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Innovate or Die
By Ivor Craine

A crowd of over 80,000 recently attended a Big Bash (20 over) game of Cricket at the MCG in Melbourne where as a conventional game of Shield cricket would have been lucky to draw 1000 spectators. Surely with speedway crowds having fallen to their current low numbers it is time for the sport to try something revolutionary to bring fans back?

My introduction to Speedway was at the long gone Tracey's Maribyrnong Speedway where the six rider four lap handicap races were the highlights of the nights racing generating incredible excitement. The winner of these events was not decided until the checkered flag which is in in sharp contrast to 95% of current league heats where you can pencil in the race results after the first five or ten seconds of the race.

Why not try this format of racing in British Speedway and introduce a Handicap Knockout Cup with all Elite and Premier league teams competing?

From brief discussion with Keith Chapman at the Torun GP I know he is adamantly opposed to handicap racing but surely something has to be tried in order to generate more spectator appeal for our dying sport?

 

This article was first published on 24th January 2016


 

  • Graeme Frost:

    "I'd go a step further I'd consider running league matches on a handicap basis. Do away completely with team point limits. Teams can sign any riders they want to but on the basis the riders will be starting on a handicap according to their average. Without giving it too much thought, it could be something like, riders on 3 points or less start from the tapes; 3-6 average start from 10 metres, 6-9 start from 20 metres and 9-12 start from 30 metres.

    As well as making every race more exciting it would introduce a new tactical element to team building. Do you build a team with a mixture of each grade, or go top heavy and get three or four 9+ average riders believing they can win regularly from the back mark, or maybe a team heavy on 5/6 pointers? Remembering no team is going to go crazy and run a lot of 9 pointers because it would be too expensive. The traditionalists will be aghast at the suggestion, but I'd class myself right near the top of the list of traditionalists and I think the current ways are seeing the crowds get lower every year, so it is worth a try. "

  • George Dodds:

    "Perhaps it is time to do away with fixed gates. Let the opposition choose whatever gates they want on a race by race basis - and that could be 2 and 3, 1 and 4, any combination they want. That may encourage home promoters to produce more competitive tracks as their boys will have to work hard for the points. Also make the first 10 minutes free practice for the visitors, the current parades with riders wearing helmets are not the most exciting starts to the evening. Effectively the "only" thing wrong with speedway is that four riders of similar ability rarely line up against each other leading to lop-sided, uncompetitive racing. Crack that first and then go to work on guests, points limits and double tacticals!"

  • Mike Wilson:

    "The most obvious thing wrong with Speedway in my opinion is the lack of pure entertainment. To much down time between heats, too much messing about with starts and not enough heat races which is a conundrum requiring more money to run an extended event. Race meetings need to flow from the minute it starts. Handicapping is not the answer as all that will do is have riders ask for more money again raising the Promoters costs. The actual racing of the bikes doesn't need to be tinkered with as the spectacle of 4 riders without bikes is fine, it is everything leading up to and after this that needs looking at."

  • John Hyam:

    "I remember handicap starts for UK league racing in the mid 1950s. It was not well received by either the riders or spectators. I am surprised that after nearly 60 years it should again be put forward as one way to "save a dying sport'?"

  • David Pickles:

    "Innovate or die. I've never been much of a fan of handicap racing, although when I first started to go speedway in 1964, the old National League did have a handicap system for some of the top riders I seem to remember. As far as innovation is concerned for our beloved sport, it will take much more than a 5 or 10 metre handicap to bring back the falling crowds. I think we need to be far more bold.

    Back in the mid-80's I recall the late John Berry offered to effectively "run" the sport on behalf of all promotions, but sadly they didn't have the foresight to at least let him try. There are hundreds of things that can be done to promote our sport that current promoters won't seem to try. A pool of money, funded by all of them, could be used for cinema advertising. Pressure could and should be put on sports editors of newspapers to give us the coverage we deserve. The BBC should be petitioned to include our results on evening sports programmes. They give enough time to women's darts and bowls, why not speedway?

    Probably the biggest step that could be taken would be for the Grands Prix to be trialled in completely new venues. China would be a worthy start. A country with a massive population, the novel interest in a speedway GP would, I feel, make national news bulletins. If it didn't all the more reason for the above mentioned fund of promoters money to be utilised in hiring a top-class PR company to push our sport.

    Let's be honest. The product hasn't changed since the days of the 60's and early 70's when crowd levels at some tracks were between 8-10 times what they are now. Riders still risk their lives every time they sit on a bike. The drama, noise, colour and spectacle of a night at the speedway still takes some beating, but ask a group of teenagers what speedway is and they will look at you as though you have just risen from the grave. If we don't seriously shout it loud from the rooftops then our sport, in my view the greatest sport on the planet, will eventually die when we do."

  • Dudley Jones:

    "I am old enough to have seen handicap league speedway in the days of Fundin & Briggs, in the early 1960s. Reserves had negative handicaps at this time. There were some marginal benefits in watching Ove Fundin coming from behind. Some riders, like Ove, thrived on it. Others like Briggs, did less well. Retro Speedway throws doubt on whether the 10 yards (10 metres now) was a handicap for some. Ove Funding seemed to demonstrate that what he lost at the handicap he made up by the greater speed carried into the first corner.

    I do not think that handicap racing has much to offer, at least in the UK. If we want to speedway thrive then it has to be: 1. Known about, marketed. 2. Slickly presented. 3. Make fans feel part of the action. 4. Have racey tracks.

