They called it dirt track racing in the early days. But no one seems to know definitely when the sport began. Johnny Hoskins, grand old man of the speedway has declared that the first meeting of all was in November 1923, at West Maitland, Australia. I wonder, now, going back through the hazy, petrol-
Back to 1924
For, more than twenty years ago, I recall a long talk I had with another Australian, A.J. Hunting, who played a leading part in putting over speedway racing in Britain. A.J. was then managing director of International Speedways, with three tracks in London – Harringay, White City and Wimbledon – and others at Belle Vue (Manchester), Liverpool, Leeds, Birmingham and Newcastle. And when Hunting told me of the birth of ‘dracing,’ as he described the then enfant terrible of the world of sport, his mind went back to a grass track motor-
On this particular day heavy rain had fallen and the track was so slippery and treacherous that riding on it was out of the question. Now, running parallel with the grass course was a cinder Path. The promoters had a brainwave. They announced that to give the spectators something for their money the riders would try to stage the races on the cinders.
‘Halfway through the first heat,’ – these are Hunting’s own words – ‘everyone was on their feet cheering wildly. For they realized they were seeing a new kind of racing. Instead of cornering in the usual way the riders were making use of the loose surface of cinders to slide around each end of the oval track throwing up clouds of finely scattered dirt as they did so.
‘Falls were numerous but no one was hurt. The absence of high speeds passed unnoticed – we were being treated to thrills such as we had never dreamed of. And as one race followed another and the riders became more accustomed to the novel conditions, enthusiasm mounted to fever pitch. From that day motor-
Pressmen get close to the action at West Ham’s Custom House stadium
Members of the King’s Oak team at High Beech in 1931
Tackling the problem
So ‘A. J.’ tackled the problem. He set out to reproduce as nearly as possible the cinder track. And at the same time he planned to make it so safe that however high the speeds riders would not meet with serious accidents. For a time he experimented with various types of cinder surfaces and finally used a composition of brick dust laid several inches deep on a new track measuring four laps to the mile.
The track was enclosed in a safety fence, which consisted of a wire mesh connected to the posts supporting it by an arrangement of spiral springs. Thus, even if a rider skidded headfirst into one of the posts the spring would absorb the shock and throw him back safely onto the soft dirt. The riders were compelled to wear effective crash helmets, padded leather suits and gauntlets.
Brisbane had the first of the new tracks and within a week or two was attracting 30,000 spectators a meeting. Then – in Hunting’s words – ‘we in Australia looked round for fresh worlds to conquer.’ Should they go to the United States or Britain? That was the question. In the end the Aussies decided to see Britain first; and the factor prompting the decision was that the newly constructed greyhound tracks could easily be converted to speedway racing.
And that, so far as I can gather from the dim and misty past, is the story of how it began. But that’s only the Australian side. What of Britain? Well, here again the historians are at variance. It has been authoritatively stated that the first meeting ever held in England was at the little King’s Oak track, Epping Forest, on February 19, 1928. That may be true if the records refer to properly controlled meetings. But I myself saw the cinders fly many times before that date at the old pony trotting track at Audenshaw, Manchester.
My early recollections are of necessity somewhat bemisted by the years. I little thought when I first went to have a look at the cinder shifters that more than twenty years later I would be editing the most popular and authoritative speedway guide in the country.
‘Toddy’ – Aubrey Todd the T.T. rider – asked me along one Saturday afternoon. ‘Great fun,’ he said. ‘And if you want a bet you can have one on the side. And don’t forget to back me in the first heat. I’ve had my engine really hotted up.’
Now, Audenshaw track was a large affair compared with the compact, almost oval, modern track. The straights were about a quarter-
Battle for Power
Then, with the opening of the White City track in 1928, followed by Belle Vue in the same year, Manchester became the centre of a really fierce fight behind the scenes. The British Dirt Track Racing Association which controlled the White City were in keen rivalry with Belle Vue. The challenges came thick and heavy. And the ballyhoo and publicity stunts became really tiresome. They put up all sorts of trophies – the Golden Helmet, the Golden Gauntlet, the Golden Sash – and about the only thing they didn’t race for was the Heraldic Sign of Lombardy – the three Golden balls which tell you ‘uncle’ is ready to do business.
