The History Of
Dirt Track Racing

 
 

The Origins Of The Sport
USA
Or Australia?

 
The origins of the sport are not entirely crystal clear but it is generally accepted that Australian farmers started it all.  They were racing their motorcycles around rough oval dirt tracks during the 1920s.  Early motorcycle owners in the USA can tell a similar story but they did not have a man like Australia's Johnnie Hoskins who got organised.
 
In 1923, Johnnie was the secretary of the West Maitland (New South Wales) Agricultural Show.  As a "side attraction" he introduced motorcycle racing on an oval dirt track under lights. Speedway had just been born!  From West Maitland it spread across Australia like wildfire.  Hoskins the entrepreneur was so keen on promoting the sport he had helped to invent that he soon had ambitions that lay outside Australia.  Pound signs were flashing, the UK was beckoning.
 
West Maitland Showground
 

Above: West Maitland Showground track and below: Maitland's Commemorative Plaque

 
 
By 1927 Johnnie had set sail and arrived in Great Britain to introduce the spectacle of Dirt Track Racing to the unsuspecting British public.
 
 

 

 A Short History of Dirt Track Speedway

By Jeffrey Stafford.

 

Speedway racing is a sport with an extraordinary history. According to Tom Stenner, speedway correspondent of the London Daily Mail, the first speedway meeting on a dirt track was held at Pietermaritzburg, in South Africa, in 1907. But it can be shown beyond a question of doubt that the United States should be recognized as the birth place of motor cycle racing. One of the principal features of the Butte Athletic Associations meet in July 1901, were  motor cycle tandem races featuring Clem and Charles Turville, Gust Lawson, and John Chapman. The track was constructed of board and designed on the saucer principle by Captain T.O. Angel who had successfully used the same design on cycle tracks in Salt Lake and Los Angeles.

At Indianapolis, on Saturday August 14 1909, two accidents, one of them serious, marred the national motor cycle races. In the team mile professional race, which Jake de Pozier, of Springfield, Mass, was going at a terrific speed, the front tyre of his motor cycle tore off, throwing him heavily to the ground. His injuries were not fatal and he recovered later.

Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that the evolution of Speedway as we know it today took place in Australia. The sport of motor cycle racing that had been popularized in America during the early part of the nineteenth century featured a considerably variety of variations - which were subsequently improved and standardized by a number of Australian promoter’s to give us what is probably the most exciting of all automotive sports.

A dirt track meeting was held on Saturday, October 11 1913, under the auspices of the Victorian Motor Cycle Club. The meeting was marred by the death of Harold M'Coll who collided with a fence and was killed instantly. Another rider, A.W.Maplestone had one of his shoulders dislocated. Twenty seven riders competed in six events. As far as I can ascertain Harold M'Coll was the first victim of a Speedway race in Australia.

Nine out of ten speedway historians credit Maitland showground in New South Wales as being the birth place of speedway racing. However, the first Speedway event, the one that perhaps marks the beginning of Speedway proper, predates the Maitland event by eight years.  Here is an extract taken from the Saturday Referee, 6 February 1915:

Big Easter Carnival, which should provide motor cycling enthusiasts with some fine sport. The events ; 100 miles open state Championship; 600 c.c. State Championship 66 miles ; open handicap 33 miles; and the club handicap 33 miles. The meeting will take place at Gouldburn on Easter Saturday, 3 April, 1915. Nor was the meeting just a one off event, there was a very large attendance for the second motor cycling meeting at Gouldburn held on Easter Saturday, 22 April, 1916. The big event of the 1916 Easter meeting was for machines of all powers, over 100 miles. Of the twelve motor cycles which started, six were Indians, four Excelsior’s, and two Harley Davidsons. L. Frank, astride a 7 h.p. Harley Davidson, proved victorious covering the 100 miles in 2 h 8 min 55 sec.

The Sale Easter Carnival, held on Saturday, 19 March, 1921, represented the greatest attempt that had then been made in Australia to put motor cycling on a solid footing. The choice of Sale as the site for the meeting was made for a variety of reasons.

