THE BEGINNING OF A BRAVE NEW WORLD
A new name takes over at two of Britain’s finest short oval venues this season, as Yorstox becomes the promotion in charge at Odsal and Owlerton Stadiums. NEIL RANDON spoke to Graeme Robson, one half of the business partnership alongside Russell Andrew, about the company’s vision for stock car racing in the north of England and the work currently being carried out at Odsal to rebuild the track surface and the local community’s support.
A GREAT deal rides on the introduction of a new promotion to BriSCA. YorStox, the new promoter of both Bradford and Sheffield, having signed a deal to take over the reins from the Steve Rees-owned Startrax from the end of January, have the luxury, however brief it may be, of a clean slate.
Graeme Robson and Russell Andrew joined forces to set up YorStox. Both are 43 years old, good friends with an inherent understanding of each others strengths and weaknesses. They bring financial clout, a strong work ethic and an open mind.
The last characteristic is important. If Steve Rees has a legacy, it was bringing a dormant Odsal back to life and maintaining the bedrock F1 stock car support in the area. Robson and Andrew want to build on that and create a fortress for stock car racing in the north of the country.
“No one will believes us, but this isn’t about money,” said Robson.
“It’s about keeping a northern sport – that’s being strangled – alive. And Steve Rees tried to do that – he tried to keep this northern job alive.”
There is a lot of work to be done. Part of that work is rebuilding trust within the local community and a belief Odsal as a motorsport venue can deliver the goods.
Despite the continued underlying threat of Covid 19, when the stadium reopened in May last year there was plenty of optimism that stock car racing could attract new fans, and encourage former supporters to return to the sport.
As the season progressed that optimism stabilised and the BriSCA F1 World Final meeting, while it had its flaws, was regarded by most fans as a success.
But it didn’t last. Plenty of drivers had concerns regarding the racing surface at this fast track. A number thought it was unsafe when the clay base became slick, particularly if water was dropped on to it.
And then when summer turned to autumn and the weather became inclement it was painfully evident that the drainage system had not been prepared sufficiently. The rain inevitably came and with that water mixing with the racing surface’s cloying ingredients, the track soon became unraceable.
The last two events hosted last year at Odsal created the stadium’s perfect storm. The Shootout round in October was delayed by an hour to try and compact the track surface down sufficiently to race on. Eventually, with a scant crowd to witness it, the racing got under way.
But a week later, in front of a massive local family crowd who gathered for a firework bonanza, with Monster Trucks and stock car racing attached, the night turned into a disaster.
If it had stayed dry it would have been salvageable, but the rain never abated, and what was supposed to be a night of spectacle turned into a farce, with the Monster Truck forced to cancel and the stock cars literally stuck in the mud.
It was a PR disaster, with both the Daily Mirror and Daily Express online running stories on the evening. The Express ran the headline “Children so ‘bored’ at fireworks and car racing event they beg to go home.”
But that was then.
Now is all about creating a new dawn for the stadium.
Robson, from Staindrop, Co Duhram and Andrew, from Tideswell, became friends through their racing. Robson first competed in BriSCA F1 in 2008 and has raced on and off ever since, winning two races – the consolation at Coventry’s Shootout round in 2011, and another consolation event at Mildenhall’s World qualifier in 2018, where he also finished fifth in the Grand National. His last top ten came at Bradford’s long-awaited opening meeting last year in May, where he finished eighth in his heat behind Bobby Griffin.
Andrew raced in BriSCA F2, and his children Thomas and Hannah now both compete on the short ovals. He is also a respected sponsor of the sport through his company Andrew’s of Tideswell Ltd.
It was halfway through the year that the opportunity arose to buy Steve Rees’ Startrax promotion.
“I never asked Steve to sell Startrax,” explained Robson. “Steve asked me to buy Startrax, but I wasn’t interested one bit at the time.
“There was never a sit-down conversation between Russell and myself where we said we should approach Steve and have this bought off him. It just sort of evolved, like a natural progression, over the course of the year.”
Robson’s chief business is in steel-frame buildings, mainly agricultural buildings and that business branched out into industrial buildings.
