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Book Extract: More Confessions

JOHN BERRY earned a deserved reputation as one of the shrewdest, most successful speedway administrators as boss of the all-conquering Ipswich Witches and England team manager in the 70s.

He is also one of the most outspoken voices in the sport whose forthright, authoritative views are now to be found in every issue of the acclaimed bi-monthly retro magazine, Backtrack.

Berry established his new skill as an author with his first book, Confessions of a Speedway Promoter, in 2004. He has just returned for a brief visit to England to promote the eagerly-awaited follow-up, More Confessions.

We've joined forces with our friends at publishers Retro Speedway to present here an extract from Berry's new book, which is available (post-free in the UK) for £15.99. To find out more, click here.


This project has always carried the nickname of Con2 (Confessions II) although in truth it bears little resemblance to Confessions of a Speedway Promoter, published two years ago. The first book was essentially about me in speedway. This book has been far more about the speedway in me.

It was bound to be opinionated. It was bound to be a bit more serious than the first. Speedway in the UK might be a bit of a joke at the moment, but it certainly isn't funny.

There were more people I wanted to talk about. I got halfway through a chapter on speedway announcers but it was shelved for lack of space. Again, John Earrey missed out on gaining all the accolades of being head and shoulders the best announcer the sport has known. Others gained honourable mentions, whereas the likes of Dick Barrie would have been treated with the same lack of grace and courtesy he exuded to others whenever he slid behind a microphone.

There was the nucleus of a chapter on speedway journalists. Speedway has been blessed through the years with an incredible number of dedicated and highly qualified wordsmiths who have often stuck their necks out uncomfortably far in defence of their sport. At least 95% of my comments about them would have been positive. Sadly, 'us' journalists are a notoriously thin-skinned mob and Tony Mac was concerned that even the odd 5% downside might have been enough to ruffle feathers!

In any case, I think it is fair to say I gave them full recognition in the first book.

Do you remember those little number or picture puzzles where you had to move tiny tiles around within a square frame to get them in the right order? The biggest problem in writing this book, especially those bits that contain suggestions or alternatives to what is currently happening within our sport, is that the puzzle doesn't have the right number of tiles. In attempting to come up with perfect answers to every problem I found that, with the tiles available, it wasn't always possible. I could get many, indeed most, of the numbers in the right order but there was always at least one tile in the wrong place and moving that threw the whole lot out again.

And so if you are concerned enough about speedway and are prepared to spend a bit of time analysing each of my ideas, you will no doubt come across situations I have either not covered or glossed over. Some I have avoided because they were too nit-pickingly complicated to make for interesting reading. No doubt there are others I hadn't noticed.

I know I have plenty of opinions, but I also know I don't have every answer or even, from this distance, know every question. However, if I get enough people actually giving thought to my ideas, I feel I will have won. Somewhere along the line, if speedway racing wants to get all its numbered tiles in the right order, it is going to have to take some out and replace them with ones that fit properly. I didn't mean to write as if speedway racing is already dead and buried. Part of the negativity I display is borne of my being so detached both in time and distance; some of it is because I am becoming an old curmudgeon. I still remain thrilled at the number of committed enthusiasts within the sport, many of whom have become regular correspondents since I put my email address into Confessions.

I have always disliked the individual side of the sport and it saddens me to see it dominating more and more. I suppose it is inevitable that this is the only way to appeal to a larger audience, because team speedway is just too complex to pick up easily. Maybe the one will lead to the other, but I doubt it.

I pen these words shortly after the 2006 Elite League play-off final. Tony Mac waxed lyrical about the excellent television it produced. He even claimed it couldn't have been better had it been stage-managed! Yes, he has read Sliding into Hell, but I'm sure he wasn't implying anything at all! (Buy the book to get the joke.)

Anyway, congratulations to all involved. Perhaps a few more anti-play-off folks have now been converted? Not sure about the anti-double tactical point folks, though. They are obviously not Scrabble players (double word scores? Come on, keep up!).

Last chapter, last book; it must be time to indulge myself a bit. Not that the whole of all three books has not been just one big indulgence! Speedway riders are a special breed. Nobody who does what those men do for a living can be regarded as 'normal'. From the best in the world to those who just have a skid around for the fun of it, they are all raving nutters. It goes with the job.

