Tracks in Time Syd­ney Show­ground Speed­way

Syd­ney Show­ground Speed­way

Old Bike Australasia - - CONTENTS - Story Neil Thorpe Pho­tos and ex­ten­sive back­ground in­for­ma­tion Brian Darby (www.vin­tage­speed­way.com)

“A third of a mile of mad­ness”. So went just one of the pro­mo­tional cries in the ‘sev­en­ties, which, although a bit rich, nev­er­the­less makes a point. At 557 yards (509 me­tres), the Syd­ney Show­ground Speed­way, prob­a­bly bet­ter known as The Speed­way Royal and later the Royale (in ref­er­ence to the site’s own­ers, the Royal Agri­cul­tural So­ci­ety), was a big one by Aus­tralian stan­dards, sec­ond only to Perth’s Clare­mont in terms of lap dis­tance.

And although it was uni­ver­sally de­scribed as an oval, the track was in fact a se­ries of four cor­ners of vary­ing radii. Co­in­ci­den­tally, an­other egg-shaped track of al­most ex­actly the same lap dis­tance (of­fi­cially 510 me­tres), although with longer straights and tighter cor­ners, opened in the same year at Wayville Show­grounds in Ade­laide, trad­ing as the Speed­way Royale. The track’s lo­ca­tion in the Moore Park area meant it was well ser­viced with pub­lic trans­port, and at the time of its in­cep­tion, it pro­vided a venue for a new form of sport in an area that al­ready served the needs of horse rac­ing at neigh­bour­ing Rand­wick, as well as foot­ball and cricket at ad­join­ing sta­dia. The only other oval tracks were the ill-fated Maroubra con­crete bowl and Pen­rith, a one-mile dirt track on the far out­skirts of the city. Nei­ther of these had much in the way of spec­ta­tor fa­cil­i­ties, whereas the Show­ground boasted tiered and cov­ered grand­stands.

Sit­u­ated as it was in the sil­ver­tail eastern suburbs of Syd­ney, The Royal/e fought a con­stant bat­tle with res­i­dents, and was in­creas­ingly sub­ject to strict cur­fews and noise re­stric­tions, which be­came more of a prob­lem once midget speed­cars were in­tro­duced with fields of over 20 cars on oc­ca­sions. Stock­cars, a par­tic­u­larly vul­gar form of mo­torised may­hem, ap­peared in Novem­ber 1954. Park­ing was al­ways an is­sue, as the con­fines of the venue had lim­ited spa­ces for cars and trail­ers, with spec­ta­tors’ ve­hi­cles crowd­ing the lo­cal streets, much to the cha­grin of res­i­dents. Still, it was not only speed­way that ag­gra­vated the lo­cals, be­cause the track was just one of the at­trac­tions in the im­me­di­ate area which con­tained the Syd­ney Cricket Ground and for a while, the Syd­ney Sports Ground Speed­way. These venues also hosted mu­sic con­certs as well as ma­jor sport­ing events.

From the start­ing line, lo­cated in front of the tim­ber Sut­tor Stand on the eastern side of the venue, com­peti­tors first en­coun­tered the Bull Pens cor­ner, so-named as this was where cat­tle en­tered the arena dur­ing the an­nual Easter Show. At the north­ern end, the arc then tight­ened in front of the sump­tu­ous two-tier Mem­bers’ Stand with the dis­tinc­tive Clock Tower above it, be­fore open­ing onto the back straight, with the Corona­tion Stand on the out­side. The third bend was gen­er­ally re­ferred to as the Pit Turn, with the cav­ernous pit arena lo­cated in a dark abyss be­low the con­crete Martin & An­gus Stand, with the Sin­clair Stand (the fi­nal stand to be con­structed) bor­der­ing the fi­nal bend lead­ing back onto the start/fin­ish straight. The two straights were not par­al­lel, and the third and fourth (pit) turns formed a nar­rower arc than the first two. It was fast (a three-lap race time of 60 sec­onds equated to 60 mph or 97 km/h), and it was also in­cred­i­bly nar­row.