“It was the worst best-kept secret was that we were buying Startrax off of Steve – and the second was that we were helping build this two-storey restaurant with Rob Speak. We’ve helped Rob put the steel frame up.”
But even before the deal was set in stone Robson and Andrew set to work on rebuilding the track. The first job was digging up the surface and making a thorough survey of the drainage system under the rugby pitch and racing surface.
It was a complex job. Robson discovered a myriad of issues. Blocked drains, silt-laden filters, collapsed pipes.
“We have removed 500 tons of shit and laid 250 tons of stone to begin with,” said Robson.
“The drainage system around the whole place is fantastic. We’ve a guy called Tim Collins, his son races. He is Fast Eddie, he has the Tarmac car number 147 and it looks like it’s rusty.
“Tim is Odsal Stadium through and through, he loves the place and his company works closely with a firm called Subscan, and between him, Subscan, me and Russell we have mapped out all the drainage for the whole stadium.
“We have found every collapse drain, every unkept silt trap, every hidden manhole. We’ve dug the pitch up and we’ve found a hidden culvert that was 12 metres down and it became quite apparent, which we already knew anyway – from the pit gate round the back straight towards turns one and two and back down the past the grandstand – all that water catchment was sitting on the track and not down the drainage like it should be.
“So we have removed about 30 tons of silt out of the silt traps that have probably been there since the last Bradford in 1997. We’ve removed bottles, cans and plastic cups and we replace everything with new silt traps and now the drainage is completely finished.
“We’ve been sanctioned that we can put in a two and a half metre concrete shoot from the kerb towards the touchline and at the back of the concrete shoot we’ve put a temporary concrete wall.”
The work on the drainage and the infield concrete partition has been non-stop since the beginning February.
“February and March are about getting the track right and whatever time permits we are very, very, close to securing a larger pit area at the back of the pits on the council-owned land,” Robson said.
There will be 24 events between Bradford and Sheffield during 2022, including Monster Trucks at both Bradford and at Sheffield – but not under the YorStox banner. Those events will be hosted under the partners other company, Odsal Motorsports Ltd.
YorStox have plenty of ideas they want to get up and running as quickly as possible, including a promotional stock car they can use at local shopping centres and also outside the stadiums.
“We’ve done a promotional car,” said Robson. “There was an ex Keith Chambers chassis that came on offer on the internet for about £500. So we bought it and put a set of axles on it and sprayed it and painted it up.
“It looks like a brand new car and it will be parked up outside the stadium, whether it is Bradford or Sheffield, in the fortnight or week before the event to show that something is on that week.”
Having a visual presence, Robson believes, is key to luring the local community to the stadiums.
“Every time I drove past Odsal or Sheffield last year I would have never have known anything was happening,” Robson admitted. “At Odsal I knew when there was a pop concert, I knew how much a season ticket was, I knew when the next rugby league match was, but no one would have known there was a stock car World Final there.
“At Sheffield I knew when the speedway was on, and when the dogs were on – Monday Thursday and Saturday. Everything was nice, bright and lit up on those nights, but there was no clue when there was going to be a stock car event there.
“Stock car racing is never going to get back to crowds it had in the 1970s and the early 1980s. Those days are gone for the same reasons that rugby’s the same, speedway. It’s a fact of life.
“I hope I’m right, but I believe we can attract new fans in through the gate and the reason I think that is because Robert’s (Speak) done it at Skegness.”
Once Robson, Russell and Rees had agreed terms and with discussions due on the next season’s fixture list rapidly approaching Robson travelled to Owlerton to meet with Matthew Hamilton, the stadium’s venue director.
It was a revealing conversation.
“BriSCA F1’s first visit to Sheffield last year was on June 12. I think there were four Sheffields during the year and I pretty much took it as read that was what Owlerton wanted from us,” Robson explained.
“Things progressed and the deal was back on the table and conversations started at Owlerton. I said to Matthew that we would be coming to Sheffield four times next season, and he said “why are you only coming four times?”
“And I said “well, I believe that is what you want, isn’t it?”
“And he said “no”.
“So I asked him how many times a year he wanted us – and he said 52!