Having said that, what has always been the best part of our sport is the riders. Unlike most professional sport, particularly over the last couple of decades, speedway people have always been a close knit mob. Even today riders do not need an army of minders to protect them from the supporters. They are happy to mingle with those who pay the bills. It has been the close link between all of the different sections in our sport that makes it was it is.

Generally the riders were, and are, a great bunch and happy to interact with the public. Perhaps this is why speedway racing remains cloth cap? Perhaps the ambition of the Grand Prix organisers to set the riders up on pedestals is the way to go? Perhaps we were just lucky enough to have been of a generation where a star man was not only approachable but was appreciative of being given a hand with carrying his gear from his car?

Do I make an exception with Steve Gresham when I talk about riders being great people? He was the only rider I ever came to blows with. I was in the Newport side of the pits one night at Ipswich, trying to mediate and resolve a long-running feud between Phil Crump and Billy Sanders during a meeting. That dispute looked like flaring again and I didn't want that to happen. I always had the utmost respect for Phil and was certainly not remonstrating with him, rather trying to negotiate a settlement. Gresham just couldn't mind his own business.

He began sticking his unwanted oar in. This inevitably led to an exchange of insults between us, which eventually became physical. We were parted by pits staff before either could land a point-scoring blow. A minute or so later, Gresham approached for a chat, heavily flanked by pits security. Like a mug, I agreed to listen to him. Rather than a chat, as soon as he got into range, he aimed a vicious kick with his steel-shod foot that landed at the top of my thigh, about two inches to the right of my wedding tackle. The bruise took several weeks to finally disappear.

Yes, on due consideration I will make an exception with Steve Gresham.

All I know is that there were really very few riders from any team who were not basically good blokes. Specifically, of all the riders who wore the Witches racejacket there is not one I would not share a drink with.

Yes, I even include John Cook in that. We had our moments and it would be fair to say the Americans never fully embraced the informality of the rider/promoter relationship enjoyed by the riders from less far away (in culture), but that was then. I understand John is now far less volatile than in his early riding days and enjoys helping kids along their way. I hear he is also now very fitness-focussed and enjoys a healthy lifestyle, including being a vegetarian. Perhaps it is true, we are what we eat.

Last year we had an Ipswich Speedway reunion. Just about all of the riders I was able to get in contact with turned up. Everyone had a great time and it was wonderful to see so many old friends. You would have thought it a perfect opportunity for the odd ex-rider to have had a pop. After all, they were all publicly interviewed. Not one of them did, even though there were those present who had left Ipswich under a bit of a cloud.

I am proud of the fact that, whilst many of those people I wasn't that close to have views of me ranging from my being a misery to as far as out and out dislike, the ones I was closest to generally have a lot softer opinion.

I wasn't, nor will I ever be, warm and fuzzy. We all have our natures inbuilt and mine is to be 'forthright'. It might be well hidden most of the time, but somewhere in these pages is living proof that I do actually possess a heart!

John Berry and Billy Sanders. JB acted as Billy's legal guardian when the then 16-year-old Billy arrived in England in 1972 . . . and it was Berry who had to identify his No.1 rider's dead body in April 1985, soon after this picture was taken.

It would be daft for me simply to repeat previous comments about Ipswich riders although they all merit a special thank you from me. They are far fewer in number than one would expect. In my research for the Ipswich reunion I counted no more than 10 who rode at least a full season (30 meetings) and a further 14 who made cameo appearances over the three-year period in Division Two (1969-71).

In the senior league there were as few as 26 who rode for 30 matches or more and another 15 who made brief contributions during the 14 years between 1972 and 1985. There is a list included at the end of the book. Of those 26 regulars 15 were born and bred in the immediate area surrounding Ipswich, as were nine of the casuals. That is 24 Witches riders out of a total of 41 used during a 14-year period who were local lads. I would guess both the limited numbers overall and the number of local lads would be records.

Much of the credit for that situation lies with John Louis every bit as much as my deliberate policy of encouraging local youngsters to give things a go. It also reflects on the work of Bryan Messenger, in particular, who put so much effort into supporting the local kids.