    When I was a teen Coventry seemed to plaster every telepgraph pole in the midlands with bright yellow stickers advising of forthcoming meetings. No wonder they did well. Slick presentation means two things. First is having a crowd pleasing/cheeky anouncer that got the fans behind their team, second is getting each race started very soon after the earlier one - keep them interested, don't bore them. Poor racing tracks are a perenial problem. If you are serious about running speedway, make sure that the track is racey and with several race lines. Better that the visiting teams win more often on neutral tracks that excite than having boring and dull races where the home team, however poor, wins.

    I think speedway has a bright future with Buster Chapman at the helm and with the National League thriving and growing speeday from the roots up. Birmingham and Eastbourne moved from Elite to third division and not only survived but re-energised British Speedway. The future is not the Elite league, but Premier + National, with more home grown talent."

  • Ivor Craine:

    "While the general opinion seems to be against handicap racing none of the contributors actually state a reason why they are opposed to it from a spectacle point of view. Also the opinions seem to come from die hard traditionalists who will stick with the sport regardless. However it is more important to get responses from those thousands who have stopped attending. Did they lose interest because the race result is decided in the first 5 seconds and the lack of excitement due to the rarity of overtaking.

    My introduction to speedway was in Australia where team meeting were confined to occasional Test match of Australia against England or Sweden and the program consisted of a mixture of scratch and handicap racing. Even though the final of the scratch race could consist of four evenly matched riders such as Ken McKinlay, Jack Geran , Jack Biggs and Neil Street the spectators preferred to watch the six man 4 lap handicap races with these riders coming from as far back as 260 yards to often win.

    On smaller British tracks 260 yards would be excessive but I think there would probably be a good 100 metres difference between the No 1 and No 7 of most teams.

    While not going to the extreme of saying League matches should be instantly changed to handicap format I think it should be trialed and a KO cup with all Elite and Premier league teams being included on a home and away basis would be an ideal way to ascertain fans reaction. The tactical element suggested for team building is also another positive for this format and I doubt if it was considered whenever handicap racing was briefly trialed in the past..

    The use of different formats has bought fans back to cricket so why not try this approach in Speedway. However the handicap format is just one aspect of what needs to be done to revive Speedway's appeal and other suggestions such as promoting the sport to teenagers are also vital."

  • Cary Cotterman:

    "I agree with Ivor Craine that handicap racing can add interest to speedway by placing top riders at a disadvantage wherein they have no choice but to come from behind to win. Most of my speedway spectating has been in California, where league racing has been a rare novelty and, like Australia, individual meetings with a mixture of scratch and handicap heats were once the rule. Riders like Rick Woods, Mike Bast, Bruce Penhall, and the Moran brothers started as far back as seventy yards, with riders of varied abilities spread out in ten-yard intervals between them and the gate. In recent years, however, handicap racing has mostly disappeared here. While providing excitement in individual meetings,

    I don't know how well handicapping would work in team matches, or whether it would revive speedway in the UK. Apparently it was tried decades ago and wasn't successful.

    As for why speedway isn't as well-attended now as it was in the '70s and '80s, I can only give my impressions from my experience in California, but some of the same problems might exist in other speedway countries as well. It's too expensive. For my wife and I to go to a single speedway meeting would cost 48.00 USD just to cover the cost of parking and two tickets. Add about 10.00 USD for gasoline to get there. If we want to eat something instead of going all evening without food, that's another 20.00 USD. We can do this once in a while, but neither we, nor many other people, can afford to do it every week. Nearly double it if someone has a couple of kids.

    I appreciate that riders deserve to be generously compensated for the risks they take to entertain us, and promoters need to make a profit. I don't think it's greedy riders or promoters that have brought about the high cost of attending speedway, I think it's lawyers and insurance companies that have driven the cost up. Unfortunately, I can't imagine what can be done about it.

    Modern speedway bikes seem to be best suited to hard, slick tracks, which results in less passing. I see this in the Grand Prix, as well as domestic meetings here in California. In the '60s, '70s, and '80s, the fence would attain a solid covering of track surface and have to be scraped off with shovels after nearly every heat. You could sit ten rows up the grandstand in the bends and get plastered with shale. Now you can sit in the front row and hardly ever get touched, and the fence stays clean (and we don't use dirt deflectors here). Slick track conditions seem to suit the bikes and modern riding style. Riders stay half-sideways all the way down the straightaway and blast around the bends very stylishly at full throttle like those old model airplanes on a string, but passing seems to be more difficult than it used to be when there was grip.

    There are too many races! This seems counter intuitive; after all, the more racing the better, right? Well, not necessarily. In previous decades, when speedway was at its peak of popularity here, an evening's program consisted of about twenty-four races: qualifying heats, semi-finals, and "main events" (finals). There was an interval of about fifteen to twenty minutes during which there would be a few junior races (kids on mini-bikes or miniature speedway bikes) or other entertainment (frizbee dogs, a guy doing wheelies on a motocross bike, etc.). The night's entertainment would start at 8:00 and be over by 10:00 or 10:30.

    Today, in addition to a long series of heats, semi-finals, and finals for the elite and up-and-coming riders, there's a seemingly endless procession of amateur riders' heats, kids' races ranging from speedway juniors to toddlers on tiny bikes, and sidecars. Forty to fifty races spread over three-and-a half hours or more is not unusual. There are breaks for track maintenance, but formal intervals are no more. It's not only mind-numbing, but butt-numbing, and those who don't reside locally still have a long drive ahead. It's just too much!

    Returning to the original topic, handicap racing as a means to help bring crowds back: I like handicap racing and miss it. It can be quite exciting. But I don't think it would be adaptable to league racing, and history supports that. That's my opinion, and I'm sticking to it! "

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