Book Extract: Showered in Shale
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 this most entertaining read. This extract comes from Chapter 11 of the book - "An Evening with Ronnie Russell in Thurrock".
The man at the gate is affable and helpful, he calls ahead on the phone and I hear him say "that writer's here for Ronnie". I have arrived early, as previously arranged, to meet the enthusiastic, down-to-earth promoter and team manager Ronnie Russell. From the pages of the Speedway Star as well as from his voluble appearances on the live televised meetings shown on Sky Sports, you just know that Ronnie is an enthusiast for all things Arena Essex. You also just know that he's patriotically English too! He can certainly talk for Britain and tirelessly promotes the forthcoming meetings at the stadium at every opportunity. RR cuts a strikingly distinctive figure. He looks most like a middle-aged version, albeit much slimmer, of a now forgotten lead singer from 1980s ska band Bad Manners - Buster Bloodvessel. Though I'm pretty sure Buster has never entered Ronnie's consciousness or served as any sort of role model for him. Especially when you consider that RR is always smartly dressed whenever you see him on TV (and later tonight) in that collared, well-ironed blue shirt worn in a way that cries out to you with a, 'I grew up when there was still National Service' attitude much more than I'm just off to bowls.
Strangely for a compulsive and capable self-publicist, during the slow-news period winter months of the close season Ronnie has spectacularly managed to embroil himself in a heated debate he can't possibly win, or recover from, with any glory. This has been played out in the most public of all forums within the sport, the letters and news pages of the Speedway Star or, less visibly, on the Internet forums. The dispute centred upon his intention to increase future admission charges for old age pensioners. Given that the popularity of speedway has severely declined from the pomp of its heyday, OAPs remain the backbone of the sport as we know it and, morbidly worryingly for the immediate future, will continue to be the largest age group from which the future lifeblood of the sport will be drawn. Ronnie has tried to justify this rather alienating proposal in a number of unsatisfactory ways. The central plank of his justification concerned the supposed systematic abuse by pensioners of the concession system of reduced entry fees, through a failure to provide proper documentation or, he implied, the use of forged documents. Maybe this concern with entitlement and correct paperwork is another manifestation of the National Service training thing again? Another spurious justification for this decision that Ronnie tried to advance was to claim a general intention throughout the sport to raise prices for pensioners through the abolition of concession entry fees, despite the subsequent conspicuous failure by any other promoters to implement these ill-conceived plans. The final and most tenuous excuse trotted out by RR was the complete failure of the old codgers to realise that increases in inflation and the cost of living generally would affect speedway in line with all other goods and services.
The whole situation became needlessly complicated and was undoubtedly a public relations disaster, no matter how tortuously Ronnie tried to explain or justify his stance on price increases. In a bizarre and rather delightful statement, Ronnie tried to run with a version of the economic facts of life that combined a variation of Harold Wilson's 'pound in your pocket' speech with a very complicated parable that involved OAPs at the supermarket checkout who still continued to do their weekly shop and bought food they needed to live on, even when prices went up dramatically! With a lot less hullabaloo than its initial suggestion, all his plans were suddenly dropped with some vague reference to Ronnie having been seriously misled by other promoters about their intentions.
The heat of the day scorches as I pass the main entrance way and grandstand while the racetrack bakes in the sunshine. There's quite a display of flagpoles with a nice patriotic array of Union flags, St George's flags and some of the chequered variety they wave at the Formula 1 drivers on the finish line. When it's not a speedway night, the stadium is mainly used for banger racing. First stop in my search to locate RR is the well-used and slightly tatty portacabin that forms the private office cum inner sanctum and nerve centre of operations on race night. Ronnie is the tenant and not the landlord at the Arena Essex Raceway, so the pervasive attitude appears to be very much make do and mend. Like the cupboard at Old Mother Hubbard's, the office is bare as RR is to be found down at the pits, where he chats amiably with Eastbourne's Adam Shields while he fastidiously cleans his bike. It's a work night and, although there are many hours to go before the meeting starts, Ronnie only has a "quick 10 minutes" to spare.
