"An Australian was THE FIRST WORLD Motorsport Champion!"
Speedway racing began in Australia in the 1920s in Maitland in NSW
"YES" that's correct An Australian, with a funny name but Australian none the less; Lionel van Pragg won the First ever Solo Bike title at Wembly Stadium in 1936. Interestingly, Van Pragg was also a famous world war II fighter pilot, he went onto be awarded the George Cross medal for bravery.
During the 1920s solo bike racing was emerging all around our vast country, Maitland, Wayville Showgrounds (SA), Clermont Showground in Perth, and the famous Sydney Showground, a safety fence had been constructed around the Sydney venue in 1926.
In the 1930s dirt track racing was fast becoming a spectator sport and amazingly up to 20,000 people would flock to the showgrounds around the countryside to witness the dirt gladiators do battle shoulder to shoulder wheel to wheel.
Cyril Robinson - Harry Bink
Midget (speedcar) racing was emerging as the four wheel division. Car were built of crude steel tubing, Alvis, Ford & JAP engines were all the go. The drivers wore short sleeved shirts, canvas type safety helmets, no fireproof underwear. Deaths were frequent, many did survive horrific crashes but some did not.
Frank Arthur, Johnnie Hoskins and Bert Pryor formed Empire Speedway Pty Ltd during 1933 and ran meetings at the Famed Sydney Showground, a tight (bullring) type track. Meetings consisted of Solo Bike heat races and speed car races.
Speed car racing reached fever pitch during 1936 when drivers such as Jack Skelton, Dinney Patterson, American Ace Paul Swedberg and others raced at the fame Melbourne Olympic Park. Standing room only for the spectators was the rage, not one blade of grass was availible to sit on.
It was not unusual to go to an AFL match and stay on for the speedway races. One such Meeting had been promoted as Richmond V South Melbourne, then Midget car aces at 8 pm under Electric Light.
As the 1940s approached the cars were getting faster and the drivers were beginning to wear long sleeved leather jackets but the crash helmets were the same style.
Picture one Johnny Anderson
Picture two Dick Briton & Jeff Pickering
Sidecar racing, speed car & solo bike racing was all the go at the Sydney Showground. Test solo bike racing between Australia and England was typical during the summer. USA driver Perry Grimm raced at the Showground in his beautifully prepared and built V8/60 speed car numbered 65. Aussie driver Ray Revell purchased the Johnny Balch OFFY and brought it back to Sydney where is was vertually unbeatable.
Not many people know but, Sir Jack Brabham began his motor racing career in a midget speed car. It was numbered USA 28 and was a V Twin cylindered powered vehicle. He mainly raced at the Sydney Showground.
1950s saw bigger tracks emerging. Windsor Speedway (NSW) was a flat dirt half mile speedway which allowed faster racing with wide open spaces. It was typical to see three or even four abreast racing.
Then Bash and Crash Stock Car racing was introduced which saw bigger crowds at the tracks.
Stocks UNLIKE the American Stock Cars were older bodied vehicles with steel bars all the way around, some were actual filled with concrete for when they hit another competitor. The cars were mainly Ford or Chevrolet engined V8s NOT built for speed but for actual racing and slamming into other cars to bumped them out of the race. Test match racing Between Australia and New Zealand was popular at the Showgrounds around the countryside. Drivers such as Johnny Stewart, Stan Brazier, Chook Hogkiss & Pat Frazer were all stand out racers.
Douge Robson Liverpool Raceway 1968 - 1969 Les Nicholson 17 & Ron Agnew 71 Liverpool Raceway
1960s saw the emergence of sleek, more powerful speed cars. The introduction of power plants such as Chevy two, Offenhauser, Volvo, Peugeot, Ford Falcon all made for faster racing. The introduction of HOT ROD racing brought out home made cars. Fast V8 engines, lightweight made from Water pipe skinny wheels also saw close racing. The very first Australian Hot Rod title was held at Windsor in 1963 and was taken out by Victorian driver Billy Willis. Hot Rods soon became Super Modifieds.
The fields became larger as more and more cars were being built. Sunday afternoon battles at Westmead between Big Bill Warner in his fully imported modified and local ace Dick Brition became legendary. Both drivers given the field half a lap start as back then the races were all standing starts, (unlike today). One young driver began racing at Westmead and was to become ten times nation champ in the division. Garry Rush drove the 186 powered Suttons Motors modified. Rush was to make history later on you will see when he purchased the first ever clutch less sprint car from American Johnny Anderson. Battles at the Sydney Showground between Warner, Brition and Lary Burton from Sacramento would attract 1000s of fans during summer on a Saturday night.
Stock Rods also were another fast division, a mixture of a stock car body BUT lightweight. Big V8 motors, thin wheels. Drivers such as Wayne Fisher, Steve Brazier, Noel Finch & Peter Loadman all were stand out drivers at both Westmead and Windsor half mile circuits.
