The search for Tyre Heaven continues

7th June

Though I only called at late notice, Wayne Russell (son of Terry) was kind enough to let me launch my new book of photographs – Shale Britannia – at Blunsdon. “We’re only too pleased to have you – you’re welcome anytime,” he tells me inside the speedway office just inside the entrance gates of the stadium. Wayne toes the party line here and so plays down the Robins chances of Elite League success, “it’s too early to say anything” so we revert to that hardy perennial of British conversation – the weather. It’s still warm and apparently “the forecast is to be fine”. Swindon have reputedly attracted big crowds to Blunsdon all season and I hope that they’ll all be keen to purchase a copy of my book, though the visit of Wolverhampton is unlikely to prove as popular as the “top of the table clash” with Coventry last week.

When I arrived Nick Barber and his sister Bev had already unloaded their navy blue transit van and were on the way back to the track shop they run as one of the outposts of their empire at Blunsdon. The actual location of the shop appears to be a moveable feast dependent on the weather and the time of year. Today it is a line of tables set out under the lee of the roof of the main grandstand with a view towards the first bend/start gate, while handily placed for the snack bar. I excitedly show them my book of photographs and they spend some time leafing through it. It’s quickly clear that the speedway community is so tightly close knit that many people are instantly and obviously well known to each other by name or, at least, by sight. Bev kindly thinks, “it’s great. They’re really interesting shots – very unusual – people will have a quick look, find bits but go back to it again and again!” Her brother Nick worries that the market might not be flooded with photographic books for a very good reason, “how many have you done then? Hopefully no more than 500!” News that the print number figure is higher and that I hope to sell the book to people outside speedway has him pull an expression that expresses a concern for my sanity. Lucy Aubrey – the Robins loyalist who runs the track shop (“she’s worked here for years”) along with her boyfriend Lee – is surprised to spot herself in the background of one photograph, “when the track shop was inside there” she says pointing a few yards further down the concourse.

All night the book attracts gasps of recognition, confident assertions of which track is pictured or disappointment from some browsers that they’re not pictured inside. Swindon Press Officer, consummate speedway statistician and prolific speedway author (his latest co-authored book on the history of Oxford Speedway presently finds the Cheetahs fans with time on their hands to read it) Rob Bamford notes dryly, “it’s a behind-the-scenes-look-at-speedway that I don’t imagine every promoter in the country is exactly going to be overjoyed with – particularly as, sometimes, it doesn’t portray their business in the most glamorous light! You’ve even got some pictures of some toilets.” Still they do say the camera never lies.

I’ve hardly set up my stall before the amiable and hard working volunteer member of the track curatorial staff here, Graham ‘Blunsdon Blog’ Cooke, drops by to become the first person to buy a copy of the book. We chat about recent meetings, my blog on the televised encounter with Coventry here (“I had tears of laughter in my eyes when I read it – I’ve pinned a copy up in our hut for the others”) and the present state of the Blunsdon track. Even more significantly for the Robins prospects of championship success this season, the camaraderie and team spirit that exists among the dedicated track staff applies to members of the speedway team too, “Leigh Adams gave Andrew Moore a real masterclass in the pits and on the track – identifying faults, passing on tips and ideas on how to put it right. Gating isn’t his strongest suit so hopefully this will help him improve that. We rigged up a temporary start line on the back straight and Leigh has given him a lot to think about. We’ve all really taken to Andrew for his all out effort and honest effort.” Though not all the team share universal love for each other if the article about the “altercation” between Seb Ulamek and Charlie Gjedde in tonight’s edition of the Swindon Advertiser is to be believed. The riding order of the team has been changed so they no longer have to ride regularly together but ‘Rosco’ dismisses idle talk about the incident as, “heat of the moment stuff”.

At that point, tonight’s SCB Official Christina Turnbull wanders over on the way to the referee’s box high up in the main grandstand. The always polite and well-informed Graham appears to know her well but, afterwards, says, “who was that?” Given the strength of her Scots accent (still retained despite her missionary work in the South), Nick slightly unnecessarily tells us “she’s Glaswegian” He then ponders the alleged internecine antipathy that exists between the Scottish speedway clubs, “there’s only one club to support in Scotland – Glasgow – people always talk about the rivalry but I reckon it’s the Edinburgh lot who highlight this the most.” Stupidly I say, “you can always support Berwick as your Scottish team rather than choose between them” before Nick immediately reminds me, “well you could – if it wasn’t in England!”

