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Jeff Scott on The Grand Prix

Three Winners in a Decade

WITH the new British season now underway we won't have to wait long until the hype about speedway's equivalent of the travelling circus - the Speedway Grand Prix series - sparks back into life. During the season the SGP entourage will sweep into prestigious or obscure cities throughout Europe to stage the various usually dull World Championship rounds that nowadays comprise this competition. Superficially, there are lots of notionally important questions to be answered. Will Jason retain his crown? Can Nicki overcome last season's niggling succession of injuries, disputed refereeing decisions and falls to bounce back and regain the dominant form he showed throughout 2008? Is Emil Sayfutdinov a one-season wonder or is he the real deal? Can Chris Holder or Tai Woffinden make any impact on a regular basis during their debut seasons on the circuit? Is Fredrik Lindgren going to kick on? Ditto Andreas Jonsson or Hans Andersen? Leigh Adams suffered a dramatic sudden loss of form and desire - is this the sad trajectory that other veteran riders - like, say, Greg and Tomasz will follow before exiting ignominiously stage left? Or do they still have enough hunger and desire left in the tank to crack on and milk the sponsors for a good many seasons to come? Can Chris Harris fulfil the patriotic weight of expectation placed on his shoulders?

Though pertinent, all these questions are fluff and mere window-dressing, given that the SGP appears to be an organisation in crisis. The organisers and their advocates in the trade press are in denial and invariably brush aside various legitimate concerns as irrelevant or inconsequential as they seek to accentuate the positive. There are too many irksome issues to do anything more than briefly list some of them: poor track quality; bungled venue choice; lack of audited attendance figures; predictable race format; processional racing; lack of a credible qualification route; grace and favour selection of competitors; lack of drama and uncertainty about outcomes > the list could go on.

More damningly, since the SGP is arguably speedway's shop window for the wider world to really see what the fuss about speedway is all about - our sport is being short changed by this representation of its drama and potential. So, whether we like it or not, how the SGP represents itself helps determine the long-term perception and success of the media, fan and sponsorship interest in the sport in this country. Boosters claim that the SGP is (supposedly) the pinnacle of our sport - the level to which all riders in every division of every league aspire to reach so that they can showcase their talent and credentials and, hopefully, ultimately become World Champion. It's held to be a spectacle that the viewer or fan is unable to tear their eyes away from due to the sheer bravery, brilliance and audacity of the world's highest calibre riders as they race each other hell-for-leather on high-powered bikes without brakes. Okay, so maybe this is a little idealistic, but you'd like to think that if really presented accurately that the drama, the glamour and the harum-scarum pizzazz of speedway would grab the next or lost generations of fans by the collar and not let them go if properly showcased.

Instead, what do we give them? Sure while there are laudable high production values associated with the television pictures, nevertheless, the SGP relentlessly serves up something that looks like speedway with surface glitz added, but pretty well everything else of any authenticity or real drama taken away! Ask yourself - what was the most exciting SGP race you saw last season? Where was it and who rode against who? Maybe you can recall five such races? You're to be congratulated if you can, most people can't! Think back over a decade - name your most exciting races? We've been shown Bomber's triumph at Cardiff so often that many would name it as a wonderful race. Sure it was special because it was a surprise and, of course, it ticks some often emphasized patriotic boxes, but was it speedway at its best or most memorable?

In recent years, the watchwords of the SGP appear to be monotony and predictability - both in the format and its winners. Only three riders have won in a decade (Rickardsson, Crump & Pedersen). Even worse, the destination of said crown is often painfully obvious mid-way through a series. Many of the riders who take part in the SGP are a long way short of any serious claim to be 'the best in the world' - any claim otherwise by the organisers further damages themselves, but also undermines the credibility of the sport. The harsh reality is that most riders are just fodder to fill the heats mainly because the tedious qualification format developed and refined by BSI requires various different riders to people its initial twenty races before the 'excitement' of the semi-finals and final. Even these end-of-meeting races aren't what they were! It's not so long ago that the riders used to really compete for that vital inch that would allow them to establish their dominance over their rivals. The first corner had genuine cut-and-thrust. It really did seem to matter to the riders that they vanquished their rivals. With so many points, races and rounds to make up a series - any sensible rider will game the system safe in the knowledge that it's better to play the percentages and grind their way to the sharp end of each round. And, if they fail - and remember many riders have regular experience of failing to make the last three races on a consistent basis - then there's always the next round. Going through the motions doesn't keep anyone on the edge of their seat. Even more reassuringly for the SGP riders, there's invariably another sponsor mad keen for the lustre and 'exposure' their company or brand will gain from their television appearances if they sponsor riders who'll finish 12th or 14th (in a 16-rider competition).

