Sport of the 500s
Jeff Scott spent the 2005 season visiting 30 tracks around the UK. Along the way he met promoters, riders, fans and many unsung members of the track staff. These encounters and conversations form the basis of his magnificent "Showered in Shale" book. In this extract from the book he visits Sittingbourne Speedway Club in Kent.
From all that I'd heard when I travelled to other tracks around the country, I didn't exactly look forward to my trip to Sittingbourne Speedway Club. People had disparaged the facilities and the welcome that you supposedly encounter at this club. I had tried to visit the club in July but this was during a period when they had often struggled to run their home fixtures. I'd received a voicemail message from long-time track owner, Graham Arnold, who said that the fixture in question had been postponed, primarily due to a lack of the staff needed to do all the organisational tasks required on a race day. When I set off from Brighton, to visit the last unique league track in the country that I had yet to watch a fixture at for the purposes of my book, I was cheered by the prospect of a double dose of racing that afternoon. The home fixture pile up from earlier in the season meant that the Sittingbourne Crusaders would race in the Conference League, first against the Armadale 'Dale' Devils and subsequently against the Boston 'Barracuda' Braves. The Crusaders had yet to win a home fixture this season and, after they had already suffered almost equally terribly on their travels, they understandably found themselves firmly anchored to the bottom of the league table. Not that this would be of great concern to the Sittingbourne club members, since they primarily view themselves as a training track that exists to develop young riders rather than achieve short-term team or league success. Nonetheless, I still secretly hoped that I would actually witness the Crusaders ride to their first home victory that afternoon.
It depends on your point of view, whether the town of Sittingbourne is either, as the council would claim it to be, "a modern day market town with a sailing barge past history" or, an industrial town eight miles east of Gillingham. This part of North Kent, with its close proximity to the socalled Thames Gateway, always appears somewhat otherworldly to me when I visit the area. You have all those strange flat areas of land close to the water's edge that aren't quite farmland and aren't quite beach. In fact, you can find these salt marshes and their associated flatlands all along the coastline in this part of England, which thereby creates a peculiarly in-between landscape located eerily close to the water of the nearby Thames or the sea. The settlement of Sittingbourne has a rich and varied history that stretches back to medieval times when it was a regular staging post for pilgrims on their way to Canterbury. Technically the town is located beside the Roman Watling Street off a creek on the Swale, which itself separates the Isle of Sheppey from mainland Kent. After I got lost in the town centre, quite an achievement in a place so small, I then managed to miss the turning for the Old Gun Site - the home of the training track formerly known as Iwade Speedway but now known as Sittingbourne Speedway Club. While I was confused about my exact whereabouts I'd also luckily avoided a visit to the Sittingbourne branch of Sainsbury's, which is notorious locally for the manner in which it mysteriously disables your car's central locking system or, at least, sends it haywire. The only significant landmarks to orient myself by were what I took to be a large canal and an even larger monument that was a partially finished white bridge, which dominated the skyline for miles beforehand, as I drove past the flat fields of the landscape that surrounds the town. Without adequate signposts, it appeared that you really did have to be a local resident to even find the speedway club.
With a new set of directions to the Old Gun Site from a kindly pensioner, who hadn't ever heard of the speedway despite the fact that he'd lived in the town all his life, I doubled back on myself, as directed, past one of the many relics of the area's recent military history. A relatively recent wartime past has left the countryside littered with fortified pillboxes, which used to form the outer perimeter of the military camp that for many years stood just outside Sittingbourne. Built to repel a German invasion that never materialised, or only really got as far as the Channel Islands, the area had been much more deeply affected by the loss of its menfolk, the 'lost generation', during the earlier 'Great War'. The memorial to the many dead from the town (and its near neighbour Milton Regis) was considerably renowned in historical circles.