When the sport began many difficulties were placed in the way of those promoting it. In and about the Metropolitan area of Melbourne and the outlying areas the civic authorities refused to allow motor and motor cycling on roads and the owners of the racecourses refused to allow them to be used for motor cycle racing.

Sale offered sanctuary to motor cycle enthusiasts. Its racecourse and roads were offered, and the support that was forthcoming made the choice easy. The Sale authorities not only recognized the sport, but officially invited the Victoria Motor Club to hold its carnival in the town. For motor cycle racing the only rival was the motordrome at the amateur Sports ground, which in 1921 was not in site of completion. One of the main features of the Sale Easter Carnival was the appearance of two motor cycles that had been built entirely in Australia.

There was never a more successful motor cyclist in Australia than Charles "Daredevil" Disney of Melbourne, known throughout Australia as the most fearless motor cycle rider, he was able to win contest after contest without losing what is commonly termed as "nerve control."

He was the son of one of the Ministers in the 1924 Labour Government in Victoria. He started his riding career in 1915, by winning a seven mile road race gaining first and fastest time.

He started life as a furniture maker, but when his brother returned from the war they became partners in a motor cycle business. As a member of the South Yarra Cycling Club, he achieved varied success over distances ranging from 10 to 20 miles.

From the start of his career Daredevil Disney only utilized Indian motor cycles due to the speed and reliability for which the machines were famous. He knew no fear. He was often accused of being a reckless rider, but he never injured anyone or put anyone's life in danger.

He won his first motor cycle race in 1919 - a five mile side car event. In the same year at the Sale Easter Carnival he established himself as one of Australia's best motor cycle riders by winning in the fastest time the Blue Ribbon event for the road over 200 miles. Then came the Hopkins Cup open race, and after that success on the Aspendale track, reliability trials and jumping records. He held the Australian long distance jumping motor cycle record, covering a distance of 54ft 6in in the leap. He became well known on the speed track as the "Wizard of the Track," and "Daredevil Disney."

In March 1922, he lowered the Adelaide to Melbourne motor cycle solo record on an "Indian" Scout, by registering 16 hours and 14 minutes, breaking the recent record set by Jack Quigley.

On Saturday February 21, 1925, he sustained an injury to his knee while taking part in a preliminary run at the Geelong racecourse, prior to racing against the American Paul Anderson. He was hospitalized for some weeks at Geelong before surgeons give up hope of saving his leg. Disney in the end resigned himself philosophically to losing his left leg to save his life. But that did not dismay him, after leaving hospital he entered cycle races with an artificial limb strapped to the foot rest.

Charles "Daredevil" Disney" died on 5 July 1954, aged 77. He was cremated and his remains were scattered at the Springfield Botanical Cemetery, Melbourne.

In 1922, John S. Hoskins, later known as the prince of speedway promoters, was appointed Secretary of the West Maitland Agricultural Society. At this time the organization was in a bad way. Its membership over the years had plummeted to about 300.

Hoskins tried all manner of attractions - boxing, rodeos, and cycling - but nothing seemed to grasp the attention of the public. Being a motor cycle rider himself, with a number of riders, he approached the committee of the Agricultural Society to ask permission to run a number of motor cycle trials.

The members thought it was pure madness, and told Hoskins he was taking a short cut to death. No amount of persuasion could convince them that it would prove to be a success and a good investment. Eventually, however, Hoskins got his own way and with a rider named Billy Crampton, who was the only one with an actual racing machine in N. S. W., a Norton, he was allowed to give his idea a try out.

One member of the committee, who was actually taken with Hogkins idea, watched over the fence when Hoskins and Crampton were speeding around the track, and later it was mainly through his imput that Speedway eventually opened at Maitland. Construction of the speedway track at Maitland commenced in October 1923, and the first Maitland Speedway meeting was held on Saturday, November 1, 1924, for a double bill of motor cycle and push bike racing. It was not a success. The push bikes showed up the speed failings of the powered bikes they even recorded better times. The track was very small, and of grass. Under half a mile in circumference and thirty feet broad.

