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Is Speedway All-In?
By Ken Nicholson

Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks

While speedway promoters wrestle with promoting speedway, maybe they should reflect on how wrestling promoters promoted wrestling.

Wrestling first became popular in the UK over a hundred years ago, thanks mostly to showmanship. The promoters knew the public needed to be entertained and did not want to see one-sided matches. Consequently, they engineered the shows accordingly. The sport then went into decline because of big names leaving for foreign shores and World War 1 put an end to it.

Wrestling's resurgence came about in the 1930's, thanks again to showmanship, but poor promotion, led to some bans and World War Two put another stop to it. It would be the mid-1950s before wrestling hit the big time. This was down to TV. Suddenly, wrestlers became personalities and household names. Wrestling fan or not, everyone knew of Mick "The Man You Love to Hate" McManus and his rival, Jackie "Mr TV" Pallo. One match between this pair attracted a viewing audience of 20 million - a figure current programme makers dream about. Other equally famous wrestlers followed, including Giant Haystacks, Big Daddy, Kendo Nagasaki and Rollerball Rocco. You did not need to follow wrestling to know about them. You read about them in the national press. Big Daddy even appeared as a cartoon character in a British comic.

How did the wrestling promoters do it? They knew how to promote. There were dirty wrestlers, or "heels", who everyone wanted to see beaten. Meanwhile there were the good guys, or "faces", who were the heroes (Big Daddy was a heel who became a face). Alongside this, there were grudge matches and masked wrestlers that everyone wanted to see unmasked. There was always the expectation something was going to happen.

Where did it go wrong for wrestling? In the 1980s, wrestling began to be shown at different times on TV, so regular viewers drifted away, and it was ultimately taken off the air. Combined with a rivalry between the remaining promoters and the loss of star names, either to the USA or through retirement, this resulted in a loss of appeal. It would be easy to dismiss the decline in popularity as being down to wrestling not having a place in the modern world, but look how big it is in America. How many US wrestlers are household names there and how many of these have gone on to become movie stars?

How does speedway compare? Well most of the big names have gone from British speedway, there is an unhealthy rivalry between some promoters, and fixtures, both on and off TV, have become so irregular it is difficult to maintain interest. As for the showmanship, that has been lost from speedway for some time. The riders were identifiable in the days of black leathers from their scarves, helmets or boots. The few riders that donned coloured leathers (Nigel "Little Boy Blue" Boocock, Mike "The Red Devil" Broadbank, Ken "The White Ghost" Le Breton) were instant attractions. This individuality has been erased by putting each team in identical leathers and moving riders between sides as if they were playing musical chairs. It is impossible to have a favourite rider now because he is unlikely to be around for long.

Engineering speedway races in the way wrestling bouts were stage-managed has never been an option. Nevertheless, the promoters used to play their part with added attractions. Maybe Bruce Cribb would try to break the track record on his ice-speedway bike or maybe there would be a stunt rider during the interval. Meanwhile, the popular second-half has been abandoned, despite a great number of supporters clamouring for its return and young riders bemoaning a lack of track availability. Instead, we are subjected to an interval every four races, where the only entertainment is watching tractors grade the track.

Speedway promoters, like wrestling promoters, used to know how to court the press. Reg Fearman once tracked a mystery Russian rider who needed his own interpreter. The rumour was the rider had escaped the Soviet bloc by swimming ashore from a fishing boat. While crowds flocked to see him, it was discovered only years later (after the mystery man had become a wrestler, incidentally) that had he not had an interpreter, a thick Glaswegian accent would have given the game away. No doubt, health and safety would put a stop to mystery riders these days, yet the opportunities for publicity are there. If there is a punch-up at a match, then this should be in the national press (Reg Fearman used to tell the riders to have it in full view of the supporters if they were intent on having one). Everybody loves controversy. The BSPA, however, has elected an anally-retentive politically-correct approach by declaring that any such scenes bring the sport into disrepute. Their press releases about them are nothing more than condemnations, which are of no media interest whatsoever. While raised tempers should not be encouraged, there is no reason to deny speedway some much needed publicity by not capitalising on them when things get out of hand. According to the great showman Barnum, there is no such thing as bad publicity.

