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From Aussie to Ōto – The Secret History of Speedway

Posted on January 29, 2011 by Andrew in Classic, Other. 18 comments

Antique Megamind – Australian Col Stewart in the late 1920s

Here’s something I bet you didn’t know. The first ever speedway race was held in Maitland, about two hours north of Sydney, on the 15th of December 1923. Now we’re not saying that us Aussies invented the sport, but I’m proud to say that we had the brains and the lack of civility to see a bike going sideways on dirt while throwing up a bloody great wall of dirt and think “hot damn, that’d make a good night out!” Just for the record, a Norton ridden by a “W. Crampton” won in a time of 3 minutes 37 seconds, with a Harley in second and a Douglas in third.

Newspaper clippings from the era suggest crowds of 70,000 were not unusual for the bigger events in the late 20s and 30s. Hell, with that much danger and carnage on offer, why wouldn’t you go?

Racers on Peashooters dominated early Australian Speedway events due to their 100 mph top speed and some genuinely bad-ass headgear

As for the actual technique of speedway riding, we’ve got the yanks to thank for that. Accounts exist of an American board track racer named Don Johns “riding the entire race course wide open, throwing great showers of dirt into the air at each turn” as early as 1914. One would assume that he was not racing on boards at the time, unless the cleaning teamsters were out on strike that month. Or maybe he was just screwing around in the carpark, post-race. Speedway was introduced into Europe by Australians Billy Galloway and Keith McKay when they raced in Europe’s first Speedway meet at High Beech in England on April 9, 1928.

A shot from the UKs Leeds Speedway in the 1930s. Check the sweet dropped ‘bars on the far left

From there it spread to Sweden, Poland, Denmark, Argentina, Czech Republic, Italy, Russia, Slovenia and the United States. The bikes do differ from country to country, but today the Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme (the sport’s governing body) stipulates that all official speedway bikes must:

  • Weigh no less than 77 kg (without fuel)
  • Use a four-stroke, single cylinder engine with one carburetor and one spark plug and a maximum capacity of 500cc
  • Have guards fitted over moving engine parts where reasonable
  • Use an additional chain guard to prevent a hand or fingers being cut at the nip point where the chain meets the sprocket by a chain
  • Have a peg (Dutch Peg) fitted to prevent a broken primary chain flailing and injuring a rider or a fellow competitor
  • Use shatter resistant plastics where reasonable
  • Be fitted with a dirt deflector
  • Be fuelled by methanol with no additives
  • Be fitted with an approved silencer



A restored 1980 Godden Weslake Speedway Racer built on a ‘78-’82 Godden frame and powered by a 500cc Weslake 4-valve engine

Machines used cannot:

  • Be constructed in any part from Titanium
  • Use uncoated ceramic parts
  • Use telemetry during a race except for timing purposes
  • Use any electronic components to control the engine
  • Use brakes of any form
  • Use supercharger or a turbocharger of any kind.

Note that last rule; you can’t a supercharger. Just in case you were thinking of fitting one to your almost-out-of-control dirt monster with no brakes. Despite this, bikes regularly reach 130 km/h (80 mph) mostly thanks to high compression ratios and a good dose of methanol fuel. With no way of stopping, or even shutting off the bikes, riders will lay the bike down and yank out the spark plug lead should they need to stop unexpectedly. Subtle.

Finding themselves with a dearth of dirt for many months of the year, Northern Europeans started holding speedway races on ice from 1966 onwards. If the Australians were the ones crazy enough to make a sport out of hooliganism, the Europeans have to be given a pat on the back for taking that hooliganism and adding freakin’ enormous metal spikes to the tires of the bikes, enabling race-able traction on the frozen tracks. This also required the use of extended fenders on the bikes to ensure that almost all of the bike’s wheel was covered when not in contact with the ice. Seems like a decent idea, but I can’t see how it would stop other bikes from running over you if you fell in front of them. But hey, why ruin a perfectly ridiculous endeavour with safety and logic? Undoubtedly most early races were mixed with many-a-shot of vodka to ward off the winter chills. Could a sport get any more macho? Just don’t suggest flame throwers – they might actually go for it.

Don’t be a prick. Ice racing in Sweden with suspension – ice must be bumpy there

But that’s not all Speedway has to offer us custom bike fans, not by a long shot. As with many great ideas, once the Japanese got hold of it they added their own little twist and managed to make it a whole lot weirder and just that little bit cooler. Classic Speedway events were regularly held in Japan from the early 50s, but in the early 60s the Japanese Government banned the sport over concerns that it was too dangerous. So what did the racers go and do? Why, they started holding “Ōto Rēsu” (Auto Race) meets on asphalt, with twice the amount of riders, higher top speeds, tighter turns, and more spectacular accidents. Genius. The addition of gambling ensured the attendance of large crowds until Yakuza infiltration in the mid 60s and race fixing almost killed the sport. An independent Motorcycle Federation took over in 1967 and developed into it’s own unique art form free from corruption and rigging which still runs today.

Lean on me. And here we were wondering if our fat-ass Firestone retro tires were grippy enough

Nowadays, riders wear amazing jockey silks over Gridiron-like body amour and the bikes, which are almost always ridden at extreme angles of lean, have evolved into surreal, abstracted tools with “pre-bent” handlebars. The starting grid is stacked with the better riders at the rear in a six lap race. Words are stupidly insufficient when trying to describe this amazing sport, but if you can imagine Nascar crossbred with speedway and horse racing you’ll be getting close. Click play and prepare to be amazed. Watch for the sparks…

So there you have it, a cook’s tour of the art of Speedway, thanks to our latest Goggling obsession. Don’t say you’ve run out of fresh inspiration for the next round of Imaginary Garage; just think “Ōto Rēsu.”

