Tracks in Time Sydney Showground Speedway
Sydney Showground Speedway
“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.