Wonders of the Wonderwheel

28th April

The Sky cameras have chosen to show a clash of birds when the Swindon Robins take on the Eastbourne Eagles at Blunsdon. It’s a brave choice of fixture given that the Eagles in recent years have rarely performed well in Wiltshire. The Elite League table has an ominous look about it too though it is notionally a meeting that pits first against second. Something more than a casual glance soon reveals that Swindon have 13 points from seven meetings and Eastbourne nine points from eight. A mismatch seems in prospect but we all know that we’re completely unlikely to hear anything other than relentless optimism from any of the Sky pundits over the next couple of hours. The level of investigative reporting is so low that even when, arguably, the biggest scandal of the season is played out in front of their cameras at Foxhall Heath – the use by the Robins of Joel Parsons – we don’t even hear a peep about it*. Despite the fact that the last minute permission to use said rider looks at best dubious and, at worst, runs a coach and horses through another last vestige of credibility that our sport has for independent governance with the general print and broadcast sports media (aside from the commercially self-interested and legendary boosterism of Sky).

In place of thoughtfulness or insight, we get lumbered with Jonathan ‘attention span of a goldfish’ Green who welcomes us with the immortal words, “it’s a beautiful evening in Swindon!” It’s not a phrase that you hear on the telly that often but, at least, indicates the importance of the speedway club in raising the national awareness of the town as a business destination, if not a holiday one. Ever keen to be pointlessly cheerful, Jonathan makes an early request to Santa (or the tooth fairy), “an away win would do Eastbourne no harm at all”. Simultaneously overwhelmed by the perceptiveness of this insight and suddenly apparently hit by a blinding revelation, his partner in crime Kelvin Tatum replies, “of course, it’s three points for an away win this season”. Never! It’s a strange world where Kelvin out idiots the speedway idiot savant. Across the nation, the collective pulse of the watching thousands races, even though the likelihood of such a win is roughly on par with Blunsdon being struck by a meteor or Sarra asking a series of difficult/incisive pits interview questions. Desperately thumbing through his book of sports broadcasting clichés, instead Jonathan invents some fictional public opinion, “what’s interesting is everyone says it’s gonna be tight”. Almost immediately afterwards, Greeny then clutches the straw of recent past performances by the Eagles, “yeh, they’ve won away – we’ve seen it ourselves!”

No speedway league meeting is ever complete on Sky without Kelvin identifying the riders to watch from each side. This spurious veneer of insight and/or expertise is only window dressing and the verbal equivalent of a player walking slowly from the pitch when substituted in a football match. Essentially it’s just time wasting that adds nothing to the spectacle or enjoyment of the meeting. Tonight, the apparently important and influential riders turn out to be Scott Nicholls and Leigh Adams! Betcha by golly wow as Sam Ermolenko might exclaim. Kelvin is so keen to create an aura of collective authority that he even starts talking as though Jonathan has vaguely gained and retained some insights into the characteristics of the speedway riders, “you know what Scott’s like – he’s a racer, he’s a fighter!” Lurking close by the Sky booth is Robins returnee Lee Richardson who sets the expectations bar pretty low for his possible performance in this meeting when he says in the style of the speaking clock, “I’m with Eastbourne and I’ve got to try to come here and win for them.” Having read the runes and listened to the blather (of the riders rather than that of Jonathan), Kelvin bravely predicts – hold the front page – the likely winners, “I’m gonna go for the home side”.