'Tiger' John Louis deserved to have had a much easier life than the one he has been dealt and the way it has played out. If ever there was a person who demonstrates my theory about life balancing itself out, it is he. The success of Ipswich Speedway in my time there owes so much to the man. John has had many chapters in his life - far more than the average person.

Speedway gave him the chance to rise above the 2.4 children, semi-detached Mr James, to fame, fortune and life in the fast lane. Defying the years, he should have been able to dictate his own life after riding. Somehow it didn't happen. More twists and turns in both public and private life then found him on the other side of the promoting fence and enjoying a renaissance period.

Sadly, a couple more twists of fate at a time in his life when all looked settled for the sunset years sees his life again turned upside down. I desperately hope there is yet another twist for the better in the 'Tiger's' tale before the full story is complete. If anyone deserves the title of Mr Ipswich Speedway it is he and on behalf of all of those John Louis fans I wish him well and thank him for gracing our sport for so long and for being a friend.

I could write about all of 'my' riders from the past. They all deserve special mention. Sadly, once again, lack of space prevents more than just a huge group thank you. To those riders who made up 'the opposition', I say thank you for making speedway so much fun for me. To Eric Broadbelt, Geoff Maloney, Reg Wilson, Finn Thomsen, Ole Olsen, Tommy Knudsen and all the other riders who have managed to get hot under the collar, thanks for the memories. Thanks for caring enough and thanks for putting on a show.

To those riders and managers who may have felt uncomfortable when visiting Ipswich, I apologise if me or any of my trusty crew were a bit too 'in your face'. To the likes of Peter Adams, Ole Olsen and the many others who met the challenge head on, enjoyed the fray, and often stole the glory, I offer particular thanks for providing so much enjoyment and entertainment.

To those promotions, riders, media men, away track workers . . . (oh dear, the list could be never-ending!) who found me to be a miserable, aggressive and unpleasant sod, thanks for putting up with me and keeping a brave face on. To Malcolm Simmons, many thanks for being brave enough to say I am really not that bad! James Easter in his preface suggested he and I used to argue a lot on the way to away meetings. He remembers badly. Sometimes we had words if he had kept me waiting half-an-hour whilst chatting to the home promoter after a meeting trying to drum up more business for his company (he would no doubt suggest he was apologising for me!) while I was wanting to get to my bed, but we never quarrelled on the way to tracks.

We would have healthy debate then and it could have been on any subject under the sun - a frank and forthright exchange of views even, but never an argument. And therein sits the problem I have faced all my life. My discussion is other people's debate, my debate is other people's row, and my arguments are other people's abuse! Is it so terrible to have views on a variety of different subjects anyway?

Another of the chapters missing for lack of space was to have been about all the times I have unintentionally said or done the wrong thing and have caused bad feeling. Nine times out of 10 the affronted person would never have believed my comments were not designed to hurt. Indeed, I do believe there were many times when my reputation preceded me and people chose to take things the wrong way. Still, it all adds to the folklore and didn't do the Ipswich business, or even UK speedway generally, too much harm.

Those who choose to moan about me and my 'mistakes' rarely come up with much by way of actual evidence. They end up resorting to petty name-calling. I know the times I have overstepped the mark and wish I could recant. There are not as many though, as that folklore would have you believe. The suggestion, for instance, that there was a deliberate policy to upset visitors to Foxhall by implementing a policy of dirty tricks, is an absolute fiction. Still, people will believe what they wish.

Someone even suggested recently I was a playboy! Now there is an absolute compliment, but sadly about as far from the truth as you could possibly get! Not having had any great sporting, artistic or musical aptitude, I count myself more than a little lucky that I have been able to rub shoulders with the very cream of sporting elite. OK, so maybe speedway doesn't have the highest profile in the sporting world, but I've been entertained in the Royal Box at Wembley and visited countless countries. I have been feted at home and abroad and I still hold a World Team Cup trophy and have been recognised by the Borough of Ipswich.

I have outstanding memories of my time in speedway. My best on-track memory was no doubt in 1976, when Ipswich beat second placed Belle Vue at Hyde Road to retain the British League title. That was the crowning moment of my time in promoting speedway. Best off-track moment had to be turning into the centre of Ipswich in an open-topped bus on a cold October weekday evening to find the place packed with well-wishers cheering the all-conquering Ipswich Witches on to a civic reception.

