, competition, fancy tricks and camera angles (often shown at inhospitable hours by obscure satellite broadcasters keen to fill their schedules). Each and every event is inevitably festooned with Monster logos galore, bolstered by the ubiquitous but unobtainable glamour girls as well as also featuring the choreographed pre-race ‘connection’ of meet’n’greet fan autograph signings and Monster merchandise giveaways. This codification and commodification of the competitive aspects of these said sponsored motor ‘sports’ manages to turn them into edgy live billboards for the lifestyle Monster wish to project and signal that they most closely associate with their product.
That said, and setting aside the actual product for a moment, there is no better advocate than a true believer and, excepting some brief lapses from homespun into clunky corporate speak aside, Joe Parsons compellingly exudes the authenticity and sincerity of a true believer in an amiable and likeable fashion. Beside him Kelvin still has the wonder and inarticulacy of a still-keen-to-prove-themself first year student (who just scraped through clearing onto the marketing degree course at a low ranking former polytechnic) proudly in charge of their first buzz word, “the brand is so strong!” Such a dolly drop deserves smashing into the bleachers for a home run. Joe needs no second invitation to do so while extruding a few bonus owl pellets of mission statement PowerPoint wisdom, “I think what distinguishes us from general beverages is that we don’t sell the product but sell the lifestyle.” It’s a lifestyle-in-a-can that the under-confident aspire to emulate but few grown ups aspire to drink.
Apparently accidentally forgetting that Monster Energy’s UK manufacturing and distribution partner is an almost unknown small company called Coca-Cola Enterprises, Joe bigs up the difficulty and latent heroism of the sales aspect of the Monster Energy mission. “The trade side is a battle” is how he likes to present the day-to-day grind of an apparently tiny rebellious David (who is actually really a Goliath) battling away with the giant dog-eat-dog UK beverage landscape behemoths. With the name recognition and glamour of the Monster Energy Speedway Grand Prix riders notionally immediately flinging doors open and leading the way for the Monster brand, the work of the sales team is allegedly made much easier as they fight for position and shelf space in petrol stations and “stores”. Since it’s a mysterious art that defies understanding of this particular audience that additionally requires numerous unspecified but probably horrid compromises (“which we have to do to get that product in the store”), Joe happily gives sincere thanks that his specific area of involvement remains focussed upon the talent at the lifestyle-in-a-can events (“I’m just on the fun side”).
Confirming how tame and all-holds-barred British and Speedway Grand Prix speedway journalism can appear to those outside its charmed circle of initiates, Nigel Pearson prefaces the only vaguely ‘difficult’ investigative question posed to any of their road show guests tonight with a trigger warning (“Editorially I have to ask this question”). Joe Parsons is hardly going to be surprised about a question about the status of his relationship with Nicki Pedersen (“a certain rider in the Grand Prix”). Google translated statement highlights from December of Nicki’s reported comments in Ekstra Bladet about Mr Parsons include, “I have deep respect for Parsons. He is title sponsor of the Grand Prix system and I have great respect for the way he runs his marketing. But I have no respect for the fact that he behaves like a fan, jumps, dances, shouts and cries and says nasty things to people when it is running. It is unsympathetic and it looks ugly. And I can feel around that fans and other disgusted and røvtrætte of it.”
Whether founded or unfounded, such candour really stands out compared to the excitable gruel that’s usually passed off as ‘news’ in the hermetically sealed world of official Speedway Grand Prix media coverage. Nigel’s brief analysis of the situation (“To sum up for those of you who don’t read the Speedway Star”) is altogether more sanitised about the potentially jarring behaviour on SGP racedays alleged shown by Joe. Rather than question whether a sponsor with full access should behave like a fan or whether professionally run sports should permit this, Nigel goes for colour and, instead, celebrates Joe as a “showman in the pits” who “doesn’t show respect”. With the courage of the convictions that such an approach to work implies, Joe is energetic, passionate and unapologetic in his NSFW reply. “I love all riders first and foremost, I love safety first and foremost. Yes I am going to support my riders to the end of the day. That’s my job. Do I get emotional? Do I go over top? I’m a fucking fan!”