If you forget that we're geographically situated outside the unofficial border that is the M25, as soon as Ronnie opens his mouth you just know that really you're in London, the East End of London to be precise, most likely within the audible sound of Bow bells. Ronnie is charming, affable and helpful. He's infectiously enthusiastic about the sport and the riders. If time permitted, he could talk endlessly about his philosophy and opinions or recount many stories he's gained through years of involvement with speedway. Ronnie is at pains to stress that it's been an experience lived from both sides of the fence, both as a spectator and as a promoter. I'm enjoyably swept along on a tide of reminiscence, insight and opinion for nearly an hour. We're only fleetingly interrupted by a "quick word" with Paul Hurry about possible fixture clashes between his European long-track racing commitments and Arena Essex speedway fixtures ("lovely bloke. You should see his arm it would really horrify you"). Or by a "quick call" much later from Eve, his "lady wife" (RR speaks about many things with an old-fashioned manner), who punctures his reverie enough to remind him that it's race night and time for him to bustle off energetically to get on with tonight's "Showtime" once more. And "Showtime", I soon realise, when I watch him bounce about everywhere later that night as well as from the level of genuine excitement he generates during our conversation, is something that RR relishes and excels at. This evening's contest with the local rivals the Eastbourne Eagles is also yet another chance to go head to head with his more successful elder brother Terry, rival promoter of both Swindon and Eastbourne among his many other connections to speedway in this country. RR's tremendous respect for "my brother Terry" frequently peppers his stories and conversation.
For this evening's encounter, RR has rather excitingly managed to sign the current World Champion Jason Crump as a replacement number 1 for the absent Mark Loram. Mark was sadly injured, at the start of the season at Eastbourne, in a freak low-speed accident. Now he has secured the coup of a gifted guest rider like Jason Crump, Ronnie has an extra spring in his step and additional jauntiness to his demeanour.
The natural showman and promoter in him kicks in, buoyed up by the thought of all the extra Arena fans that might flood back through the turnstiles tonight excited at the prospect to watch Crump ride for Arena. Though it will be a delight still strongly tinged with sadness at what might have been, if only Mark hadn't had the misfortune to get so badly injured early in the season.
The injury has been a personal catastrophe for Mark, which has been compounded for the club by their continued failure to regularly find adequate temporary replacements. Well, to Ronnie's joy they did have an amazing temporary replacement in the form of Tony Rickardsson for a short while - "amazing", "what a rider", "what a professional" - who excelled in the Hammers' colours and managed to excite the often difficult-to-please home crowd. Ultimately (and very sadly for British speedway) Tony treated these rides as an extended chance to gain some early season practice, sharpen his consummate skills, perfect his bike set ups and achieve some additional match fitness for his forthcoming Grand Prix campaign and his tireless pursuit of the record six wins, held by Ivan Mauger. Uncontroversially Ronnie believes, "he's the best rider of his time, that's all you can ever say. You can't really compare, there have been so many greats - the legendary Ivan Mauger, the great Hans Nielsen and so on - they were the ultimate for their time, it's as far as you can say". According to RR, all these truly great riders have key qualities that helped them stand out from the rest - the ability, the mental energy and focus, the professionalism, the killer instinct that prevents them from being as easily beaten as some other riders - "your number 1 is different from the rest of the team, they're so special!" Since then he has spent endless hours on his mobile phone in a fruitless search for suitable alternative replacements. So much time that, at one stage, the mobile company blocked his phone because they thought it had been stolen, in light of the sudden high volume of overseas calls. Despite the best but inadequate efforts of the various guests Ronnie did secure, no one has managed to step into Mark's vacant steel shoe and his absence has badly affected results on the track. The frustration of his search for Mark's adequate replacement, in combination with the poor results and the dwindling crowds has so far made it the "worst season ever" for Ronnie as the promoter of Arena Essex speedway.
