This article was first published in The Sports Historian
Vol.19 No.1 (May, 1999) pp. 1-
PUBLISHED BY THE BRITISH SOCIETY OF SPORTS HISTORY
It it reproduced here for Speedway Fiction by kind permission of Dr Jack Williams and the British Society of Sports History. For details of the BSSH, contact Dr Frank Galligan, its membership secretary at email@example.com
EVEN as a spectacle the horrid motor-
Heavens, the noise! It is like ten million mechanical drills performing in unison. It swells and falls as the riders take the corners; it echoes about the cavernous concrete halls, drowning the feeble acclamations of the crowd; it dies slowly as the riders stop, and the end of a race seems like the end of a battle. It is titanic and terrible and monstrous; and yet in that enormous place, made by those monsters, it seems appropriate and right. And I do believe I rather liked it.1
THIS was the reaction to speedway, or dirt track as it was more usually called in the 1920s, of A.P.Herbert, the novelist and future MP for Oxford University, writing in 1928. Such comments illustrate the curiosity which speedway provoked in its early days.
Speedway can be seen as one of the successes of British sport between the wars. Of the new sports launched in the 1920s and 1930s, only speedway and greyhound racing attracted a sufficient following to become accepted as major British sports. In the 1930s crowds at the big events of the speedway calendar compared favourably with those of other sports and total spectator numbers were higher than those for county cricket and possibly either rugby code.
The Beginnings of Speedway In Britain
Unlike most sports speedway was not invented in Britain. It is usually regarded as having started at West Maitland in New South Wales in 1923. A meeting in February 1928 at High Beech in Epping Forest is often taken to have been the first speedway meeting in Britain.2 The holding of this meeting reflected in part interest aroused in the motor-
Fears in 1928 that the greyhound racing boom of 1927 had burst meant that greyhound promoters5 were interested in the rent which speedway could provide. Links between speedway and greyhound racing have always been close. A representative of the NGRA was on the board of International Speedways. Most speedway was held at greyhound tracks, with the rest at tracks where other sports were played. Only a tiny number of speedway stadia were purpose-
The Commercialisation of Speedway
Another distinctive feature of speedway, but one which it shared with greyhound racing, was that it was almost totally commercialised. There seems to have been little amateur speedway. A few amateurs rode in open meetings but probably none took part in league speedway. In 1936, about 40 riders belonged to the Amateur Dirt Track Riders Club, the only amateur riders’ club in south-
References to amateur speedway in the speedway press or the sports pages of national newspapers are so unusual as to suggest that there could have been no network of regional and national amateur competitions. Amateur speedway is rarely mentioned in the minute books of the Auto-
The secretary of the ACU described professional riders and promoters as ‘an almost avoidable evil’11 but the ACU did not try to limit the commercialisation of speedway. Promoters saw speedway as an opportunity for profit. When Hunting came to Britain in 1928 he described his intention as ‘purely and simply the commercialisation of a wonderful sport.’12 Tom Stenner, a speedway journalist, claimed that many of the early promoters were ‘nimble-
The biggest profits were probably made at Stamford Bridge. In 1928 and 1929 it is thought that the profit on speedway promotion at Stamford Bridge14 exceeded £40,000 but after 1932 speedway ceased at Stamford Bridge when the track was converted into one for dog racing. In 1935 £3,771 of Belle Vue's income of £20,665 was profit,15 but as Belle Vue had won the National League and the National Trophy, the two major competitions in that season, and as Belle Vue was one of the few tracks which raced throughout the 1930s, it seems likely that profits on this scale, though far below those at Stamford Bridge in the late 1920s, would have been at least comparable with those at other leading tracks. Whilst riders may have been attracted to speedway by the prospect of fame and excitement, their attitudes to racing were highly commercialised. In the late 1920s many rode six days a week to boost their earnings. Top riders were among the highest paid sportsmen in inter-
Frank Varey, the Belle Vue captain, recalled that ‘we were the ones going round in flash cars, not the footballers.’16 In the late 1920s the demand for experienced riders exceeded supply and big names raced not only for cash prizes but were paid appearance money. Initially the American Sprouts Elder was probably the rider with the highest earnings. In one year he may have made £15,000. By riding at three tracks on one day he was reputed to have received £350.17 By the late 1930s the Speedway Control Board had agreed maximum payments for riders but these meant that even average riders in the First Division were better paid than their equivalents in most other sports.18 In 1938 the rider Jack Ormston, though trying to show that speedway earnings were not so high as was often imagined, pointed out that a good First Division rider probably earned about £40 a week during the six months season, but would be injured for some weeks and had to pay £6 each week for machine maintenance and had to buy his machine and its spares. A machine cost around £80, a new engine £55. A Second Division rider earning £15 a week would be ‘doing quite well’ but the tighter tracks increased the risk of injury and led to more repair bills.19 In order to protect its members’ earning power, the Riders' Association tried to prevent the employment of foreign riders in 1937. It can be claimed that the dangers of speedway racing justified the relatively high pay of riders. By 1934, Paul Bishop of Harringay had crashed over 400 times.20 At least 24 riders died in speedway accidents before the Second World War.21