100 lap speed car races were held at the Sydney Showground as drivers raced for a new Ford Falcon from race sponsor Peter Warren Ford. Stand out driver Howard Revell was unbeatable in the 100 lappers. Drivers such as Johnny Stewart, the late Jeff freeman, Blair Shepard, Barry Valentina, the Cunnen Brothers, (USA drivers) Two Gun Bob Tatersall, Hank Butcher, Sherman Clevland all drew large crowds with their dynamic driving.
Picture one Sid Hopping and Ian Williams Liverpool Raceway 1971
Picture two Geoff Watters & Sherritt Liverpool Raceway 1983
1970s Saw a radical change in speedway racing in Australia when Liverpool City Raceway Manager Mike Raymond turned the track into Australians first asphalt speedway. Two of my three speedway racing heroes raced at LCR Sid Hopping (super modifies) & Brian Callaghan (sedans)
My third hero I was to meet in 1980 in the USA Sammy Swindell (sprint cars). Hopping raced the fully imported CAE super modified again Rushes Anderson sprint car, their battles were legendary on the dirt and pavement throw in Steve Brazier and you had one hell of a race. USA imports were common, Crazy wheels Wally Baker, Mike Wasina, The Preacher Garry Patterson, Johnny Anderson to name a few.
The sedan ranks took on a new meaning with large wheels big V8s noise, lightweight low slung cars were all the go. Brian Callaghan emerges from nowhere in a 1973 LJ Torana which I actually owned for a short while. Callaghan was a wizz with a spanner; he supercharged a six cylinder motor and was unbeatable on the blacktop. Up against Paul Ash, Peter Crick, Rick Hunter, and USA stars Gene Welch, Big Ed Wilbur, Charlie Swartz, Mike "Hash Brown" Klien and a host of others. For the surfers who read this site, you will be happy to know that it was Scott Dillon who won the first ever 100 lap race for sedans in Sydney. Dillon constructed a fibreglass mould of a 1964 EH Holden and blew the field away. This to was to revolutionise the sport. USA V Australia sedan test matches were an annual event at LCR with hard, fast racing which at times saw damage cause from intense rivalry, both on the dirt and asphalt. The Raymond - Oliveri combo really knew what the speedway public wanted, and they provided just that.
Jonny Stewart 1968 - Trevor Nicholson 1969 Westmead Speedway 91
Spectacular speed car racing saw the legend himself race in Sydney, A J Foyt appeared several times at LCR along with Mel Kenyon & Johny Rutherford. (all have won the Indy 500) They battled George Tatnell, Garry Rush, Ronald McKayand a cast of many to thrill the crowds on many occasions. Crashes were big at LCR, drivers like Jack Porritt, Bob Coates, Bruce Maxwell & Barry Pinchbeck had wild high rides along with others.
The solo bike division had also been on a crest of a wave with test matches, Australian titles all still being run with local and overseas competitors. Riders such as Billy Sanders, Jim Airey, John Langfield thrilled crowds around our big wide land with side by side racing, on solo bikes of 500cc with NO brakes. Crashes were often and deaths were occasional.
The late 1970s also saw another innovation CLAY, the life long dream of sidecar and super modified racer Sid Hopping came true in February when Parramatta City Raceway was born on the site of the Granville Showgrounds in Sydney. Along with business partner Bert Wilder Australians first ever all pure clay speedway was born, a fast tacky 460 meter circuit with wide open spaces for exciting sprint car racing. The track was a success and still runs today every Saturday evening during summer and has been the scene of many many exciting races. Many of USA sprint car drivers have raced there. The first ever one lap track record went to Jimmy "Buckwheat" Sills from California at a staggering 15 seconds; the lap record today is as low as 12 seconds and as 12 seconds. The cars weigh in at just over 600 kilos and run over 900 hp, the power to weight ratio is just under a F1 racer. To see a pack of howling sprinters at PCR is absolutely awesome, I have been privileged to work at PCR since its first meeting. To drive a sprint car around PCR is also mind blowing, that is an experience I shall never forget. I mentioned Brian Callaghan before, it was with his help I also raced a V8 dirt Modified one evening in which I came third in the main event. That led me to take up racing micro sprint cars later on in my speedway career.
Phil McCumsky 1974 - Larry Burton USA 1973
Kel Young won the first ever super modified/sprintcar event at PCR aboard the Corkys number 67 modified. Bob "the streak "Blacklaw took out the first ever Spintcar main event the same evening. Drivers such as Bob Tunks, Stan Wallis, Terry Becker, The late Wayne Fisher all were standout drivers in the early days at PCR.
Sid Hopping had track preparation down to a tee with the secret of the clayway. WATER, Hopping would begin to water the track later Tuesday evening, then the same on Wednesday, Thursday and check the track Friday as racing took place on Friday nights. Sprintcars would wheel pack for up to 30 minutes prior to the opening of the meeting, when the cars would re enter the pit area you could not see the paintwork as every inch of the car was covered in tacky red clay.