In the commentary box is Nigel Pearson (who Jonathan, with a really witty play on words that he’s notorious for, side-splittingly called the “Bald Eagle” last season at Arlington) and David Norris. Though Hailsham based, Eastbourne’s record points scorer has been notable by his absence from Arlington this season but has made it to Blunsdon to see the Eagles ride. He’s always good value to listen to on the telly, whatever the meeting, and often goes off message sufficiently to speak ‘honestly’. Tonight he blows the gaff almost immediately with, “it is dusty…it maybe a tad processional!” Based on past experience and the evidence of our eyes during the first few heats with the riders strung out like a line of washing, this has to rank as masterly understatement. In these circumstances, Nigel’s professionalism dictates that he must often inject excitement into races that don’t merit the breathless hyperbole or, in the manner of a magician, he must distract the audience with discussions of various tangential factors vaguely related to the lack of spectacle before us. This is also the role of Kelvin and Jonathan in the Sky booth in between their ‘so tell us about riding your bike’ rider interviews. The usual topics are the weather, the track, the relative standing of the league table, the forthcoming GP, the previous GP, the enthusiasm and “love” of the home fans for whatever rider we’ve just seen win and so on. If Tony Millard were in the commentary box, mispronunciations and ready drafted cliché would be even more to the fore. Soon taking out one he prepared earlier, Nigel marvels at “the big crowd here tonight”. The impact of a live televised meeting is so deleterious on attendances that Swindon have sensibly run a BOGOF promotion to boost their local goodwill and fill the wide-open spaces of the stadium for good measure. Nigel soon praises the (sensible) initiative of the promotion in a manner that makes you feel they’ve invented the combustion engine or discovered the Internet.

On the track, the contest is pretty well over before it has begun with an initial Robins 4-2 followed by successive 5-1’s for the home riders. As early as Heat 2, David Norris is critical of the visitors, “maybe worrying signs for the Eagles early on – their pair did seem to struggle”. Heat 3 summed up the task ahead in one race as an out of sorts Lee Richardson suffered an engine failure and, despite Floppy telling us “bit of inside information – Cameron Woodward goes really well here”, the young Australian still finished in third for Eastbourne. Nigel tries to distract us with talk of Eagles team manager Trevor Geer (“former rider of some repute and very popular on the South Coast”) before even he has to concede, “Heat 4 it is – Swindon in complete control!” Only moments before he’d also obliquely acknowledged that Blunsdon is primarily a track the opposition always fare badly at, “they’re using their home advantage and finding bits of the track to give themselves extra drive.”

The fourth race finally has the singular excitement of a drawn heat and, with a score having already ballooned to 17-7, Eastbourne have Scott Nicholls don the black and white helmet colour. Saying whatever has just come into his head Jonathan asks, “as predicted a tactical ride – but will it work?” Using all his expertise gained as a rider and latterly as a commentator, Kelvin is in no doubt, “well, they certainly hope so!” Luckily for the ongoing pretence that this might still just about be an enjoyable spectacle for the neutral viewer on the sofa at home, Scott wins to narrow the points deficit to five points. Nigel enthusiastically salutes the temporary appearance of a possible contest, “and, boy, have we got a meeting on now!” With little or no further tactical options left, the situation still looks pretty desperate for the Eagles unless their riders suddenly get on the pace and start to excel. Sadly, an exclusion for Edward Kennett in the next race fatally stalls the outside chance of this recovery. There is a slight delay before referee Ronnie Allen confirms the exclusion (something that causes Floppy to observe, “speaks very quietly, doesn’t he?”)

As he walks back to the pits, Edward is clearly not happy and the replays show that his bike either lost traction or he lost control just prior to his fall. Keen to find something to talk about as well as someone or something to blame, back in the booth the boys blamestorm the track and, by extension, query the competence, dedication and professionalism of the Blunsdon track staff. There are a number of quickfire exchanges
[KT] “The track is quite difficult, it is a bit rutty!”
[JG] “Yeh, it does look that way”

[JG] “When they grade the track does it improve them?” [the ruts]
[KT] “Actually it disguises them!”

[KT] “They’re clearly not happy with the track, it is a bit choppy out there!”
[JG] “The weather has been on and off all day”
[KT] “There’s no blame…I’m sure that they’ve got the wonderwheel and that will start spinning round and the blade will come out…[sees wonderwheel] that will start spinning, unfortunately it’s not at the moment!”**