(Thanks to VisorDown, MotoFreako, Bring a Trailer and Vintage Speedway for the inspiration and images.)

  • BB

    Thanks for this story. The Japanese racing was great.

  • Funny I just wrote about Auto Race in Japan…

  • I'd love to know more about the Douglas that came in 3rd at that first Aussie race.

    Pardon my ignorance, but in the photo above of the red and green racers, what is the deal with the forks on those bikes? They look like some strange hybrid of a telescopic and leading link fork. I'll have to try and dig up some more photos.

    Is Japan the only country allowing twin cylinder bikes? Seems like speedways are mostly singles.

  • Asshole Welder

    and i thought japanese bizzare porn and shinya kimura were the only cool things to come out of japan.

  • redrumracer

    awesome! the japanese always manage to put a crazy twist on just about anything to do with bikes

    ….and if you were wondering where Mark Drew got his inspiration for his latest Triumph build i'd suggest that the above is certainly part of it

    super sweet write up Andrew!

  • Andrew

    @Evan Fell All I can tell you about the Douglas is that it was a 2 3/4 HP model ridden by an "S. Pinfold". I'm guessing it would have been a Douglas DT (Dirt Track) model, some shots of which you can find here .

    I have no idea about the forks on the Auto Race bikes. I'd love to know more if anyone has any info? As for their engines, I understand they USED to use the single cylinder JAWA (and the like) engines, but swapped to a special-order Yamaha twin engine to ensure they were easy/cheap to repair and roughly consistant across all the competitors. The gambling aspect no doubt played a part in this as well.

    @Redrum Excellent point – I hadn't made that connection until you pointed it out. If you ask me, there should be more customs looking to speedway for inspiration. Cheers.

  • redrumracer

    @Andrew – I believe that we're just starting to see the influence of some of the more uncommon motorcycle sports coming through in the custom scene. Predominantly in the form of hill climb and speedway bikes and obviously board track over the last year or so. A number of japanese builds are popping up with skinnier, less tyre hugging rear guards as well as smaller frame hugging tanks and bigger rims with skinnier dirt tyres. I'm interested to see where it goes from here.

    The shots you've included above show an interesting progression from the board track racer roots of these machines. I didn't realise the history behind it all. I'd be keen to see similar articles on any of the other obscure forms of motorcycle sport you choose to get google obsessive over!

  • kik

    @andrew, you outdid yourself my friend,..

  • Johan

    Maybe a nice edition to your article, mainly in the seventies we had our own form of speedway in the netherlands. It was called 'gras baan' or grass track racing. Same idea as speedway but then on grass. There was a 50, 125, 250, 500 cc class aswell as a sidecar class. Bikes had 2 gears and rear suspension. It was also popular in germany and england.
    Not seen much anymore though.

  • @Johan – Grass track racing sounds like a oxymoron to me! There wouldn't be grass on that track for more than a few laps. Especially once the larger bore bikes got out there.

    Looks like those Japanese speedway bikes use something similar to the forks on this Australian 125cc speedway racer:

    It's just an image I dug up while trying to do some research. A specialized leading link style.

  • Andrew

    Here's a larger version of that image Auto Race image that lets you get a better look at the front forks. Call me crazy, but it looks like an Ohlins steering damper. WTF?

  • Andrew

    Another one here. That's gotta be a repurposed steering damper, yeah?

  • lance Houston

    What make 500 single are they using????
    THey seemed to have their dialed in very well . They were riding on rails.!!

  • Wow, Andrew, way to dig up some additional pictures! It definitely does look like a repurposed steering damper. I don't quite understand why they would set it up like that though. Back to google……

    That teal colored bike with the AR600 motor looks incredible!

  • Andrew

    @Evan Fell Japanese Google and a rudimentary understanding of Katakana can really take you places in the world of Auto Racing.

  • Number157

    Speedway, from Juniors thru First Division, is still very much alive in Southern California. Costa Mesa has ran weekly, during the season, uninterrupted since 1969 and venues like City of Industry, Perris, Victorville, Ridgecrest, Golden Gate, Auburn and the occasional race at Avi Casino in Laughlin, Nevada, keep the sport alive.

    One note… another major contribution by the Americans is, for lack of better description, aggression. European tracks are huge compared to the ovals (sometimes circles) we race in the States. Given the shorter distance raced, American racers have to be a bit more aggressive in terms of getting into a position to win the race – tracks like Costa Mesa have hardly any straightway and you are constantly setting up for the slide.

    Taking nothing away from our European counterparts, the US short-track style has its own merits.

  • great video! The front suspension looks like a very simple telescoping fork, as used on circa 1914 Scott motorcycles and lots of speedway bikes. The upper part of the forks are fixed and have some triangulated trusses to give them stiffness. The hub is mounted on short sliders that fit inside the fixed fork tubes. With just the springs in there, no damping is provided. So they bolted on some steering dampers that are easy to change and easy to adjust. The steering dampers just move up and down with the front hub.

  • Tom marriott

    Sorry to see you aspire to the West Maitland myth!!!!!