Speedway as a Spectator Sport
Spectator numbers are one indication of interest in speedway. Whilst gate receipts were sufficient to maintain speedway as a professional sport, speedway collapsed in most places where it was tried. In 1928 the ACU licensed racing at 34 tracks and at over 60 in 1929 and meetings were also held at tracks not licensed by the ACU. Meetings were held in all the big cities and most towns between the wars. In 1929 two professional leagues were started -
In 1939 the First Division had seven tracks and the Second nine, but Belle Vue Reserves was one of the Second Division tracks. Between 1929 and 1939 league racing was promoted at more than 40 tracks but only Belle Vue, Wembley, West Ham and Wimbledon took part in all of these seasons. Non-
As Speedway News had pointed out that attendance figures for speedway meetings were often inflated, this may mean that spectator statistics provided in Speedway News are more reliable than those published elsewhere. The largest attendance at a speedway meeting reported by Speedway News was 93,000 for the World Championship final at Wembley in 1938.23 The biggest crowd for an inter-
The failure of so many tracks in the North during the early 1930s and the partial revival in the number of league tracks in the late 1930s may mean that the levels of unemployment influenced spectator numbers. It was often complained that spectators would pay to watch only the top riders whose fees were too high for many promoters. E.O. Spence, the manager of Belle Vue and sometimes called the Mussolini of speedway, was often accused of not being interested in promoting junior riders but he maintained that the public wished to see only the big names. His suspicion that promoters who could not afford star riders were ‘heading for the financial graveyard’ was broadly true.29
The ability of Belle Vue to pay top riders was often blamed for the collapse of speedway in other parts of the North. Long delays between heats caused by false starts and the breakdown of machines were seen as deterrents to public interest and the introduction of an electrically operated starting gate may have contributed to the rise in the number of tracks in the second half of the 1930s. The News of the World, The Daily Mail, The [London] Star and The Daily Herald donated speedway trophies but press coverage of speedway was rarely as extensive as that for team ball games, which in itself may have restricted interest in speedway, and perhaps explains why the ACU Management Committee appointed a press advisory officer in 1936 and began to hold press lunches in 1937.30 The ACU and the Speedway Control Board do not seem to have had a programme to promote the expansion of speedway. Their minute books show that they waited for those interested in promoting to approach them instead of searching out potential investors to introduce speedway into new locations or to take over existing tracks.
Speedway News pointed out that when the Speedway Control Board had been set up in 1933, none of its members had experience of the business side of speedway. In 1935 two promoters were added to the Board and three in 1937 and the Board was restructured in 1939 but the ACU nominees still formed a majority on it.31 The limited efforts of the ACU and the Control Board to expand speedway into new localities were perhaps not untypical of sports governing bodies in the 1930s. Apologists for speedway argued that its appeal lay in its excitement. In 1928 anonymous articles in The Times, which read like thinly disguised advertisements for International Speedways, declared that 'Dirt track racing is a highly exciting and spectacular sport' and that in Australia it had become 'a favourite spectacle for those ...who love sensational feats.' Two years later The Times was still claiming that 'Speedway racing is undoubtedly an exciting form of sport.'32 Sprouts Elder, or perhaps his ghost-
Press advertisements for speedway in its early days stressed the excitement. Salford speedway, for instance, was advertised in 1929 as ‘the safest and speediest track in the North’ with ‘over two hours of thrills and spectacular broadsiding.’35 But many may not have found speedway exciting. A major reason why more did not watch speedway could have been that they shared the response of Hannen Swaffer, the journalist and drama critic, who reported that ‘Frankly, after two races, I found dirt-
There is little direct evidence about the social background of speedway spectators or of whether this changed over time. Comments about the presence of women spectators suggest that they were perhaps higher than for other sports. Photographs of crowds support Tom Stenner’s contention38 that most spectators were men but Speedway and Sports Gazette claimed that women spectators outnumbered men by two to one and that interest39 in speedway would be ‘missing, if not for these keen females.'’ Speedway Express, very much a publication for speedway devotees, had a regular column for ‘Speedway Girls’, usually concerned with cosmetics and what to wear at speedway meetings which may mean that women did watch speedway or that it was hoped they could be persuaded to do so.
