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Hawkeye at Large
Is speedway racing -- a sport with a great future behind it?
Speedway racing is a wonderful sport; dangerous for the protagonists and exciting for the spectators. However, there is a major problem -- and the problem is that fewer and fewer people in the UK choose to watch it.
The structure of British speedway seems OK. There is the Elite League with nine teams, Premier League with 13 and National League with nine. Only one club, Birmingham, succumbed to financial pressure during the 2014 season and put up the shutters.
Financial pressure has led to Elite League Eastbourne's promoters announcing the team will drop down to the National League for the 2015 campaign. The future of Premier League Peterborough is uncertain.
On the plus side, a number of clubs have expressed an interest in entering a team in the National League for next season.
The Grand Prix at Cardiff; the World Team Cup; and the end-of-season play-offs attract sizeable crowds. One has only to log in to Speedway Updates to see that more often than not, well over a thousand fans will be following the action of domestic speedway meetings.
So, while it's not all gloom and doom the harsh reality is that speedway racing in Britain is, in the main, unable to attract crowds that make its long term future assured.
I imagine that, when Sky shows a meeting, the crowd figure at the venue will be down – possibly nosedive – because many fans with a satellite dish, will take the opportunity to save a few bob. However, I feel sure the majority of Elite League clubs would, without the Sky TV income, be either insolvent or pretty close to it.
Premier League clubs are surviving -- but not prospering -- in the main through nominal attendances and some welcome sponsorship.
The National League, with considerably less overheads, is possibly the area where clubs are more likely to be able to balance the books.
Speedway stadiums will never again have packed terraces like they did immediately after World War II. When hostilities ceased, folk were desperate to witness live entertainment.
After the war, things that we now take for granted didn't exist. It meant that what little money people had, they could afford to spend it on watching football, speedway, cricket ice hockey and so on.
However, as Britain got back on its feet there gradually became more and more areas where people could splash their cash and as we moved in to the 1950s -- not that long after hostilities ceased -- people turned their back on speedway. By the end of that decade the sport was on its knees.
When Mike Parker and Reg Fearman led the way in opening defunct tracks to form the Provincial League in 1960, there were sufficient lapsed fans mixed with some newcomers to the sport, to put enough bums on seats to create an exciting atmosphere in most stadiums.
Many of the teams which formed the British League in its inaugural season of 1965 are still operating today, in either the Elite League or Premier League – and that reflects some considerable staying power.
Why is it then that so few people want to watch speedway? If I knew the answer to that I would write a blue print, sell it to the British Speedway Promoters' Association and then head to the Bahamas. Oh, and by the way, I would occasionally pop back to the mother country and watch a few speedway meetings.
Could the cost factor be one of the reasons why folk are reluctant to shell out their hard-earned cash to watch 15 races; which sometimes might only be 12; or 10 depending on whether the curfew kicks in (bring back Frank Ebdon).
For my wife and me to watch an Elite League encounter at our nearest track, the costs break down as follows: entrance money (senior citizens) £28.00; fuel £10.00; programme £3.00; two teas and a couple of packets of crisps £3.50 making a total of £44.50 for less than 15 minutes of speedway action.
In 1965 at Hackney there was a two-tier admission price in place -- 6/- (30p in decimal currency) for the starting gate side of the stadium; or 4/6d (22.5p) for the back straight.
If one checks with the This is Money web site it will show that inflation means that 6/- in 1965 equates to £5.31 today, with the 4/6d figure coming out at £3.98.Yes folks, speedway admission inflation is anything but under control.
Although there were more ways in which people could spend their money in 1965 compared to the late 1940s; today's world of technology has opened a spending window the like of which I never believed I would witness.
Some promoters have made statements in the speedway press proclaiming they are often getting less than 500 people through the turnstiles. This level of support is surely not sufficient for a club to remain viable; and that number of supporters in a stadium simply won’t create the kind of atmosphere required to set the place buzzing.
