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Strai(gh)tened Times
By David Walsh

The Shay - Halifax

Do not blindly accept what you are told: we do not live in strai(gh)tened times. In a world of speed-way, how could we be?

Simply open your eyes and bear witness at the arena. For every strai(gh)t you will see not one, but two bends. Do you see? Our world is not strai(gh)t. Our world is bent.

Clarity of vision begins with the acceptance of this simple truth. And while the action often revolves at speeds that make us feel giddy, maintain your clear, undimmed perception. Remain unmoved! Assume your rightful place amongst the crowd and, beneath the brightest lights, bear witness. You will see many remarkable things. Among them passion, glamour, naked ambition, glory. Muck, struggle, defeat, tragedy. Redemption. It's all there, and more.

Ultimately, the winners and losers will be revealed. They are easy to identify. But who to identify with? The winners? That part is easy: the winners make the headlines; the winners take the money; the winners sell the dream. And for all that, the winners should be gracious; they should be generous; and most of all, thankful.

But what about the losers? While they are easily disregarded, never forget that winners cannot win without them. And for that, no matter how pitiful they may appear, the losers always deserve our consideration and respect. But here's the twist: in this game losers can be winners, too, just as surely as winners often lose, no matter how bulging the purse as they depart for home.

And of course, the dramatic setting for all the above: those strai(gh)ts and bends. Remember: for every strai(gh)t, not one, but two bends. Our world is not strai(gh)t. Our world is bent.

* * *

There has been much talk so far this winter of a sport bordering on crisis and these are indeed difficult times. Threatened and actual venue closures have increasingly become part of the landscape in recent years and all manner of prescriptions for a cure are currently being bandied about in the press and on internet forums.

Changes to rules, regulations and formats have traditionally been the response to what are considered straitened times. But do we really think, for example, the 'golden double' replacing the 'tactical substitute' made any difference whatsoever to the overall health and viability of our sport? I think not, though that particular rule-change certainly presented managers with the opportunity to make cuts in expenditure once the 'golden double' itself was later replaced with the 'tactical ride.'

Sound budgeting, some would say. But of what longterm benefit if the changing and the cutting merely adds to increased disaffection amongst the support-base and in turn leads to poorer crowds? I know disenchanted followers, for instance, who would welcome the resurrection of the 'tactical substitute' - the introduction of a team's star rider against weaker

opposition when six points down. It was always such a thrill, you see, when he was beaten and left high and dry!

I choose this particular example (golden double/tactical substitute) because it illustrates an important point that cannot be ignored. Short-term financial expediency at the race-way signifies in small part the bigger picture and underlying reason for the current mood of crisis: economics.

The instinct to cut expenditure is another traditional response in what are thought straitened times. True, in a world shackled by the laws of money it is certainly the case that a workable balance between income and expense always must be reached according to the needs of any going concern. Options, though, vary, and we know there are more imaginative ways for an organisation to balance things out and pay its way without introducing unnecessary rules and cuts that do more long-term damage than good.

It seems to me that in order to overcome the current malaise that blights our, let's say, 'curved' world, a fundamental shift in attitude, culture and outlook is required. Moreover, to secure lasting well-being and real sustainability, not to mention our longer-term hopes for survival, what is needed, in short, is nothing less than a universal paradigm shift.

Now, if anyone is still with me at this point, they may consider the following suggestions helpful...

Part I: Banking

Sort out your banking! Everything flows from this.

Two years ago at Glasgow the straights and bends were realigned and the banking extended and elevated. Theoretically, it was thought, this should have greatly improved the action on offer which many agreed had suffered from unavoidable restrictions imposed on the dimensions of the circuit. While the view of some was that the subsequent racing was first-rate, it came as a surprise that other dedicated followers thought it at times to be predictable and unsatisfying. Perhaps they were expecting too much. Speedway can be processional, true, but no less thrilling if, say, the race is being led by a relatively inexperienced novice.

Anyway, despite Glasgow tasting glory on their re-vamped circuit, winning the 2011 Premier League Championship, no less, the club still struggled to attract healthy crowds. Clearly, the ambitious realignments didn't quite have the desired effect, though the silverware was a real achievement with great credit going to team, management and passionate support.

Now a new promotional team is preparing for its first season in charge and it is my understanding that remedial work at the corners has already begun and further improvements to the Ashfield's banked bends are currently in the pipeline. We can only hope that any changes result in greater excitement and will be rewarded with more members of the public going along to swell the crowd. As a spectator and former competitor myself, and drawing on experiences as both, here is what I know about banking...

Back in the day, my hometown team, Halifax, became renowned for hosting a fantastic weekly spectacle on what many believed to be the best banking in the UK, if not the world. Others would argue the case for Bradford, Exeter or Berwick being the best and, when considering the gradient of the 3rd and 4th bends at all of those three venues, they may have a point. However, the 1st and 2nd at each are/were just a little too flattened-out to challenge the premier status of Halifax which benefitted from spectacular banking covering all four corners and from every vantage point.

Funnily enough the only possible challenge to Halifax's premier status there could have been was from, of all places, where I happened to make my National League debut in the colours of Glasgow and the birthplace of the love of my life, Scunthorpe.

