MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE

IT’S ALL OVER AT EASTER

Written by Pete McNae

 

There are days, weeks, sometimes months of work that go into those four hours of racing on a handful of Saturdays through summer. Behind each meeting, there are calendars and stand-down rosters, promotions, programmes and planning, advertising and budgets, filling the fields and corralling and co-ordinating the small army of workers that make the wheels go round at the Milestone Homes Top of the South Speedway.

And, for the most part, it all comes off. Some nights are better than others – qualifying for the Equus New Zealand midget title in January was breathtaking – but Nelson rarely comes up with a dud. That’s not a coincidence and Nelson Speedway Association president Wayne (Wog) Martin, who stands down at Easter after three seasons in the big chair, is quick to acknowledge the effort that’s required. “It’s not just a Saturday night job for any of us on committee – you never get to open the gates and watch it happen. But, when the preparation has been done and the plan comes off, the beer tastes nicer at the end of the night.”

Martin has decided to step aside after next weekend to spend more non-speedway time with his wife, Tash, and their two young boys. He’s also flat out in the day job as works manager at Reliance Engineering. But, as much as any other reason, he thinks everyone has a shelf life in the top job and that he’s done his time. “You always hope you leave a situation like this better than you found it – the Nelson club has been around a long time and has been very successful so it’s not like we had to re-invent anything but I’m hoping I will be able to look back on things we achieved with some satisfaction.”

This season, the club’s website has had an extreme makeover and the allied phone app has been another step towards making technology work for the sport. The relationship with The Pits Media and the ability to livestream meetings is another example of a growing acceptance of the need to put speedway in front of as many people as possible, reinforcing the old adage that “standing still leaves you going backwards”. The corporate box is rising from the ashes and consent issues are being worked through but, ultimately, it’s what happens between the concrete walls that keeps the fans coming.

“I’ve loved the promotions side, you know, building the calendar and trying to add attractions and adapt what we have,” Martin said. “It’s not easy because Nelson has a lot of classes and no one wants to be stood down and then you have your blue ribbon classes, the ones that put bums on seats – we generally know which meetings will work well for us and which might not.”

And, looking ahead to future seasons when the club will be under someone else’s stewardship, Martin says those “might not” meetings will come under close scrutiny. The sport faces stern challenges from neighbours concerned about the noise, dust and operating hours. The speedway association has made compromises but Martin says there is still a future at Lansdowne Rd. “It’s been a major distraction, not a welcome one. I’m an engineer, not a lawyer or a town planner, so some of these ongoing meetings have been an eye-opener but speedway has a future if we can work with people, not against them – I feel we have made a lot of concessions and now we need to stand our ground a bit.”

The average fan is insulated from those kinds of issues – the ones dealt with over hours each week by Martin, vice president Kevin Freeman, secretary Shara Higgins, club captain Kirsten Lineham and their assistants and committee. Recent rainouts are a great example of that disconnect between club and crowd. “Honestly, if the forecast is a bit dodgy, the phone and Facebook are going three days early. Everyone wants to know what’s going to happen on Saturday – hell, we want to know, but when you plan a meeting and you’ve produced programmes and done your advertising and have competitors travelling, you have to give the meeting every chance to go ahead. We have been unlucky this season because we have had rainouts on three big nights, meetings we needed to be financial successes for us, so cancellations are as frustrating for us as they are for the fans.”

But it’s been at least two decades since speedway crossed that line between participant sport and entertainment, with the people outside the fences becoming as important as those turning laps. It’s a balancing act. “It’d be one of the biggest challenges … will people want to watch this, are we being fair to the people who want to race at our track, can we keep it fresh because it’s a business and a business needs to continually make tough decisions. Sometimes it’s an exercise in who will we upset the least? And I struggled with that in the early days because I wanted to say yes to everyone. Three years later and with some management experience through work, I’m getting better at holding the line!”

Taylor (left) and Locky Martin in the “most expensive jungle gym in Brightwater”.

Martin is looking forward to the two-day Easter season-ender (Friday and Saturday from 4pm) for a couple of reasons. The fields across most classes are strong, with visitors returning to support the Nelson club because it runs a good show and the clubrooms are a popular place to set the seal on summer. There’s also the slim chance of him running his own stockcar for the first time in a long while. “I said I wouldn’t race at home while I was president – the club took priority, but it’s for sale and I have a couple of guys looking so I’ll do the finishing touches and maybe I will have a skid, or there could be a guest driver in there — whether I get in it depends on how the meeting is running. But I am enjoying getting it back out on the track — the boys have had the most expensive jungle gym in Brightwater!

“I’m a bit nervous – not about driving it but the back’s a bit buggered and you know, there’s family and work and life outside of speedway to consider. It’s a car that can run at the front of the field but I doubt I’ll be setting the world on fire. I might just get one night — that all depends on how the meeting is running because the first commitment is there.”

Martin will take at least one season away from the business side of speedway although with Tash and the boys, Locky and Taylor, fully involved and supportive, it’s unlikely he will be allowed to stay away. “I need to acknowledge my wife – the last three years wouldn’t have happened without her commitment. There have been plenty of times when she’s had the energy to get one more job done when I have had enough.” He’s also appreciated the contributions of his offsiders and the club’s volunteers.  “It’s a business and it needs to run that way, but you also try to hang on to the club feel – and keep it fun. What you see on the track isn’t a fluke but, looking back on the three seasons, there have been plenty of times when it’s got to 11 on a Saturday, the beer is washing the dust down, people are happy and you get that little sense of pride and you go, ‘yeah, we did this and it’s worked out all right’.”

  • Milestone Homes Top of the South Speedway Easter Extravaganza, Good Friday and Easter Saturday from 4pm. Saturday’s meeting – and the 2016/17 Nelson season – will conclude with the Hits 89.6FM Demolition Derby. For full fields, visit www.nelsonspeedway.co.nz, click on the Information tab and go to downloads/forms and open Easter Championships Entries. Further meeting previews will appear on the club website next week.

Images: Tom Laney, www.imagepress.co.nz and the Nelson Mail