Eventually, I head down Old Ferry Road, which eventually runs into a rough and ready road, at times almost like a dirt track, before it finally arrives at Sittingbourne Speedway fence. I then find myself in what appears to be a scrap yard in the making or the sort of place the Daily Mail would have you believe is an ideal location for an invasion of rapacious gypsies. Admittedly there are quite a few caravans but these have seen better days and are permanently located on this site. I park my car in a field that a helpful man on the other side of the impressive fence that surrounds the speedway stadium and its environs, assures me is the car park. Given my choice of wherever I would like to park within this completely empty field, I make the wrong choice and have to return almost immediately to remove my car to a location more suitable to the tight formation of parked cars that the attendants prefer and skilfully manage on race day. A sign belatedly advises drivers to 'Drive Carefully' as there's an uneven road surface, which even if you'd arrived in a 4-by-4 vehicle you'd definitely already have noticed! There's quite a crowd of men of a certain age already congregated inside the fence, who direct me circuitously to the entranceway track that leads towards the stadium buildings, the pits and I assume copious amounts of staff car parking. The man on the gate, dressed in woolly hat, fleece top and jeans, interrogates me about why I want to see Graham Arnold before he finally points in the direction of the buildings with instructions to specifically look for "an older man dressed in green overalls".
I search without success for Graham in a long hut-like building by the edge of the home straight that serves as the supporters' club and tearoom. Inside there are already some ladies and young helpers who have begun to lay out tables of supporters' club merchandise, a petition to 'Save Wimbledon Speedway' and some raffle tickets plus cold refreshments in the form of fizzy soft drinks and a good selection of sweets. The room has large windows that with the elevation of the building provide an excellent view across the track and the flat lands beyond. The track is surrounded by rather oldfashioned traditional white wooden safety fencing, still extremely effective in comparison to some of the more modern constructions you find in this country, held in place by metal posts surrounded by an impressive cushion of tyres. On the back straight, there are a couple of adverts that stand forlornly on their own and proclaim the merits of reading the local papers The East Kent Gazette and The Faversham Times. In the near distance you can see a large container vessel as it navigates its way along a narrow waterway that might be the Swale. Large electricity pylons stretch into the distance to the horizon, where a good number of flat-roofed factories belch out the copious quantities of smoke that you wouldn't usually associate with this apparently rural location. I imagine that these might be the famous cement manufacturing plants that this part of North Kent is known for throughout Europe, which are located here because of its geologically chalk-rich soil.
The track itself shows no hint of chalk but looks smooth and well kept although it appears that the start line and the finish line are, rather unusually, separate from each other. So not only is the meeting a double header but we get to see the riders race for four and 1/16th laps! When I head back outside, I notice that the stands on the home straight are empty, but are both constructed from scaffolding poles and planks with three tiers for the fans to perch on during the racing. The referees box is a multi-windowed affair modelled on a cross between a garden shed and greenhouse, located parallel to the finish line on top of a large blue metal container normally used for cargo shipments, but that here serves as a makeshift building. There's a crowd of men in the pits, mostly helpers it appears although there are a smattering of riders who attend to their bikes with the inevitable ritual, repeated everywhere, that involves much pre-meeting fiddling, general checks, fuelling and some vital last-minute tuning. Just as I give up hope that I will ever find Graham, he appears from nowhere (well, from grading the track), resplendent in faded lime green overalls offset with grey sleeves and the obligatory (brown) baseball cap beloved of track staff everywhere.
He's a man who looks to be in his late fifties with a tanned face, firm handshake and compact build. In his overalls, he has a look that appears to be a cross between Top Gun and the sensible attire favoured by paramedics, but not the St John Ambulance service, who seem congenitally unable to abandon their fluorescent jackets at any of the country's speedway tracks. He's a man with a dry wit, who is exceptionally dedicated to Sittingbourne Speedway. Graham spends many hours per week working at the track, in order to get all the maintenance done that the track requires. It's an unusual club in that not only do they field a Conference League team but they also run a motorcycle club for their members, who range in ages between 5 and 70 years old. The training track is well known and even better used, which means that the level of maintenance it requires is significantly greater than that at many other tracks, irrespective of the Leagues they compete in. Familiarity might breed contempt, but in this case it contributes to the club's comparatively poor home record because many of the visiting riders have cut their teeth practicising in this corner of North Kent. Consequently, with the varied mix of users, Graham admits that he doesn't know how to properly prepare the track to suit all their requirements. He's definite that for this afternoon the "second meeting will be better than the first meeting when the track will be very slick". Although he heavily watered the track last night, early this morning, and just a few minutes ago, it's highly likely it will be dusty throughout for the riders and fans alike. Since the wind blows in the direction of the estuary, it means that those hardy spectators that stand on the back straight will get a liberal dose of dust all afternoon.