Having tried to vaguely help at the track with the Blunsdon curatorial team a few times this year, I confidently thought that I was now on nodding terms with Alun ‘Rosco’ Rossiter. Though he’d conspicuously ignored me half an hour earlier, as the red anoraked Alun came down the steep grandstand steps that lead down from the toilets with club co-owner Gary Patchett (I only know this because he has his name emblazoned on his white shirt), I accosted him by my table display and proudly said, “it’s my new book!” With a mystified look on his face, he says “oh? Right!” in a non-plussed manner before he very politely lingers for a moment though his mind was no doubt buzzing with tactics, stratagems and cunning plans to best the opposition during the night ahead. I imagine promoters everywhere have to regularly cope with totally bonkers people who feel they can stop the man in question to share with them the full vacuity of their opinions at great length with added copious boring detail. Alun looked briefly at the book as though distractedly inspecting some badly completed child’s homework poisoned by radiation. Luckily Rosco’s eye is caught by the giveaway postcard held in his hand which features the cover image (piles of tyres) I have used for my forthcoming ‘Shifting Shale’ book, so this instantly gave us something more to talk about since I asked, “where do all the used tyres go?” Alun double checks I’m not some weirdo environmentalist before he answers warily, “we dispose of them properly!” When I ask, “where?” he seeks to retain his authority and couple it with an air of mystery, “dunno!” He’s already started to walk away when I wonder aloud, “is it tyre heaven?” without reply.

One of the pleasures of selling my books at speedway meetings is the sheer variety of people that you meet. I chatted to keen motor sports enthusiast Graham Ramsey who’d only started coming along to speedway recently after noticing the sport on Sky and liked what he saw. He liked how “competitive” it was, the “ability to see everything” and the “courtesy – the very first time I went someone showed me how to score”. Apart from Swindon, he’s been to Poole (“more structure, much more to it”) and Reading (“despite being dilapidated still friendly – it has quirky charm”). Many people wander past without stopping to even look at the books never mind agonise over a purchase. Rob Bamford has returned and kindly points out, “there is the legend that is ‘The Don’ [Don Rogers] with daughter Lucy and grandson Josh!” With a few minutes still to go before the tapes rise, Rob doesn’t hold out high hopes of a closely fought meeting against Wolverhampton, “this is as close as they’ll be all night”. Another visitor to the stand is Malcolm – the man who’d won a copy of my book When Eagles Dared for correctly and rather cleverly answering every question posed in the Blunsdon Blog Christmas quiz. He modestly plays down what must be his encyclopaedic knowledge of all things speedway (“everyone could have read things up or looked on google”).

Freshly qualified as the wild card for the Cardiff Grand Prix by way of the British Final (and apparently on a mission to repeatedly say when interviewed on the telly, “a year ago I couldn’t have imagined this” – widely seen in the pits as an oblique reference to his admiration inducing signing on fee and guaranteed match payments), David Howe comprehensively burst through the tapes to a loud ironic cheer from the always keenly competitive Blunsdon faithful. Though schadenfreude quickly turned to disbelief when it was announced “all four back as there’s a fault in the box”. The incredulity increased further still in the rerun when Leigh Adams found himself relegated to fourth place for two laps before he just about managed to struggle past (pollen victim) David Howe. After they’d both gated well, up front there was a duel between Peter ‘PK’ Karlsson and Charlie Gjedde before the Wolves man secured a comfortable win. Any thought of stern resistance from Wolves soon ended with a 5-1 for the Robins reserves in the next race. It was such an easy win that it caused Lucy to remark, “their reserves can’t be that good as Andrew Moore looks like a world beater – not that I’m criticising him or his efforts but he has one good one and one bad meeting usually”. The dose of 5-1 medicine is repeated for the visiting patient in the fourth heat, though this race is effectively ended as a contest when Lee Richardson wins the battle of wits with Freddie Lindgren by aggressively riding him towards the fence on the apex of the first bend. Sensibly, Lindgren shuts off and Richardson departs to win with impressive speed that’s not really reflected in the final race time.

