Sports reporter GAVIN CANEY shadows Dale Allitt to see what it’s like to actually be the boss of a speedway team: The pits is no place to slam the brakes on
PUBLISHED: 16:03 05 August 2014 | UPDATED: 10:38 06 August 2014
Archant © 2014
It didn’t take long for me to think I was involved in an impromptu game of 20 questions.
I quickly realised that was of course a ridiculous assumption to make. Of course I was witnessing King’s Lynn Young Stars team boss Dale Allitt partaking in an improved edition of the spoken challenge. This version saw Allitt answer what felt like the best part of 10,000 queries – while he was also trying to organise six riders’ movements.
“When am I riding next?” “What gate am I on?” “Who am I riding against?” “When do you want the track graded?” “Have you declared your nominated riders for heat 15?” It seemed everyone wanted a piece of Allitt – whether he liked it or not.
Yet the man I was following for the night never seemed flustered, nor frustrated, and always had a response. Which was amazing considering I’d lost track of the time and where I was on a number of occasions as my task raced by.
Having ran a Sunday League football team for three years I thought I’d be cut out for stepping into speedway management. How hard could it be? If only I’d asked that question of myself before entering the pits.
My internal response would have been very, very hectic and very, very difficult. At least I didn’t have to make any decisions. But shadowing Allitt still left my brain frazzled come the end of the night, so much so I retired to the bar – not hurt – but mentally broken.
Admittedly I had worked during the day but my insight into management hadn’t even taken off until 6.10pm on Wednesday night. Allitt – who also has a full-time job himself running his own business in Boston, Lincolnshire – couldn’t afford himself that luxury. While I was at home slurping on my morning tea, the National League manager was on the phone sorting out a licence for his returning rider Tom Stokes.
That sort of effort goes unnoticed by most who probably think a team boss doesn’t start working until he walks through the doors of the Norfolk Arena. While that’s where he earns his corn, it’s the shift he puts in during the build-up to fixtures which perhaps is the most important. It’s the same with senior boss Rob Lyon. Bosses are sorting riders, always talking to their own – after all they don’t get a great deal of time to do so during a meeting – and always, always planning. That’s because they need to provide on-the-spot solutions as rapidly as their riders race.
The pre-meeting track walk was the only time all of Allitt’s troops came together. It showed their relationship with the man at the helm was a positive and friendly one – James Cockle tested the Saddlebow Road’s shale surface across the back of his manager’s calfs in cheeky fashion – but the episode further proved what a difficult task it is to run a speedway side. The time Allitt had to pass on his thoughts and instructions to his team were few and far between. While the two-wheel fun is a team sport, each rider is clearly out for themselves.
6.10pm: Arrive at the Norfolk Arena, 10 minutes later than planned, after being held up in traffic. Dale Allitt has already arrived.
6.11pm: Apologise to ‘the boss’ for being late as he hands me a race card for the meeting. It has already been marked on and studied intently.
6.12pm: Allitt explains why there are scrawlings all over his programme. He’s been working out what men can fill in each rider-replacement slot for the missing Darren Mallett.
6.20pm: It’s time to start talking to individual riders, their mechanics and family members as the plans to get ready for the start of the meeting begin to step up a notch.
6.30pm: The man I’m shadowing for the event disappears, only to return with a box full of bottles containing methanol. This fuels his riders’ bikes for racing.
6.35pm: Time for Allitt, his riders, and I to complete the ‘track walk’. This is a chance to analyse the surface, discuss what set-ups to use and work out the best lines to maximise acceleration.
6.48pm: There’s no time to rest as the Young Stars manager departs the pits to go to the entrance. It’s time to meet some of the riders who will compete in that evening’s ‘second half’.
7.10pm: With little more than 20 minutes to tapes up, Allitt marks each rider’s scorecard to help them realise when they are riding during the 15-heat fixture.
7.20pm: Allitt rounds up the troops and tells them it’s time to go out for the ‘parade’. For about 60 seconds tops he has chance to stand still and take a breather.
7.30pm: Heat one is upon us and the manager wishes his two riders luck. The meeting is underway and his side’s fate is now in his racers’ hands.
8.05pm: A break, for track grading, gives everyone a breather. But not Allitt, as he speaks to the clerk of the course, the men tending to the oval, his riders, and a host of other people.
8.30pm: The Stars are heading towards victory as Allitt gets a sweat on walking between his riders and the inside and outside of the track to get a different viewpoint of the action.
9.25pm: The Young Stars’ meeting is over but Allitt’s night isn’t finished. He asks me to hand out the racecards to the men competing in the Midlands Development League meeting.
9.55pm: It’s finally time for Allitt to join me at the bar (I snuck off early) as he can finally focus on something other than being a speedway boss for the evening, namely a cold beverage.