Adults are asked to cough up with anything from £15.00 to £17.00 to watch a speedway meeting. Speedway has always advertised itself as a family sport, but the cost of two admissions, programmes, fuel and a drink has, for many, become prohibitive.
Clubs offer a sliding scale of charges for children, with those under five years of age admitted free. That is a step in the right direction. It is, nevertheless, a big spend if mum, dad and a couple of teenage children are in the party.
It appears that speedway is not attracting sufficient new faces; and regrettably, some of the regulars will pass away, move away, or simply end their interest. The answer is most definitely not to raise admission prices to compensate for fewer fans, because doing that would serve only to deter the regulars.
It is a Catch 22 situation and promoters need to take a long, hard look at the product they are offering. If they are honest with themselves I believe they will realise that all is not well with the sport and it is in need of major surgery.
I feel the guest rider situation has got totally out of hand and I believe this is one significant reason why people are giving the sport a miss. The nature of speedway is such that the use of a guest rider (note the singular) is arguably a necessary evil.
However, there was one meeting this season, in the National League I believe, where a team had six guest riders. That is simply crazy. Many other encounters saw three guests riding for one team and four for the opposition.
Speedway had never previously stabbed itself in the foot like it did when Chris Harris and Hans Andersen rode as guests for King’s Lynn at Belle Vue; and then, in the second part of a double-header, rode for their parent club Coventry against The Aces.
I believe there used to be a rule whereby a rider couldn’t ride at a track as a guest if he had been, or was due to be, in action at that track for an eight-day period. That might have made some sort of sense, but being allowed to ride for two different teams on the same night is sheer madness.
If memory serves me correctly, the Coventry team manager said, when interviewed on Sky TV, he had no idea that his two riders were being used as guests in the first match until he arrived at the stadium.
I believe promoters at their end of season conference are more concerned with chasing the shadow and as a result, fail to nail the substance.
The future of British speedway is not about the points limit; the size of the carburettor; the depth of the dirt deflector or the thickness of the rear tyre.
The number of fans that enter the stadium is the key to the sport’s future. Do the fans ever get asked for their views? You have to be joking.
The financial pressure that promoters are under means they would probably be unable to deliver everything that speedway fans are calling for. In any case, the paying public may not agree on every aspect of their requirements.
However, he who pays the piper calls the tune. I suggest that most folk who watch live speedway have been doing so for some considerable time. To get speedway moving in the right direction their views must be heard.
The guest rider situation, as I mentioned previously, needs to be looked at closely because some Elite League riders must have ridden for just about every team in the league in 2014 and that, to many fans, is not acceptable.
A couple of clubs have sacked foreign riders who decided they didn’t want to return to Britain to fulfil a fixture and for that the clubs have to be applauded. You can’t tar them all with the same brush and for Poole, for example, Janowski and Pawlicki and been brilliant and committed crowd pleasers.
However, there are far too many foreign riders staffing teams in both the Elite and Premier Leagues. There has to be a ruling that limits overseas imports to, say, two per team – and they must commit themselves to their British club or be sent packing.
One thing that was commonplace in both the boom years of the immediate post-war period and the resurgence of British speedway in the mid-1960s was that fans knew who would be in their team from one week to another.
Injuries to riders has always been a problem in speedway and this year, the number of casualties appears to have grown dramatically. Maybe the machines are too powerful; some track surfaces may not be up to scratch; or maybe riders flying from Denmark to Poland, to Sweden, to the UK in the space of seven days means they are suffering from fatigue.
England’s performance in the World Team Cup final was – with the exception of the then World Champion Tai Woffinden -- dismal, but don’t blame that on team manager Alun Rossiter, because he had only a handful of top-notch riders from which to select his starting line-up.
If that situation is to change, young British riders must be given more opportunities to make their mark in both Elite and Premier League teams. If there are not sufficient young riders on the horizon – and I believe there are – to do that, we might as well pack up and go home.