Worst moments? They have to be, on track, helping load young Brett Alderton into an ambulance at King's Lynn, being fully aware he was fatally injured. Off-track it had to be identifying the body of Billy Sanders.

I've said very little about international speedway in this book, either in my time or currently. There was a chapter devoted to it but it went by the board. I was fortunate to share some of the great times with the England team and have very fond memories. The trials and tribulations have pretty much faded away - the great times I still cherish.

I am full of admiration for the way Neil Middleditch has handled himself and his ever-depleting GB forces. The situation he finds himself in is way out of his hands. Unlike football, where I think England has the resources to succeed if they are marshalled correctly, British speedway does not. I can only hope that my plans, or somebody else's, will see the development of more young lads coming into the sport. I read individual promoters saying something has to be done. The time is here for them to step up. Unlike a lot of current thinking, I believe it is quantity of new riders the sport in the UK needs even more than special attention to the few. With quantity, quality and success will emerge at all levels.

I remember the time when, in cricket, British was best. I loved watching the black and white coverage of swashbuckling Ted Dexter, the gritty determination of Barrington, Close and Edrich, the aloof class of Peter May, and later, the imperious Graham Gooch. I recall Fred Truman and Brian Statham giving everything for the cause and John Snow scattering the Aussies like skittles in their own back yard. In rugby I thrilled at Barry John, Gareth Edwards, Tony Gibson and the like as the British Lions ran rampant Down Under and then Billy Beaumont and his boys did it all again later on. I well recall Bannister, then Ibbotson, Coe, Ovett, Thompson, Wells, Mary Rand.

We took things for granted back then. We shrugged our shoulders because we believed intrinsically, British was best. We were almost embarrassed to hear our own national anthem and remarked how other nations went over the top when they managed to win things. We shrugged as the Eastern Europeans put together elite squads, knowing then what has now been proven to be true. The way they did things just wasn't cricket!

Attitudes seem finally to have changed. Britain has finally realised that, rightly or wrongly, the sporting stage is now how countries judge and are judged. We all cheered on that Johnny Wilkinson dropped goal and celebrated as if we knew the players personally. We referred to them as 'us' and not 'them'. Even at 60 years of age I wasn't above sitting up, night after night, as the Ashes were gradually loosened from the tight-gripped claws of the arrogant, petulant, but so professional Australians.

Britannia, it seems, has stirred and quite fancies doing a bit more ruling. It may take a while to see her back on top of the speedway world but now is the time to start the long haul. Another facet of the sport that has largely managed to avoid my wrath in this book has been the way the individual promotions have varied so much in terms of professionalism. It was always so of, course, and there is little to be served in just going on and on about it, especially when I am relying on third-hand information.

I cannot help, though, but notice how many controversially rained-off meetings there seems to have been of late. Enough, it appears, for the old question of covering for tracks to raise its head again. Sure, tracks can be covered and new materials for the coverings and better technology to get them up and down make this a consideration. Sadly, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, covering a track is not the answer.

If a track has been properly prepared and has a reasonable drainage system it should be possible, given a couple of hours without rain, to recover from the wettest of conditions. If it rains when a meeting is underway (or about to start), then the covers have been removed anyway.

Here is the real problem. A track needs to be watered before racing. Ideally it should be watered several hours before racing, and then kept damp. Unless the whole track is covered by a raised awning high enough to be able to work underneath, then this cannot happen. Such an awning, with suitable drainage systems, would be far too expensive and far too complex to store or to put up and down within a reasonable timeframe.

Failing a permanent roof, covering of a speedway track is not practical except for maybe an event expecting to draw a 50,000-plus crowd, and there aren't many of them! As I said, good track preparation and a good rapport with the riders is the only practical way to go.

My dislike of the Speedway Grand Prix is well documented. It comes on many different levels. I don't much care for John Postlethwaite on either a personal or business level. I have even heard some within the SGP inner-circle suggest he is not the warm, cuddly type. Maybe he and I are a bit too similar for comfort. I don't care for the damage the grand prix has done, and will continue to do, to British domestic speedway. I personally prefer the romance and history of the knock-out system to determine The Champion. It brings character (and a bit of luck, good and bad) into the equation. It is not sterile, predictable, or drawn out.

