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Catching Up With....Retro Speedway

Retro Speedway has just launched its newest creation - Classic Speedway magazine - and we interviewed editor and publisher Tony McDonald to find out what it's all about. We've also giving away a free year's subscription to our lucky Speedway Plus reader - see homepage for details

 

 

Tell us about Classic Speedway.

We're very excited by it, and what's really encouraging is the feedback we've had so far from readers who have bought it has been 100 per cent positive.

We've launched it as a replacement for the quarterly Vintage Speedway Magazine (VSM). As well as being a new title, the first things people will notice is that the size is bigger, there are additional pages and the covers are printed in glossy full colour.

To encourage new readers to try Classic Speedway, we're selling the first issue for the ridiculously low cover price of just £2.00 - what can you buy for that amount these days? From issue 2 onwards, the cover price will be £3.50 but that still represents very good value for a 48-page specialist magazine and, besides, a one-year UK subscription (four issues) costs as little as £12.00.

 

Why did you decide to close VSM?

To be honest, the magazine was dying a slow death and has been gradually losing readers in recent years. It was a good idea to launch it 15 years ago but it had run its course. The fact is, and there is nothing any of us can do about it, it had a distinctly older readership and, sadly, a number of those who bought it regularly have passed away - and it's been very difficult to replace them. If we hadn't acted now and brought about this change, VSM would have become unviable.

The biggest barrier to attracting new readers was the title itself. From all our research and readership surveys we've conducted, it was obvious that the word 'vintage' had put off many people from buying the mag. Rightly or wrongly, supporters perceived it as being for and about speedway dinosaurs.

 

So how else will the content of Classic Speedway differ from VSM?

We have absorbed some of VSM's best features and its regular writers within Classic Speedway, so we've not completely abandoned the old-timers who like to read about the early pioneers and post-war greats. But there is now much more emphasis on the period covering the 1950s and 60s, right up to, and including, the early 70s?

We'll interview at least three former riders in every issue - in issue 1 it's Ivan Mauger, Olle Nygren and Neil Street - but those interviews will have depth, substance and they will be entertaining.

 

If some of the new content will touch on the 70s, isn't there a danger of duplicating what you are already doing so successfully with your other magazine, Backtrack?

No, not at all. Backtrack will continue to focus completely on the 20-year period between 1970 and 1990, whereas most of Classic Speedway's content will revolve around the 60s, but it is inevitable that we'll touch on the 70s a little, too, simply because of the riders we'll be featuring.

In issue 1, for example, we've got Neil Street, who began riding in 1952 but didn't finish until 1976. Mauger first came to Britain and failed as a junior in 1957, yet his last season in the British League wasn't until 1984. Nygren's incredible career also spanned four decades.

The unique identities of our two magazines will remain completely separate but they will automatically complement each other, so we can cross-promote them. In the course of interviewing Street and Bruce Cribb, we got so much good, strong copy from them that what they had to say was valid for both magazines. All we've done is split those interviews into the appropriate time-scales. In Classic Speedway, Streetie talks about his early racing days and the interesting characters he encountered while riding for Australia, Exeter and Swindon - and there are some amusing tales. I can tell you! But in the part of his interview that we'll include in issue 26 of Backtrack he reflects on his time when he became a revolutionary who caused a storm with his four-valve engine creation in the mid-70s, as well as his success as a team manager and how he helped guide Phil and Jason Crump in their careers.

 

Given that we're now in 2008 do you expect that Backtrack will eventually move on and cover the 1990s also?

No, I don't expect that to happen. I'm very comfortable with the 1970s and 80s - the 70s, in particular, was a good time for the sport and that era holds great memories for many of our readers.

Although British speedway's last decline began in the mid-80s, it continued to go downhill in the 90s. The amalgamated one league . . . the promotion and relegation plan that failed miserably . . . increasingly slick tracks . . . faster bikes . . . fewer genuine superstars . . . scrapping of the traditional, one-off World Final . . . nah, I'll stay in the 70s and 80s, thanks!

 

What else is Retro Speedway up to these days?

Backtrack is now in its fifth year and yet we're still finding that people are only just discovering it for the first time - which is very encouraging in one way and yet frustrating in another. We've invested quite a lot of money advertising (in Speedway Star and elsewhere) and promoting it but getting the message across can be a slow process. It's not easy, though, to find ex-supporters who don't go to meetings any more - as the British promoters will tell you. We really need our existing readers to spread the good word as much as possible - and for people to stop sharing copies among their friends and family and get them to buy their own!

 

What else are you offering fans who enjoy nostalgia?

We've been devoting quite a bit of time and energy to developing our website and, especially, the Photo Gallery section, where we showcase thousands of nostalgic pictures - colour and black-and-white - from the 60s, 70s and 80s, which they can view and purchase. We've got thousands more to add to the site yet but the scanning process can take over your life if you're not careful!

The Kenny Carter book, Tragedy, sold out of its first print run and we've just had a re-print issued, so that has been a big success story. In some ways it was a difficult book to write but all the reviews and feedback we've had from people who have read it has been excellent. There is no happy aspect to it whatsoever but it's compelling stuff and has given people who didn't know Carter a serious insight into what he was all about. Many people have said it's the best speedway book they've ever read, which is obviously gratifying.