Luckily for our clearer understanding of the situation, the knowledgeable, vastly experienced and well-connected Philip Rising kindly took the time to address some frequently raised concerns on the British Speedway Forum. [1] He's a man who knows his onions, someone who knows the SGP inside out, but demonstrably is also a genuine lover of speedway who's forgotten more than many of the SGP critics can remember. What he has to say on some of the structural real or perceived problems that critics claim beset the SGP is worryingly revealing.

Should we return to how things used to be and stage the World Championship as a one-off final where the winner-takes-all and the victor is crowned?

[Rising] "Racing in the old one-off World Finals was, in my eyes from 1962 to 1994, never that great and the occasion was dramatic because the World Champion was crowned that night rather than the entertainment served up through twenty often-processional and action-less heats."

TRANSLATION: Your memory is playing tricks - one-off finals were awful. Our twenty heats are (no better or) just as rubbish as they always used to be!

Can the notorious track problems be realistically laid at the door of Race Director (as was) Ole Olsen?

[Rising] "Ole Olsen is a favourite target here but, believe it or not, his actual influence on the preparation of some tracks is nowhere near as much as you think. And it isn't only SGP events that suffer from poor racing surfaces. How many British tracks are properly prepared? No that many. Sadly, there is no cast-iron formula for making "the perfect track", but very little effort or investment is made to try and solve the riddle´┐Ż[track preparation] is very much a joint effort with the local guys. Sometimes they listen, sometimes they do not. There is no doubt that at Peterborough for the SWC this year [2009] the 'local man' got it right but that isn't always the case. Olsen only really has total authority at temporary tracks. The amount of research that has gone into the materials and procedures required for temporary tracks is quite staggering but, as I have said before, there is no perfect recipe. It is not like baking a cake where you open a book, mix a few ingredients, put it in an oven and out pops a speedway track. And, at the risk of repeating myself, Olsen is as keen as anyone to get it right. He was a rider, he still loves watching great racing"

TRANSLATION: Ole issues orders, no one follows them but everyone still gets handsomely paid (and promoted!). We all love "great racing", but we're not going to see any because the slick tracks we install are required to satisfy the needs of the most important customers. These aren't the fans or the riders but the broadcasters, sponsors and advertisers - never mind that the prohibitively expensive cost of satellite time demands that each event strictly adheres to rigidly exact timings and pre-agreed schedules. Crashes, cock-ups or real racing could seriously distract from delivering the product in the manner contracted - slick tracks help eliminate the possibility of random delays.

So, just how important are the 'real' (attending) fans nowadays? Sure there's a lot of lip service paid to our loyalty and boisterous dedication, but what is the reality of the significance of our attendance? Are we part of a vital community or just breathing, animated colourful human backdrop to 'dress the SGP set'? Necessary only to the extent we vaguely fill the stadiums and create a lovely backdrop for the television pictures? Mainly there to maintain the impression for the viewer through our presence on the terraces that each round isn't mere meaningless repetition, but a vital part of a competition that still retains some deeper continuing significance?

[Rising] "A misconception.. is that the attendance figures are the only consideration for the series. Of course they are critical for the local promoter along with any sponsorship and the money spent at the stadium by fans. From BSI/IMG's perspective it is a much bigger picture with TV income and audiences the crux of the matter."

TRANSLATION: Fans are irrelevant in the bigger scheme of things. There's no need to even count them properly.

Do we know what Sky and BSI think about the UK viewing figures?

[Rising] "BSI are no doubt unhappy with Sky shunting two of the last three GPs on to the red button. At this time of the year, with so much other live sport, SKY have options but if Emil Sayfutdinov was British I wonder whether things would be different. I am sure Sky are not totally satisfied with the fare on offer, but the fact that the two British boys are 14th and 15th in the standings cannot help."

TRANSLATION: Sky are furious and, nowadays, increasingly dump SGP speedway from the obscurity of Sky Sports channels 2 or 3 into 'red button' deep space where only the truly committed can be bothered to watch. A self-fulfilling prophecy looms unless something drastic happens or there's a British World Champion.

BARB figures appear to show that viewer interest has collapsed. [2] If we compare the audited end-of-season SGP viewing figures from 2008 to those of 2009, as the series builds to its 'thrilling' finale - even allowing for the deleterious impact of the red button - then it's a horror story!

