Speedway: The dirt flies in the Forest

The Anniversary: Modern speedway racing was merely a babe in the woods 71 years ago
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The Independent Online
THE WEST Maitland "Electric Light Carnival" in New South Wales in the early 1920s was hardly an early son et lumiere, more Blackpool side street. The organiser, Johnnie Hoskins, a young New Zealander, was looking for a gimmick, and the one he came up with quickly became a craze that was to spread across the world and, in the Fifties, was Britain's second most popular spectator sport.

Hoskins may not have invented speedway, but no one else saw its potential and did so much to foster it in Australia, enjoy its peaks in Britain and fight so hard for it when it was down. More than 50 years later he was still promoting in England, where the sport's first officially recognised meeting was held at High Beech in Epping Forest, north-east of London, on 19 February 1928.

"Dirt-track racing" had its roots in a form of short-track racing recorded as early as 1907 in South Africa, but it was first seen on a regular and organised basis on horse- trotting tracks in the United States during the early 1920s. The riders raced huge, heavy Harley-Davidson and Indian V-twins round the ovals, with sometimes horrendous results. Fatalities and serious injuries eventually led to the organisers restricting engine size to 500cc. Bike riders being what they are, the competitors simply maintained high speeds by learning to broadside round the bends.

In 1925 some Americans went to West Maitland and raced local riders at the agricultural show ground. The track had been formed out of cinders from a nearby slag heap. Australian grass track riders did well and several purpose-built cinder tracks, including one at the Sydney Show Ground, were laid. The loose surface encouraged the Australian Billy Lamont to perfect the technique of leg trailing, which allowed him to power round a bend in a continuous slide. Speedway in a form that is recognisable today was born.

To maintain that its birth in Britain was at High Beech invites pedantic contradiction. Certainly in 1927 the Auto-Cycle Union gave a licence for a dirt track meeting at Camberley Heath, in Surrey, but the circuit was sand and grass. Also in 1927 there was a meeting organised by the Manchester Motor Club at Droylsden but, again, it was not speedway as we know it, rather racing on stripped-down road machines in a clockwise direction on a trotting track. The High Beech meeting for which the ACU granted a permit to the Ilford Motorcycle Club has the most persuasive evidence for its claim to be the first British viewing of true speedway.

Up until then the track in the forest had been used for cycle racing. The choice of venue was based mainly on its being out of earshot of possible complainers. Danger seemed of no importance either to the riders or the spectators who lined a track that had no barriers to protect them.

Thinking that High Beech was too far out of London to attract a huge crowd, the organisers anticipated that it might reach 3,000. On the day, every road for miles around was blocked. With all of the good viewpoints packed, some of the crowd (estimated at 25,000) crossed the track to toe the inside edge which was marked with a white line. Frequently they moved on to the track for a closer view just before or after the riders sped by. Amazingly no one was seriously hurt. Among the riders were two Australians, who demonstrated the broadsiding technique on machines much heavier than today's. That captivated the crowds. One of the British riders was Phil Bishop, later team manager of the West Ham speedway team.

Within three months, speedway had moved into London itself, with the first meeting under floodlights held in May 1928. By 1929 there were 25 competing in two leagues. British engineers realised that the old idea of converting road-going machines was not good enough. The bikes needed to be much lighter. Within a year of the meeting in Epping Forest, manufacturers were displaying specialist one-gear, no-brake bikes at the London Motorcycle Show, with horizontal twin-cylinder machines proving the most popular. By 1932, however, most of the leading riders were using British single- cylinder JAP- powered bikes and did so for more than 30 years.

The leading Australian riders came over, together with Americans. Hoskins, the sports first entrepreneur, had moved to Britain to be in at the beginning. He was quickly in the forefront of promotion, setting up the first England v Australian match in 1930. Six years later there was a world championship. By that time the sport had spread to South America, Scandinavia and Egypt.

Today, in spite of numerous financial crises, the sport that was introduced in a forest regularly manages to get itself out of the wood.