Solo mo­tor­cy­cles were the first form of mo­torised en­ter­tain­ment to use the track, with the open­ing meet­ing on 21st July, 1926, a Satur­day af­ter­noon, which fea­tured a teams com­pe­ti­tion be­tween New­cas­tle and Syd­ney which was eas­ily won by the vis­i­tors. The sec­ond cor­ner (onto the back straight) was uni­ver­sally panned by rid­ers as be­ing too tight and in­suf­fi­ciently banked, so this re­ceived prompt at­ten­tion, and mea­sures were taken to avoid the chok­ing dust that had plagued the open­ing. A sec­ond meet­ing, this time un­der lights, was held on Satur­day Au­gust 2nd, 1926. For ‘safety rea­sons’, both these meet­ings were re­stricted to mo­tor­cy­cles of 350cc or less. Speed­way his­to­rian, the late Jim Shep­herd, cred­ited pi­o­neer pro­moter John­nie Hoskins (who had set up tracks at West Mait­land and Hamil­ton in New­cas­tle) as be­ing the orig­i­nal pro­moter of the Syd­ney Show­ground Speed­way.

Hoskins, with his part­ner in the Hamil­ton track, Gus Brown, had ear­lier in the year sub­mit­ted an ap­pli­ca­tion to con­struct a half-mile dirt track around the perime­ter of Went­worth Park in Glebe, but this was re­jected by the Lands Depart­ment. The Royal Agri­cul­tural So­ci­ety had al­ready agreed to a deal with James Ben­drodt, a for­mer Cana­dian lum­ber­jack and race horse owner, to pro­mote rac­ing on the 556 yard trot­ting track at Syd­ney Show­ground, but the ar­range­ment col­lapsed at the last minute be­cause of re­quire­ments for track widen­ing and the erec­tion of safety fences. Ben­drodt’s mis­for­tune opened the doors for a bid by Hoskins and Brown, which was im­me­di­ately ac­cepted de­spite the fact that Hoskins was still of­fi­cially the man­ager for the Hamil­ton track in New­cas­tle. The Hoskins/Brown pro­mo­tion strug­gled through the first sea­son with ex­penses and in­come run­ning neck and neck, and when Stan­ley Tyler and young James Don­aghy suf­fered fa­tal ac­ci­dents in Novem­ber 1926 and Fe­bru­ary 1927, they walked away from the venue in favour of re­turn­ing to their orig­i­nal digs at West Mait­land – a move that also foundered and trig­gered Hoskins’ move to Perth to be­come the man­ager at Clare­mont Speed­way. Mr H. W, Pearce took over in Syd­ney as pro­moter, but in the pe­riod up to the out­break of WW2, no fewer than six pro­mo­tional com­pa­nies staged rac­ing at the Royal. There were var­i­ous rea­sons for the high at­tri­tion rate; the Great De­pres­sion, bad weather, com­pe­ti­tion from other venues and the heavy costs as­so­ci­ated with the vast Show­ground com­plex, and the track did not open its gates for what should have been the 1938/39 sea­son. By this stage, at the close of the 1936/37 sea­son, for­mer cham­pion rider Frank Arthur had lost the lease of the Syd­ney Show­ground to ri­val

pro­mo­tional com­pany World Speed­ways Pty Ltd, and he coun­tered by con­struct­ing an en­tirely new track vir­tu­ally next door at the Syd­ney Sports Ground. How­ever World Speed­ways was de­clared bank­rupt in April 1938 and soon af­ter, the en­tire Show­ground com­plex was taken over by the De­fence Depart­ment as the war ef­fort in­ten­si­fied. By June 1940, over 6,000 troops were bil­leted within the grounds, and the RAS cof­fers swelled with an an­nual rental over more than £8,000 – con­sid­er­ably more than had ever been paid by the var­i­ous speed­way pro­mot­ers. A fea­ture of the sum­mer sea­sons at the Royal/Royale was the solo Test Matches be­tween Eng­land and Aus­tralia. The first of these took place on 15th De­cem­ber, 1934 in front of a ca­pac­ity crowd (gen­er­ally thought to be around 40,000) and re­sulted in a win for the home side 35 points to 19. In win­ning the open­ing heat, Aus­tralian cap­tain Max Grosskreutz es­tab­lished a new track record of 63.2 sec­onds for the stand­ing start three laps.