There was much hype for the official opening of the first Maitland Speedway meeting held on Saturday, October 17, 1925, when L. B. Meville, mounted on an h.p. Harley Davidson, succeeded in winning the £100 Motor Cycle Handicap. A princely sum in 1925. The attendance was estimated at around 1300, and the number of riders in the motor cycle handicap was a record, 77 starting. Since the close of 1924 the track had been considerably reconstructed. Instead of two straight and four bad turns where many falls had occurred in 1924, the track was oval with a straight run in front of the main grandstand. The track had also been widened from 30ft to 45ft, the banks at both ends had been made very much higher, and a slight smaller embankment had been built all-round the half mile track. There were 28 races -- 23 for motor cycles and five for push bikes.

Apart from the normal speedway meetings at Maitland, Speedway Carnivals were held throughout the year to raise money for local charities. A speedway meeting was held at the Maitland Speedway Carnival on Saturday, 21 February, 1925. In the final of the Championship race, a serious accident occurred. George Kirkwood hit a fence, and another rider E. Buck crashed into him. Buck escaped injury, but Kirkwood sustained a compound fracture of the right leg, which was later amputated. He also sustained many injuries to his head and body.  As a consequence of the terrible injuries received by Kirkwood a safety rail, similar to the one at Speedway Royal was erected.

George Kirkwood was 18 at the time of his accident at Maitland; he was born on 22 April, 1907. He passed away in NSW on 2 March, 1991, the month before his 84th birthday.

A letter from Mr. E. B. Harkness, Under Secretary to the Chief Secretary of NSW to the management of the Hunter River Agricultural and Horticultural Association, criticizing the condition of Maitland Speedway track, was published in the Maitland Daily Mercury, 15 May, 1925. The following is a short extract from the letter:- 

 "It has been reported to the department, Mr.Harkness stated, "that the speedway on the society's ground is, in its present condition dangerous to riders. It had been presented, moreover, that since motor cycle racing commenced there in 1924, 33 more or less serious accidents have occurred, resulting in riders receiving, in several instances, injuries necessitating surgical treatment."

There can now be little doubt that the case for the start of dirt track racing at Maitland in 1923 cannot be maintained, and that dirt track racing on the Maitland track did not commence until 1924.

In 1924 a number of Speedway enthusiast held a number of private races on the Brisbane paddock. In the course of time the grass surface became worn, but the process was so gradual that the change from grass to dirt was scarcely noticed. Then, when the riders learned to slide the corners on the dirt surface speedway racing became more spectacular. In 1925 - two brothers, A.J. and Frank Hunting, saw the possibilities in dirt track racing, and engaged the paddock riders from Brisbane to appear at the Exhibition Grounds, on Saturday, 16 October, 1926. Brisbane. The five riders were Vic Huxley, Frank Authur, Frank Pearce, Dick Smythe and Charlie Spinks.

Speaking of the above, the following extract is taken from a letter written by A. J. Hunter, and published in "The Referee," 23 December 1937. His reminiscences of the early days of dirt track racing are interesting.

He states categorically that the first grass track speedway was at West Maitland, but the first genuine dirt track for speedway was laid down and constructed by him at Davies Park, Brisbane in 1927 -- this track brought out the rider’s ability and daring.

When the track in Brisbane was nearly completed Hunter advertised the opening of the meeting although he still didn't have any riders. All the well-known motor cycle riders were skeptical, not one appeared willing enough to give Hunter's dirt track riding idea a try. In despair, Hunter took his idea to the Brisbane Motor Cycling Club and asked for volunteer riders. A young man stepped forward called Frank Pearce, and told Hunter he was willing to give it a go. Charles Spinks, then a bricklayer, was the next to volunteer, and after him Vic Huxley. Nine other riders soon followed -- but then the supply of volunteers dried up. All the riders put in an appearance at the opening of the Exhibition Grounds Brisbane, on Saturday 16 October, 1926.

The visit of the American rider Cecil Brown, a fist class rider on any surface, raised the standard in Australia considerably. He arrived in Australia with a reputation as a great dirt track rider, but at Penrith he was repeatedly beaten by Gus Clifton and Billy Conoulty. However he soon mastered the tracks and developed into one of the best riders in Australia.

