Speedway Racing Down Under

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A good set of leathers was essential for protecting riders from airborne debris. Photo courtesy of the National Library of New Zealand.

In the late 1910’s, a new type of motorcycle racing evolved in Australia known as Speedway Racing and it quickly spread across the ocean to the U.S. and England. Speedway racing was held on oval tracks covered with loosely packed dirt or cinders (the rock, not ashes) which allowed the racers to slide their motorcycles through the corners.  This was actually a common set up for horse racing and it is likely that speedway racing started on horse tracks.

A technique called “broadsliding” was developed by American Don Johns in which the front tire is pointed straight down the track while the rear tire spins fast enough to slide sideways.  This made for dramatic racing as dirt and cinders flew everywhere as the bikes hit the corners.  The loose surface also led to spectacular crashes.

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An unknown rider broadsliding through a turn. Photo courtesy of the National Library of New Zealand.

In 1929, a new track was built in Wellington, New Zealand called the Kilbirnie Stadium and during its 10 year run there were plenty of Harleys sliding through its corners.

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There were plenty of motorcycles on hand for the opening of the Kilbirnie Stadium. Photo courtesy of the National Library of New Zealand.

For some reason, the track was built right in the middle of a residential section of Wellington and in the picture below you can see that the track is surrounded by houses.  That must have done a number on housing values in the area…

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Positioned right in a large residential section, I’m sure night races were widely popular with the neighbors… Photo courtesy of the National Library of New Zealand.

Single cylinder motorcycles dominated this sport and were set up similarly to board track bikes with no brakes or transmissions.  The Harley of choice for speedway racing was the Model S, an OHV 21 cubic inch single built from 1926 to 1929.  Typically these had very short exhaust pipes which produced a popping noise giving them the nickname “peashooters”.

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Typical rolling start performed on a Harley Peashooter. Photo courtesy of the National Library of New Zealand.

At the inaugural New Zealand Championship, Harley-Davidson was well represented with 3 of the 9 riders on Milwaukee Iron.  There were three 4 lap heats, with the winner of each progressing to the final.

The Harleys dominated, winning two of the three heats, but lost in the final race to a rider on a New Hudson powered by a JAP motor.

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Third place finisher Tui Morgan with his Harley Peashooter. Photo courtesy of the National Library of New Zealand.

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