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Fumes, funds, risk and roaring Tigers: time to get back on track

RISK is a commodity that does not lie deep in the clay in the outfield at Saracen Park.

Rusty Harrison and Kevin Wolbert practise at Springburn for the Glasgow Tigers. Pictures:  Martin Shields
Rusty Harrison and Kevin Wolbert practise at Springburn for the Glasgow Tigers. Pictures: Martin Shields

It can be mined in seconds as the speedway bikes roar, reaching speeds of 65mph in seconds. It can be found in the stands as a group of businessmen gather at the home of Ashfield Juniors to watch the first staccato steps of an investment that has the capability to run away with their cash.

They are, however, as bright as the March sky in Springburn. This, after all, is not business, it is personal.

The Facenna brothers, who are the leading sponsors of Glasgow Tigers, can chortle with the ease of those who know that their investment - believed to be £12,000 - will not leave them homeless. Their Allied Vehicles Group, situated on the nearby Balmore Road, turns over more than £80m a year. The brothers also come from strong, Possil stock.

"My dad used to race around here in the midget cars 60 years ago," recalls Gerry. His brother, Michael, points out their dad also had a whirl around the Wall of Death when the circus came to Kelvin Hall. He adds: "I would love a shot on a speedway bike around this track."

A life spent growing a business from a Possil garage to a multi-million pound enterprise constructing and adapting vehicles, most notably taxis, has given the brothers a veneer of resilience that cannot be disguised by the merry bonhomie.

These are serious businessmen, but they want Glasgow to have a bit of fun. "This could be something special," says Michael, who jokes that the attendance at the first home match against Edinburgh Monarchs on Sunday will be boosted significantly by his efforts.

"We have 400 employees and I have told them all I expect to see them here," he says with a smile.

Both his optimism and his business expertise are needed. The Tigers roared last year with all the strength of a mouse with laryngitis. It was the imperfect storm. A young, inexperienced team did not gel, and snow on the first practice day was the perfect indicator of how the wind would blow for the rest of a season that ended in the Tigers finishing bottom of the British Premier League.

Alun Biggart, the businessman who lives in Denmark, was an energetic, enterprising and ultimately unlucky owner who has now passed the reins over to Gordon Pairman, a retired chartered accountant, who has been involved with the club for more than 12 years and with speedway in Scotland as a fan since the 1960s.

"I have taken it over but I see my role as a custodian," he says. "I live in the Isle of Man and I want it to be run locally. The volunteer side of this team is immense and I would love to see it rewarded with people flocking to see the Tigers."

Best estimates are that about 700 fans watched the team struggle last season but an increase of just 150 people would make the enterprise more than viable.

The recent history of Tigers is far from disappointing, with a first Premier League title won in 2011.

The team has been revamped with experience joining the promise of youth. Kevin Wolbert, the German, looks the likely No.1 rider with Theo Pijper as captain and Danish duo Anders Thomsen and Kasper Lykke at reserve, while 18-year-old Frenchman Dimitri Berge is an intriguing prospect.

The team is completed by Rusty Harrison and the vastly experienced Mark Lemon who may be the most influential signing.

At 41, the Australian (pictured) has been riding professionally for 24 years and is now the team manager of his national side.

"I have learned to balance things," he says of his dual responsibilities that are helped by the recent recruitment of an assistant.

"I am experienced so I will pass on my knowledge and experience. But first and foremost to do my best for my team," he says.

There is no lessening in his desire after a decade hurling around bends in the company of others addicted to a mixture of speed, risk and fuel fumes.

So why does he keep going?

"I don't know," he says. "I suppose I enjoy it, I enjoy winning and I feel that I am 20 years old and have no desire to sit back in the armchair and relax. There is, too, that raw aspect of beating somebody else."

How does he handle the fear?

"The moment you are fearless you are in a bad situation," he says. "You are running the risk of injuring yourself or somebody else. As a rider, you have to have the fear, the anxiety, the adrenalin."

The bikes can reach speeds of 65mph on the straights but Lemon says: "The speed is not the problem. It is that stopping bit."

He races, of course, in a machine without brakes. "It is shoulder to shoulder, handlebar to handlebar and it can get ugly at times," he says. "You can hit that safety barrier at 65mph and that is going to nip in the morning. "

He is aware of the realities of the sport as he prepares to embark on what he hopes is a signature season that begins in Edinburgh tomorrow, continues in Workington on Saturday and then at Ashfield on Sunday against the Monarchs.

"You have to be a little bit scared," he says.

"This is a brutal sport and it can bite you."

A moment's silence is punctuated by the guttural groan from a throttle as the team practises. The Tigers are ready to roar.

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