Times are estimated
Young Stars: James Cockle 5+2 (4), Scott Campos 13+2 (6), Mark Owen 7+3 (4), Lewis Rose 16 (6), Josh Bailey 6 (5), Tom Stokes 12+2 (5)
Devon Demons: Simon Lambert 17 (5), Richard Andrews 3 (5), James Shanes 0 (3), Luke Chessell 8 (6), Adam Kirby 5 (6), Tyler Govier 3 (3)
* Number of rides undertaken are indicated in the brackets.
With £10 a point on the line – and having spent the best part of £100 to ride once all of the running costs are added up – how on earth do you garner team spirit? Bonus points, where you’re paid extra for following a team-mate across the line, help, but the dynamic of the scintillating sliding rewards the first person across the lane. Allitt has to somehow get the best out of each of his team members, while ensuring his side still flourish as a collective.
The main man spends time talking to every part of his line-up, and their mechanics, before the tapes come up. Like all forms of management, he deals with each human differently.
More care was given to Stokes, who Allitt was obviously concerned about, as he made his comeback after two years out of the sport. “Don’t put yourself under too much pressure, just enjoy yourself and get that buzz back,” he said reassuringly. It was the complete opposite as he stepped next door to talk to Lewis Rose – who also rides for the club’s Elite League outfit. “Just get your head down and win the race Lew,” he roared. Man-management is absolutely vital in every sport, but even more so in speedway.
Confidence, nerves, frustration and anger can change within 60 seconds – the time of most heats. With 15 scheduled, a rider’s form, and mood, can go up and down all evening. Yet Allitt knows what to say and when to hang back – just like he did after Cockle’s machinery problems continued, much to the heat leader’s annoyance.
There’s only so much Allitt can say or do, so the Young Stars boss has to choose his words wisely. There’s no 15-minute half-time team talk. Every nugget of information he gives out is vital. A five-word morale-booster there, a thumbs up here, is all he has to affect the outcome. There’s no time to ease off the managerial gas.
Keeping up to date with the race card and filling in riders’ scores has to be done at breakneck speed. As is the ability to ensure you don’t get mown down in the pit area – which I failed to realise until the third near miss. With riders whizzing in and out every other minute, Allitt is aware not only of his role, but everything that’s going on around him.
Tactical decisions may have been few and far between, as the Stars eased to victory, but don’t think Allitt wasn’t always analysing. Thinking heats ahead, about what could happen, if he wanted to switch riders, and how to get the best out of his men. So many have progressed through the youth ranks into the senior side. And it’s clear to see why. Allitt has time for everyone. He loves the sport and the speedway family –a cliche which is overused but not undervalued. But most importantly, he’s passionate in helping youngsters progress.
He loves watching young men, Midland Development League riders, learn and improve. Yet underneath he has a job to do, getting riders to gel and win. And on the night I became a boss, Allitt certainly had all the answers, again.
Rookie Rose praises Allitt for helping his early career blossom
If you don’t want to take my word for how hectic – and important – the role of a speedway boss is, just ask Lewis Rose.
The speedway rookie, who used to ride motocross, has progressed rapidly up the British scene’s ladder and now is already enjoying taking on the best in the Elite League. While he still rides in the bottom tier to gain valuable track time, Rose’s rise has come in little more than 12 months.
And he knows how important his Young Stars boss Dale Allitt, especially, and Stars chief Rob Lyon have been in that process.
Rose, speaking after he bagged 16 points in the Young Stars’ 59-36 triumph over Devon Demons at the Norfolk Arena, said: “A boss can keep you motivated. If you have a bad ride he can help you pick it up again for the next one.
“He’s obviously out there watching what everyone’s doing and if you’re not quite doing something right he can maybe put you right.
“They give you advice, and pass on their knowledge of what they know, which is important for me – especially as I’m learning. Dale and Rob know what they’re doing.”
Rose rode six times against the southerners but was always informed of what gate he was coming out of, what Allitt expected of him, and how best to pick up a race win – of which he achieved four.
“Bosses are so important, as I’m always focused on what I’m doing,” said the Fast Track Draft talent who is also shining in for his local club’s senior side.
“I’m always asking last minute, ‘what gate am I on?’ and Rob and Dale are always there, whenever I am, making things that bit easier.”
Allitt’s influence is such that he has been helping Rose in the pits when he has been riding for the club’s senior side and another manager in the shape of Lyon.
His role as a mentor is completed for “the price of the odd Chinese” but just shows how valuable his opinion is to the young man who is blossoming in 2014.
Rose, from Sutton Bridge, added: “Dale’s been there from the start and I ask him to come to the Elite meetings, which is good.
“I get on with him and we both work well together. He sort of knows how I think, how I ride, and he knows I get disappointed if I don’t have a good one, and he helps me pick it back up for the next one.
“It is a lot more professional in the pits for the senior side. But I work well with Rob too – he clearly also knows his stuff.”