Graham will, most likely, give up or severely reduce his huge commitment to running the club at the end of 2005, since his general health and the discs in his back have begun to suffer from the long hours. Despite these hardships, voluntarily undertaken, he has really enjoyed his time serving the club and is very proud of the variety of people that the club caters to during the 140 days that it is open throughout the year. The challenge to run the speedway team is a huge responsibility and the additional demands placed on all the staff, because Sittingbourne have entered a team in the Conference League, has contributed to the prevalent sense of jadedness and a desire to reassess the future aims of the club. Graham waves his hands at the group of men who stand idly in the pits area and wryly notes, "we get hundreds of volunteers, we just don't get enough paying!" although, last week's meeting against the Stoke Spitfires was the first time that the club had recorded an actual loss when they have staged a league fixture.
The ethos of the Sittingbourne club coincides with what they view was the original intention and purpose of Conference League racing; namely, to give up-and-coming young riders the chance to practise and hone their skills during the white heat of racing and team competition. Sadly, some Conference teams have been prepared to fund a move away from the initial ethos of "one old hand and six novices" to more of a win-atall- costs situation where "they're having to buy a winning team". Graham worries about Wimbledon since they're going to win the league but also have problems that threaten to curtail their involvement in the 2006 Conference League. "They'll have the trophy, but nowhere to parade it and no one to defend it in front of next season!" Many experienced riders, as self-employed people, have asked themselves "why race at the Premier League level when you can earn excellent money, if you score ten points every week against the kids at Conference level?" Each to their own approach though, since Graham believes that, irrespective of pay rates, the racing at Sittingbourne has been generally acknowledged to be "out of this world, we've had some cracking meetings even though we've always been on the receiving end all year". The club has helped develop the skills and potential of many young riders, although it's then struggled to retain them when they then get lured away by the higher wages offered by rival clubs. The club also has a problem with the motivation of some riders, notably Shane Colvin, "who's decided he ain't coming today" as he'd prefer to ride grass track. Graham has too many other things to get on with, so he suggests that I go back to the entrance gate and look for the man I met earlier in the woolly hat, Steve Ribbons, since he has many firmly held opinions.
Steve is still there to supervise arrivals and is, as Graham, suggested, a man who has considerable recent experience in speedway promotion and many strong and colourful opinions. He certainly doesn't disappoint throughout our discussion, which mostly involves Steve offering his opinions on the sport and its people. He has little regard for many contemporary promoters or, indeed, those within authority with positions of responsibility for the management of the sport in this country. Steve believes Peter Morrish, the man in charge of the administration and management of the present structure of the Conference League, does not adhere to the spirit or the letter of the original goals of it, namely to encourage rider development; but has instead fostered a situation where the present 'win at all costs' attitude has gradually come to prevail. He doesn't have a high opinion of other promoters - "most are chancers" - apparently due to a couple of negative personal experiences through his involvement in the return of speedway to both Rye House and Wimbledon. With Sittingbourne he hopes it will be third-time lucky and he intends that the difficult transition from a passionate fan on the terraces to a speedway promoter is, this time, successfully accomplished. He pointedly claims that "I was stitched up twice but the people here are decent and I'm not giving up".