Of­fi­cial records gen­er­ally show that the World Speed­way Cham­pi­onship was first con­tested at Wem­b­ley, Lon­don 1936 and won by Aus­tralia’s Lionel Van Praag, but prior to that, what are to­day termed ‘Un­of­fi­cial’ World Cham­pi­onships were run in Ar­gentina (1930/31), Paris (1931/1935), Eng­land (1931) and Aus­tralia in 1933. Hoskins pro­moted the ‘World’s Cham­pi­onship Fi­nal’ at the

Syd­ney Show­ground on 4th March 1933 fol­low­ing qual­i­fy­ing rounds in Perth (Clare­mont), Ade­laide (Wayville) Mel­bourne (Ex­hi­bi­tion) and at the Syd­ney Show­ground on 18th Fe­bru­ary. The win­ner of the fi­nal was English rider Harry Whit­field, and a re­turn bout was sched­uled for 1934 but can­celled when the qual­i­fy­ing rounds were washed out. Frank Arthur and his part­ner Bert Pryor, trad­ing as Em­pire Speed­ways, re­gained the lease to con­duct speed­way rac­ing for the 1946/47 sea­son, stag­ing events for the in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar Speed­cars as well as for so­los and side­cars. How­ever the bike cat­e­gories were by now strictly con­trolled by the In­ter­na­tional Speed­way Club (man­aged by 1936 World Cham­pion Lionel Van Praag), which pro­moted at the neigh­bour­ing Sports Ground, and so the car com­po­nent be­came the main at­trac­tion at the Show­ground. Frank Arthur be­came in­creas­ingly in­volved with the pro­mo­tion of the Bris­bane Ex­hi­bi­tion Ground and he was soon joined at Em­pire Speed­ways by am­a­teur rac­ing driver John Sher­wood, who re­mained at the helm of the Syd­ney Show­ground un­til he re­tired in 1969.

The side­cars, rac­ing in clock­wise di­rec­tion, op­po­site to the so­los and speed­cars, had first ap­peared in the mid 1930s, but re­ally hit their straps post-war and be­came firm crowd favourites due to the ex­ploits of star rid­ers like Jack Carruthers, Jack Clarke and Charles “Chook” Hodgekiss from Syd­ney and Vic­to­ri­ans Keith Rat­ten and Jim Davies. Af­ter mov­ing to Syd­ney, Davies built up a sta­ble of out­fits and made a good liv­ing leas­ing them to other rid­ers for a hire fee and a per­cent­age of their prize money. Soon there was a new squad of younger rid­ers to re­place the pre-war stars; Bill Bing­ham, ‘Clacka’ Levy, Ern Hughan, plus Queens­lan­ders Ron John­son, Sandy McCrae and Al­lan Chance, fol­lowed by Bob Levy, Doug Rob­son, Gra­ham Young and Doug Ty­er­man.

In the solo ranks, ‘fifties stars in­cluded Vic and Ray Dug­gan, Aub Law­son, Gra­ham War­ren, Arthur Payne, Jack Young and Keith Ryan, but the mo­tor­cy­cle ac­tion con­tin­ued to be fo­cussed on the Sports Ground un­til it closed at the end of the 1955 sea­son. This left the Show­ground as the ma­jor Syd­ney track once again, with a new gen­er­a­tion of stars on two and three wheels grad­u­ally emerg­ing. For a gen­er­a­tion of speed­way fans, the name that will for­ever be syn­ony­mous with the venue is Jim Airey, who be­came vir­tu­ally un­beat­able in the 1960s in both scratch races and from the back mark in hand­i­cap events. Airey had his chal­lengers, among them Gor­don Gausco, John Lang­field, Bob Sharp and Greg Ken­twell, but he was gen­er­ally in charge. In Airey’s wake came a string of young charg­ers in the ‘sev­en­ties: Billy San­ders, Phil Herne, Ricky Day, and reg­u­lar in­ter­state vis­i­tors John Tit­man, John Boul­ger and Phil Crump. The solo ac­tion in this decade was some­thing to be savoured, and laps times plum­meted with the in­tro­duc­tion of the four-valve en­gines in 1975.