Alas, the good-sliders down Goole's way were barred from accessing potentially the greatest banking of all, even though said banking was close enough to the action to be filled-in with major deposits by the Saints at every turn - a massive 'quibble' of mine, that.

Yes, it was there, the former home of Scunthorpe Saints, Quibell Park, 1971-78, that spoke to the most important lesson of all for those interested in providing their supporters with the best banking in speedway...access! They didn't quite get that at Quibell (google the photos to get my drift).

So, they may be steep, they may speed-up the action and they may be prepared with the requisite layer of dirt, but if the entries and exits aren't smooth, wide enough and, here's the thing, offer easy access for all those who would wish to chance their luck at the same time shoulder-to-shoulder, then you have inferior banking.

Therefore it is welcome news that a widening of each bend at Ashfield, no matter how marginal, is proposed for 2013. All should be confident that better fare will be on offer as a consequence. I wish all those now involved with course preparation well. However, a word of caution.

From the average ex-rider's point of view, perhaps the biggest issue last season at Ashfield wasn't necessarily the width of the bends, but the hole that developed on entry to the 3rd and 4th. If you want thrilling action to go with a banked track, competitors must feel confident they'll emerge relatively unscathed after investing all of their courage in a risky manoeuvre at the end of a long, long straight. Certainly, what you mustn't do with a hole in your banking is to keep digging. Such an error results in the unpredictable handling of great power and will at some point surely require the installation of yet another asset respected by all those who used to attend at Halifax: a ring-fence of steel!

Ah yes, that ring-fence of steel: solid as houses and mutual safety guaranteed, except for the most reckless of chancers, I hasten to add. The only person I ever witnessed breaching that safety barrier was one Reidar Eide. In consequence he was on a, ahem, Eide-ing to nothing and goes down in Halifax history for almost the worst of all reasons...almost, that is. Thankfully he walked away! But what a history Halifax's is and to which rider Eide (no pun unintended) so (mis)adventurously contributed.

Did you know that the names of all Halifax team members from 1949 are carved into the north-boundary wall of the town's Minster? Arthur Forrest, Vic Emms, Al Allison, Dick Seers, Ray Johnson, et al, all going down in history by the Ring o' Bells along with the chiselled rallying cry of "Up Dukes!" - a marvellous thing indeed. I've seen similar examples of hopeful graffiti carved on the walls of ancient Rome, notably the Colosseum - the Eternal City's forerunner to the modern arena. Like I said, marvellous in deed!

You may have figured by now that I miss the old Halifax, and I do. Who doesn't? It had, I don't know, something of the 'X' factor about it. Something a little eXtraordinary, in fact. But that all changed some years ago. Now my hometown is perhaps best known around the world for once having had the largest of all building societies but which was then 'sold out' to become a bank; a bank that only a few short years later, in 2008, essentially went bankrupt, incredible as it may sound. I'm tempted to call that ironic, but it's more than that. It's nothing less than a crying-XXXX-of-a-shame! My own response? Better late than never, I switched to the Co-op. (Oct. 2013 edit: The Co-op Bank is now majority owned by American hedge funds. Well that account didn't last long! Utterly depressing!)

Inclusive of the Lloyd's bailout, it cost the country £17 billion. (that's £17,000 million(!) even before considering all the other bank bailouts, incl. £7 billion in loans for Ireland's banks). But the cost is even more, i.e. in human terms: swingeing cuts to necessary welfare and a bonfire of our popular public services. I mention this because the UK government can find mountains of cash when it wishes but the continued failure to make the financial sector pay for its own gross follies, those that led to the great banking crash of 2008, is what lay at the heart of the current crisis threatening speedway and so much else, as if any of you needed reminding of that. Is it not simply a matter of (bent world?) priorities?

Ah well, perhaps one day, in the shadow of all that shame, the scattering of shale and the sweet smell of speedway will once again light up The Shay? At least then a part of the good days would have returned. Hmm, we can all dream, can't we? Then dream again. And again...and again...then, perhaps, a gain...

David.

PS: It is my firm belief that if the good folk at Glasgow can make the necessary improvements to the groundwork, then a nicely banked 'valley of Ashfield' can truly lay claim to that lost reputation of Halifax, the best banked speedway of all time. Perhaps then we could say Glasgow even had the 'W' factor. Or put another way...woW!

Next: Part II - Admissions

 

This article was first published on 16th December 2012


 

  • David Pickles:

    "What a witty article by David Walsh, and one that brings back memories of the Shay and Quibell Park. Sadly, he omitted to mention the banking at Hackney which on it's day rated as one of the best tracks in the land. I have a very tenuous link to the Shay as one of my brother-in-laws was a pro footballer and used to play for them, Scarborough, Middlesbrough and Blackpool. He never could understand my love for speedway though!"

  • Ian Maclean:

    "Thanks David for an interesting and thought provoking article. Do you offer advice to any of the promoters and would they value it? Did you ever race at Cliftonhill, home of the Edinburgh for two seasons at the end of the 60s and Glasgow for a couple of years in the mid 70s? It had quite steep banking."

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