Too many meetings have been abandoned, often at a crucial stage of the encounter, due to the curfew. Fans will, I believe, accept a meeting has to be called off if there is a sudden cloud burst. However, some meetings take an eternity to run and that is often down to riders buggering about at the tapes; going back to the pits after a starting infringement or other delays that are avoidable.
The tactical rule where a rider goes for double points is never going to win favouritism from the traditionalists, but do the promoters know whether it finds favour with the majority of the paying public? I doubt it. So, find out.
Would the public prefer the old system of a 13-heat league match and a second half. At Hackney – and no doubt at other tracks -- the public used to get anything up to 20, 21 or 22 races. No wonder many of today’s fans think they’re being short changed.
The Fast Track situation where two young British riders were the reserves for the entire season for Elite League clubs was a bold move. However, it was no coincidence that the four clubs that made the Elite League play-offs all possessed one FT rider who was head and shoulders above most others. I think the jury may be out on this one.
To endorse the above, one has only to scrutinize the situation at Eastbourne where FT rider Lewis Blackbird carried a Calculated Match Average of 8.95 after 13 matches before his season ended through injury. Eastbourne were eight points adrift of a play-off place, which they may well have achieved had Blackbird not been sidelined.
The format for the 2014 season left a lot to be desired. It was understandable that the FT riders met each other in Heats 2 and 9. But the format deemed that one away rider made his first appearance of the meeting in Heat 5 against the home side’s top two, who had already each had one ride. By the time this poor bloke made his appearance, some riders had already had two outings. Professor Barnard must be turning in his grave.
In speedway, some races will be thrilling and others will be processional. There are, no doubt, exciting and drab encounters in all sports. The paying public are not fools. They will decide whether or not they think a meeting will hold their interest before they part with their cash. They may make the wrong choice – but, they will decide.
Surely, they will be put off going to their local speedway track if they are about to seen a meeting where around seven or eight guest riders are involved – and I don’t blame them.
For as long as I can remember, the darts fraternity has striven to be taken seriously insomuch that the powers that be feel darts is a sport, not a game; speedway seems intent on stabbing itself in the foot by transforming what was a good sport into a sub-standard game.
Who would ever have believed that Premier League darts would have attracted audiences of 10,000 fans. Whether you like darts or not, don’t knock it; because those figures make most speedway attendances pale into insignificance.
Supporters of any sport want entertainment and atmosphere. Speedway fans get a reasonable measure of the former, but it is nigh on impossible to create an atmosphere when there are only 350 people in the stadium.
Promoters should be getting their heads together to come up with ways to get people into speedway stadiums that have never previously seen the sport. It’s no good saying a prayer in the hope that some lapsed fans will return, because that won’t happen.
There has recently been a debate on Facebook about the state of speedway or, to put it more precisely, about Poole promoter Matt Ford who has been at the helm of the club since 1998.
Generally speaking, the consensus of opinion was that Ford does a great job for The Pirates, which is hardly surprising after his team were crowned Elite League champions again after defeating Coventry in this season’s the two-leg play-off final.
The meeting at Poole came across as a classic on TV and for those in the stadium the atmosphere must have been electric. Poole were awesome, but Coventry must be applauded for the effort they put in.
The packed Poole Stadium illustrates clearly what I meant when I said that exciting speedway was as much about atmosphere as anything else. Quite clearly we are not going to get that sort of attendance at domestic encounters, but even half that amount would be a good starting point.
Matt Ford is still relatively young; has been promoting for some time; must have more energy than some of his counterparts; and is – or should be – high profile.
I would like to see him – together with a couple of the other more switched-on promoters -- come up with a blueprint for the future and have it publicised in the Speedway Star. That way the fans could indicate if they would go along with it, before the less forward thinking promoters could sweep it under the carpet.
Elite League speedway, for reasons I have outlined in this article – and no doubt for other reasons as well – has become a music hall joke in the eyes of some people. It is not too late for speedway to pick itself up; dust itself down; and give people a good reason for parting with their cash. It is not all over until the fat lady sings. Promoters must make sure she isn’t about to start crooning.