In fact a predictable combination of circumstances has created these track conditions and, if honesty and integrity were part of the programme remit, then Kelvin and Jonathan would acknowledge the part the arrival of the Sky cameras has played in helping to create the very conditions they agonise about. Fortunately, we have the wonderful Blunsdon blog written by the indefatigable Graham Cooke to set the record straight. To summarise briefly: Swindon usually stage their meetings on a Thursday night. When they stage a Sky meeting on a Monday, the access time to the track is limited by the fact that the Abbey Stadium is primarily a greyhound racing facility. Consequently, track staff can’t work in their usual manner since they’re denied access between 10am and 2pm. In order to prepare for all eventualities, particularly the threat of rain, they thoroughly packed down the shale of the track surface prior to 10am in case of rain. From 2pm onwards when they again had access to the track, the worry that rain might still arrive (and possibly waterlog the track) to possibly force the abandonment of the fixture, meant that they held off from any further watering until 6pm. This is much later than the track staff would choose or their professionalism dictate (and solely due to Sky considerations). There was agreement to water and fully grade the track after heat 4 but this was cancelled when the tractors were already out on the track by the meeting referee in the pits at the request of a Sky producer. Apparently, the adverts had finished and the show schedule dictates that the racing must immediately precede. Ignoring that Jonathan and Kelvin have a proven record of filling the time talking tosh, the condition of the track from this point onwards was a direct consequence of this intervention. Looked at from an Eastbourne perspective, this arguably contributed to Edward’s fall. So, in reality, the outside glimmer that this might be a contest was undermined by Sky – the very people who ostensibly wish for a close meeting and who subsequently complained about it for the remainder of the meeting. The wonderwheel wasn’t used because, contrary to Kelvin’s assertions, there was already more than enough dirt on the track. So when the Sky producer finally deigned to let the track staff do their jobs properly, a mesh was used. For a full account of the situation from a track staff perspective, click here and read the footnote below.***

Fortunately we go off for another commercial break. Where we see the 2008 version of the Cardiff GP advert that features a morose looking Chris Harris glumming around in a manner I expect was supposed to look either enigmatic or menacing. Even more weirdly, we have Kelvin plus the peculiar addition of a screaming Jonathan Green ostensibly commentating ‘live’ on the dramatic last bend pass by Bomber to win the 2007 Cardiff event. Jonathan simultaneously feigns the role of expert and commentator when he almost orgasmically screeches, “here comes Harris round the outside!” Ignoring it sounds unconvincingly false, this voiceover is in fact a post-hoc confection (polite word for a misrepresentation) specifically for these adverts since – please anyone correct me if I’m wrong (as I was there not listening at home during the 2007 Cardiff GP) – Jonathan doesn’t commentate on live meetings! Usually, this role would fall to Tony Millard or Nigel Pearson. Obviously to entertain and engage, this advert aims at some ersatz form of verisimilitude but isn’t what it pretends to be since Jonathan’s voice will have been over-dubbed on the footage. Perhaps, this retrospective re-voicing is indicative of the integrity and accuracy of the whole Sky approach to its representation of British speedway to the outside world?

Back in the booth, Jonathan trots out some time wasting platitudes, “they’re top of the league at the moment and want to stay there!” More in hope than expectation, with the scores less than poised at 24-15 he implores the Eagles riders to raise their collective game, “they have to get a 5-1 there or, at least, a 4-2” Kelvin doesn’t hold out much hope, “you can see the [Robins] riders are very confident indeed!” The respite of a drawn heat is quickly followed by the fourth 5-1 of the night in Heat 8. Floppy identifies the Eastbourne “Achilles heel” – namely, “the reserves aren’t up to much.” Back at the booth, Jonathan despairs that the British speedway authorities might have shot off their own feet before the season started, “you know they took out the bonus point at the start of the season and surprised us a little bit.” Until the televised fixture tonight, Kelvin reminds him, “so far, on the basis of the evidence, we haven’t missed it!”

Something that does entertain are the comments uttered by David Norris who treads a fine line between neutral observations and critical comment on the sub-optimal performance of the Eagles team on the night. His comments include the factual, “Eastbourne is a small track, Swindon is a big ‘un”, “unfortunately the Eagles number 8 didn’t show up tonight” or, “yeh, they’re a bunch of youngsters out there.” Arguably the rider who replaced Floppy in the team, Lee Richardson endures a night to forget (with five points from four rides) “see Lee Richardson looking down [at his engine], wonder what he’s saying to himself cos he blew it on that first corner!” But also ranges over his brief period of employment as mechanic for Lewis Bridger, “well, he got rid of me last year and his luck went there!” Nigel can’t let this pass (“would you care to elaborate on that?) but fails to get a response. Before Floppy goes on to use an almost lawyerly, carefully weighed choice of expression, “Scott Nicholls in English league racing always give you this sort of performance.” He’s also alliteratively scathing about the joint contribution of Cameron Woodward and Lee Richardson, “the disappointment for me is the power packed pair just haven’t shown up tonight!”

