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Gerald Dunn's JAP
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1975 World Final. Heat 20.
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Peter Collins Autobiography
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2024 is Off and Running

The 2024 speedway season is barely a week old, but we've already been treated to some memorable moments, which have been seen far and wide thanks to the streaming revolution.

The action began at Sandy Lane on 14th March, the day prior to the traditional opening of the speedway season, as the all-new Oxford Spires entertained the Birmingham Brummies. The meeting had looked in severe doubt due to heavy rain in the area, putting off a few from travelling, though it looked like an encouragingly healthy attendance.

Clever track preparation, mainly involving tyre packing the circuit, ensured that the water that had fallen remained largely on the surface and was dislodged by the time a few heats had been staged. This ability to get meetings on will be vital this year, given the packed fixture list planned in Oxfordshire.

In a surprisingly close encounter the Spires triumphed, meaning top level league points were awarded to an Oxford side for the first time in many years.

The visiting Brummies will nonetheless be pleased that they made a contest of it, particularly since they were missing Piotr Pawlicki who they will expect to be a top scorer this season. Scott Nicholls is standing in as his temporary replacement and he used his experience of the Oxford circuit to score a very creditable paid 12 points.

His old adversary Chris Harris led the way for the Spires, putting 13 points on the board. They may be getting on in years, but these two legendary speedsters show no signs of being over the hill just yet.

All in all, a great first night of top flight speedway for the Oxford Spires. It'll be interesting to see how crowd levels hold up as the Spires, Cheetahs and Chargers stage their home meetings this year. Running three teams is a brave experiment and one that deserves to succeed.

The Tapes Rise on the 2024 Season
Screencap from Oxford TV

The speedway circus should have moved north to Cumbria on Saturday 16th March for the much-anticipated Ben Fund Bonanza. The best line-up for a number of years had been assembled, with Workington's impressive Northside Arena being the host venue. Unfortunately the weather intervened and the event had to be cancelled.

Any hopes of a swift restaging have now faded, with the meeting being deferred to an unspecified date in the future. That does inevitably mean it'll be contested by a lesser field, with the biggest names likely to be committed to more pressing engagements.

The weather looked a possible threat the following day on the other side of the country. Redcar hosted a testimonial meeting for Charles Wright, an individual event staged over 20 heats plus the now obligatory semi-final and final.

The criteria for testimonial meetings these days are rather opaque, seemingly applications simply being made to the BSPL who then decide on the merits of the claim. Wright has been a good servant to the sport, so no particular reason to resent such an award being granted in his case.

Unusually, he chose not to ride in the event, content to avoid the dual-stress of both racing and ensuring the meeting ran smoothly.

The meeting seemed to go well and could be enjoyed worldwide thanks to the coverage provided by the magnificent British Speedway Network (BSN). Ian Brannan was on commentary duty, ably assisted by Adam Roynon who confirmed he has not retired, despite currently being without a team place.

With weather conditions in mind, the track preparation was perhaps a little slicker than usual, not that the racing suffered too greatly.

Unfortunately the heavens opened just before the final, as predicted by amateur meteorologist Gary Havelock from his home in Yarm a few miles from the circuit. Freddie Lindgren made light of the conditions and reeled off a controlled four laps to win the meeting from Erik Riss, Ben Cook and Dan Bewley.

Riss looked particularly impressive, clearly fully recovered from his annus horribilis in 2023.

The Field at Charles Wright's Testimonial
Screencap from British Speedway Network

A number of the same riders came to the tapes the following evening (Monday 18th March) at the National Speedway Stadium in Manchester. The event was the annual Peter Craven Memorial meeting, a tribute to the legendary Belle Vue rider who died in a track crash in 1963.

This was another meeting carried live by BSN and also watched by a large attendance at the stadium itself.

The 20 heat individual format gave all the Belle Vue Aces and their invited guests a chance to shake off some winter cobwebs, try out their machinery and generally get themselves ready for the long season ahead.

Local fans would have been particularly pleased to see new signing Ben Cook quickly get to grips with the track, racking up 11 points from his five rides. Norick Blodorn also caught the eye, winning three of his five races, unfortunately mixing those with a couple of duck eggs.

The inclusion of Celina Leibmann in the field made a number of pre-meeting headlines. The new Workington Comets recruit is the first female rider to land a team spot in the sport's second tier. Despite failing to trouble the scorers, she showed improvement in each of her rides, gradually working out the circuit and adjusting her set-up accordingly. In her last race she briefly passed Patrick Wojdylo and was very much on the pace. Her general performance, plus her nous to make the correct changes, should give Comets fans hope that she'll prove a decent capture for them.

The wide open spaces of the NSS make it possible to have more than four riders in a race, hence the addition of a fifth rider in the semi final and a further one in the final itself. Sadly the final was reduced to five competitors when some first bend bunching resulted in Jason Doyle losing some spokes and his place in the race. The referee neglecting to switch on the red lights for some reason, perhaps one pair of eyes can't look at six riders simultaneously?

Home favourite Brady Kurtz ended the night on top of the rostrum, a deserved winner. Will 2024 see the Aussie really kick on and start to emulate his old buddy Jack Holder's success on the world stage?

Top 3 at the Craven Memorial
Screencap from British Speedway Network

There's no doubt about the most controversial meeting so far of this nascent season - Leicester Lions vs King's Lynn Stars on Thursday 21st March.

The first heat of this Premiership clash passed uneventfully, then it all kicked off.

A 3-3 was looking likely in heat 2, with only one bend to complete, Drew Kemp shed a chain and his unfortunate team-mate Joe Thompson had no choice but to take avoiding action to prevent a nasty pile-up.

Unfortunate for Kemp, a deserved exclusion and following a near century of precedent a 3-3 became a 4-2 to the Stars.

Except this time it didn't. Referee Watters taking the inexplicable decision to also exclude Thompson and award a 5-0 to the visitors. Quite the most bizarre refereeing decision for many a year.

Worse was to follow in the very next heat. The starting marshal managed to leave the pole that supports the tapes in the middle of the track for two full laps. Extraordinarily dangerous, as evidenced by serious injuries sustained by Chris Louis after a similar happening many years ago. Michael Palm Toft of the Stars at least spotted the danger and pulled out of the race, reducing the likelihood of serious injury, but the other riders continued to the thunder past the potentially lethal obstruction. Unbelievably the referee decided that no re-run was necessary, despite M.P.T's sensible decision to withdraw from the race in an attempt to point out the danger.

Thankfully the remaining heats passed off less controversially, even if the racing was rather processional on a cold evening. Vadim Tarasenko of the visitors did his best to warm everyone up with some great passing. Others seemed to be in the same mindset as Sam Masters, that this first meeting was one "to get out the way" while looking forward to warmer evenings ahead.

The Lions won the clash by 47-42.

Heat 2 Carnage
Screencap from British Speedway Network

 

This article was first published on 24th March 2024

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