On behalf of the speedway public, the professional promoters and those riders who don't get selected to take part in the BSI circus, I resent the highjacking of the best dates, the best riders and their best efforts. I object to every other competition being reduced to, at best, second-class status.

Well, if I don't say it, nobody else seems to be prepared to. Most of all, I object to the best avenue of finance for the traditional providers of grass roots speedway being drained out of the sport with precious little, if any, being returned.

I recognise the grand prix (and/or BSI) bring some credits to the ledger. Certainly it is good to see speedway being treated as a business again, instead of a rich man's (or enthusiast's) hobby. I cannot help but feel Postlethwaite simply fell across speedway. I suspect it would have made little difference to him had it been wellie-throwing or conkers. He saw a marketable product. Good luck to him there. I was no speedway devotee when I first became involved in the sport. Sadly, though, it seems to me that BSI has recently effectively disregarded innovation and presentation of the 'product' in favour of maximising the commercial opportunities. It seems, on the surface at least, priority is being given to increasing financial return from a half-finished product rather than continuing to improve and extend the thing to its logical conclusions. Or, put another way, BSI has run out of puff.

The grandiose ideas have been shelved. Apart from Cardiff, the meetings are back in 'traditional' speedway venues. BSI concentrates its efforts on the TV and commercial exploitation of 'the product' and expediency has replaced innovation.

The penny finally also seems to have dropped, strangely, with BSI rather than the regular promoters. Any more expansion that would cut into the European speedway calendar could potentially kill the asset providers (promoters of the bread-and butter stuff) on which the SGP continues to feed. I doubt this would worry BSI if and when it established enough events to make it self-supporting, but that currently seems unlikely.

Next in considering the way the grand prix seems to have ground to a halt is the question of geographical expansion. As I said above, I think BSI has reached a stage where it dare not add even more turmoil to the current European calendar. What they desperately need in order to justify the 'World' tag, as against a purely European competition, are rounds overseas (as against over the Channel). It has been tried just once, in a country that claims to be the very home of speedway, Australia. It was a disaster because Mr. Postlethwaite at that time was on his grandiose bandwagon - biggest cities, biggest stadia, maximum costs.

Now the majority of the rounds have moved back to provincial established speedway venues there would be a far better chance of success, providing the man is prepared to lower his charges accordingly. Therefore I do not rule out a future round over here, although we note the mooted idea of one round in Australia and one round in New Zealand appears to have been shelved for now.

There also remain murmurings about a round across the Atlantic, where speedway similar to the European model (bikes only) still takes place. Again, I suspect, costs remain the stumbling block, along with the fact that the season over there mirrors that in Europe.

Is it only me who finds the champagne 'battle' a bit ho-hum and 90s? Are the start-line girls beginning to look a bit jaded? Is the whole performance now becoming a bit stereotyped and predictable? The Americans still set the benchmark when it comes to sports presentations. Other countries are catching up fast and various sporting codes try different things. The SGP organisers seem as if they ran out of new ideas some time ago.

Having said all of that, it seems to me the actual 'product', the racing itself, has improved along with track surfaces. It is a shame the head-to-head between Jason and Tony never really got off the ground this year but it was more than made up for by the effort and enthusiasm of some of the younger brigade.

I have to accept, the SGP is very much a fact of life now. I put this down entirely to the efforts of the riders and of Ole Olsen, who seems to be still living his dream. It is one thing to ask about the seeming lack of recent ideas in the SGP but one has to ask where all the innovation and invention has gone on the domestic scene as well? Where are the Test matches, the representative events, the door-buster specials and the plain quirky fixture-fillers?

OK, so there were some fairly ordinary filler events in the old days, like the 'Fred's team vs Charlie's team' challenge matches, but there was also a tradition of each track staging at least one crowd-pulling, special individual event.

Actually, my best idea for a speedway meeting never saw the light of day. In 1978 Anglia TV was looking for a speedway meeting to televise. They had shown willing the year before with a little competition run over a few weeks in the second half of Ipswich home meetings and involving the teams in the Anglia TV area.