We soon also then learn that a picture paints a thousand words when Kelvin looks at the relative atmosphere of each side of the pits. With the Robins miles ahead, the relative ambiance of their side of the pits is extremely positive and verges on the hugely self-congratulatory. Rosco gurns away as the chief cheerleader – cajoling and motivating the team in a manner he conspicuously failed to do last season when the wheels fell off the Robins wagon in the Play-Off Final second leg at Brandon. This year things are very different – there are less Poles and flashing his teeth Rosco gleefully informs us, “we know where we’re going we’re going forward…they’re enjoying it, they’re responding to me…and they listen to me!” The Swindon team talk ends with an all-for-one-one-for-all team huddle in the style of an American football team after a bonding session or, possibly, the speedway equivalent of the Seven Musketeers. The camera immediately cuts away to the much more stately calm of the Eastbourne pits area – altogether more measured and ‘English’ – where everyone quietly and patiently gets on with the work at hand without fuss, flamboyance or grandstanding (and also, admittedly, without many points to celebrate). The mechanics are apparently all silently at work without the need for ostentatious camaraderie. Kelvin feigns shock, “two very different environments there isn’t it? Crikey!”. Judged by his own bombastic on-screen persona, Jonathan also believes in the school of thought that confuses loud, look-at-me behaviour with success, “poor old Trevor!”

We already knew that the Robins camp were feeling good about themselves and the world from a pits interview conducted by Johno with Seb Alden. The Aussie is a natural performer on the telly and gets his fellow riders to relax when interviewed. Probably too much if judged by Seb’s, “we had a 5-1, farking brilliant!” Jonathan is quick to apologise for the swearwords the viewers have just been subjected to, “we apologise – I think Seb was getting over exuberant in his language, he’s just learning the language!’ Clearly he’s quickly picked up some colloquial expressions, though you can’t help wondering when Greeny will apologise for the weekly use of over exuberant descriptions by the Sky Sports speedway team. Floppy makes light of the use of industrial language, “don’t worry mum, we’ll shove a bar of soap in Alden’s mouth after!”

The final score sees the home side triumph 56-37. Before the full glory of the humping had been revealed, at 36-21 Nigel noted, “we said during the winter the Elite League would become more unpredictable and, while this is predictable, no one could have predicted this scoreline!” As ever, Nigel also accentuates the life lessons ostensibly learnt, “Andrew Bargh off the pace but benefiting from the experience” or clutches at a variety of straws “and although the meeting is over as a contest – what a line up we have for the next one [Heat 13] – two GP stars and Edward Kennett and Mads Korneliussen!” Things get so dire, he even invites us to thrill on our sofas at the sight of Troy Batchelor in pursuit of Lee Richardson who apparently, “knows he’s got a tiger on his tail.” After the coin toss, an exasperated but still taciturn Trevor Geer speaks for the viewers and the Eagles management, “some of our riders need a rocket up their exhaust”. The programme closes with Kelvin celebrating something that wasn’t actually used to prepare the track, “yeh, the wonderwheel did its wonders!”

28th April Swindon v Eastbourne (Elite League A) 56-37

Ps. For me, the most touching aspect of the broadcast was the recognition by Nigel Pearson of Tim Stone’s sudden passing when he acknowledged that Tim gave Mads Korneliussen “his start” in speedway at Newport. Even more poignantly, when interviewed Mads sounds to have a slight Welsh twang to his English accent.