The public began to flock to Speedway meetings and new tracks began to spring up everywhere. A track opened at Cessnock, and a year later Newcastle followed suit. The first concrete track in New South Wales at Maroubra was opened on Saturday, 5 December, 1925. Much interest was taken in the Golden Helmet race with a prize of £30 and £10 per week until the winner was defeated at a subsequent meeting. Cecil Brown was crowned with the Golden Helmet and carried off the track shoulder high. He won the Golden Helmet for the fifth time at the Olympia Speedway track on Friday 2 April, 1926. His fastest lap was 93 m.p.h.

It could be argued that the very first speedway meeting took place in New Zealand on 22 October 1923, at the Canterbury Racecourse, Christchurch. The competition included the leading riders from all parts of New Zealand. The races were run on a grass track, and very fast times were recorded. The most successful rider was the well-known New Zealand champion Percy Coleman, who made excellent time in winning the all Powers Championship of 12 miles on his Harley Davidson.  On 9 March, 1929, dirt track racing was commenced at the Kibirnie Stadium, Wellington.

Many speedway historians have written about the history of the sport in England. Nine out of ten credit High Beech in Essex as the birth place of English Speedway. But there can be no getting away from the fact that the Moorside dirt track at Droylsden predates the High Beech track by eight months. Many youngsters in the North West got their first taste of dirt track racing at Droylsden, it also paved the way for other dirt tracks in the in the Manchester area like Audenshaw, Stalybridge, New Mills ,Salford Albion,  White City and Belle Vue. According to the Australian speedway promoter A.J.Hunting (Sydney Referee Dec 23 1937), he helped lay down the track at High Beech. Mr. Hill Bailey, then secretary of the Ilford Motor Cycle Club, introduced Hunting to Mr. W.S.Cearns who asked Hunting if he would lay down a proper track. The famous Australian Speedway promoter agreed and assisted with the construction of the track. Two other Australians, Keith McKay and Billy Galloway, helped to organize and participate in the High Beech meeting.

Droylsden, unlike High Beech, was an entirely local venture without any assistance from outside sources. The meeting was organized by the South Manchester Motor Club and local motor cycle dealer Fred Fearnley, on land owned by George Dodd, a farmer from nearby Ashton Moss. The event was given a license by the ACU for track racing, and the meeting went off as planned on 25 July 1927. There is absolutely no doubt that the Droylesden meeting was the pioneer of Dirt track racing in England. The ground where the event took place should be recognized by Tameside Council as a site of historical importance Blue Plaque commemorating the site as the birthplace of speedway racing in the UK. The plaque should be positioned as close to the original site of the track as possible. If you agree, please take the time to write to:- Arts and Events,  Tameside MBC  Dukinfield Town Hall, King Street, Dukinfield.                                                                                                      

 

 
 

UK Dirt Track Racing

 
Arguments rage amongst speedway’s historians, although most agree that “Dirt Track Racing” first took place in English Towns in the following order; Camberley, Droylsden and at High Beech.
 
1. Camberley in Surrey was first.  They staged racing on 7th May 1927. It bore little resemblance to speedway.  The “track” was mainly sand so this does not really qualify as a Dirt Track.
2. Droylsden near Manchester was next, 25th June 1927. This track was cinder covered (Cinders were a by-product of the local power station).  Cinder tracks became the norm at this time, presumably because cinders were cheap and in plentiful supply from Britain's heavy industries.  The Droylsden venture suffered from council objections.  It never “took off” as a venue.
3. High Beech in Epping Forest attempted to stage racing in 1927 but their application for a license was refused until 1928.  The opening meeting at High Beech was staged on 19 February 1928 before an amazing crowd of 30,000 spectators.  It was a huge success and High Beech is considered  to be the birthplace of British Speedway.
 
Other British tracks got in on the act, they are too numerous to mention.  Brough Park's first speedway meeting took place on 17th May 1929.  I believe the stadium now has a claim to fame as the longest serving speedway venue in the UK, that is still running (I write this in 2014).
 