Setting aside that the logic of the Monster Energy sponsorship ‘philosophy’ that there is only ever one Number One and the rest are nowhere appears to require we must choose between love or safety, Joe continues with more rhetorical questions in answer to concerns about his pits/centregreen credibility and energy. “How many other sponsors are at the event or in the pits? Are they just writing a cheque to get their logo out there? I’m not. I want to be there, I want to be involved! I want to have fun and with that comes emotion, and fun. People can call it the way they want to call it, the way I see it is we have a fun time.” With Joe warming to his theme and his words tumbling out, and as if explicit permission at a public event is required, Nigel interjects, “There are journalists in the audience: are you happy for them to quote that?” Schooled in the American Constitution, Joe endorses freedom of the press, “Go for it!” Unafraid to state the obvious, he continues, “Without the riders, we have no show!”
Apparently unaware of the how the specific content of his Twitter account looks regarding his publicly stated attitudes towards Nicki Pedersen. Or, indeed, how these opinions or his raceday antics might frame the understanding and reception of the trajectory/tenor of Monster Energy approach (especially given he de facto presents himself the public face of the brand and its reputation at its various Monster Energy sponsored speedway events). Parsons continues, “There is never one time I’ve disrespected any one rider, I love them all!” Possibly so but, professionally, Joe clearly always loves his Monster Energy riders the most. “You need guys like Nicki. You need guys like Greg Hancock, Mr Nice Guy. You need those dynamics….I think Nicki challenges himself, he’s his own worst enemy. That’s not because I shout at him. Whether it’s him, Smolinski or any rider that’s going to hit my rider, I’m going to react naturally, as a fan. Whether it’s professional or not professional, I’m sorry, I’m human.” Diplomatically, Kelvin searches for the healing balm of further context, “This is new for us all – we haven’t had sponsors who get so involved!”
Joe is unapologetic in his advocacy of his own race day presentism and engagement, “We need credibility, we have to be there!” Randomly but revealingly, Joe adopts a military metaphor to explain this point of view, “It’s no different to the leader of an army, you have start in the trenches!” But what are the objectives of our unelected Monster Energy leader? “All I ask of the riders, of my riders, is ride clean, ride fair, live to ride another day!” Nigel closes off the initial fifty minutes of live speedway chat for the interval, “Anyone from the Echo, Star, Burbo: feel free to use those quotes – honest and open!”
Rather than rush off to an interval, maybe Kelvin or Nigel could have interrogated some of the claims/statements of their guest speaker? Speedway fans are generally known for their family ethos and, airhorns aside, their studiously measured appreciation of speedway and its riders. The supporters of most clubs – though we all know the most thuggish exceptions in Britain – don’t gloatingly celebrate. It’s not part of our culture. Though, perhaps, this is changing or needs to change? Either way properly run and governed sports don’t usually allow the area manager of their sponsor to reveal partisan opinions in general, let alone on the day of the event. Imagine if a Newcastle supporting Barclays area manager (when they sponsored the football Premier League) enthusiastically celebrated a Sunderland defeat at the Stadium of Light. The Police and the football authorities wouldn’t allow it for safety reasons; the sponsor wouldn’t allow it for brand integrity or credibility reasons. In contrast, the live and let live good nature of speedway fans is being taken for granted, if not ignored. Clearly Joe Parsons’ unsporting behaviour at Speedway Grand Prix events is a failure of leadership by the event organisers and rights holders. If he were a licensed official, at the SGP he would be subject to the rules and requirements of the F.I.M. But, since he’s not, BSI (BSI Speedway, IMG or BSI/IMG or whatever the SGP organisers are currently called) should assert some degree of professional control and instruct their headline sponsor Monster Energy to properly control their staff members at practice and on raceday. But, since ultimately everything is for sale at the SGP, the sponsorship tail not only wags the dog, it is the dog! Worse still, the rights holders have been so inept at promoting – either the excitement of speedway or their numerous events – to any serious national media that without the independent analysis such coverage inevitable brings, the SGP is ripe for colonisation and exploitation by a vaguely competent sponsor able to hijack or distort the spirit, culture and ethos of the event for its own commercial ends. In addition, after years of cost cutting at SGP by the rights holders/organisers, pre-meeting ‘entertainment’ is so severely reduced (or non-existent) that Monster Energy have easily and cannily stepped into the breach to provide a replacement, namely their own signature version of ersatz motorsports razzamatazz.