Even into the late ‘six­ties, the ac­tual track light­ing was prim­i­tive. For each race, the grand­stand and tower light­ing was turned off and the track it­self was il­lu­mi­nated by a se­ries of over­head bulbs in re­flec­tive dishes, cre­at­ing a golden halo around the third-mile lap. One draw­back was that spin­ning wheels threw up clods of earth from the dolomite sur­face which fre­quently smashed the light bulbs, and these had to be man­u­ally changed by an at­ten­dant us­ing a lad­der in the tray of a util­ity. Very quaint but very time con­sum­ing. When John Sher­wood re­tired in 1969, his re­place­ment was Lon­don-born Owen Bate­man, a man who lived and breathed speed­way and who learned the ropes while work­ing for Lionel Van Praag at the Sports Ground. Dur­ing his stint at The Royale, Bate­man did ev­ery­thing from or­gan­is­ing the pro­gramme to driv­ing the grader to pre­pare the track sur­face. As a for­mer ad­ver­tis­ing ex­ec­u­tive with the Syd­ney Daily Mir­ror news­pa­per, Bate­man knew the work­ings of the me­dia and coaxed to­bacco gi­ant WD & HO Wills into the fold via the ini­tial spon­sor­ship of what be­came the Craven Fil­ter Na­tional Speed­car Cham­pi­onship. Con­tin­u­ous sum­mer Satur­day night meet­ings were held un­til the end of the 80/81 sea­son. Then on 25th Au­gust 1981 came the bomb­shell when it was an­nounced in Syd­ney me­dia that the Syd­ney City Coun­cil had banned speed­way rac­ing and open-air con­certs from the Moore Park precinct. It was

“The side­cars, rac­ing in clock­wise di­rec­tion, op­po­site to the so­los and speed­cars, had first ap­peared in the mid 1930s, but re­ally hit their straps post-war and be­came firm crowd favourites...”

re­ported that the coun­cil’s vote was unan­i­mous, and the re­sult was met with loud ap­plause from the pub­lic gallery. This was de­spite tests by the City Health and Com­mu­nity Ser­vices Depart­ment that showed com­pul­sory muf­flers on com­pet­ing ve­hi­cles had re­duced the noise by up to 66%. How­ever the res­i­dents of the neigh­bour­ing suburbs of Cen­ten­nial Park, Moore Park, South Padding­ton and Surry Hills re­mained un­ap­peased and con­tin­ued to lobby the coun­cil, which even­tu­ally gave in. Pro­moter since 1979 had been Bris­banebased Ron Wan­less, who con­ducted his own tests that proved the speed­way meet­ings were con­sid­er­ably qui­eter than other ac­tiv­ity at the venue, par­tic­u­larly the Royal Easter Show and con­certs at the Hordern Pavil­ion. Against the re­lent­less ac­tion by the res­i­dents how­ever, Wan­less was fight­ing a los­ing bat­tle. Although this spelled the end of the tra­di­tional Satur­day night events, some one-off meet­ings did take place at the venue, in­clud­ing a solo Test Match be­tween Aus­tralia and Eng­land in 1988 as part of the Bi-Cen­ten­nial cel­e­bra­tions. The fi­nal Test match be­tween the tra­di­tional ri­vals took place on 1st Jan­uary, 1994. Just like the first such en­counter sixty years pre­vi­ously, Aus­tralia took out the match. The very last meet­ing at the venue was staged on 27th April 1996 in front of 25,000 fans, concluding pre­cisely at 10 pm. At the end of the rac­ing, dozens of young fans scaled the safety fences to scoop up hand­fuls of the track sur­face as a sou­venir of what had gone be­fore. The last solo scratch race went to Mick Poole from Stephen Davies and Chris Wat­son – all sons of top line Dirt Track rid­ers, while the Side­car Scratch Fi­nal was won by Reid Levy from Dar­rin Treloar.

The Royal Agri­cul­tural So­ci­ety had al­ready con­cluded ne­go­ti­a­tions to sell the venue to Fox Stu­dios, and move their op­er­a­tions and the prized Syd­ney Royal Easter Show to Home­bush, and in fairly short or­der most of the fa­mous build­ings on the site were de­mol­ished. The Sut­tor stand re­mains in a form, although now as an en­closed build­ing, and what had been the speed­way track is now a paved walk­way. On 19th Novem­ber, 2000, Fox Stu­dios per­mit­ted speed­way fans to erect a plaque op­po­site the old start­ing line, pay­ing

trib­ute to 25 com­peti­tors who lost their lives at the track. These in­cluded 12 solo rid­ers, 4 side­cars rid­ers and 2 side­car pas­sen­gers. Since the un­veil­ing of the plaque, fur­ther re­search has re­vealed three ad­di­tional solo rider fa­tal­i­ties be­tween 1926 and 1930.

