Speedway is a very exciting form of dirt-track racing where stripped-down motorcycles race round an oval track. A type of dirt-track racing took place during the early years of the twentieth century in North America, but it is widely acknowledged that the present day sport originated in New South Wales, Australia. In 1923, a young New Zealander called Johnny Hoskins was looking for a way to improve the finances of the near-bankrupt West Maitland Agricultural Society when he hit upon the idea of staging motorcycle racing around the trotting track at their shows. This idea proved wildly successful and soon spread throughout the rest of Australia.
Due to the close ties with Australia at the time, the sport very soon arrived in Britain with the first meeting being staged at High Beech, Essex in 1928. As Britain had much larger and more concentrated centres of population than Australia, a greater number of meetings with better prize money could be staged and inevitably it became the most popular destination for the world's top riders.
Speedway is now a global sport attracting large crowds in many countries around the world. To this day, top riders of all nationalities still compete in Britain, but other countries such as Poland and Sweden are also popular destinations.
The motorbikes used for speedway are not remotely like any machine you will ever see on the roads. They have acceleration on par with a Formula One racing car, but rather surprisingly have no brakes, rear suspension or gears. For the technically minded, the engines are 500 cc single cylinder four valve, four strokes with air cooling. Methanol is used instead of petrol to enable them to run at very high compression ratios. Drive from the crankshaft is via a countershaft and clutch (hence no gearbox), and final drive ratios are determined by the selection of engine and rear wheel sprockets.
The bikes race anti-clockwise around an oval track on a surface of loosely packed shale. The shale allows the riders to slide their machines sideways into the bends using the rear wheel to scrub-off speed while still providing the drive to power the bike forward and around the bend. Tracks generally range between 260 and 425 metres in length but are often quite narrow. There is also some form of safety barrier between the outer edge of the track and the spectators.
Most races (known as heats) consist of four riders racing over four laps from a clutch start. They score three points for first place, two points for second place and one point for third place. A rider does not score when finishing fourth, when failing to finish, or when excluded from a race. In some countries, races consist of six riders but this is quite rare in Europe as the tracks tend to be too narrow to accommodate the extra riders safely.
A speedway meeting is usually comprised of approximately twenty heats and there are various types of team and individual competitions. Most of the major speedway nations have leagues in which teams compete, with the British, Polish and Swedish Leagues being recognised as the strongest. The travel schedules of some of the top performers can often be mind-boggling as it is not unusual for riders to race in two or more different leagues whilst also representing their country in World Championship events.
Longtrack (also known as Sandbahn) is very similar to speedway but it takes place on 1000 metre tracks and consequently speeds are much higher. There are also subtle differences between the machinery in that a longtrack bike is slightly larger and has a two-speed gearbox. Races (or heats) usually consist of six riders although occasionally they have eight.
The sport is popular in Germany, perhaps even more so than speedway. This means that the majority of tracks are to be found in that country, although tracks can also be found in the Czech Republic, Finland and Norway. Occasionally, longtrack meetings are held in Australia and the USA, but these generally take place around converted horse trotting arenas.
The similarities with speedway means that many riders from that discipline also take part in longtrack. Whilst there are no leagues in longtrack, there are many lucrative open meetings which offer a means of additional income. Longtrack is also closely related to grasstrack and most riders compete in both disciplines.
Grasstrack is a form of track racing that, as the name suggests, takes place on grass circuits. Motorcycle racing on grass took place in various countries during the early years of the twentieth century, but grasstrack did not become an organised discipline until the ACU in Britain banned racing on public roads in 1925. With public roads no longer available, motorcycle racers turned to privately-owned fields and in 1927, the Whitgift Club held the first recognised grasstrack meeting on an old golf course near Croydon. This meeting proved very successful and it was not long before the sport spread to other parts of Britain. There was however, little uniformity amongst the tracks which ranged between 400 to 2000 metres in length and often included steep climbs and descents akin to today's motocross courses.
By 1931, there were so many events that the ACU introduced rules for the sport and established separate capacity classes to ensure close racing. At the same time, the pre-war boom in speedway was attracting many grasstrack riders to a lucrative career on the shale (or cinders at that time), but they still rode in grasstrack events at the weekends using their speedway machines. These were much lighter and faster than conventional motorcycles, and despite attempts to restrict their use, they soon dominated the sport.