Between races I take the chance to catch up with the Barber family. Bev wasn’t impressed by the lack of interest and attentiveness shown by Jonathan Green when Sky recently televised the meeting at a rain soaked Birmingham, “when he’s not on air he spent most of the time texting and not watching the meeting – he had no interest at all. It’s just a job to him!” I soon gather her brother Nick isn’t a big fan of the newly opened Speedway Museum – which I must confess I’m looking forward to visiting – and professes to be scandalised by the cost of entry to the Wildlife Park (“£12 to get in for an adult – you won’t get much change out of £50 if you take a family”) and the fact that when you get inside many of the historic programmes on display are “only photocopies”. As a keen collector of speedway memorabilia he’s recently noticed a sudden flood on eBay of rare historic programmes, “I stopped bidding for a Walthamstow 1934 one – they only rode one season pre-war, they were known as the Wolves then – when it reached £210. It went for £250 in the end – the seller lived in Broxbourne”.

The chance of any kind of further token resistance from Wolverhampton looked unlikely with the rider replacement in operation for Billy Hamill (“Virus! Freak off! He just doesn’t want to ride speedway here – he should be on a seven day ban really but they won’t”) and becomes impossible with the withdrawal from the meeting of David Howe before heat 5 starts. At the trackshop Lucy is amazed at this news, “he’s withdrawn due to hay fever! Is he a speedway rider or what?” When I say it’s a shame because he’s gating so well at the moment, she retorts, “yeh brilliantly, shame it’s through the tapes”. Weirdly the revised combination of Karlsson-Lawson secure a surprise heat advantage though the race itself is notable for a dramatic fall for Mads Korneliussen – who is thrown from his bike like a rag doll on the fourth bend when his bike comes to an unexpected halt. Nick receives a text from his brother at Ipswich to say that Simon Stead has crashed badly (“his bike hit the stock car fence”) at Foxhall Heath, “they’re all trying to keep up – the young riders – that’s the trouble”. On the subject of young riders, Lewis Bridger stops long enough at my stall for me to show him the two photos of him that appear in my book.

The crowd cheer loudly when Lee Richardson overtakes Freddie Lindgren on the last lap to win the race, “he’s the new hero round here this year – he’s been invincible round here the last month or so, now he hasn’t got the crap of the GP to distract him. He’ll never need to work again – nice for him but trouble for British speedway as anyone from this country who shows any talent everyone praises them before they’ve done anything and they soon lose ambition”. Someone who shows ambition tonight but doesn’t enjoy much luck is Mads Korneliussen who repeats his dramatic fall again in heat 9 – this time on the last bend of the last lap when placed third, albeit he’s slightly less rag dollish in his departure from his equipment this time. He remains prostrate on the track for a considerable time and over the tannoy we’re told in the manner of the solemn tone usually reserved for redundancies or bereavements, “our thoughts are with Mads – he appears to be talking to his team mates who are with him”. Things could have been much worse but for the superb reflexes of the closely following Matthew Wethers, whom afterwards referee Christina Turnbull singles out for deserved praise for “his quick thinking”. The time is then passed with an interview with Steve ‘Johno’ Johnson who doesn’t mention the £8,000 he’s reputedly owed but does revisit the thoughtless manner in which the news of the immediate closure of Oxford speedway was related to him before he adds, “I need to get back out on the track”. Shortly afterwards we learn, Mads is, “battered and bruised – nothing broken according to the track doctor but he has officially withdrawn from the meeting”.

Also withdrawn, albeit totally unofficially, from the meeting are the Wolverhampton team who between them only win three race advantages all night – one of these in heat 11 when PK rides in a black and white helmet colour. I’m impressed by the often subtle attention to detail shown by the promotion at Swindon – this is illustrated before the tapes rise for this particular race when the start line girl on gate 2 parades about with a black and white umbrella rather than a green one. Magnus Karlsson shines in heat 10 when he rides to a hard earnt nil points after he drifts wide on the penultimate lap and thereby allows the ‘never-say-die’ battling Andrew Moore past.

The Robins take full advantage of having Tomasz Chrzanowski at reserve all night and he scores a paid five-ride maximum. I enjoyed his pass of Lindgren (on the fourth bend of the first lap in heat 12) who he made appear static to the point of stationary before he shot off to win by around 40 yards. The penultimate race of the night featured Freddie Lindgren as a tactical substitute in a black and white helmet colour off 15-metre handicap and, consequently, he indulged in battle royale for third place with his teammate Magnus Karlsson. Arguably this was one of the most entertaining tussles and illustrates that – contrary to visual evidence on the night – the Wolves riders really do actually race for each point when the fancy takes them. Afterwards I overhear Rob Bamford say to a friend, “not very good tonight was it John? The track wasn’t that great and the opposition were worse!”

7th June Swindon v Wolverhampton (ELB) 57-36

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