The emphasis in the presentation of speedway was designed to give it an appeal to all classes. Reports of the attendance at speedway meetings by such luminaries as Prince George, Princess Ingrid of Sweden, King Alfonso of Spain and Admiral Beatty were intended in part to show that speedway had an appeal that crossed class boundaries. Speed was seen as fundamental to the appeal of speedway. In 1934 The Daily Mail described speedway as ‘the fastest, most thrilling, most fascinating of our newer sports.’ Press reports usually noted race times. Speedway News provided detailed lists of the fastest times at league tracks and presented new track record speeds as evidence for the advance of speedway. Lady Bailey, famous for her solo flights over Africa, Sir Henry Segrave, knighted for breaking the world motor car speed record, Malcolm Campbell and the Honourable Mrs Victor Bruce, who held the world record for driving the longest distance in 24 hours, were invited to speedway meetings and expressed their approval of speedway.
This association of speedway with those from the upper classes who had set speed records was an attempt to broaden the appeal and respectability of speedway but also tried to demonstrate how speedway was part of the trend in British culture which celebrated speed as an expression of modernity and a register of social progress. Publicity given to riders taking flying lessons can also be related to the attempts to present speedway as part of the rise of technology and modernity. A.J. Webbe, who had a daily sports column in The Daily Herald, wrote in Speedway Express that speed and rivalry were essential elements of speedway's appeal but saw speedway as a sign of progress because of its association with youth and peace. It was ‘a great modern movement, brand new and full of the vibrant enthusiasm of youth... It symbolises a general idea of getting on with things in a prompt, simpler and businesslike manner.’ For Webbe, speedway was ‘based one of the most fascinating and democratic inventions of the age -
The overall impression which emerges from the presentation of speedway is that its following became dominated by the working class. Reporting of speedway by The Times, initially extensive and supportive, declined steadily in the 1930s. Stress on sensation and excitement seems to have been intended to appeal to working-
Attempts to spice up meetings included riders racing on donkeys, a parade of elephants, two farmers racing horse-
Attempts to sensationalise speedway created tensions within speedway. By the mid-
Reactions to Speedway
Not all the motor-
The Home Secretary Joynson-
The opposition to speedway beyond the motor-
Apologists for other sports occasionally argued that speedway had undermined the appeal of their sports. In 1932, when discussing the financial problems of county cricket, the cricket correspondent of The Times pointed out that ‘The spectator has come to expect something more exhilarating, something more in keeping with the competitive thrills of speedway racing, and, if disappointed, his inadequate understanding of cricket encourages him to say that it is a dull game.’53 Insights into the opposition to speedway can be gained by looking at the criticisms which its apologists felt obliged to refute. The Motor Cyclist Review thought it necessary to rebut the belief that promoters were ‘legalised agents for “manslaughter”.’54 Sprouts Elder’s denial that speedway was ‘a pandemonium -
Speedway and Perceptions of Sport
The apologists of speedway, including the most shameless of speedway showmen such as Johnny Hoskins, always called it a sport. Speedway rhetoric emphasised speedway as a contest between riders rather than one between machines and celebrated the sportsmanship of riders. The editor of Speedway News claimed that ‘men, and real men at that, are pitted against each other; the machine is a secondary consideration. Human skill, intelligence and high courage are matched against similar qualities… Determination, quick thinking, ...the possession of almost uncanny powers of anticipation and the ability to accept defeat or victory… characterise the real dirt-
Even though speedway was more overtly commercialised than most sports, promoters accepted the ACU, an amateur body, as the ultimate authority for speedway. ACU representatives outnumbered promoters on the Track Licensing Committee and on the Speedway Control Board. Accepting the authority of the ACU in 1928 seems in part to have been a tactic to allay fears in the motor-
Belle Vue (Manchester) Limited Monthly Statements, Manchester Public Library Archives, M491/2/1/1
Crossley, Lionel, Crystal Palace Speedway: The Thrills and Spills of the 20s and 30s, (London: Crystal Palace Foundation, 1986). Daily Express
Elder, Sprouts, The Romance of the Speedway, (London: Warne, 1930) Interview with Mr. Ron Howes, retired speedway rider
Hoskins, Johnny, Speedway Walkabout, (Ipswich: Studio, 1978).