“He said if he could have stock cars in the stadium every weekend we would be there every weekend.
“I was absolutely gobsmacked. So we came away and Russell and I had a long conversation about it – Russell only lives about 20 minutes away from Sheffield. I said I thought Sheffield is an absolute gem.
“Bradford’s a financial monster. If you get Bradford right it will pay its way – but Sheffield is the hidden gem. It is a cracking, underused facility and it’s inexpensive.
“I hope I’m right but this year there are eight meetings at Sheffield and for the local crowd I will be able to say to them that once a month they can come racing at Sheffield.
“So the first meeting is on April 10, which is a Sunday and we have BriSCA F2s, 2-litre saloons and bangers.
“I’ve got a place booked in Sheffield at Stockbridge shopping centre which is a new mall that is quite close to Owlerton and Martin Ford’s going there with a team to promote the track and we are just going to try and get a local crowd to go to the opening meeting.
“I went to Scotland to sort some jobs out and took the time to go and visit Chris Burgoyne and he’s coming down for that meeting.
“So, I’m proud to be able to say that at our first meeting at Sheffield the BriSCA F2 world champion is going to attend.
“I said to the wife, if I put out a booking list to the people of Sheffield, who have never seen a stock car before in their life and I put ‘featuring Chris Burgoyne’, they won’t care. But if I put ‘featuring F2 stock car world champion Chris Burgoyne’ it’s a little bit different isn’t it?
“I want to push Sheffield because I want it to be huge. The people at Owlerton are so receptive to us at the stadium it is unreal.
“Selfishly, I’ve managed to get Bradford on a Saturday night with BriSCA F1s and 2-litre saloons, so the August Bank Holiday weekend will be Saturday night at Bradford, followed by Sunday at Sheffield.
“We’ve been asked to do that by the Dutch, so they now have to deliver and we expect to have 25 Dutch drivers over for that event. So it will be be a big Dutch weekend, racing Saturday night at Bradford, Sunday at Sheffield and then on the boat on Sunday night so they’ll be back to work Monday lunchtime.
“The tyres hadn’t got cold on the cars last season and we are straight into it,” added Robson. “We’ve got an uphill struggle at Bradford to get it all done in time for the first meeting on March 26, but by hell or high water it will be done.”
One of the many criticisms the sport has had in recent years (particularly from this writer) is that promoters assume everyone in the crowd understands what they are watching. But to bring new fans into the sport, and keep them there, Robson understands that that has to change.
Another idea is keeping new fans informed at all times during a meeting.
“I want an on-track commentator to have a quick word in the cab with the drivers as they are lining up on track,” Robson said.
“And at the first Bradford this season, I want to have Tom Harris and Chris Burgoyne park their cars on the start/finish line at the start of the meeting and the commentator explain to the crowd that night what they are about to see. This is a BriSCA F1 and this is a BriSCA F2 and for anyone who doesn’t know, this is what they are.
“Then have a quick chat with Tom and Chris before they do a few laps around the track to show new fans what they are about.
“And the other thing I am absolutely adamant about is that the start of every race will begin with its own rolling lap music, so that once you’ve told the crowd what the cars are, the F1s all start their rolling lap to one piece of music (Fanfare To The Common Man, perhaps?) and the F2s always set away to another particular tune – so that everyone understands what the hell we are doing.”
A prime example of how little information used to be given during a meeting about the formulas racing out on track happened coincidentally at Bradford last year.
“A kid rolled over in a National Ministox – this was the August meeting – and there was a comment from someone on Facebook who said “We have been going to all the Bradford’s this year and it’s the first time I’ve realised that it was kids who were racing in the Minis…”
“The car rolls over and this kid gets out and the crowd are like… that’s a kid in that car!”
Crucially, Robson also believes in encouraging drivers and fans to openly give their views on how they think the year is progressing under Yorstox.
“What we need throughout the year is drivers and fans to tell us what we are doing right and what we are doing wrong ” he said.
“And we will listen.”
One thing is certain, every stock car fans across the country will wish them well.
Photos courtesy of Neil Randon, Colin Casserley, Thomas Ackroyd and Yorstox
Neil Randon 2022
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