Click here to buy Cinderfellas When Speedway Rock'n Rolled from Amazon
If you want a signed copy of Cinderfellas, when speedway was rock ‘n’ roll, it is available online, through Amazon [link above], or (google Dave Lanning, Cinderfellas). Or send a cheque for £12 (includes postage) made out to Dave Lanning and addressed to: Sundowner, 8A Corfe View Road, Parkstone, Poole, Dorset BH14 8SX (for a postal copy).
Set in 1940s austerity Britain, Cinderfellas takes you to the heart of the full-throttle spectacle of speedway. Millions of war-weary spectators packed the stadiums of Britain to experience the thrill of motorcycle racing at its highest level, and its stars were adored as much as Hollywood actors or top footballers.
Follow the rags to riches story of Jacko Rintzen, an animal-loving jackaroo from the Australian outback, as he takes the speedway world by storm. His hopes and dreams, failures and tragedies are all laid bare in this thrilling narrative set in the cinder-covered tracks of London.
‘There has never been, and probably never will be, a better speedway wordsmith than Dave Lanning”
Philip Rising, Managing Editor, Speedway Star
- Vividly portrays the characters and atmosphere of the forgotten 1940s entertainment sensation of speedway racing
- Speedway was as popular as cinema and football, in the pre-television days
- Author has been one of the best known speedway commentators for 50 years, has covered races in 20 countries, and was print journalist for the Sun, Daily Mail and Daily Sketch
- Author has many contacts in the speedway and entertainment world, and will be doing author events and promo
- Book was originally commissioned as a film script, and rights have already been optioned
Dave Lanning has been described as ‘speedway’s greatest ever commentator’. He covered 50 years of world speedway finals, was twice a member of ITV World of Sport’s award-winning team, and has covered racing in every major speedway stadium in more than 20 countries. Originally a print journalist, Lanning was speedway specialist to The Sun, Daily Mail and Daily Sketch and a columnist for TVTimes. He lives in Poole Dorset
Click here to by Memories of Hackney Speedway
This brilliant Hackney Speedway DVD which includes interviews with some of the 1968 team, plus much more is available from Retro Speedway, to buy just follow the link below.
If you want to relive what happened 25 years ago on 1988, the year Hackney Kestrels won the League and KOC then why not treat yourself to this DVD set of all Hackney’s home meetings from 1988, details on the link below.
Click here to buy Hackney Kestrels 1988
Hawkeye asks was it a masterstroke, chequebook speedway, or may be a bit of both?
I would like to make a few points. Point 1: Poole are this season's Elite League champions; point 2: hold on, there's the second leg of the final still to be contested; point 3: see point 1.
Yes, only the most optimistic (or most foolish) would stake any hard-earned cash on Birmingham overturning the Pirates' 21 point lead the team built up in the first leg at Wimborne Road on Monday evening.
The play-offs are money spinners to the four teams who reach that stage; and for the two clubs that contest the final, the nest egg is usually even larger. Mind you, if many fans believe, like I do, that the second leg is a foregone conclusion, Birmingham's potential money-spinner may be somewhat diluted.
The speedway regulations are, in my opinion, too convoluted for an old fogey like me to have any chance of fully understanding them.
What I do know is that the meeting at Belle Vue when the Pirates secured their place in the play-offs should never have taken place. The track was barely rideable let alone raceable.
If I remember correctly, the Aces were without their star man Craig Cook and Poole skipper Darcy Ward openly admitted that his team would rather meet Belle Vue without Cook than with him.
On a night when the referee and clerk of the course should have declared the track unfit for purpose, the Aces had no incentive to compete whereas for Poole, there was a place in the play-offs up for grabs.