When it comes to rider safety, who on earth is really arguing against that? In the modern era, safety standards have improved exponentially (for example, look at the beneficial effect of air fences) and new safeguards are constantly being researched, developed and homologated. It could be argued that the power and sensitivity of modern bikes (and, possibly, the impact of the recent exhausts upon performance) pose danger to riders. Riding “clean” is clearly really a barely coded dog whistle reference to Nicki Pedersen. But, without consistency or independent verification, claims of riding dirty could be seen as sour grapes to describe successful combative racing by a rider you don’t like (or don’t sponsor) rather than one you do like (or sponsor). Also what does “clean” really mean? Could it mean not creating perceptions of team riding at an individual event or, perhaps, if random danger mitigation is the stated aim of good hygiene, perhaps riders could arrive in the pits always legally able to race?
After the interval tabard auction that sees David buy the Loram & Woffinden tabards as well as a signed Tai print, Nigel and Kelvin welcome two game volunteers from the audience keen to publicly test their commentary skills live over Cardiff 2015 semi-final SGP footage. Unsurprisingly, these fans quickly show it’s much harder than it looks or sounds to perform with the skill, verbal dexterity and voluble enthusiasm Kelvin and Nigel regularly bring to their broadcast work. With each fan, Kelvin is the co-commentator though – unlike his television work – he’s more assertive, witty and much more the lead talking head (rather than ex-rider colour guy). First up is Vic. We quickly hear that just knowing who is in what helmet colour is trickier than armchair critics imagine. As a reward for risking public humiliation, each contestant leaves with the SGP equivalent of a Crackerjack pencil – a Monster Energy t-shirt. Before Rob struts his stuff over Cardiff semi final 2, Kelvin brushes off any threat to Nigel’s position from any commentary wannabes lurking in the Wimborne Road audience, “he’s got a contract for another three years!” Playing along with the repartee, Nigel faux grumbles, “Nobody likes me anyway” and, just before tapes up, advises Rob, “If you’ve got any ideas, I’ve got a three year contract so you can piss off!” Already aware of his fairy tale Cardiff, Rob waxes lyrical about a “Hans Kristian Iversen” and, during the race, tells partner Kelvin, “and it’s very difficult to pass on this circuit, as you probably know!” Sadly, this level of candid honesty isn’t ever allowed on any SGP broadcast so, sadly, Rob immediately excludes himself from this career option.
With the silent Cardiff 2015 final still requiring “voicing” (as they say in SGP DVD highlights circles), shy Joe Parsons is press ganged to try his luck and, gamely, agrees. Joe is certainly fluent and, unlike some, unafraid of the sound of his own voice in public. Though we all already know the result (and the most likely diver), he’s not making predictions, “Tai looked good in that last one but so did Colder, Holder, Chris Holder.” Though a Monster Energy rider, Joe stumbles with “Wofferton” but is still the best performer on the night (apparently though, at the Oak Tree Arena leg of the tour, Debbie Hancock and Alun ‘Rosco’ Rossiter made a powerful partnership). Rather wittily (I thought), a heckler shouts, “Give him a t shirt!” It’s a bon mot Kelvin echoes, “help yourself to a t shirt.”