The was no timing in or hot laps prior, so the track remained tacky all evening. "The Professor" Rob Worthington would send "rooster tails" of clay at least 15 meters skyward above the track lights. Visiting USA sprintcar stars Jimmy Sills, Larry Burton, Steve Kinser and Doug Wolfgang competed at PCR driving for Bob Trostle and went away with fond memories and nothing but accolades for PCR.
Liverpool Asphalt sedan racers began to appear at PCR, Brian Callaghan won the first time he competed at PCR driving the number 6 Bill Roberts Cortina. Next were Gordon Smee, Garry Schroder. USA Drivers such as Rodney Combs, Garry Scott, Donnie Graham, & a host of others including NASCAR racers Jeff Gordon & Dave Blaney also competed at PCR. The speed car ranks also put on spectacular racing with the late, great George Tatnell winning on most occasions.
The Sydney Showground was still alive and well with speedcar, sidecar & solo racing being the staple diet, with the odd sprinkling of super modified racing. American speed car drivers Johnny Parsons, Ron "sleepy" Tripp, Indy 500 great Mel Kenyon & Johnny Anderson competed along side of Tatnell, Rush, Barry Pinchbeck & Ronald McKay were head lining the proceedings.
Picture one Garry Rush 1981
Picture two Lance and Sammy Swindell 1980 USA
Across the country Alf Barbagello, Noel Bradford, Bob Currie, Bob Kelly were dominating the sprintcar scene with new fully imported sprintcars During the spring of 1973 the Sydney Opera House had been opened on one warm Saturday as I was at the Liverpool City raceway. Whilst the Opera House spectators saw the Queen cut the ribbon the Liverpool crowd witnessed Garry Rush win the super modified main event as Gordon Smee won the sedan main. Earlier that night Rush, Hopping and QLD ster Ron Wanless engaged in a spectacular modified heat race, during the race Hopping & Rush touched wheels sending Rush crashing and rolling the ex Anderson sprinter in turn one, nothing in you say, Rush climbed from the upturned car, Rush ran uptrack to grab Hopping who was seating in the CAE modified and get in a few punches. The crowd went wild as the two exchanged fisticuffs, as the officials pulled Rush away from the still seated Hopping. The heat race was taken out by Wanless who was in the powerful WRM modified.
Sedan stars Chas Kelly, Neville Harper and Cecs Hendrix were cleaning up in Tassie. As Tony Noske & Ron Smith were the Portland (VIC) dominated the asphalt scene down south.
Speedcar drivers Stud Beazley, Barry Sherburn & Des Nash were cleaning up in the speedcars down south as tracks were converting from dirt to asphalt.
Many, many drivers did not adapt to the asphalt and ran on country tracks where dirt was prevalent. Flat wide open surfaces, large fields of cars were still attracting crowds. I would drive all around Australia to watch the top stars compete. Whether it was Sydney or Adelaide I would be there watching these daredevils compete wishing I was one of them.
The asphalt tracks saw the introduction of much lighter cars, radical designs. George Tatnell debuted the Winfield Wedge speed car at LCR with great debate. Sedans became lower in height, large wide spun steel wheels, big thundering fuel injected V8 engines, were all the rage. Cars such as the Formula Mirage 450 chev powered, the Mowtown Motors Oldsmobile and the Galvanizing Services Corvette big block 454 ci, all thrilled at LCR. Sprintcars also became lighter, monstrous wings, slick tyres, pretty paint jobs were all the go. One of the most colourful cars belonged to Jeff Pickering and came from the USA bright orange in colour and driving by Garry Patterson sure was a sight.
Picture one Barry Graham & Brian Callaghan Bathurst 1000 Mid 1980
Picture two Sammy Swindell 1983 Parramatta City Speedway
The battles on the blacktop between Barry Graham & Brian Callaghan were similar to the PCR battles or Rush & Brazier. Week in week out these two would turn it on for the fans, such a fierce rivalry had been built and the pro-motors built upon this also.
The funny thing about this was that in the mid 80s these two drivers would combine in a team effort to compete no less than on eight occasions at Mount Panorama, Bathurst both in a Ford and a Holden. Finishing in the top ten on many occasions. Highest placing was sixth position. Not bad for the "speedway boys" as they we known as.
Colourful characters emerged, "Hollywood" George Elliot, "Gorgeous" George Tatnell, Brett "The jet' Loadsman, "Big" Ed Wilbur, Dick "The sideways King" Brition, "Cyclone" Sid Hopping, Rob "The Professor" Worthington & Walter "The mountain Man" Giles all thrilled crowds where they raced.
There will be a car club, rally, speedway, race or charity event you can become involved with NO matter where you are in Australia.
Picture one is Garry Rush
Picture two is Ron Wanless