We have often heard it said by the BSPA that there "is nothing wrong with the product". I beg to differ. While there might be nothing wrong with a speedway race as a product, there is much wrong with the overall package. Meetings are drawn-out to the extent they have become boring and are so infrequent and irregular that it is difficult to know when they are on. This is something that could be put right easily. Meanwhile, the BSPA's publicity machine appears to be non-existent. Their press releases are geared towards informing the remaining die-hard fans. The fact a rider who the public has not heard of, has signed for a team the public has not heard of, in a town most people have not visited, in a sport the public are unaware of, is never going to make the front page of a national daily. And unless speedway does get in the public eye again, it will fizzle out. Every season, I think speedway could not be managed more badly and every season I am proven wrong.

So is speedway all-in? Not if the promoters get their act together and start promoting it as affordable entertainment, as it once was, instead of trying to pretend it is the same as football. I do not know if the promoters have been seeking external advice about how to run speedway, but if so, they need to either find somebody else or start thinking for themselves. Speedway will suffer another fall if they carry on along the same trajectory, and in wrestling terms, two falls means it is "game over"!


This article was first published on 6th September 2019

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  • David Pickles:

    "An excellent and first-class article by Ken Nicholson, on the comparisons between wrestling and speedway promotion. Co-incidentally I have been involved in both, although in truth I could never describe myself as a speedway "promoter", just part of a consortium for a year.

    Nevertheless, having had experience of both ventures, I must say that those involved in the wrestling business always thrive for, and on, publicity and go out of their way to generate it. Speedway has lost its showmen, be it riders or promoters. Garry Middleton always put a few bums on seats back in the 70's, and in my view the sport at the highest levels is all the poorer for the absence of Len Silver. "Uncle Len" knew how to pack them in at Hackney, the same as Johnnie Hoskins did in the post-war years.

    You can't lay all of the blame at the door of the BSPA, the FIM with their ridiculous start-rules and other things must take their share. Sadly speedway is facing an inexorable decline unless and until individual promoters are prepared to hand over the running of the sport to one individual, as John Berry offered to do back in 1986, before being unceremoniously rejected. Cut out the delays and bring back the old "two-hour" evening where 13 heats and a full 2nd half were completed within that time. Referees need to get the 2 minute warning on much quicker as well. No wonder the season no longer ends on Oct 31 - with the current long delays at each meeting there would be nobody left who'd want to stand around in the cold that long these days."

  • Steve Haire:

    "An excellent article by Ken who I assume must of a similar age to myself as I remember the wrestling. Even as a youth I knew wrestling was fake, let's face it if you twist someone's arm too far up their back, smash them in the face with your elbow or drop from a great height onto them the re's going to be serious damage but as Ken pointed out they were showmen and the promoters knew how to promote it.

    WWF is exactly the same except the wrestlers are more professionally fit and muscular than the old British wrestlers who tended to be fat, Hulk Hogan and the Rock had replaced Mick McManus and Big Daddy (real name Shirley Crabtree), yes true, Shirley. Also we do love to hate a baddie but political correctness has done away with that, us of an older age remembering riders like Bob Dugard (Wimbledon), Arthur Browning (Birmingham), Jack 'The Villain' Millen, Malcolm Ballad (Eastbourne) to name a few who weren't afraid to ride hard and ride opponents into the fence, and in later years we had the likes of your Tomasz Gollob's (we all remember Craig Boyce decking him at the British GB at Hackney) and not forgetting everybody's favourite Nicky Pedersen.

    Unfortunately I can't see speedway in Britain improving because of all the reasons Ken gives us. The only speedway that I as a retired person living in London gets to see is the weekly Swedish league on Freeview Sports or catching up with the GP or occasional British League match on You-Tube. Just as a footnote besides poor promotions I think one of the major reasons for the demise is there is too few promoter owned purpose built stadiums. Swedish Speedway seems to be surviving with purpose built stadiums, no guest riders simply rider replacement. "  


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