2023 Sports Insure British Final: Monday 14th August 2023.
Have I finally lost the plot ─ connecting the famous 70s Carpenters ballad to the Land of my Fathers? Having negotiated a 5-hour trip north from my base in the south-east to the National Speedway Stadium in Manchester through persistent pockets of rain, which became more frequent and heavier as I closed in on my destination, I really did think that I was close to losing my marbles. Last year’s premier domestic event succumbed to the heavens after heat 12 at the supposed hight of summer in August, and the 2020 behind closed doors event (due to the pandemic) was raced in monsoon conditions. The often-mooted theory that Manchester is the wettest city in the UK is probably a myth, but rain and this date on the sporting calendar have seemingly become synonymous.
From my pit side vantage point, I asked a few of the attendant observers how optimistic they were of witnessing the full twenty-two race schedule: heat 6 was the most positive response ─ although I didn’t question Hayley Bromley, the Belle Vue speedway press officer, and eternal voice of optimism.
As an air of chilled despondency swept across the sodden arena, a glimmer of positivity pulsated trackside. Before us, armed with a broom, was an unlikely superhero clearing the start line of surface water and refusing to buckle. Welshman Phil Morris – the recently appointed Premiership Chief Executive Officer – was on a mission, and his determination, drive, and desire were infectious, as the riders rallied to the occasion and put on a show!
In dreadful conditions all sixteen competitors were a credit to the sport and although Grand Prix racer, local hero, and odds on favourite Dan Bewley eventually lifted the crown, he didn’t have it all his own way, with an unexpected third place in heat 10 as he got completely filled in, and no doubt momentarily couldn’t see his glove in front of his visor.
As the relentless rain only eased off towards the end of this classic contest, it’s fair to say that, without the motivation of our main man Morris, the weather may well have been the winner. I’ve never witnessed a meeting run with such ruthless efficiency, with hardly enough time to complete the programme results and the all-important heat times ─ the speedway supporter’s equivalent of the works of the diarist John Keats. As soon as the riders had vacated the track, Phil was unremitting in his efforts to have the next four warriors on the shale. He covered every inch of the pits: running, rallying, and rousing. And the riders responded, dispelling any thoughts that the home championship had lost its lustre. Heat 5 typified the tension, as my man of the meeting Ben Barker – living up to the nickname of his Championship club Plymouth and eventually finishing third – slugged out a gladiatorial battle on track, and then engaged in some afters with Richard Lawson as both returned to the pits.
The track held up incredibly well, even though a good portion of it was now covering me as I watched transfixed from the riders’ viewing platform, whilst the Welsh human dynamo refused to let up. Heat 8 was worth the admission money alone, as Charles Wright hunted down Kyle Howarth and snatched the win on the final corner of the last lap. The fairness of the raceway was amplified in the next heat when the previous victor was relegated to second place, as Simon Lambert rode like a bat out of hell.
It’s testament to the track staff that the first fallers of the night didn’t enter the fray until the business end of the meeting when Danny King and Kyle Howarth hit the deck as they desperately fought to secure a place in the top six, and the dream of the title and wild card position – dramatically and deservedly secured by Steve Worrall ─ at next month’s showcase: the Monster Energy 2023 FIM British Grand Prix.
Defying the odds, the semi-final and championship race-off took place, and I felt exhilarated and exhausted in equal measure. Yet the wholly unaware unofficial behind the scenes British champion continued where he had left off, by facilitating the presentations and clearing the track for one final time: Phil Morris take a bow, get some rest, and whatever you are on, can we please go into business and sell it?
© Ian Kirke 2023 / @ianjkirke