However, Ronnie is an indomitable type since he has been around the promotion game for quite a while now. Well, since 1982 give or take a few years when he had a sabbatical, which he found "very hard as it had been my total life", before he finally returned to speedway again with Arena in 2000. Her indoors, Eve, claims he's like a "drug addict", always on the lookout for his next fix. Never mind all the time and money he's "poured into it" over the years. RR has been that way about speedway ever since it got into his blood when he first went to see a meeting with his Dad. This was in Bow, East London, and the visitors were the Poole Pirates. The thrill of the sport caught his childish imagination, mostly due to the innate glamour and resonance of the striking image of the skull and crossbones on the race bibs of the Poole team. Ronnie was also fascinated with the spectacle of people who rode sideways at speed. After that he was hooked, though his formal involvement only started in 1963 when, after he'd endeared himself to the local track staff, which enabled him to start in the sport as "a pusher-outer". Since then it's been a glittering career in speedway promotion, often with his brother, which has taken in various tracks and includes spells at Crayford, Rye House and Arena. Where he finds himself now is very much where he wants to be. Arena Essex is the place he's laid his hat and therefore it's very much his home.
Since the turn of the 21st century, under his command, it's been drive and ambition all the way for the Arena Essex team. The first thing RR did was to purchase an inflatable air fence and thereby put his track ahead of the curve when it came to this aspect of rider safety. It was a decision that resulted in a reduction in his insurance premiums as the team immediately plummeted from top to bottom of the most unwanted title in the sport - the Race Crashes league rankings compiled on a yearly basis by the insurers. "Without disrespecting the teams in the Premier League, which is very difficult, like the first division nowadays in football", Ronnie only ever had eyes for the main prize to finally see Arena ride in the Elite League. He's never looked back though he admits he misses the "good crack together" that you'd have as a team of riders and mechanics during a three- or four-day "Northern Tour". However in the highest division, where Arena now find themselves, you no longer get that kind of tour experience or camaraderie. The modern-day reality is that the top riders work throughout Europe and fly here, there and everywhere. So it's likely that any Elite League team squad will only be together on the nights that they actually have a fixture.
Although the Elite League is "more professional in terms of equipment and attitude" it has resulted in a couple of very tough years financially for the Arena promotion, particularly since they stepped up a division. However, the dynamics of the modern version of the sport has changed and one of the most positive, in Ronnie's forceful view, is the coverage by Sky Sports, "the most fantastic thing to happen to speedway in many years". This, as if his acknowledged speedway habit and desire to succeed meant that he needed any further evidence, was a key factor in the move up in leagues from the Premier to the Elite League for Arena Essex. It's been a decision that has helped significantly increase the interest from and level of payments received from the club's sponsors. For example, the air fence adverts and sponsorship raised £80,000 in 2004 in the Elite League compared with only £11,700 raised without the air fence in the Premier League the previous year.
According to Ronnie, the sport has always attracted a very broad crosssection of society as spectators, riders, referees and it's the same with the sponsors. People watch the sport on the telly and it ignites a latent or previous interest which often means that they then decide that they want to be part of it again. That's what RR sincerely believes but also continues to hope. The medium of television is so powerful that Ronnie marvels that he was recently recognised as "Essex" when he was on holiday at Paignton in Devon. Never one to let the grass grow under his feet, he's recently attracted a firm of city stockbrokers to possibly take an interest in Arena and has ambitious plans to exploit the interest potential of 23,000 West Ham United season ticket holders (and thereby attract one group of "Hammers" fans to support another local "Hammers" team). Ronnie indicates that he could even get one of the buses he already runs locally to Arena fixtures every week, if it transpired that transport (or alcohol consumption) was a problem for newly interested fans to get to Thurrock from the East End.
Not that RR paints a rosy picture of the precarious finances of the average rider or promoter. After he's slipped a metaphorical onion casually from his pocket, Ronnie bemoans the uniquely shocking financial structure of the sport with regards to the distribution of profits from the Labour and Capital employed. It's a situation where the traditional relationship of the 'Wages of Labour' to the 'Profit of Capital', eloquently described by Marx in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, has become inverted. The net result is that "so much of your money is given to your employees". Marx might have provided some great analysis, but he has absolutely nothing to say when it comes to what RR describes as the "unaffordable bit of the cake" which the riders then inevitably fritter away, "all their money goes on engine tuners and equipment" while they perpetually search for that magic vital but elusive ingredient required for instant success. Like the revolutionary but often useless equipment bought by obsessed club golfers in the hope of improved performance; it's a mostly fruitless quest for perfection that is invariably and pathologically shared by speedway riders everywhere. They optimistically and continually try to distinguish themselves from their rivals through obsessive tinkering with their equipment in the attempt to ensure their bikes go just that little bit faster.