Without any real invitation, Steve then launches into a passionate account of his involvement in a venture to restart Wimbledon at Plough Lane with Dave Croucher. The Dons have such a huge name within the history of the sport and the re-launch at Plough Lane attracted huge interest as well as first-night crowd of 3,500. The roar of speedway bikes was, once again, heard at a venue within the capital and Steve played an instrumental role with Dave Croucher in ensuring that this happened.
Though, for Steve, it didn't prove to be a case of 'once bitten, twice shy' when it came to his involvement in attempts to rejuvenate a defunct track. Next up for him was Rye House in Hoddesdon in Hertfordshire, which had one incarnation from 1977 until its closure in 1993. It's an area that Steve loves, not least because it's where he was "born and bred". He recalls that in 1998 he called a public meeting to discuss various ways to reconstitute the speedway club at Rye, "we were just a bunch of supporters and I use that term loosely". The club reopened initially as a motorcycle club based at Mildenhall before it explored the option of a complicated ground share agreement back in Hoddesdon. The supporters group then brought in Len Silver ("as a figurehead") for his promotional expertise and experience, both of which would be fully required to achieve their plan of laying down a track for a Monday night and then removing it immediately afterwards.
Again there was an unfortunate breakdown in relations, this time with Len Silver, after Steve had been instrumental in the resurrection of another defunct speedway club. I have redacted the majority of Steve's comments on the situation. When I put it to Steve that Len has an excellent reputation within the sport as well as a track record as an innovative promoter and investor in the facilities at Rye House Speedway, where he runs an excellent team at what is a well-respected club, he shrugs before he then gruffly notes, "I look on myself as an ideas man that's moved on".
If Steve spoke bluntly about his version of the events that led to the end of his involvement in the renaissance of speedway at Wimbledon and Rye House, he is equally forthright with his opinions with regard to contemporary British speedway. He believes that the current problems that afflict the sport are systemic and derived from the inadequacy of the strategic vision and supervision provided by the sport's governing authorities, particularly the BSPA and the SCB.
He readily acknowledges that his contention that "speedway as a whole is badly run" is a personal opinion and partially based on his own negative experiences when he opened a number of tracks. However, when doing this he found that "you're 100 percent on your own until you dig your first spade into the ground". Steve believes that the problems faced by new and existing tracks throughout the country are often broadly similar but, despite this, the BSPA provides "no expert advice to deal with spurious objections from local councils; especially as practically every council in the country is anti-speedway". He sincerely believes that the BSPA should try to pool its expertise and resources to ensure that would-be promoters or existing promoters could consult expert planning consultants, barristers or solicitors. To be fair, he notes, the BSPA have invested in medical expertise and that of skilled machine examiners. But Steve then highlights that skill in these peripheral activities doesn't help overcome various objections (planning, environmental etc.) or ensure any long-term ownership of the actual staging stadia infrastructure, unlike the outcomes that many other national sports associations in this country have managed to ensure over time. Instead the speedway authorities in the UK are content "for the sport to be parasitic", in the sense that it mostly survives utilising existing stadia that run dogs, stocks, soccer and other sports.
Steve believes if there had been strategic thinking and competent forward planning the BSPA could have, historically, invested financial resources to purchase stadia leases, as they became available, to thereby safeguard the sports continuity and its survival at existing venues. This would have resulted in the benefit of the actual ownership of some tangible assets for the sport to hold onto rather than follow the present strategy of primarily placing their "emphasis on the ownership of rider assets". To Steve's mind, this surely raises the sensible question of "would anyone in their right mind invest £50,000 in an asset that could break its leg tomorrow?"