 
 

The iconic Tyne Bridge under construction in 1928.  It was only a few months old when speedway started in the Tyneside region.  Newcastle's link with Sydney Australia, the Tyne Bridge

 
 

Dirt Track Racing On Tyneside

 
This totally novel form of entertainment immediately hooked a large section of the UK public and the North East didn’t lag far behind, with not one, nor two, venues.  There were three! which opened on Tyneside!
The Newcastle Motor Racing Club Ltd applied to lay a track inside the recently built horseracing venue at, Brough Park, Byker. A rival company Tyneside Speedways Ltd., applied to use Newcastle’s Rugby Union ground in Gosforth Park and also the Rockcliffe Rugby Ground at Hillheads, Whitley Bay for dirt track racing.  These ventures had to wait until 1929 to stage their first race meetings.
The Burnhills Racetrack at Greenside staged motorcycle racing in 1928.  Whether this was "Speedway" is open to debate as the racetrack was more grass and dirt than cinder.  I am researching the Burnhills track and when I find out exactly what was happening there 75 years ago I will update this page accordingly.
 
1. First up was Whitley Bay.  Tyneside Speedways Ltd staged their first Dirt Track racing  on  20th April 1929
2. The first Dirt Track racing at Newcastle's Brough Park took place on 17th May 1929.
3. Then Newcastle's Gosforth Park opened it’s doors for Dirt Bikes on 1st June 1929.
 

 
 
Newcastle Evening Chronicle
1929 Article
 
 
I copied the above article from the archive held in Newcastle City archive.  I couldn't get the quality better than this.  I am putting it on my website as I think the content is very interesting.  The above newspaper article gave advice for motorcyclists on converting their road bikes for Dirt Track racing.  I like the reference to "Making the bikes brakes ineffective".  I will bet that raised a few eyebrows in 1929!
 
 1. Hillheads Stadium, Whitley Bay may have been the first to open but unfortunately they were the first to close down too, after just 11 meetings.  The Hillheads stadium survives to this day (2014) as a Football Club.
 2. Gosforth Park Stadium, Newcastle Gosforth lasted until 1931 before closing, but by then had played its part in establishing Newcastle as a Dirt Track Racing city.
 3. Brough Park Stadium. It was left to Brough Park in Byker to entertain the Geordie speedway fans and Newcastle Brough remains as the city’s only Speedway Track to this day 2014. However, no other venue in the UK can equal Brough Park's record of "Off and On" from 1929 to 2014 and counting.  We have the countries oldest venue (85 yrs) and still in use today, yes we have closed but always made successful comebacks, our latest unbroken spell under our ever present co promoter George English 1997 to 2014 (at time of writing) is the longest unbroken run in Brough Parks 85 yr history.  Well done George and Dave Rowland, Barry Wallace, Darryl Illingworth, Andrew Dalby, Alan Hedley and anyone else who has slipped my memory

 
Programme Covers From The
Tyneside Tracks Operating In 1929
 
Whitley Bay Programme 1929 Copy of the First Ever Brough Park Programme 1929 1929 Newcastle Gosforth Programme
Whitley Bay, Newcastle Brough and Newcastle Gosforth
 
Early programme cover pages from all three of our Tyneside tracks.  All very collectible items, Whitley Bay's Programme shows more imagination than the other two.  At three pence in “old money” they may well have been more affordable than any of today’s programmes (priced at £2.50). Here are a three more fine examples of old Newcastle Brough Park programme covers.
 

   

 
Many Tyneside families have been formed by young people meeting at the speedway.  Now it is common to see grandparents, parents and young children at Brough Park, all enjoying a truly family orientated day out at the Speedway, so ask your family if they have any old programmes, photographs, badges etc.  Grandad just might have stashed them away in the attic.  An old programme like these will be worth far more than 3d now! I would love to hear from you if you have any photos etc that you would like me to put on this website. email me here John
 

 
Adverts from Friday 24th May 1929 Newcastle Evening Chronicle.
 
 
 
 
Brough's rival company Tyneside Speedways Ltd include here an insert in their Whitley Bay advert for the " Grand Opening" of Gosforth Speedway.  Anyone know who Whitley's Bud Thompson was? e-mail me John
 

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