Belle Vue track was run and controlled by International Speedways, with A. J. Hunting as managing director. And the publicity chaser was no other than my great friend Dick Hardy, still pursuing the elusive limelight at West Ham Stadium.
Middlesbrough’s Geoff Godwin signing autographs at Wimbledon in 1947
Some of the 70,000 attending a fixture at Wembley
Stirring up the cinders at West Ham
Eric beat the clock
Oh yes, they were brave old days. We certainly had some fun. I remember when we staged a midnight race against the Manchester Town Hall clock. Eric Spencer, the first English rider to win the Golden Helmet at Birmingham’s opening meeting at the beginning of August, roared round the Town Hall and beat the clock by fifteen seconds.
Eric made a standing start and completed the 365-
The fabulous ‘Sprouts’
Those were the days of the fabulous ‘Sprouts’ Elder, the lanky, loose-
Those were the days of Big Ballyhoo. Crack riders had a prefix to their names. So we began to read in our programmes of ‘Cyclone’ Billy Lamont, ‘Broadside’ Vic Huxley, ‘Go-
How the names roll nostalgically off the tongue! For those were the days we shall always remember, and linked with the days are the men who put the sport on the map. I confess that those early star riders fascinated me. And of them all I think that Frank Arthur impressed me more than any. Originally intended to be a trainer and fitter, he took up speedway racing instead. He was 20 when he reached England in 1928; and soon he was earning money beyond the wildest dreams of his boyhood days.
I remember having an intimate to talk with him at Belle Vue soon after that splendidly organised track got going. Frank mentioned casually that in the preceding ten weeks he had earned on various London tracks more than £1,300. This works out at nearly £7,000 a year – £2,000 a year more than the Prime Minister of Britain at that time. Frank’s best week was when he won £287.
Grit brought Frank Arthur to the top of the speedway tree. When he began riding at the age of 16 he had nothing but setbacks. His machines were poor. He kept falling off. Oh, the number of times Frank hit the dirt in his early days is nobody’s business. Then, by chance, he hit on the secret of the slide – and from that minute he went on winning. Holder then of the 100-
Another flashback… Brilliant, dashing Vic Huxley, the Australian Ace. When I contacted him he was reading between races a well-
Vic Duggan receives the Golden Helmet trophy from Hollywood icon Eleanor Parker. The noted actress starred alongside Frank Sinatra, Stuart Granger, Clark Gable and Ronald Reagan. In later years, she returned to the screen to play the baroness in The Sound of Music
Vic Duggan, Lionel van Praag and Aub Lawson chatting between races at Custom House
Into the limelight
Vic never got astride a motor-
Vic on a motor-
Facing the challenge
For a time ‘Sprouts’ Elder and the Australian stars held the speedway stage. The British lads simply could not put up a show against them. Doggedly, fiercely the Franklyns and Atkinsons and Vareys and Jervises – ah, Arthur was a grand rider until he left the track to become a successful master-
There was Eric Spencer – London-
Cinders had no lure
Then, in the years 1923-
But of all the early English stars no one aroused my admiration more than Alec Jackson, now speedway manager at Wembley. I recall going to Belle Vue, on July 19, 1928, nine days before the track opened. Alec, then a well-
Public interest in the new sport was mounting. At one practice meeting, before the Belle Vue track opened, about 100 people rushed the gates and took up positions around the track. Police had to be called in; and practice was not resumed until the intruders had been shooed off the ground.
The ‘Dope’ Express
Naturally we had all sorts of peculiar incidents before the game came under discipline and control. Of course things went wrong. I recall when Vic Huxley arrived at Belle Vue only to discover that he had no ‘dope.’ So Vic phoned his mechanic in London to bring some dope up by express train. But the railway authorities would not let the mechanic travel on the train with the highly-
Then there were grouses about the English tracks. The Australian riders hated our early speedways. Charlie Spinks, the dashing star who began riding in 1924 and was in effect a self-
And how we early enthusiasts used to discuss the art and mystery of broadsiding! At first we used to despair of our English boys. Would they never gain the secret of that spectacular flurry round or slide? Valiantly they bent their machines over at the turns and tried to copy the riders from overseas. Valiantly, too, they took the spills and the knocks.