We're looking to probably produce books on Romford and Rayleigh Speedway in the next year or so, to mark the anniversaries of when second division racing started at those two Essex tracks in the late 60s, or resumed in the case of the Rockets. They won't be worth much to us commercially, though, and are really a labour of love - they were two of the tracks where I first started watching speedway as a starry-eyed 11-year-old all those moons ago, when Tiger Beech and Charlie Benham were among my heroes!

The Malcolm Simmons book we produced in 2006 - Simmo: The Whole Truth - also sold out and we're seriously considering re-issuing it in the form of a DVD/CD, which would be something a bit different. I've got more than 20 hours of Simmo on crystal clear audio tape - and anyone who has read the book will tell you that it contains some pretty explosive stuff. The 'bleep' machine will certain come into play! I wonder if fans would be interested in hearing what he has to say if we edited it down in to, say, a three-hour package and presented his words in audio form, backed up by lots of pictures of him and maybe some action footage, too?

Although the written word is mainly what we're about, it's also good to actually hear what someone as controversial and outspoken as Simmo has to say, so we might well give that a go. Would people enjoy listening to a CD of this kind while driving to and from speedway meetings, or in the comfort of their own home? I'd be interested to hear what visitors to Speedway Plus think . . .

In fact, if we converted all the audio tapes we have of the world's greatest riders of the 70s and 80s to DVD/CD format . . . the likes of Mauger, Olsen, Penhall, Lee, Nielsen, Gundersen, etc . . . it would make very entertaining listening, so may be we'll branch out into that aspect of publishing in the near future. I've always enjoyed interviewing much more than writing.

We're not going to publish any old book just for the sake of it, though. Too many poorly produced efforts, badly written and unedited, have flooded the market in the past five years, but we won't ever compromise on content or production quality.

That's not to say that we've haven't made mistakes ourselves in what we've put out - or, to be more accurate, the quantities we printed of certain titles. Some books haven't sold as well as we'd hoped and, in fact, if you go to our website, you'll see that we're selling off some of our old book stock for just a fiver each!

I can't believe any self-respecting speedway fan, who knows what the likes of Simon Wigg, Tommy Jansson and Eric Boocock stood for in the sport, won't want to invest five quid to find out what happened to them. I'm disappointed that these books didn't sell out at their original full price, because they deserved to, but now we need to clear some space in our warehouse so these are unbelievable bargains to be had. Five quid, for God's sake! It's like we're giving them away.

 

Finally, which of the subjects who have appeared in Backtrack so far were most satisfying to interview?

They have all been fascinating and interesting in different ways and the honesty with which people like Erik Gundersen, Michael Lee and Simmo have spoken has been amazing, but refreshing. I found talking to Erik, and hearing what he had been through with his injuries, but not in a complaining sense, very moving. He's a great guy and it was lovely to see him and Helle again, looking so happy and just getting on with their lives. When you remember how brilliant he was as a rider, and to know how it was all suddenly snatched away from him in the cruellest possible way, it is very humbling.

The four hours I spent with Ole Olsen, at his lovely home in Denmark earlier this year, was a bit special. He didn't even want to do the interview initially and it took me the best part of a year to actually get a response from Ole!

But after reluctantly agreeing to talk to us, he invited me over to his place and he opened up completely - I couldn't stop him talking, he couldn't have been more helpful and, by the end, he admitted that he'd enjoyed looking back over the 'good old days'. A fan phoned us the other day to take out a Backtrack subscription and he said the magazine had been recommended to him by Ole, who he'd met in a hotel before a recent GP, so that was good to hear.

No-one will ever agree with everything a single-minded, fiercely driven man like Olsen has to say but you can't ignore him because he speaks a lot of sense and has always done what he has set out to do. After spending time in his company, you can't help but admire his passion for speedway, even though the success he has achieved with the GP has definitely had an adverse effect on the sport here in Britain.

I must admit, though, when he suggested that it would be a good idea for British speedway to close down for a couple of years and then re-invent itself, I thought it was time to call for the men in white coats, but that's Ole for you!

I always enjoy talking to Ivan Mauger, too. OK, so he took a lot out of the sport in terms of earnings in the 70s, and he was never the most popular of champions, but I've not met another ex-rider who has more enthusiasm or a greater regard for the history of our sport. He impresses me the way he puts himself out to attend veterans' dinners and he retains a deep and genuine interest in the sport, especially the past. Briggo is the same.

Ivan has offered us plenty of encouragement. He often emails us with suggestions about who we could interview next, providing phone numbers and contact details of fellow former riders who he thinks we should get in touch with. We actually asked Ivan what he thought of changing VSM to Classic Speedway and he immediately agreed that it made sense, simply because of the name.

But it's nice to talk to most ex-riders, because they are invariably down to earth and, in many cases, genuinely flattered that anyone would still take an interest in what they did in speedway in years gone by.

 

 

To find out much more about Classic Speedway, Backtrack and everything else Retro Speedway has to offer, please visit their website at: www.retro-speedway.com

 

This article was first published on 19th June 2008

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