It's All About You... Arnie Gibbons
Tell us about your introduction to speedway
My best friend's mother was a St John's Ambulance volunteer at Tilehurst Stadium and she took him to meetings. He told me it was really exciting, and I persuaded my father to take me. My first meeting was Reading v Eastbourne (on 5 October 1970). In the opening heat Reading riders Mike Vernam and John Hammond both failed to finish and the Eagles got a 5-nil with future Racer Dave Jessup winning the race. The Racers fought back and thanks to a maximum from my first track idol Richard May went on to win the match.
Tell us about your favourite meeting of all time
I'm tempted to say this year's World Cup round at Peterborough, but in the interests of nostalgia I'll nominate the 1980 knock out cup match between Cradley and Reading. The Heathens won the first leg 55-53 at Smallmead, but the Racers really went for it at Dudley Wood. Bobby Schwartz recorded a seven-ride 21 point maximum, and even Ashley Pullen played his part by beating Erik Gundersen. It all came down to the last bend of the last race with Jiri Stancl leading Penhall and the Racers heading for a 55-53 win to tie the tie. But he was pipped on the line by Bruce Penhall and the Heathens went through 109-107.
Tell us about your favourite rider of all time
My father's family comes from Suffolk, so I always had a soft spot for Ipswich. In addition I thought John Berry stood head and shoulders above other promoters. When he let Billy Sanders go and brought in Dennis Sigalos and, as a make-weight, John Cook I was as surprised as everyone else. While I admired the superbly stylish Sigalos it was John Cook that sent shivers down my spine when I saw him on track. He was a 100% entertainment and while he could be difficult his presence at a meeting was a virtual guarantee that something interesting would happen - either on or off track - at that meeting.
Tell us about your favourite track/stadium
Worldwide it has to be Pardubice. A fantastic racing track and one of the few where six man races are viable. The Golden Helmet weekend is the highlight of the year. In Britain I'd go for Powderhall, a track I didn't visit often. In fact my first trip to Edinburgh was a 24 hour round trip by train for a rain-off. Five us walked from Waverley Station to Powderhall just to find the back straight underwater when we arrived! Subsequent visits produced some of the most enjoyable meetings I've witnessed with a very friendly crowd too.
What are the best things about speedway?
That's a difficult one! Let's try the build up of excitement as a meeting climaxes in a last heat decider, the sudden rush of adrenalin as your favourite executes a stylish passing manoeuvre, the noise and the smell on entering the stadium, reminiscing about the days when stadiums were packed, journeying to new tracks in distant places, gossiping with friends old and new on the terraces about the latest happenings in our beloved sport.
What are the worst things about speedway?
Rain - a four hour round trip completely wasted. Half way there you suspect the meeting may be off but plough on anyway. You arrive to find the turnstiles open and having been reassured that "there's been hardly any rain here" you enter the stadium. Half the white line is under water and a single tractor is circling to no apparent purpose. Groups of riders in their civvies are looking suspiciously at the track, and you know that 45 minutes after the advertised start-time it will end with the postponement of the fixture.
What one thing would you do to improve speedway?
Speedway needs to be run for the benefit of speedway, not to serve the interests of those promoters who have the influence. This year has been worse than most, but the problem has been apparent for years. The failure to appoint John Berry to oversee the sport (nearly 20 years ago) was a great lost opportunity. Look to America where baseball is a sport that has revenue sharing and control of team strengths through the player draft. However it is in the hands of an independent Commissioner (Bud Selig). It is not rider control/points limit that is the problem, it is the way we allow them to be administered by those with a vested interest in the decisions. I would give the 'Commissioner' the basic brief of ensuring a level playing field that allows for the economic survival of the maximum number of tracks.
Tell us about a rider you wish you'd seen
I just caught the end of Ronnie Moore's second career - and I've never seen a more gifted team rider, but Barry Briggs was the only other member of the big five I caught. Peter Craven has to be the one I'd really like to have seen, and Brian Crutcher sounds like another in the same mould who would have been a joy to watch. In the days of the iron curtain Russians were genuinely foreign and mysterious creatures. The first ever GB v USSR test match in 1964 at Wembley featuring Igor Plechanov must have been something special.
What does the future hold for speedway?
I'm not optimistic. The UK is a densely populated country with land use at a premium. There seems to be no realistic prospect of the sort of crowds that would generate sufficient money to make a speedway stadium economically viable. Recently the biggest barrier to new tracks has not been planning permission, but finding the financial resources. Exeter and Reading got planning consent but still no speedway. We must pull together to ensure the survival of those tracks we have, because once closed they are unlikely to reopen; and we must attempt to find a model that works for the 21st century. The Chapman's at King's Lynn and the plans for Leicester seem to be the best hope at the moment. As a former Leicester season-ticket holder I fervently hope to be attending their opening meeting... soon.
How has speedway changed since you started attending?
When I was young I remember sneaking into WH Smiths to see if there were any speedway results in the tabloids. If not then I would have to wait a full week before Speedway Star came out the following week. Then along came teletext and we could usually get the result (and sometimes the top scorers (even if their names were misspelt) by midnight. Now I can get live updates and sometimes even live video feeds of meetings from around the world. I can read the eyewitness accounts of German residents who've just arrived home from a match in Denmark or exchange views with a Swedish fan about the potential of a hot new prospect. And I've finally found a use for my Russian 'O' level [www.russpeedway.ru] And the internet is full of informative websites. They include statistically based ones like Brian Collins's site for international speedway results and the Speedway Researcher site (very handy if you want a complete list of 1959 Ipswich fixtures or second-half results from Leicester in 1952). And then there are also sites for those who want a good read such as Jeff Scott's 'Showered in Shale' and best of all: SPEEDWAYPLUS.
This article was first published on 24th September 2009
"Nice piece by Arnie Gibbons on his lifetime of speedway experiences. I particularly liked his observations on the thrills of "the smell on entering the stadium" and how John Cook's riding "sent shivers down my spine". Yes, there's hardly anything to match the anticipation of the meeting to come that's brought on by the first scent of the damp shale, along with the smell of the fuel and oil as the bikes are warmed up. And the brilliant John Cook: if world champions were crowned on entertainment value, he would have been top of the podium. Pure genius of balance and control, laughed at the laws of gravity and physics, like Baryshnikov on a speedway bike. I hope he reads Speedway Plus and knows how fondly he is still remembered nearly three decades on. "
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