Over the fence is not necessarily out

Engines whining like Sopwith Camels, the racers skidded into the stands, onto their heads and into the hearts of California thousands as they revived an oldtime form of motorcycling madness known as speedway racing
November 10, 1975

The World Speedway Championship is a sort of motorcycle race staged in a different European country each year. The Europeans love it. When the race was held in Wroclaw, 133,000 wild-eyed fans were squeezed like so many Polish sausages into a stadium built for considerably fewer. They jumped up and down on their seats and went frantic when a chap named Jiri Scezakiel became the only Polish world champion in the history of the sport.

Speedway racing does not attract that kind of fanatical following in the U.S. But in Southern California—where else?—it is starting to come pretty close. Last Saturday night 12,714 wild-eyed Californians stormed into the Los Angeles Coliseum like so many American hot dogs and whooped themselves silly watching young men with steely nerves race in the National Speedway Championships, an event that turned out to be as much disaster as race.

The Speedway game hadn't played the Coliseum since 1939, when 85,000 people watched a combined rodeo and race. The sport was so popular during the Depression that in 1937 it spawned an American world champion, Jack Milne, who is now 69 and was a partner in the promotion of Saturday's event. But Speedway racing in America faded away shortly before World War II and wasn't revived until 1968.

Played on small hometown circuits, it has caught on fast the second time around. It was bound to. The vintage Czechoslovakian motorcycles look like 1902 Sears, Roebuck mail-order bicycles and sound like Sopwith Camels, machines that can spring from zero to 60 in three seconds but have trouble getting back to zero again because they have no brakes. They smell like burning castor oil because the lubrication system circulates oil through the engine and then dribbles it on the track. At most stadiums, the track is a dirt oval about as big as a do-nut, and the trail of oil gets so slippery that the bikes only steer properly when they are sliding sideways. The situation calls for a racing technique whereby the rider uses his inside leg as a sort of training wheel. Except when the competition gets fierce.

It gets fierce on the dirt ovals all the time. The riders quickly figured out that one way to slow down an opponent was to jam a steel-toed boot into another bike's spokes. Moreover, to the delight of the crowd, most of the racers think it is neat to spend as much time as possible with their front wheel flapping a couple of feet in the air. They crash so often that it is not unheard of for a standard four-man, four-lap race to have no finishers at all.

A promoter from San Clemente named Harry Oxley put the Coliseum show together after seeing such things occurring on the out-of-the-way run-down tracks. In Los Angeles he added touches like wooden walls that rippled when the riders crashed into them and intermission shows featuring thriller footraces between fans. There was Captain Stickie, for one, a 250-pound giant whose spectating attire consists of black leotards and a gold lamé cape. There was the Czar of Speedway, a gentleman of only slightly less portly dimensions who suddenly roared in his best Shakespearean voice, "My loins are steaming!" Average speedway fans like that.

Promoter Oxley also hired an announcer named Larry Huffman. Huffman is fond of riding to the races on an elephant while wearing a tuxedo and top hat. He usually treats the announcer's table like a trampoline as he shouts his own special sobriquets for the riders: "O.K., folks, let's hear it for Wy-uld Buh-ill Co-dee! Yaaah! How about Dane-gerr-uss Dubb Ferrell!" And so on. Until they got used to hearing him, the neighbors at the country tracks had complained about the noise created by Huffman's ebullient announcing, never mind that the machines made the whole neighborhood sound like Pearl Harbor. But the result of such shenanigans was that this raucous roundelay on wheels became the largest weekly motor sport event in the country, regularly selling out the 9,500-seat Orange County stadium at Costa Mesa. Many of the hard-core fans professed they didn't even like motorcycles.

Still, a lot of the success must be credited to the remarkable charisma of the riders. Take Slidin' Sonny Nutter, for example. Slidin' Sonny would be more appropriately named Smilin' Sonny, for his face is highlighted by a perpetual toothy grin that would shine through an attack of rotten tomatoes. It is also a handsome face.

There is Billy Gray, who went from playing Bud on Father Knows Best, to a film career highlighted by having his arm torn off by the leading beast in The Navy vs. The Night Monster, to becoming a professional speedway racer. He's 37 now, and he was at the National Championships as a color commentator for a TV pilot film about speedway racing.

Even the villains have appeal. Most notorious are the Bast brothers, Mike and Steve, frequent targets of Bronx cheers, as well as empty beer cans and such. Steve was the 1974 national champion. Mike has won the host races every season for the past four. These hard-earned, well-deserved accomplishments unfortunately contribute less to the Bast image than incidents such as the time Steve and another rider crashed into each other at the finish line after a race. Mike, following closely behind them, dropped his bike and pounced on top of the other rider to defend brother Steve's honor. Only thing was, the other rider happened to be still tangled up under his motorcycle.

"I love it whenever one of the Bast brothers does something like that," says Oxley. "They don't realize how good they are for the gate."

Some 30,000 tons of dirt were trucked into the L.A. Coliseum to make the track. A lot of it eventually went down the shirts of the spectators in the lower rows, who were showered by rooster tails thrown from the knobby tires of the motorcycles. Many of the fans wore wide-brimmed hats and kept their chins on their chests when the bikes roared past, and some of the better-equipped spectators brought their own Plexiglas windshields to peer through.

The bottom five rows were kept vacant as a precaution, but it almost seemed as if the seats had been reserved for the riders, since they spent so much time crashing into and flipping over the three-foot wall into the stands. The first turn was especially wicked; it was at the end of the 70-mph straight, and the soft dirt on the outside seemed to draw the bikes into the wall. "It's like a magnet," said one rider. "You turn the handlebars, but the bike just wants to keep heading into the wall. It's scary out there. You don't know when you're gonna fall off next."

The special D-shaped track was about 300 yards long, almost twice as long as the Orange County setup. Still, the lap times were comparable, which means the riders were going almost twice as fast as they are accustomed to. There were 20 races altogether—each four laps, lasting less than a minute—and each of the 16 riders raced five times. The champion was to be determined on a 3-2-1-0 point system.

The crowd favorite was Rocket Rick Woods. He finished third in his first race and easily won his second after his tuner, Ed Schafer, made a gearing adjustment. But as Schafer was preparing Woods' bike for the third race he suddenly slumped back in a chair with a heart attack. Woods went to the grid as Schafer was being administered oxygen and crashed into the wall in the first turn. Another rider, Jim Fishback, hooked Woods' handlebars and crashed with him. Fishback flipped into the stands and landed atop a girl who had been hurrying down to the pits with Mrs. Schafer. Woods wrenched his back, the girl suffered a possible fractured leg and Fishback spent a few minutes upside down in a seat. Next on the scene was Woods' martial arts instructor, the only man Woods trusts with his oft-tweaked body, who bent Woods over at the waist and whacked him on the seat of the pants to straighten his back. As both Schafer and the girl were being carried away to the hospital, the race was restarted. This time Woods crashed into the wall around the fourth turn. Out came the martial arts instructor to bend Woods back into place again. Woods eventually finished all his races, but in a rather strange posture.

Meanwhile, Mike Bast, the heavy, was walking away with the championship by winning five straight races. He had ridden flawlessly in capturing his third title in five years—despite the booing.

"That's normal," he said later. "They just don't like me. They think I win too much."

Then he went home to his wife, who likes him. And considering that he had just won about $8,000, she probably doesn't think he wins too much at all.


Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)