With notable ex-colleagues galore – including Jonathan Green, Sam Ermolenko, the late Tony Millard, David Norris and Gary Havelock (to name but a few) – temporarily forgotten or airbrushed from live speedway broadcast history, the lads pay tribute to their “fellow broadcasters” Chris Louis and Steve Brandon. After Nigel confirms the evidence of our own eyes and ears, “you can see we are enjoying it”, Kelvin joyously drinks the collective bathwater too, “sixteen, seventeen years working with fundamentally the same team.” Nearly 90 minutes into the roadshow, we’re finally treated to our first proper authentic after dinner event behind the scenes funny story. “We commentated in a shed at Malilla and this Swedish fella walked in and he’s about to do his business!”
For the Q&A, the lads are joined on stage by Joe Parsons. To be fair, neither the talent nor the organisers rule out any audience question. Everyone is free to ask absolutely anything. And, like their commentary work on the Elite League or Speedway Grand Prix, you can only play the bowling you receive. As noted earlier, speedway fans aren’t traditionally screaming banshees, so politeness rules and the questions mostly remain technical and anodyne in the equivalent of neutral or first gear. For example, the question, “What is proper speedway?” has Kelvin reply, “Proper speedway is my definition of when it gets a bit good…proper speedway is actually what you are treated to most weeks here.”
Contrary to what you’d expect from his PTSD-esque SGP dress or persona, Joe Parsons comes across well as a person on stage and, obviously, whatever else people think about him, his unstinting support and care for Darcy Ward since his accident speaks volumes about his character and humanity. After an appropriately decorous time, most sponsors in most sports would look or walk away when the utility of sponsorship had ended. Though understandably praised (“the way you and Monster have supported Darcy”), this isn’t something Mr Parsons seeks approval or attention for doing, “I hear that a lot. I’m just an employee of, yeh, a big company”. Instead, he prefers to stress reciprocal obligations (“What guys like Darcy have done for us…it doesn’t just stop when they stop doing that for you”) as well as the duty of care and corporate social responsibility shown by Monster Energy – fully endorsed by its top corporate head office executives in Corona California – towards the stricken young Australian. It’s an attitude and approach that “CEO Rodney Sacks” and “President Mark Hall” show they fully support. Plus the idea that Monster would walk away at time of crisis defies their core values (“from the top level of our management is instilling in us”) and, revealingly, also “doesn’t speak the right volume to our consumers”.
Though to the wider world outside speedway, what satellite channel the Elite League or the SGP is broadcast upon in the UK is small beer, the metaphorical managerial bald men still like to fight savagely over the ownership of such treasured combs. While Sky Sports continue with long running Elite League franchise, Eurosport have relinquished the SGP mantle to BT. The upshot of these changes is that ordinary, keen speedway fans will have to pay even more to watch live broadcast speedway in 2016. For the commentators, such contractual changes spell potential difficulty from loss of screen time and earnings. Though no one has asked the question, Kelvin gives some background. “There’s been a lot of ducking and diving going on!” As context, when it comes to broadcast football rights and the serious audiences this generates, “it’s no secret that BT and Sky Sports don’t get on.” Luckily, partly because in commercial/advertising terms live broadcast speedway revenues are a barely rounding error and also partly because of the long service and favourable relations Kelvin and Nigel have with the upper echelons of Sky Sports, they have been given special dispensation to continue broadcasting (“We’ve been very fortunate that Barney Francis gave permission”). There will, however, be special terms and conditions when the lads cover the SGP “world feed” for BT, “We won’t be able to wear any clothing or appear in vision!” It’s an image that tickles his partner in commentary crime, “naked on the Speedway Grand Prix!” Sadly, even this might not provide the much-needed boost the UK SGP television audience urgently requires to move off the critical list. Nigel faintly praises the new UK SGP broadcast rights holders, “BT are trying to bring the sport on….obviously, I congratulate BT on getting Grand Prix rights. We will continue what we did for Sky, Eurosport and now BT.” With negotiations at the slap-on-the-back stage, recent anxiety can now safely be put aside, “Everyone has stress in business, particularly when self-employed. Kelvin and I are both self-employed….Though BSI wanted – Kelvin and I wanted – us to continue doing world feed, we needed permission in writing [from Sky].” What kind of a world do now we live in, when a speedway man’s word is not his bond but, instead, requires the confirmation of formal written permission?
