Gentlemen start your engines

Published on 8th June 2020
Author George Dodds

Separated, sanitised, socially distanced. Speedway Saturdays returned to Berwick – but only for the lucky few.

Plumes of smoke reaching near nuclear altitude suggested that in Prior Park and beyond the good citizens of the real north were hosting their first official post-lockdown barbecues. No doubt they kept it at six to a garden in England, two more in Nicola’s Orange Wonderland, all at least two metres apart, communal lavatory use avoided and non-abodes unentered.

Come 6.30pm many will have cocked a curious ear as the sound of speedway engines reverberated around Berwick for the first time since September 7, 2019.

This was pencilled in as a reserved weekend when the now redundant fixture list was released in January but instead it became what co-owner Scott Courtney described as “baby steps” towards the management’s desire to stage competitive racing this year.

Around two dozen gathered in the Shielfield pits to hear Jamie Courtney brief on the hows, whats and wherefors of the new Post-Pandemic normal.

Indeed the only recognisable part of this Speedway Saturday was that it began with the wind howling and rain lashing down.

Pre-Covid the messageboard Michael Fishes would have been informing all and sundry that “rain will be the only winner” there’s  “zero chance” of action, why not call it off early and save everybody the bother?

As always the disciples of Joseph Pujol were wrong and the well-practised combination of banking, quality drainage and hours of meticulous preparation meant that, come showtime, the virgin Shielfield 2020 racing surface was ready for a sprinkle from Billy the Bowser.

So far so Pre-Covid. But speedway 2020 is proving to be a hugely different beast.

In the new normal permission to run even closed-to-the-public practise sessions are needed from local government and health authorities – a mission statement outlining requirements and rules covering four sheets of A4 had to be read, digested and strictly adhered to by those few in the stadium.

Pit bays were taped off to provide distance between riders and their one permitted mechanic/guru. Vans arrived one at a time, drove in, bikes unloaded along with tool boxes before swiftly moving on and allowing the next to follow suit. Hand sanitiser was abundant, use compulsory. Toilet breaks and coffee making were strictly solo enterprises. Facilities to be sanitised before and after.

Track staff was of the skeleton variety as was the medical cover. Strict adherence to the two metre rule non-negotiable.

One area where social distancing is easier in 2020 than at any time is out on the racetrack itself.

Pre-lockdown much attention was focussed on the trimming away of a good portion of football turf, blading out ripples, dips and cambers and removing the Cheviot-like climb from turn four to the start/finish line.

Popular theory was that the hard graft over Winter would allow Bandits and opposition alike to provide more thrills and less tight first bend spills, for the paying punters.

But, thanks to Covid-19 it remained a theory. Until Saturday.

Fittingly a new era at Shielfield was launched by two of Great Britain’s big hopes for the future as Kyle Bickley and Leon Flint, combined ages still almost two decades less than some individuals watching, rolled down the ramp past Billy’s new control gate – a rare example of Bauhaus inspired architecture fused with the panache of Philip Cox and Archibald Leitch’s sporting iconography to create a stunning homage to the Antipodean influence on Bandits’ history – and out to complete the first laps of the new raceway.

Aaron Summers, Jye Etheridge, Kevin Doolan and Mason Watson all followed.

It was what is said on the tin. A runout for the boys. Some starts, a look at new lines. Blowing away the cobwebs and – in the case of Aaron and Jye – testing out recovery from injury.

Keith Hamblin was on hand to snap the new-look Bandits’ in their 2020 body colours complete with new sponsors, funky numbering fonts and a timely recognition of the brave efforts of the ladies and gentlemen of the NHS to protect us and save lives prominent on the back. 2020 jackets, baseball caps and beanies were given their first public airing.

Ultimately there was only one question to be asked as the Bandits’ social media team put cameras and Go-Pros, safely socially distanced of course, under available noses – and not just because the man grilling the gladiators couldn’t think of another one.

So what is the new track like?

Good was unanimous. As was wide. Allow four to enter the first bend together and come out upright – even in a race involving Jye Etheridge, Jake Allen and Josh Bates. Fast – but throttle wide open may not give the best results. New lines available. A racers’ dream. Might encourage some visitors not to give up as they turn into the car park at 5pm on matchday.

Just over 1,000 kilometres away – St Johann im Pongua to be exact, a certain Daniel Gappmaier was also Bandits’ suited and booted and giving it a blast in Austria while NBJ native Denmark has been allowing practice sessions for some time.

All is ready to go but much still has to change in the world before the green light is given for British racing, which won’t happen behind closed doors.

One thing is for certain. When it finally comes Berwick speedway will be ready for action.

In the meantime Saturday’s session, including some excellent on-board shots and interviews have been superbly edited together and is doing the rounds on Facebook as I type with Bandits’ TV to follow suit in due course.

One notable absentee from the final cut is Courtney J.

He has many laps of the new layout aboard tractors and tyre-packing vehicles under his belt. And one aboard Kevin Doolan’s trusty steed.

Which could become a prime time sensation following in the critically acclaimed real-time journey footsteps of Channel 5 – the Highland Railway – and BBC4 – the Kennett and Avon canal. If it can be edited down to 30 minutes.

George Dodds
George Dodds

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