SGP 2008
268,000 Cardiff
158,000 Prague
117,000 Malilla
145,000 Daugavpils
145,000 Bydgoszcz
149,000 Lonigo
145,000 Bydgoszcz
Total 1,127,000

SGP 2009
168,000 Cardiff (down 38 per cent)
101,000 Daugavpils
110,000 Malilla
85,000 Vojens
51,000 Krsko
95,000 Terenzano
164,000 Bydgoszcz
Total 774,000 (down 31 per cent)

In a nutshell, the SGP no longer cuts the viewing-figures mustard. Even Cardiff is no longer the draw it was on satellite television. The organisers have to face the fact that the format is tired and - despite the hyperbole of the build-up and commentary - the product unexciting to viewers and to many of fans. Once this message truly gets through to the advertisers, there'll be real problems. (Note: saying it's the most popular programme that week or month doesn't hide this structural decline)

What is the definition we should be using to evaluate the success of the SGP speedway product?

[Rising] "This year's British Grand Prix was watched by two million in India, the highest single TV audience in 2009. Not a massive number from a country with a population counted in billions, but it is a start."

TRANSLATION: British, Swedish and maybe even Polish viewing figures are irrelevant to the perceived success or development of the television rights sales that drives the real profits of the SGP series. Johnny Foreigner can be sold bright shiny, well-packaged tat so long as it looks like the real thing and we can claim it's a 'World Championship'.

In a multi-media age, what is the criteria to assess the success of speedway - the racing or the spectacle? The opinion of disinterested viewers in new markets or those of fans in the mature speedway markets of Britain, Poland and Sweden?

[Rising] "I honestly believe that the expectations of many continental fans in terms of actual racing is very different from those in Britain who see the whole thing from different eyes. We have been brought up in speedway terms very differently. Many, who possibly see only one event a year, are enthralled by the mere spectacle of speedway bikes sliding at such high speeds, the close contact and, let's face it, spectacular crashes."

TRANSLATION: Regular or knowledgeable fans opinions will increasingly be uncatered for and, anyway, these people don't understand how we're trying to develop and repackage speedway for the twenty-first century. If the organisers can concoct a product that uninformed viewers in new markets with untapped discretionary spend - that are attractive to advertisers (and ripe for television rights sales) - think is speedway then we just can't compromise the sport or its traditions quick enough.

Hopefully, all these problems are misconceived, mere piffle and/or of no long-term significance. While we wait to find out, let's get our pens and paper at the ready to note down all the exciting races we see in the 2010 SGP.


This article was first published in the Newcastle Match Magazine.

[1] http://www.speedway-forum.co.uk/forums/index.php?showtopic=50568&st=15

[2] http://www.speedway-forum.co.uk/forums/index.php?showtopic=51662&st=0

 

This article was first published on 22nd April 2010


 

  • Dave Beecroft:

    "A spectacularly well thought and erudite article. I have to confess to little interest in SGP, to me it is almost as Rugby Union is to Rugby League, same basis but a different product. I see the conceived need for a season long World Championship as in other motor sports but feel we were better with the old qualifying to regional finals to World Final system. Every supporter at evry track felt involved. As for TV (Sky) involvement, has it not been considered that, whilst, in football, everyone wants the FA Cup Final and both semis, not all earlier round matches need be shown to all the TV public; why not show the World Final and the major rounds plus a representative selection of qualifiers.

    As Jeff Scott says, would be fans "can be sold bright shiny, well-packaged tat so long as it looks like the real thing and we can claim it's a 'World Championship'". In other words, if it is a qualifier, make sure it is the "Speedway Championship of the World" before mentioning it is a "British Qualifying Round" and from, say, Belle Vue. No lies, just a shift in emphasis. This does not mean all racing shown should be British, a well considered and joined up system, packaged to fit into TV schedules but not for them would include all real speedway nations. I believe Jeff has left us much food for thought, I just hope the powers that be accept the thinking challenge. Great that this article made it from the Newcastle programme to a national forum too. "

  • Bill Elliot:

    "Another belter of an article outlining exactly why the Grand Prix sytem is a total turn off for so many fans. Forget the paying punter who shells out a heckuva lot of money to watch his favourite sport each year (including going to a Grand Prix where a mortgage is required to get to the venue, get in, and eat), the people in charge of running the Grands Prix are more interested in the money from Sky TV and presenting a largely inaccurate image of what the sport is supposed to be about (eg entertaining racing, etc). When you can have a system in place which allows a rider to be crowned "World Champion" without him actually having had to beat all the other riders in even one round, then good luck to him, but for me it just ain't a World Championship. Some of the peopl e saying you can't return to a one off type of event, either in place of/in parallel to the existing monotonous rounds of "same old, same old" do so, I suspect, because they possibly have a vested interest in keeping it that way. "

  • Jim Chalkley:

    "I have just read Jeff Scott's article on the grand prix's. If you carry on writing harmful articles like this you will soon be putting a lot of people connected to speedway out of work. It's about time you started writing about the good things speedway has to offer. As regards the slick tracks I'm afraid their here to stay and the riders will adapt to them. The young riders coming through today only know how to ride slick tracks. If you put more dirt on them it would ruin their style of riding. It is something we have all got to accept, which ever way you look at it [its called progress]."