For tens of thou­sands of spec­ta­tors, the Show­ground Speed­way was the Satur­day night des­ti­na­tion; the air filled with the giddy per­fume of methanol fuel (and oc­ca­sion­ally the banned nitro methane) and Castrol R veg­etable oil waft­ing through the grand­stands and across the grassed ar­eas. As kids, we would catch all man­ner of pub­lic trans­port to be there when the gates opened mid-af­ter­noon, then scurry through the net­work of streets and lanes in­side the huge com­plex to reach the gates to the pit area un­der the con­crete stand, which were usu­ally guarded by a ge­nial for­mer speed­car driver named Dal­las James. Some­time Dal­las would turn a blind eye to al­low us urchins to sneak in­side the dark and deaf­en­ing abyss, with dozens of en­gines be­ing warmed up and an at­mos­phere that made your eyes wa­ter. Then it was up the hill op­po­site the Sin­clair Stand where the Tas­ma­nian Potato Board had its pavil­ion, which was pri­mar­ily there for the Royal Easter Show but for many years traded on Speed­way nights as well and sold the world’s best chips, be­fore the days when such things were made from re­con­sti­tuted frozen veg­eta­bles. In the same vicin­ity was Larry Tay­lor’s photo stall, with beau­ti­fully clear black and white shots from pre­vi­ous meet­ings avail­able. With an eye on the big clock above the Mem­bers’ Stand, we were soon en­sconced on the grassed area be­tween the Sut­tor Stand and the Bull Pens, the evening spent be­ing pep­pered by fly­ing clods of dirt, which re­ally hurt if they scored a di­rect hit. Those were the days…

Prac­tice shot from the 1969 Aus­tralian Side­car Cham­pi­onship with six out­fits sweep­ing past the An­gus & Martin Stand.

ABOVE The Eng­land team for the first-ever Aus­tralia ver­sus Eng­land Test match in 1934. TOP LEFT Pro­gramme cover from the 1933 ‘World Fi­nal’. LEFT Cover from the 1934 Test Match pro­gramme. BE­LOW Vic­to­rian Keith Rat­ten moved to Syd­ney with his out­fit – an ex-Brough Su­pe­rior V-twin JAP en­gine in a Ve­lo­cette MSS frame – and be­came one of the top rid­ers as well as build­ing and leas­ing bikes to other com­peti­tors.

Pro­moter Owen Bate­man in­tro­duced nov­elty events such as the ‘Steeple­chase’, which saw mo­tocross rid­ers ne­go­ti­ate two tim­ber jumps and use part of the in­field near the back straight. Four such races were held from 1970 to 1974. Hereedi­tor Jim Scays­brook (34) and Matt Da­ley (15) clear the jump in front of the packed Sut­tor Stand.

ABOVE Lionel Levy came out of re­tire­ment af­ter a suc­cess­ful ca­reer but was killed at the Show­ground in 1968.

Al­most un­beat­able for many years, Jim Airey.

ABOVE Barry Hop­kin (left) who was killed at the Show­ground in 1965, with Noel Thor­ley, who af­ter a long rid­ing ca­reer took up the role of hand­i­cap­per. RIGHT Win­ners of the 1969 Aus­tralian Side­car Cham­pi­onship, Gra­ham Young and Ray Mur­ray on the in­field.

ABOVE Jack Carruthers and pas­sen­ger Jack Clarke prior to their Vin­cent days. ABOVE RIGHT Vic­to­rian Jim Davies won the first Aus­tralian Side­car ti­tle held at the Show­ground, in 1947.

The Show­ground grand­stands, shot by Brian Darby at the fi­nal meet­ing in 1996. MAIN The Mem­bers Stand with its fa­mous clock tower over­look­ing turn one. The Sut­tor Stand, op­po­site the Start/fin­ish line. ABOVE CEN­TRE The An­gus & Martin Stand which housed the pit area, on turn three. ABOVE The Sin­clair Stand, over­look­ing turn four.

Billy San­ders, here on the in­field, won the fi­nal Aus­tralian Solo Cham­pi­onship held at the Royale, in 1980.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.