It's enough to drive a bitter man to tears, but RR rises above these petty vicissitudes. He's delighted with the team's main sponsor - Husqvarna - so much so that he omits to mention to me that they manufacture the world's largest lawnmower! Which is definitively another unique claim to fame as well as another close association with success and innovation for the Husqvarna Hammers. Apart from the sponsors, Ronnie is delighted with the fans, of course, and quickly acknowledges that they're "committed" and "deeply knowledgeable". Though he still needs to chase the essential growth through the turnstiles that can apparently only come when you attract the "floating audience" to or back to speedway. Hopefully, the promise of regular TV coverage allied to the Husqvarna leadership position in the horticulture market will suffice to fulfil this ambition2. To achieve the required growth in spectator numbers, while you overcome the structural problem caused by the iniquitous business model between promoters and riders within the sport that Ronnie despairs of, you basically have to put on a damn good show week in and week out.
After only a few minutes in his company, you know that, if anyone is, Ronnie is a showman and an optimist. It just needs more hard work and the talking of the talk for it to all come together. This committed man sincerely hopes that the 'ifs, ands, buts and maybes' might shortly start to stack up in Arena's favour again. Basically, if Mark recovers quickly from injury and comes back racing shortly, Ronnie is sure that it'll boost the fans while, most importantly, add that vital intangible but absent ingredient back into the side. If that significant 'X' factor returned, he believes that it would give the team some increased oomph and generate the buzz for that elusive but vital "word of mouth" he always seeks.
It's suddenly only 90 minutes to go to the off and I've had a whistle-stop tour of the world of speedway according to Ronnie. His energy and enthusiasm is exhaustingly infectious. He's keen to get off to fry the many fish that is the typical race night lot of a person who combines the duties of promoter and team manager! The need to look the part is another crucial aspect of the process, so with a firm shake of the hand and a determination in his demeanour, he's off for tonight's latest fix. We're not at all far from take-off as RR bustles away to change from his casual civvies into his smart clothes which he'll wear, as ever, with his optimistic but plain speaking outlook.
Phew, is all I can say - to the evening's heat and the whirlwind that is Ronnie - as I lurk in the shadow of the main stand for a minute's rest. The car park has started to fill slowly and the crowd begins to filter in clutching their boards and garden chairs. A few of the early birds loiter by the rather well-stocked track shop situated in the main grandstand building. This is the only outlet open in a slightly sad parade of shuttered shops, though it boasts a panoramic view of the track and a sign that rather grandly proclaims it to be the 'Bangers & Speedway Souvenir Shop'. The shop definitely has even more than the usual array of merchandise crammed into a very small space and, for the next 30 minutes while I linger there, it attracts anyone who's anyone from the world of speedway who happens to be around in that part of Essex for this fixture against Eastbourne. Practically every passer-by stops for a chat, a question or to complain about the resolutely closed bar, particularly since it's a scorching evening when even the mind of the most loyal member of the temperance society would turn to the need for the cool refreshment of an alcoholic beverage.
The general consensus is that the shut bar typifies the poor organisational skills you can regularly expect as part of the Arena experience, in this case where sobriety rules and thirsts remain unquenched. "Laughable" is as polite a summary as I hear. Something about trips and breweries also gets frequently mentioned. So I can't help but realise that Ronnie really does need the bags of energetic determination he already has, but in even greater abundance if he's to staunch and turn round this apparently habitual level of casual grumbling. The knock-on impact of Mark's injuries to the results of the team on the track can't have exactly helped brighten the mood of this particular 'knowledgeable crowd'. All these serial moans and grumbles - from the "you're not going to believe what they've gone and done now" school of thought - makes me wonder if those West Ham season ticket holders haven't already started to attend Arena meetings in force.
Showered in Shale by Jeff Scott
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This article was first published on 31st July 2006
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