Rob Speak has been one of the biggest draws in stock car racing since his days as the undisputed king of BriSCA F2. He made the transition into the F1s back in late 90s until the end of 2002, and then after a return to the sport five years ago, he is now a two-time F1 stock car World, National Points and European champion.
Since then, Speak, concerned at the decline in the scrap metal business due to the influx of cheap steel from China, needed to make a dramatic change to his working life as he looked to the future with his family.
And dramatic it was. He announced at the end of the last season he was retiring as a driver and would be turning his attention to becoming a promoter, having bought Skegness Stadium.
Having been a stock car driver since he was 12, for Speak, now 45, it has had been a major undertaking. The issues and responsibilities of running and developing a stock car track has been a completely new experience, one he has enjoyed and been frustrated by in equal measure.
What Speak has become aware of now more than any other factor with his new role is time – or the lack of it. He currently spends most of his days at Skegness, and only manages to get back to Tyldesley, near Manchester, for odd days, sometimes spending as much as two weeks away from home.
It has opened my eyes to what the promoters have to do. It’s unbelievable. I know we’re getting there but it is a full-time job – you haven’t got time for anything else
Back at the family scrap yard last month for a few days, Speak had time to catch up with work at the yard and to reflect on how the last six months have gone.
“It’s been very stressful,” Speak says. “There’s just so much to do behind the scenes – more than I ever thought would be possible, even if they had told you.
“It has opened my eyes to what the promoters have to do. It’s unbelievable. I know we’re getting there but it is a full-time job – you haven’t got time for anything else.”
But while the lack of time and the amount of work to be done has become all-consuming, Speak still believes the transition from stock car driver to promoter has been worth it.
“I’m really happy with how it’s going,” Speak says. “It’s good, yes. It’s just that I haven’t got as much done to the stadium as I wanted to. Unfortunately, that’s just the way things are but everything else I’m really happy with.”
Asked what has caused the delay, Speaks gives an honest and straightforward answer.
“To be honest with you at the minute, it’s me,” he admits. “Because it has done my head in that much bouncing from planning meetings to drawings, to this, to that, to designs, and back again and I’ve just got absolutely sick of it.
“And then the race meetings come up, including the UK Open weekend and we’re also getting ready for summer – through the summer it’s three meetings a week – and it’s so busy and I can’t be mithered with it. I’ve had to switch off so I can still be interested in it. Otherwise I’ll just get fed up with it all.
“I’ve also got the yard to look after and Asha has got her horses – it’s all very, very difficult.”
You haven’t got a minute. Paul Brown is doing the advertising and promotion, Asha is doing the office work – she does all of that. But you need to be there all the time
He has a small but dedicated team around him at the stadium, including wife Asha, but it is Speak himself who does most of the day-to-day maintenance work.
Only last week, after torrential rain hit the area, Speak had to spend a couple of days pumping out water off the track and the pits, and also the old tractor shed, which is being converted into a disco area for the upcoming Speedweekend, because it was under two feet of water.
“You haven’t got a minute. Paul Brown is doing the advertising and promotion, Asha is doing the office work – she does all of that. But you need to be there all the time. You need to understand the business otherwise nobody else is going to do anything for you are they?”
There have been some positives. The UK Open for the F1s was a successful weekend, and back at Skegness, Speak has been preparing for what will be his biggest event of the year, the UK Open Speedweekend for BriSCA F2s and Saloon Stock cars, with the BriSCA F1s also on the bill.
“The best meeting so far has probably been the F1 UK Speedweekend, although the F2 Speedweekend will be a lot bigger,” Speak reveals. “The reason why it’s so big is that with National Saloons, F2s and F1s, it’s the only meeting they are all together all through the year – Skegness is the only place it will happen.
“The Scottish also will travel down for the Saloons and the F2s. It’s massive.”
Within six months of taking on what has become a huge long-term project Speak has come to a few conclusions regarding where he sees the sport moving forward.
Putting on a show is at the top of Speak’s agenda, as is trying to find sponsors to help pay the bills. Paramount is finding ways to get a return on his huge investment.
“At the promoters meetings we have this conversation around the table all the time,” Speak says. “We go round the table and ask, “What do you, think? What do you think? What do you think?”
“I was round the table the other day at a promoters meeting and everyone was saying, “So you’re spending about £300,000 on your building work?” And I said, “Yes, about that, it could well be a lot more”. And they said, “So when are you going to get your money back?”
“And I said, “I don’t think I ever am going to get my money back”. So they said, “Why are you doing it then?” And I said: “Because I like the job”.
“They said: “Yes, but realistically, why are you doing it?”
“And I said, “I don’t know…” I can’t answer it!”
