Dirt Track to Speedway

by Roy Allison

Motorcycle dirt track racing has its origins in both Natal South Africa and USA during the early twenties. In America 28″ wheeled 1,000cc Indian and Harley Davidson machines were common on the board circuits, however the high fatality and injury rate brought a reduction in power along with the smaller dirt circuits, which in addition produced an art form that has remained, known as the pendulum swing (broad siding) a power slide to assist cornering it was credited to Malwyn Jones. Dirt track racing had spread to Australia and the first organised meeting was at a country show in West Maitland NSW where British roadster machines were numerous but to compete for racing they were stripped of all unnecessary roadster items. The meeting was a total success and other venues were soon made available for this new sport. Of the many various machines it was found the low horizontal twin cylinder Douglas was the most suitable. Prior to the 1920s the Douglas marque had considerable racing success from the Isle of Man TT and Brookland race circuit and the technology gained found its way into the motorcycle production. Unlike some factories, Douglas of Kingswood Bristol were quick to capitalise on this new dirt track phenomena, the DT5 and 6 machines were factory developed as production machines, suitable for dirt track racing, also other off road sporting disciplines. In Britain two attempts were made during 1927 to introduce dirt track racing, both at Camberley Heath and Manchester, history tells us, that at Camberley the second placed rider was Fay Taylor a lady who became well known for her riding skills with her DT5 Douglas. The recognised introduction of organised dirt track racing to Britain under ACU rules was at High Beech, Epping Forest on a sunny 19th February 1928. Australians and Americans arrived complete with the art of broadsiding; the riding discipline until then was with both feet on the footrests. Hundreds of people were expected but thousands arrived to witness the well publicised phenomena, the meeting lasted till sunset and it was Alf Metcalf riding a Douglas who won the first race of the day to endorse that a Douglas was the vogue machine to have. As in Australia the successful event rapidly produced cinder-racing tracks around Britain usually constructed around greyhound tracks or football pitches. Throughout 1928 racing rewards were for cash and individual trophies, one prominent Douglas rider was Lloyd (Sprouts) Elder from USA, who successfully demonstrated to great effect earning himself a lot of money, it was possible to earn £350 for a days work, however promoters did enjoy vast crowds to pay for those high riders fees. 1929 was the best sales year for Douglas DT models and Sprouts Elder was dedicated to Douglas with a stable of 10 machines, a mechanic and his own chemistry set for fuel development, he even found time to write a book “The Romance of Speedway” By 1929 many British riders had conquered the art of dirt track racing and it was renamed as Speedway. The great Jack Parker was just one of many Douglas riders and Fay Taylor was the leading lady rider, in addition the Douglas family brothers rode at the Knowle Bristol circuit, what better testimony to a family product could there be? Apart from Speedway the Douglas DTs were successful in grasstrack racing, hill climb and sprint. The DTs were selected for the venture into Argentina mainly because of the spectacular leg trailing style applied to the Douglas in producing a spray of shale from the back wheel; the aim was to impress the Latins and they did.

Team racing began in 1929 with 11 teams in the league, later the National Speedway League was formed and grew to 4 divisional standards within the Britain. At that time Britain was the Mecca for motorcycle production, whilst other manufacturers were also developing their speedway machines to better the Douglas. It was the Coventry firm of Rudge with their 4 valve single cylinder 500cc DT that began to dislodge the Douglas dominance from 1930, being of shorter wheelbase and lighter meant a quicker turn when combining the foot forward racing style, also shale was introduced as opposed to cinders all made for faster racing although not so stylish. Douglas did try to reclaim its dominance with a revamped machine known as the Red Devil but the time was past although not forgotten Like the railways Britain exported Speedway across the world to become the recognised home of the sport. Similarly Rudge experienced a short honeymoon with Speedway giving away to JA Prestwich the London engine manufacturer with their engines built into various specialised lightweight frames and they lasted for decades. After World War 2 Speedway was the largest spectator sport in the country, Douglas Rudge and Scott were used in novelty races by the stars of the day simply to remind the public of speedway machines origins that made the sport so great. Later in the seventies it was taken more seriously by two enthusiasts and Vintage Speedway was born mainly with Douglas and Rudge machines, they competed around Britain with riders young and old. One such enthusiast was Douglas club member and ex-professional speedway rider Jim Gregory who rebuilt just about every machine that had been ridden in the sport. For many years an extremely popular promotion for all these machines has been the British Motorcycle Federation (BMF) two-day rally every May and September with a large feature of the rally being vintage Speedway and it still exists today. An extremely popular separate attraction was the “Men in Black” series during the 1990s to 2008 whereby 4 professional ex-riders toured Britain with speedway historic Douglas and Rudge machines, although unpaid this was vintage racing of the very best, it was only the age of the riders that eventually brought the series to a close. Here in 2012 we still see the Douglas DT5s competing in earnest at grasstrack, hillclimbs and the odd speedway outing.