That first series seemed to have proved to be reasonably successful, albeit with a 10.30pm timeslot on Thursday nights over, I think, six weeks. The late transmission time was because Anglia TV was committed to take networked ITV programming up until that time, but it suited me fine. We reckoned to have our meetings over by about 9.45pm, giving our supporters reasonable time to get home and watch the TV. Anyway, Anglia was looking for something a bit meatier the following year.

Although I'm not a great lover of individual meetings, I quite like match races. I always encouraged John Louis to try and hang on to the Golden Helmet match race trophy, even though it put extra expense and time constraints onto a meeting. John responded by becoming something of a match race specialist in the mid-70s. Well, I figured that if I could pull together all the top riders in the world, I could stage the World Match Race Championships. I wasn't certain if I could get away with the title, but I could have come up with a suitable alternative that wouldn't have required FIM blessing anyway.

I figured it this way. I needed the best eight riders in the world at that time. These, I decided, were Mauger, Olsen, Penhall, Collins, Louis, Lee, Sanders and one of Autrey, Crump, Jessup, Simmons. It would have been staged on a Sunday afternoon in mid-summer and the pits would have been moved to the stock car track on the back straight for the afternoon, so the public could have a close-up of what was happening. The format would have been a straight knock-out one, starting at the quarter-final stage, with each contest decided over three legs.

Now I have seen some spellbinding match races and I have seen some fairly ordinary ones. Given that this was to be specifically a TV event, I would have taken out insurance that most of the races would be of the former variety. How? By having the riders privately use only the result of their first race to determine who progressed through, ensuring the other two races in each series were of the 'exhibition' variety and were full of action and interest.

Race fixing? Well, yes, I suppose so if you want to be technical, but I would prefer to call it choreography and have said it would have been no worse than singers who mime to their records! The event never took place. First of all, finding a Sunday when all the riders were available would have been difficult. Then, riders being what they are, ensuring that they all 'played the game' might have been difficult. Mainly though, Dave Lanning, who had the ear of the Anglia TV team on speedway matters, didn't like the idea and made it clear he would advise against it.

I still think it would have been a massive advert for the sport, in the same way as the TV trophy scrambles events were on a Saturday afternoon on BBC Grandstand. I mean, we all watched Jeff Smith spend the first couple of laps tootling around at the back, only to slowly work his way through the field and grab victory on the last lap, didn't we? And we all believed it was absolutely kosher, didn't we! Well, Murray Walker did, as he honed his ability to make everything seem a matter of life and death before moving on to the cars.

Well, many thanks for having read the book as far down as to here. As I said at the beginning, it will be my last effort, certainly in this genre anyway. I enjoy putting words together but have little more to add on this subject and would only be repeating myself were I to try. I look forward to reading books on speedway written by others and will be interested to see if any opinions happen to coincide with mine. I note the suggestion for an independent commissioner is beginning to grow. Remember, if it ever happens, I was the one who got the ball rolling!

The sun is shining, the cricket season just beginning (with satellite technology as it is, the season is always starting somewhere!) and I look forward, not without a certain amount of trepidation, to seeing battle for the Ashes recommence.

Once again, thanks for having put up with my ramblings and let us hope speedway is about to begin another upswing in the circle of life.

 

This article was first published on 29th December 2006


 

  • Don Maddocks:

    "I am just going to bed at nearly 2.00 a.m., having just read through this superb, eloquent tome by John Berry. I could not go to bed until I had finished reading it, thank you John. If there is a person who has given as much as John to Speedway, then please let us all know. A fantastic observer of the sport from its basic grass roots, to its highest pinnacle, John deserves the greatest accolade that the whole of Speedway, from riders, promoters, and supporters, can give. I came to the Sport in the late forties, and I have never known another personality grace the scene, other than perhaps the wonderful Johnnie Hoskins, as much as John Berry has done."

  • John Boreham:

    "Well John having read the extract from your book I will definitely be a buyer having seen you in action "close up" during my years as a spanner man to Luigi (Billy as you know). I must say I/we did not always agree with your comments but I felt you were at all times professional if sometimes a trifle caustic but by and large one of the best in the job. Good luck for the future down under."

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