Question: [paraphrase] Should anticipating tapes and getting a flier be allowed? [viewed as reference to James Sargeant]
Kelvin: “It’s unfair! He’s anticipated the start…I’m saying that the rule has to be rewritten! It’s detrimental to his career cos he thinks he cannot make the start.”
Nigel: “What doesn’t help James is that refs are looking out for him”
Kelvin: “Fact is that you can’t react that quickly! It’s a modern phenomenon, we didn’t used to do it…but he cannot do it consistently”
Fan: “Ivan Mauger did it for years.”
Kelvin: “But you could touch the tapes then.”
Question: [paraphrase] Should we have laser light governing starts rather than tapes?
Nigel: “Is this an April Fool’s?”
Kelvin: “…If no-one is injured riders should go back to the start, it’s the same for all of them…the biggest problem is the clutch cos the RPM goes so high.”
Question: [paraphrase] Do squads exist in the Elite League or just for Lakeside? &, Why hasn’t this been announced? (“the BSPA have been next to useless, is it open to all teams?”)
Nigel: “I can shed some light on that, I spoke to Keith Chapman and he says it’s been agreed but it’s up to the SCB to put it in the rule book…..and, of course, Jon [Cook] has done it because he has a vision for Lakeside.”
Question: [paraphrase] Wildly tangential talk of a bike powered by, I think, new technology that captures and recycles promoters’ brainfarts or, possibly, uses electricity
Kelvin: “…about an electric bike, I haven’t a clue. You wanna hear a bike running!”
Nigel: “Oh, Matt Ford’s got a question.”
Matt: “Can Kelvin shed some light on other engines that might help the sport?”
Kelvin: “…it’s such a specific sport, no brakes…needs an inertia in the engine….[GTR] Chris Harris did a hundred heats without [the engine] being opened!”
Fan: “But he’s always last!”
Kelvin: “..I think there’s a simpler way, speedway engines don’t have a rev limiter…you immediately help all the engines…all the damage is done on the start line – is when all the pound notes are ripped up!”
With time running out and questions getting obscurer by the minute, the road show wraps up to loud applause. As they say in job interviews, the first and last thirty seconds are the most memorable. On that basis, Nigel notes that discussion and comment this evening has been, “honest, open and very frank!”
With some fans still keen for photos or to buttonhole the various speedway talents available by the bar for individual questioning or observations, many other fans flood out towards the car park or into town to enjoy some of the renowned mid-February Poole Wednesday nightlife. There’s chatter to overhear. “Nigel Pearson is the same age as Greg!” “Kelvin comes across different to the telly.”
Biography in Numbers (from 2016 Tour souvenir programme)
1989 World Cup Gold medallist
4 Elitserien titles
Sixty-three World Cup Points
7 World Final appearances
1986 World Final bronze medallist
2 British League KO Cup wins
Two British titles
Three British League titles
23 Individual Trophies
Eight World Cup appearances
Five World Pairs Championship podiums 3 World Longtrack championships
19 Seasons in British Speedway
Four Commonwealth Championships
1970 born in York
15 years as part of the Sky Sports Speedway team
Fifteen British Grand Prixs covered either on TV or as stadium presenter
Thirty-Three years supporting Cradley
Ten World Darts Championships worked on for Sky Sports
1989 First job in journalism for the Stourbridge News
Six seasons travelling to Speedway Grand Prixs
4 Radio Stations worked for (BBC WM, BRMB, Beacon, TalkSPORT)
1982 year of leaving North Yorkshire to move to the West Midlands
3 Champions League Finals covered for TalkSPORT
8 Speedway clubs worked for as an announcer or press officer (Cradley, Wolves, Sheffield, Hull, Stoke, Long Eaton, Swindon, Birmingham)