Column: Speedway's night of disgrace

Published: 20 April 2015

On Saturday night, the first Grand Prix of the speedway season was brought to a halt after just 12 of the 20 qualifying heats had been run. Reports from the pits suggested the riders held a meeting and jointly decided they would refuse to continue racing - and also agreed to a media black-out over their decision. 

The 53,000-strong crowd in the Polish national stadium in Warsaw were sent home without any chance of a refund.

It should have been speedway's proudest night. Instead it became an evening the local media are understandably calling a ‘disgrace’.

Seeing world class riders struggle with an iffy track and dodgy starting gate was like going to the Royal Albert Hall and seeing the Royal Philharmonic fall through a stage made from soggy chipboard while the conductor poked his eye out with his baton.

That was bad enough, but the true disgrace was what came next. For those fans who’d bought their tickets and travelled to Warsaw to make Poland’s big gamble a success there was nothing, precisely nothing.

For an hour they were left to wait for news on whether the action would continue past Heat 12. Many worked out what was coming and left before it was announced the meeting had been stopped over riders' safety concerns.

To my mind, the riders have every right to refuse to race if they feel it's unsafe. The potential for serious injury, or worse, puts an abandoned meeting into perspective. But the riders could have explained their decision on the night. The fans could see why the riders were demanding a halt, and many would have agreed this joke of a meeting needed to come to a stop, but they deserved to hear those reasons direct from the riders.

Maybe the riders wanted to take to the microphone and were persuaded not to, but a self-imposed media blackout by all the riders denied journalists the chance to even ask the question on behalf of the public.

The statement on the Speedway GP website to say the meeting had been halted was a dismissive gesture and no-one from the series rights holders, BSI, or the FIM was prepared to front up and answer questions about what had gone on and why. The 53,000 deserved more respect than that.

An official from the Polish racing authority, the PZM, did appear at a press conference afterwards. He apologised but made it clear his organisation wasn’t to blame as it was not responsible for the track. Plenty of backsides were being covered and there was talk of legal action - but also a statement that none of the 53,000 would be refunded their ticket money. So with no refunds to hand out, what money would any legal action be looking to recoup?

The riders got their prize and travel money, so the only financial losers were the people who paid to watch the sport they love become an embarrassing and high-profile shambles. They are the ones who deserve a lawyer. The ticket money came in, but the fans didn’t get their side of the bargain.

The people who emerged with dignity were those fans, most of them Polish. When I covered GPs regularly for Speedway Star magazine in the 1990s there would have been fears of a riot. In the stadium on Saturday there was a hostile atmosphere, but it never turned nasty. The fans simply dropped their heads and walked out. There was talk among Poles that it was a bad day for speedway in their country - but Poland could hold its head high. It gambled on renting the country’s finest stadium, and filled it to capacity. In the absence of any statement to the contrary from those who laid the track, it’s hard to see what speedway’s premier nation could have done better.

As the fans trudged out of the stadium, their champagne night having turned as tepid as tapwater, no-one stopped to watch the firework display taking place over the River Wizla. They weren’t in the mood. They had been let down by their sport and not even offered an explanation. Every one of those 53,000 deserved far, far better treatment than that.

At 6.30pm on Monday, April 20, six hours after MCN posted this story, the rights holders to the speedway GP issued the following statement... "I would like to apologise to all fans in the Stadion Narodowy, Warsaw, on behalf of BSI Speedway. We are terribly disappointed on how events unfolded on Saturday. We respect the FIM Jury decision to call the result after heat 12 due to the track conditions. A lot of the information reported in the media  is inaccurate. We will require a full investigation on what happened from all concerned and will communicate the results once completed.” Paul Bellamy, managing director, BSI Speedway.