  • Ken Nicholson:

    "This is a very interesting article by Jeff Scott, but I am very wary of anyone (sorry, Jeff) who starts quoting statistics. The first point to note on the BARB viewing statistics is that they are based on the viewing habits of about eleven thousand people then multilied by about five thousand to get the UK figure. So for example, there were just around 53 of the panel who viewed the Cardiff GP in 2008 and 33 in 2009. The fall sounds a lot less impressive when you say it like that. The next thing to consider is whether these figures included recordings (which they may or may not have done). Finally, there is the impact of other factors such as changing the start time of the Cardiff GP or programmes disappearing beneath the red button (which proportionally reduces the delayed viewing figures). I think that the GP Series is stale. I don't know whether Philip Rising's comment is true regarding the low quality of racing in the one-off world finals, but the problem that I see now is that there are umpteen meetings of such a standard. I'd go one better than you though Jeff and say I struggle to remember the winner of any particular GP. Of course I remember Chris Harris'win, but was that in 2006 or 2007..... now, let me see. "

  • Ross Dow:

    "Let's hope that Jeff Scott's letter is, like his favourite subject, a ONE OFF! I tried to follow this poison pen rant and glean some unbiased information but fell asleep. It is obvious that he is passionate about the subject but loses credibility when he suggests that everything is rosy with one system and rotten with the other. I am sure that he would not have lowered himself to watch the Leszno GP and will not believe anyone who tells him that it was a very watchable meeting with some excellent racing (admittedly not always as exciting as the tv pundits made out but much better than many of the one off finals I have witnessed). As I have said before there have been some very memorable one-offs and GP - equally both types of event have had boring disasters. Generally the culprit has been poor track preparation. To allow Ole Olsen to continually reduce good tracks to being unracable for 10 years is the biggest crime committed by SGB. They have probably lost many viewers by this failing and certainly give encouragement to people like Mr Scott to assasinate the series. The GP series is not perfect but has potential to be a decent shopfront for the sport provided the organisers try harder to listen to the fans and fine tune to suit - not to ignore constant criticism for 10 years. I hope Tony Olssen can continue to prepare tracks fit for the world's best to perform on. I am sure that there will still be problems with temporary tracks but am eagerly awaiting Cardiff 2010 in the hope that a decent racing strip can be achieved."

  • Ivan Blacka:

    "Sadly to say. All these articles you read every week. It very depressing to read all the negativity about the future of Speedway. I hope Speeedway Plus has something to publish in about 10 years time. And I hope Speedway Plus is around to publish future comments being the best Speedway web-site of all time. From what you read week in week out I would say Speedway is on it's way out. Let's hope not. Wake up promoters and take notice to all these articles and stand together before it's to late. All these people writing these articles surely can't be wrong. Can they??"

  • Mike Wilson:

    "I'm glad the writer of this article is not a member of the press. I'll conceived comments like these with totally weak statistics could do a lot of harm to the sport. How many one off World finals were classics? I can tell you some that were most definately not eg; 1983, 84, 87 both days, 89, 91, 92 just in that short period. Sure some GPs are not the best but the great thing about that is there is another along soon unlike waiting 12 more months. THE ONE OFF KING IS DEAD, LONG LIVE THE SGP KING......If you are a true fan of Speedway spread the gospel, because we sure know no one else will..........................."

  • Ian Muir Martin:

    "What a SUPERB article by Jeff Scott. I have been talking about this for years both on this Site and on the British Speedway Forum. Qualification for the SGP is an absolute disgrace. I will say only this - once upon a time EVERY Rider from the LOWEST National League Team through the Premier League to the Top Elite League Team would have started a Season looking forward to HIS chance to claim the ultimate prize in Speedway. I have mentioned many times Jack Young winning the Title as a second Division Rider. He could not do this now - instead we have to watch the so called, HAND PICKED BEST Riders in the World Race for a Prize for which a number did not even QUALIFY. Nothing to do with ability now - it's all about QUOTAS - if it wasn't - I doubt we would have a British Rider anywhere near the Grand Prix. If we didn' t have any representation - how many people would go to Cardiff. Ergo the SELECTION process. "

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