SpeedwayFiction Speedway like it used to be! Home Tales of the Early Years SpeedwayFiction Brave Days of the Dirt Track Recalled by John  Addison, Sports Editor of The People in 1947

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-ridden, cinder-showered past whether or not the great John S. has slipped.

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-cycle race meeting at Sydney in the spring of 1924.

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-cycle racing had me in its grip and I built the Marouba track. With its concrete surface it attracted the best riders in Australia. They put up terrific speeds but, to my bitter disappointment, the races did not grip and thrill onlookers as the racing on the cinder-path had done.’

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-mile long and the lads used to roar down at terrifying speeds. Then came equally terrifying breaking and the scurry round the bend. There were spills aplenty and thrills galore. And I certainly got my money’s worth at the first meeting. For ‘Toddy’ duly won his heat and as I had got £3 to £1 from an unsuspecting bookmaker, I thought the introduction to the new sport was a happy omen for the future.

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-yard circuit in 40 seconds. The clock takes 55 seconds to strike twelve. Dick Hardy – probably suffering from those midnight blues – tried a practice lap. But Dick skidded – you didn’t think the roads were dry, did you? – while taking a corner at 30 mph and after spinning merrily round three times landed with a resounding thump on the pavement. And he didn’t get a scratch.

The fabulous ‘Sprouts’

Those were the days of the fabulous ‘Sprouts’ Elder, the lanky, loose-limbed American who went smack into the big money as soon as he put his machine on the cinders. ‘Sprouts,’ with his slow drawl and charming grin, was a cinch for promoters. And so he was for himself. There were fantastic stories about the American’s earnings; how he was cleaning up £500 a week; how he prepared his ‘secret dope.’ There were stories of how lesser-known riders tried to steal a few drops of the ‘juice’ to have it analysed and then mixed for themselves. But ‘Sprouts’ just went on grinning and cleaning up.

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-Get-‘Em’ Frank Arthur, ‘Flat-Out’ Charlie Spinks, ‘Dare-Devil’ Frank Pearce, ‘Smiling’ Jim Kempster, the first Englishman to win a premier award at an international speedway track.

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-mile dirt track championship of Australia at an average speed of 60 mph plus, Frank had his own ideas of how to eat up the miles on the track. He was not a broadsider in the proper sense of the word. He exploited in golden fashion the semi-straight style of riding. When he was at the height of his fame in the late twenties there was no dirt track trophy which he had not won.

Another flashback… Brilliant, dashing Vic Huxley, the Australian Ace. When I contacted him he was reading between races a well-thumbed novel. I wish I could recall the name of the book. But I can’t. All I do remember is my astonishment at seeing Vic absorbed in his book. There he was, remote from the roar of hotted-up engines and the fury of the broadside. Vic put away his book reluctantly and began to talk. ‘I was born at Brisbane 21 years ago,’ he said. (Don’t forget he was speaking in 1928.) ‘And I left school early to be trained as a battery mechanic.’

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-cycle until he was 18 years old. Like Frank Arthur, he found the going hard. His first season at Brisbane’s quarter-mile track brought him only one trophy. But the following season Vic was ‘tops.’ He moved right into the limelight; and his record was the best of all. At that time he held a world record for a mile on a speedway. He covered three laps on a third-of-a-mile track in 1 minute 33.5 seconds at an average speed of nearly 60 mph.

Vic on a motor-cycle was, above all, the supreme master in confidence. He took his broadsides at an incredible angle. When you saw him tearing round, his body seemed to be flung away from the machine; and his left leg sprawled at least 3 feet away from the frame. And, after each exhausting race, Vic used to find a quiet corner – if there is such a thing in or near a speedway meeting – and carry on with his book until stewards called him for his next race… That was Huxley. I doubt whether speedway fans have seen his like again.

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-builder – took up the foreign challenge. They held conferences; they modified their bikes; they experimented with racing ‘dope,’ always in the hope that they could get from their machines the ‘kick’ that sent ‘Sprouts’ into the big money. I remember so many of these really grand Britons. So will some of you when you cast back your minds over the years.

There was Eric Spencer – London-born and one of the few road riders who took up, successfully, the speedway game. Eric rode his first motor-bike in 1910. Twelve years later, at the age of 26, he won a gold challenge cup race at Brooklands at 76.89 mph. As a prominent trade rider for Douglas motors he rode in nearly all British and Continental trials for eight years.

Cinders had no lure

Then, in the years 1923-4-5, Eric cleaned up at those magnificent meetings on the firm wide Southport sands. It was here he set up a speed of 100.6 mph for the flying kilometre. Then Eric took up speedway racing and scored a number of successes. But many of his expert motor-cycle pals refused to come into the new game. I met many of them in the early days and nearly all refused to be tempted.

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-known rough-rider in Yorkshire motorcycling circles, was putting in his third practice appearance on a dirt track. He covered the four laps in 1 minute 32.25 seconds. And this is what I wrote then about Alec’s display… ‘Jackson’s time, considering his experience of speedway racing, is remarkable. The best time set up by a Britisher at the 440-yard White City (Manchester) track is 1 minute 48.35 seconds, set up by A. B. Drew. Jackson, on a Rudge Special, easily outstripped four other riders in a practice lap, winning by nearly half a lap. He was broadsiding his machine in spectacular style and taking the bends with a minimum loss of time.’

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-dangerous petrol. So a fast racing car was chartered for the trip to Manchester. For 190 miles the car roared through pouring, blinding rain. In less than five hours the dope was at Belle Vue, three quarters of an hour before racing was due to begin. But there was no racing. The rain had made riding impossible.

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-taught ace, was particularly critical. He complained that he had ten times as many spills here as he had ‘down under’ and he blamed the straights. ‘Awful,’ he called them. The Australians favoured the egg-shaped tracks which demanded cornering all the way round.

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-Devil’ it was Frank. I shudder to think how many times Frank came near to death at Belle Vue. He had concussion, he broke limbs and collar bones. Once his life was despaired of. But Frank always came back. His name was a magnet. Wherever he went to the crowd turned up to see his audacious riding. A grand rider, Frank, and a joker of the first water. He hadn’t a scrap of fear in him; and where the most hardened and boldest of riders would hesitate, Frank would steer his plunging machine.

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-women’s race at Wimbledon, in which one of the riders was injured, so aroused public opinion that the A. C. U. banned women from the tracks. And since then our sport has been ‘for men only’ – that is so far as riding, and not spectator excitement, is concerned. Eva Asquith, with Fay, took to the speedway. Their reign, such as it was, was brief. But I, like many of the early enthusiasts who thronged to the tracks in those days, regretted Fay’s absence. Her record was splendid. She had swept the board in New Zealand; and her racing skill on road or track was there for all to see. She fought unsuccessfully against the A. C. U. decision to ban women from the speedway; but found some consolation in car racing. Although I have not seen her for nearly 20 years I believe she’s still around. Good luck, Fay. And thanks for the good show on the cinders.

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 - or not - by trial and error

Clem Beckett was not the only speedway rider to test his skill on the Wall of Death

‘Dare-Devil’ Frank Varey

John Addison was a Sports Editor of The People newspaper. His article appeared in ‘The People Guide to Speedway,’ 1948