No one could really initiate them into the secret. For the broadsiding mystery was solved only by trial and error. One minute it would seem to the rider that he would never master the art. The next minute he was broadsiding and the golden secret was revealed. The Aussie experts did their best to let our lads into the art. But they, too, found explanations difficult to give. ‘If you ask me how broadsiding is done I cannot tell you,’ said Vic Huxley when I pressed him for some tips to pass on to the English novices. ‘I have been asked scores of times but I just can’t explain. I learned by practice. I just picked it up.’
Even the Australians differed in their broadsiding methods. When I first saw Spinks sliding round the bends in a shower of cinders I noticed that he put the sole of his left boot flat on the track to maintain his balance. Vic Huxley on the other hand found that he got along better by touching the track with the toe of his boot, the toe pointing backwards. And Vic’s style was so effective that Spinks adopted it.
Our lads soon learned
But we need not have worried about our lads. Soon some of them were broadsiding with the best, and how the cheers roared across the cinders whenever an overseas rider had to take the cinder shower from an English lad! And among the first to congratulate the victors were the Aussies themselves. None admired the pluck and tenacity of the British riders more than the Australians. And within a few weeks of taking up the game the home lads – some of them anyhow – were shaping like champions. One of the most dashing and spectacular was Clem Beckett of Rochdale. He charged into the bends like an unleashed fury. He took some very bad knocks. But the more he took the more he went on to master the track. No one could compete with him for popularity at the White City (Manchester) track. Clem had a go at the ‘Wall of Death,’ that sensational novelty with the riders defying the laws of gravity and hurtling round the bowl with their machines horizontal to the ground. Clem died as bravely as he lived. He joined the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War and lost his life battling for democratic Spain.
Then there were the Langton brothers at Belle Vue – Eric and Oliver. Eric, small and diffident to the point of shyness, rose like a meteor to track fame. And nearly 20 years later he came out of retirement to stage a comeback at Belle Vue. But of all the daring riders of those early days the outstanding one was Frank Varey. If ever a man earned the name ‘Dare-
Because of these dangers it was with some concern that I received the news that women were to compete on the cinders. A. J. Hunting had already banned women from appearing at International Speedway tracks. He gave his reasons… ‘I know of no woman who could start scratch against even an ordinarily good man. And to match her against one of the best twelve men in Britain would be to stage a procession… While I may admit for a moment their skill, yet I cannot convince myself of their strength to wrench a machine round a corner, nor of their robustness to take a spill without incurring a worse shock than a man…’
Enter, Speedway Eve
Soon after that I saw my first woman Speedway rider in action at the Salford track. She was Fay Taylour; and she was good. She won a heat in which Hunting’s ‘ordinarily good men’ were competing; and when I talked to her after the racing she was happy and confident. Fay was an exceptional woman; popular with everybody; and well above the average ability of the men. But she was destined not to rule as a ‘Queen of the Speedways.’ An all-
The first big transfer
Only one other point about the early days and then my misty chronicles are ended. I remember well the first big sensational transfer of a rider. The date was August 10, 1928, and the rider was none other than our old friend ‘Wizard’ Frank Arthur, the Australian. The overseas ace was transferred on that day by International Speedways to Stamford Bridge. The figure was well over £1,000; and the transaction opened out peculiar possibilities in the speedway racing world. The transfer presented a pretty problem in those more or less chaotic days. The A. C. U. took no part in the control of the sport. They had no jurisdiction over the activities of the riders so long as the riders observed the racing rules as laid down by the Union.
It’s stabilised now
Yet all that is ancient, yet still interesting, history. Since I saw my first meeting at Audenshaw many million cinders have been scattered by churning wheels; and the sport has been stabilised in an efficient, sensible way. Today you younger people who flock to the speedways are well catered for. You see league racing at its best; you enjoy the fruits of what promoters and riders battled for in the early days.
You have supporters’ clubs. Your views are respected. And the sport goes along in a dignified, controlled style. But – you will probably deny this – you’ll never know the thrills we knew 20 years ago when the sport was full of as many teething troubles as it was of spills and blunders!
The irrepressible Fay Taylour who fought the ACU’s decision to ban women from speedway riding but lost
American ‘crack’ rider Lloyd ‘Sprouts’ Elder
Exeter riders on parade in a jeep at the County Ground
From the Manchester Locomotive society’s collection
No one could teach the art of broadsiding. It was picked up -
Clem Beckett was not the only speedway rider to test his skill on the Wall of Death