It is quite possible (perhaps likely) that Poole would have beaten Belle Vue if the conditions had been perfect for racing. However, for the officials to allow the minimum of ten heats to run and then, when the Pirates had sufficient points in the bag, to call a halt to proceedings was a total disgrace.
Then we have the situation with Poole and Greg Hancock. I don't keep records, but I imagine that up to the time of Hancock's capture, the Pirates used a guest or the rider replacement rule to cover for the injured Chris Holder. Poole promoter Matt Ford should, perhaps, be congratulated for his master stroke in signing two-times world champion Hancock. After all, he doesn't appear to have broken any rules.
Is there a cut-off date in speedway after which a club cannot sign a new rider? You know, similar to football's transfer deadline date. Here again, if such a rule exists Poole didn't break it. If they had done so, other promoters would have soon shouted.
One assumes that Wolverhampton and Lakeside could have, by dangling a big enough carrot, signed a big name to replace their respectably injured riders Tai Woffinden and Peter Karlsson -- names such as Jarek Hampel, Nicki Pedersen or Andreas Jonsson spring to mind.
Did those clubs not think that way or was it a case of affordability. Poole is probably the best- supported team in British speedway and can, I imagine, afford to open the chequebook and entice the big gun.
I doubt that many folk know just how big the carrot waved in front of Hancock had to be to get him to Dorset on a short-term deal, but it surely had to be quite considerable. Whatever the outlay I feel sure Ford will, in the final analysis, receive a significant return on his investment.
The team I supported is, like numerous others, now a distant memory. They've even knocked the old place down, so I've no axe to grind in a competitive sense.
However, Birmingham, Swindon, Lakeside and the rest battled it out with RR or guests, only to lose out to the short-term fix. Luck plays a big part in most sports and Poole had plenty of the bad kind with an early season injury to Ward and then the long-term loss of Holder; but recent happenings do, I believe, leave a bad taste in one’s mouth.
What's gone before are just a few thoughts from a silly old so and so who knows it's water off a duck's back, but at least he's got something off his chest.
Hawkeye and the joker
I watched the 2013 World Team Cup final on TV and didn't know whether to laugh or cry. The best team at the event were, in my opinion Denmark, who finished runners-up to Poland.
‘The best team lost’ is a much-used cliche in the world of sport and is often in the forefront of people's minds due to bad luck, a bad refereeing decision, a wrong call from the umpire or whatever.
However, the reason why Denmark failed to win the WTC was the part played by the joker. Had Nicki Pedersen not suffered an engine failure the Danes would have triumphed joker or no joker, but that is almost an irrelevance.
The role of the joker is presumably, to keep the scores between the sides artificially close and that it tends to do -- but it can also create an undeserved and farcical outcome to proceedings.
Denmark, in my opinion, are the 2013 WTC winners because, in a traditional sense, they scored more points than Poland.
The joker system penalised The Danes for being too good -- and also brought about a situation that encouraged rider(s) -- under instruction -- to 'throw' races, which surely can't be good for the sport.
I seem to remember back in the 1980s Bruce Penhall was chastised for ‘chucking’ a ride in a World Championship qualifier (or similar competition) in favour of his US counterparts. Now, albeit in a team event, riders are encouraged to lose when the occasion demands, so that the joker rule can be manipulated.
The rules these days are far too complex for many fans and indeed, where the Swedish WTC team manager was concerned, too convoluted for him.
Speedway today (and it hurts me to say this) has lost its way and made itself not so much a joker -- but a joke.
It can be argued that Denmark, Poland, Australia, Sweden or Great Britain should, in order to attract local support, be seeded to the WTC final when it is held in one of those countries. But the seeding of the Czech Republic to the final in Prague further devalued the event.
However, had the 2013 WTC final been held in Sweden with the host nation seeded to the final they would -- due to injuries -- have had to field their second team, which would have had the same impact as the below par Czechs.
Let’s face it, the stars of the Czech Republic team were – or should have been – the Dryml brothers, but they are only second strings or reserves in the Elite League.