For any sport to thrive long-term, sponsorship is a key ingredient, but Speak is aware he has a long road ahead to gain the type of deals he wants. He needs his stadium to be of a build standard that will convince a top-line sponsor to come on board. It is a road he is willing to travel.
“The sport should never need one person, but where do you go? How can you sell that job to a big sponsor?”
“If you are employed to go and sell our formula and you get a meeting and go and sit down with Red Bull or Monster Energy with a package to sell them something, where do you start?”
I want to get Skegness to be somewhere where I’m happy with it and you can use it and bring a sponsor to the track
“I’ve got Bud Light on sale in the bar and Budweiser are investing a lot of money into this country now to try and sell Bud Light. They are big in America on racing. Can I get them interested in stock car racing in England? I can’t invite them to my stadium to sell it, because the stadium isn’t good enough.
“I know it’s not good enough. I’m trying to sell them a package but it’s not happening. I’m just not professional enough for them and the job is not professional enough.
“I want to get Skegness to be somewhere where I’m happy with it and you can use it and bring a sponsor to the track have some demonstrations with a car, whatever you want to do.
“You want to be able have some lunch for them, nice teas and coffees, somewhere to sit down, a TV on the wall featuring loads a crashes and everything. You want to be able to sell them something.
“But at the moment how could you bring a representative of a major sponsor like Red Bull to Skegness where there’s a Portakabin bar on top of some banking, nowhere to go when it rains, no office, no nothing.
“You might as well stand in the middle of a field and say we’re here!”
Speak has the view that the sport missed a major opportunity back in the 1970s-80s, during the days of clashing meetings and 90 dates a season, to secure a profitable future.
“Stock cars were making that much money in the 70s they could have had they own auto arena,” he says. “It could have been used for different things, like at the Millennium Stadium, with Speedway or whatever.
“Back in those days, BBC were filming – they wanted to film it. Daily Mirror sponsored Formula Ones – a major national newspaper. Why did they lose them? Because they never moved with the times.
“Now there’s no investment to do it. If someone came up and said – here’s £5million, generate a package, make it interesting, go and hire a big event and let’s put on a show and sell it, you’ve then got half a chance.
Back in the day, the circuit racing venues like Brands Hatch were just a track in a field, but they invested and generated money and built it up, while stock car racing stayed stagnant for so long
“If you could get into the Millennium Stadium, just after the Speedway has been on and if you had to invest half a million quid to get in, and get it filmed you’ve almost got something.
“But it’s where you take it from there. You need some infrastructure in place for the other tracks to be involved, and it’s just not there is it?
“That’s the thing. Back in the day, the circuit racing venues like Brands Hatch were just a track in a field, but they invested and generated money and built it up, while stock car racing stayed stagnant for so long.
“I’m hoping in time we can generate enough to make the stadium good enough to run other events, to bring it on a little bit and work with King’s Lynn, Ipswich and the other premier tracks and I think that is how it is going to end up. You’re going to have your premier tracks and some outlaw tracks.
“Sheffield is also a premier track, Belle Vue is a premier track. So we still have enough tracks to do it and hopefully other people will reinvest into places.”
But it is reinvestment that is the key issue. It’s a Catch 22 situation, where in some cases there isn’t sufficient money coming in to create it.
“You look at Birmingham last month,” Speak says. “How many people were there? About 450. Take your insurance off that, take off what you have to pay out on the night and you haven’t made any money.
“The facilities at Belle Vue are brilliant but the problem is it has had no money spent on it for 30 years,” says Speak. “And you can see that. Since they built it from brand new and moved from the old Belle Vue nobody has spent a penny on it.
It needs to be for the good of the sport as a whole. You get six or seven people in a room together and you can’t agree anything. It’s depressing
“I think it could be so good. The National Saloons, the National Bangers, BriSCA Minis, and Formula One stock cars. If you could sell them on TV I think it would be unbelievable. People want excitement.”
In Speak’s vision, major decisions on the sport’s future should be made by a smaller group than at present to thrash out a plan.
“It needs to be for the good of the sport as a whole,” he says. “You get six or seven people in a room together and you can’t agree anything. It’s depressing.
“There should be one bloke in charge of the drivers and one bloke delegated by the promoters.
“And as promoters we go with what the delegate representative says, because he knows what we all want. And if he doesn’t get the deal you wanted on that day it’s not for the lack of trying and he got the best deal he could get for everyone.”
Speak’s view of the sport comes from an exclusive vantage point as a driver who became a promoter. One thing is for sure, just as he was as a driver he will become as a promoter. He has the drive and the determination to succeed.
From his vantage point there is a place where deals can get done and the future can be bright for F1 stock car racing.
Neil Randon 2017
Photos courtesy of Colin Casserley, Paul Tully, Neil Randon and F1 Stox.com