Manchester Evening News
Motor Cyclist Review
Parfitt, Philip, Racing at Crystal Palace: A History of London's Own Race Circuit 1927-
The Sports Historian No. 19 (1)
Rogers, Martin, The Illustrated History of Speedway, (Ipswich: Studio, 1978) Speedway and Sports Gazette
Speedway Control Board minutes, ACU House
Stenner, Tom, Thrilling the Million: The Lure of the Speedway, (London: John Miles, 1934)
1 Punch, 3 October 1928.
2 Some maintain the meetings on short tracks in 1927 at Camberley, Audenshaw and Droylesden should be regarded as the first speedway meetings held in Britain. None of these, however, attracted as much public interest as that at High Beech. The lowest estimate for the number of spectators present at High Beech is 15,000.
3 See for instance Motor Cycle, 10 February 1927.
4 L. Crossley, 1986, p. 21; P. Parfitt, 1991, pp. 10, 16.
5 Daily Express, 28 June, 12 July 1928.
6 It is sometimes claimed that the Belle Vue track at Hyde Road, Manchester, was a purpose-
7 Speedway News, 16 May 1935, 28 May 1938.
8 ACU Minute Book, Sub-
9 Motor Cycling, 2 May 1928.
10 Speedway News, 15 May, 12 June 1937.
11 Motor Cyclist Review, September 1928.
12 Motor Cycling, 2 May 1928.
13 Stenner, 1934, p. 25.
14 Stenner, 1934, p. 54.
15 Belle Vue Monthly Statements.
16 Speedway Star, 2 January 1999.
17 Rogers, 1978, pp. 10, 19, 65; Speedway News, 29 April 1935.
18 For details of these see Speedway Control Board minutes, 1 April 1939; Speedway News, 21 May 1938; 1 April 1939.
19 Speedway News, 28 May 1938.
20 Daily Mail, 30 June 1934.
21 I am grateful to Mr Graham Fraser for supplying me with this information.
22 Speedway News, 25 April, 19 September 1936; Times, 6 September 1933; 22 August 1934.
23 Speedway News, 28 May 1938.
24 Times, 30 September 1935.
25 Times, 1 June 1929.
26 Belle Vue Monthly Statements.
27 Speedway News, 4 June 1938.
28 Speedway News, 13 April 1935; 27 March 1937; 1 April 1939.
29 Auto, 1 August 1930.
30 ACU Management Committee minute book, 16 March 1936, 28 February 1938.
31 Speedway News, 1 April 1939.
32 Times, 2 February, 17 April 1928, 21 April 1930.
33 Elder, 1930, p. 14.
34 Daily Mail, 30 June 1934.
35 Manchester Evening News, 10 May 1929.
36 Sunday Express, 5 August 1928. 37Motor Cycle, 25 July 1929; 8, 22 September 1939. 38Stenner, 1934, p. 10. 39Speedway and Sports Gazette, 26 April 1934.
40 Daily Mail, 30 June 1934.
41 Speedway Express, 16 August 1932.
42 Interview with Mr. R. Howes, retired speedway rider.
43 Hoskins, 1978, pp. 145-
44 Manchester Guardian, 27 April 1936.
45 Speedway News, 27 April 1935; 4 July 1936.
46 See, for instance, Motor Cycling, 14 September 1927; 29 February 1928; Motor Cycle, 15 March 1928, Motor Cycle Review, April 1928.
47 Motor Cycling, 22 February, 14, 21 March 1928.
48 Motor Cycling, 23 May 1928.
49 Motor Cyclist Review, September 1928.
50 Times, 4 March 1932; interview with Mr R. Howes.
51 Speedway Control Board minutes, 16 March 1939.
52 Speedway News, 23 May 1930.
53 Times, 20 April 1932.
54 Motor Cyclist Review, November 1929.
55 Elder, 1930, p. 13.
56 Speedway News, 15 May 1928.