I believe TV pundits Nigel Pearson and Kelvin Tatum do a better job than many speedway supporters give them credit for. They are, of course, broadcasting live so any slip of the tongue cannot be recalled. However, it is a touch premature for them to proclaim there is a revolution (or words to that effect) taking place in American speedway.
In Greg Hancock the US team has a master craftsman who scored approximately two thirds of his team's WTC points. If he decided to opt out of the competition -- as Scott Nicholls did -- the 'revolution' would be a bit thin on the ground.
If Hancock did quit, the US could be seeded to the WTC final in the next few years by scheduling the event for Costa Mesa or thereabouts. On second thoughts, after their monumental efforts this year, maybe Latvia deserves to be the staging venue.
For many years speedway had the UK's second largest following, giving best only to football. Now, for example, we've got Premier League darts playing to sell-out crowds of up to 10,000 while many speedway promoters are almost relieved if they get a tenth of that amount.
I often watch darts on TV, but would stop short of seeing it live. However, the game -- or sport -- of darts has attracted in the main, a young to middle-aged audience of both men and women, who pay their money to be entertained and to have a good time.
The alcohol element of a darts tournament has obvious attractions for those who like a few bevies, but the atmosphere -- particularly when the caller shouts ‘one hundred and eighty’ -- is something that speedway is having problems creating.
My analogy between speedway and darts may be laughed out of court by followers of the two-wheel offering. However, take this on board. The arrows fraternity have spent years lobbying for the game of darts to be deemed a sport. Why oh why is it that speedway’s administrators seem determined that our sport moves in the opposite direction?
Speedway has dug itself into a big hole -- note I said hole and not grave. I'm not sure exactly what the recently formed All Party Political Group for Speedway can do for the sport that’s beyond the control of the current administrators.
The sport’s entrepreneurs should be grateful that the ‘ayes to the right ‘brigade have expressed an interest in speedway racing. However, let nobody forget that it’s the opinion of the fans that matters most and to the best of my knowledge that is something that is seldom taken into consideration.
Are we being ripped off? This is what Hawkeye asks! A speedway fan for nearly 70 years, including 50 years working ‘behind the scenes’
The re-run of Hackney's 1968 speedway season has stimulated considerable interest, so much so that I attempted to find out how admission prices for that year compared to what today's speedway fans are asked to pay.
I was unable to find the weekly admission prices at The Wick for the above year, but on 12 July 1968 there was a Great Britain v Poland European League encounter at Waterden Road. The adult admission prices for that event were 10s/6d and 7s/6d. In today's currency that works out at 52.5p and 37.5p respectively.
This is Money.co.uk (the Financial Website of the Year) shows that 52.5p in 1968 to be worth £8.05p at today's values, while 37.5p comes out at £5.75.
The main event of the aforementioned encounter consisted of 13 heats. That was followed by a five heat 'second half' for the World League plaque. The programme cost was 2/- (10p) -- £1.53 at today's values.
There is little doubt that the above admission prices would have shown an increase over the normal weekly prices, at a time when Hackney fans could enjoy a 13 heat British League Division 1 match, followed by a second half of six or seven races.
That appears to be excellent value for money compared to what speedway supporters are paying today. The adult admission price for Elite League matches comes in at £16.00 or £17.00 and programmes are £2.50 or £3.00.
Today, referees can award a race after just two laps if they feel the need to. A meeting can be abandoned after 10 heats for a conglomeration of reasons, with the match score at that time constituting the result.
I believe what I have written above will give speedway fans, both past and present, plenty of food for thought and maybe, just maybe, give a clear indication as to why the headcount at many tracks is so alarmingly low.
PS: Hawkeye says he enjoyed the British Speedway Grand Prix at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium and hopes to have paid back by the end of the year the bank loan he took out to pay for his admission.
He also believes the organisers stabbed themselves in the foot by charging £10.00 for a programme, because it appeared that an alarmingly small percentage of those present forked out the tenner.