Our conversation has taken an unexpectedly frank and pessimistic turn. It's a perspective that Steve sincerely holds and the net result, he believes, is that speedway is a "sport not built on any solid foundations at all because everyone in this sport has something to hide!" Whether it's the non-publication of attendances or, at the highest level, the lack of transparency and independent verification when it comes to the articles of the association. Steve spoke about what he claims is the mystery that surrounds various important aspects of governance by the UK governing body before he fulminates and rails against many of the major and significant figures within our sport. I have redacted these since Steve offers nothing but his own view of his personal experiences within the sport and various other assertions to corroborate his claim that he represents, "the unheard from the terraces, as it's where I'm from". Ultimately he bemoans the "veil of secrecy" that the ruthless pursuit of money UK speedway engenders with many people "really just being in it for themselves as individuals". To step back from welter of unsubstantiated allegations and if you look at it simply, Steve has alleged that speedway suffers from a lack strategic vision that has, to choose one example, failed to ensure the development of an infrastructure at a stadia level. Which, when allied to a lack of transparency and the haphazard approach to continuity at the club level, makes it hard the sport to plausibly substantiate its claims of professionalism to independent, outside organisations. He believes is particularly important when speedway seeks to attract significant interest from major UK sponsors and, thereby, hopefully increases the awareness of speedway among the general public for the long term benefit of the sport.
Steve much prefers the situation at Sittingbourne, the "true grassroots of the sport where the only person getting paid today is the referee", rather than attempt to track down and worry about where all the various revenues in the sport go. He is pragmatic enough to realise that it goes in part to the performers who make the sport what it is to watch, especially the star performers, as he acknowledges that "you've got to be a hard bastard to be a world champion". He then randomly identifies many past and present riders (names redacted) as "dour characters that knew the value of a quid".
It's a pretty unrelenting and critical perspective on the sport; in sharp contrast to practically everything else I've heard on my trip around every track in the country. I try to ignore for a few moments his continuing diatribe about the present "climate of fear" in the sport he believes that has been engendered by the deleterious impact of the pursuit of money on the sport. He also worries that there are many people who donate their time, effort and lives to the sport who do not realise that "someone somewhere is having a fortune". Whatever the reality of the situation, the disparity between "more and more people giving up so much for the sport" and the idea that "someone's having you over" very much angers Steve. He concedes that "maybe that's life" but won't let his disgruntlement rest as "the more I know the angrier I get".
Quite a queue of cars have built up for the car park and some of the afternoon's riders have still to arrive, so it seems the best time to leave to meet some more of the other staff and fans who are already in the stadium. With a long queue of arrivals, Steve no longer has time to talk but I'm definite that he still has the inclination. He is clearly a passionate and committed man about speedway who has been deeply angered by the real or imagined slights that he's experienced in his attempts to make the transition from the terraces into the world of promotion. While I'm walking away but still in earshot, he mentions a catch phrase that I've never heard before but in many ways, brilliantly captures the modern reality of our sport at many clubs, "speedway is the sport of five hundreds - 500 people and 500 cc engines!"
Showered in Shale by Jeff Scott
Ways to order your copy
This article was first published on 21st September 2006
"Having read the extract from Jeff Scott's book I can see why it is viewed as a significant addition to the speedway library. It is certainly written in an interestingly-analytical style and certainly I am sure from his own personal, honest view. Perhaps his thinly-veiled criticism of Steve Ribbons might carry more credence if his research had extended to establishing that the Rye House revival came before the Wimbledon example. I do hope that the rest of this very personal account, which seems to be widely-supported in the sport is based on more accurate, basic research. It doesn't augur well for the rest of the book, quite frankly. Mr.Scott quite rightly states that a quoted promoter has a strong reputation within the sport; equally it is possible for someone with such a reputation to behave unfairly towards a genuine enthusiast who took a very dead Rye House speedway and put his heart and soul into reviving it. Quite frankly, I find the extract patronising and snide, but then I have my own opinion, much as Mr.Scott has his. Sharper research would leave me more accepting of his conclusions sampled here. "
Mr.Scott quite rightly states that a quoted promoter has a strong reputation within the sport; equally it is possible for someone with such a reputation to behave unfairly towards a genuine enthusiast who took a very dead Rye House speedway and put his heart and soul into reviving it. Quite frankly, I find the extract patronising and snide, but then I have my own opinion, much as Mr.Scott has his. Sharper research would leave me more accepting of his conclusions sampled here. "
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