* On April 14th Ipswich lost the televised meeting with Swindon 43-50. For the Robins, guest Joel Parsons scored seven points (paid 11). There is a school of thought that says he shouldn’t have been allowed to ride but, luckily for Swindon, they got a (last minute bargain) special dispensation to ignore the rules of the sport only hours before the meeting went on air. Afterwards Ipswich promoter John Louis commented, “I am absolutely disgusted. The rules are crystal clear and were in use last season. I rang Shaun Tacey about getting a race jacket back and he told me that he had been asked to guest for Swindon on Monday afternoon. He was getting his kit ready when they rang back to say he was not needed. I am not accusing Swindon of any underhand dealing, but rules are rules. The BSPA appear to have made an oversight, but that does not alter the fact that Parsons’ average was too high for him to ride. Even if they didn’t know until Monday, Swindon still had enough time to track a legal rider.”

A glance at the 2008 rulebook is instructive:

SR “Interim Green Sheet CMA will be issued to every Rider having completed 3 home & 3 away official fixtures to be used for Team Positioning purposes, including Facilities etc., being effective 7 days after the Meetings being completed.”

The idea behind this rule appears to be to avoid someone who is performing vastly differently to their starting average remaining in an “inappropriate” position for a long time until the first set of green sheets take effect in June. Presumably this happened on the odd occasion so this clause was previously added to the rulebook to cover this eventuality.

SR “Provided a Team has completed 6 home and 6 away fixtures Green Sheets will be produced taking into account all Fixtures up to and including 15th May, and thereafter on 15th of each month, becoming effective on the 1st day of the following month. NB. Provided a Team Green Sheet has been issued any Rider without an established CMA will be issued with a CMA after completing 12 fixtures which shall be effective seven days after that 12th fixture.”

Parsons completed his 3+3 matches on 5 April so his new average of 6.77 should have taken effect from Saturday 12 April. However, the BSPA didn’t issue formal notification of his new average until the afternoon of 14 April – mere hours before the start of the Sky meeting. It was reported that SCB “Manager” Graham Reeve contacted referee Chris Gay to advise that Parsons should be allowed to ride on his previous average of 5.96 – an average that was less than the 6.04 of the unavailable Swindon No.8 Cory Gathercole. Ipswich subsequently paid a £250 Protest fee and await the result.

Natural justice and the spirit of the rules of the sport surely dictates the result should be amended? Clearly, these three points gained by Swindon (or two points lost by Ipswich) could influence the final standings at the end of the season with regard to both relegation and the Play-Off meetings to determine the finalists.

Reports indicate Graham Reeve and Peter Toogood deem the decision has already been taken so the result should stand.

Comment from Sky during the meeting itself or afterwards in subsequent broadcasts, came there none!

** In fact, the “wonderwheel” is permanently attached to the Blunsdon tractor so appears every time this vehicle makes its way onto the track surface.

*** When I subsequently quizzed Graham Cooke about the track on that night he replied: “The racing was good when it happened. The real fact is that, the Kennett incident apart, when Eastbourne decided to really race we had great racing – Korneliussen and Batchelor produced some real top drawer passing.

I guess my real gripe is that I spent some time talking to Kelvin Tatum about the track beforehand – he knew the difficulties we’d had and he thought it would
be slick – I told him we don’t do slick at Swindon and he acknowledged that to me. We don’t do slick because the track won’t let us do slick – there’s so much dirt that is needed to get the riders round the corners at the speed
that they’re now going. On Thursday night it was so deep that Harris came within 0.1 of the track record.

I do get hacked off with the carping about the Swindon track – it’s big and it’s fast and it’s banked. You need lots of dirt for grip otherwise everyone would end up in the fence. Ask Niels K Iversen about Blunsdon – he loved it when he came here – so much dirt and so many lines. The trouble is, when the opposition is so inept, as many of the
Eagles were, you only need one line because the racing inevitably gets so spread out.

And look at two recent televised tracks – Ipswich and Poole, the former a sad affair only brought to life when the riders tried to keep back wheels in the deep dirt that lurked a metre from the fence and the latter where the
inside resembled a motorway. There are times when we’d love to prepare a small, flat track but then when we get a real “balls out” race at Blunsdon we know that we’ll miss its old ways when the stadium closes.”

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