After WW2, the popularity of the speedway-style machines which were more suited to flat oval tracks, hastened the demise of hilly courses, some of which were subsequently surfaced for road racing. From this point onwards, grasstrack started to become recognisable as the sport we know today.
Grasstrack is now raced in a number of European countries as well as Australia and New Zealand. It is particularly popular in Northern Germany and the Netherlands where the flat terrain lends itself to the sport. Britain continues to hold a large number of events although increasing urbanisation, and intolerance by the new generation of country dwellers, has caused problems finding suitable venues.
Traditionally, tracks are marked out in any suitable field that happens to be available, but it is becoming increasingly common for them to be based at permanent or semi-permanent venues. They generally range between 425 and 1300 metres in length and usually (but not always) conform to an oval shape. The safety barrier consists of wooden boards or, as is common in Britain, four rows of ropes supported by stakes.
Unlike speedway, there are a number of different solo and sidecar classes in grasstrack racing. The solo bikes are similar to those used for speedway, but are slightly larger, have a more rigid frame, and rear suspension is necessary to cope with those bumpy fields. The premier class is for machines with an engine capacity of 500cc, but there are other classes for 350cc, 250cc and 125cc machines. Solos always race in an anti-clockwise direction.
Sidecars have always been part of grasstrack racing, but they present a particular problem. On the European mainland, the sidecar is mounted on the right of the machine (a legacy of driving on the right) and they race in an anti-clockwise direction, whilst in Britain and Australasia, the sidecars are usually mounted on the left of the machine (a legacy of driving on the left) and they race in a clockwise direction. In addition, most European federations restrict sidecars to an engine capacity of 500cc, whilst the clockwise countries permit an engine capacity of 1000cc. Just to confuse matters further, some clubs in South-Eastern Britain hold events for right-handed sidecars as well. The FIM is attempting to establish a universal sidecar class, but has not been successful to date.
Solo races usually consist of either six or eight riders, whilst sidecar races usually consist of either four or six crews (rider and passenger). The system of scoring varies, but is usually similar to that found in other track racing disciplines. It should be noted that racing rules are often applied less strictly in grasstrack, and is not uncommon for a rider causing a stoppage to be allowed to participate in the re-run.
Many speedway riders learn their skills in grasstrack as it provides a relatively cheap and easy way to get started in track racing. It is still common for riders to participate in both disciplines, although the demands of modern speedway make this more difficult than in the past. The top solo grasstrack riders usually also compete in longtrack which is closely related.
Ice racing is arguably the most spectacular and dangerous track sport where bikes with spiked tyres race around oval ice circuits. The origins of ice racing are obscure, but the first recorded meeting was held in 1925 at Eibsee (a lake near Garmisch-Partenkirchen) in Germany. By the 1930s, meetings were being regularly held on lakes in Bavaria and the sport had also become popular in Scandinavia and Canada. Unfortunately, the Second World War put paid to any further expansion of the sport, but it was revived in the late-1940s by the Scandinavians. During the 1950s, the Russians started to dominate the sport and this has more or less continued to the present day. In 1963, the FIM (at the instigation of the Russian Federation) introduced the European Ice Racing Championship. This competition gained World Championship status three years later.
The majority of team and individual meetings are held in Russia, Sweden and Finland, but events are also held in the Czech Republic, Germany, the Netherlands, and occasionally other countries. Artificial ice tracks (usually speed skating ovals) are used where it is not possible to construct natural ice tracks.
The bikes bear a passing resemblance to those used for speedway, but have a longer wheelbase and a more rigid frame. The main difference is the inch-long spikes, 90 on the front and 200 on the rear, which are screwed into treadless tyres to provide the grip. These necessitate special protective guards (similar to mudguards) over the wheels which extend almost to the ice surface. The spiked tyres produce a tremendous amount of traction and this means two-speed gearboxes are also required. As with speedway, the bikes do not have brakes.
Bikes race anti-clockwise around oval tracks between 260 and 425 metres in length. Races (or heats) consist of four riders racing over four laps from a clutch start. They score three points for first place, two points for second place and one point for third place. A rider does not score when finishing fourth, when failing to finish, or when excluded from a race.
Unlike speedway, there is no broadsiding around the bends. Instead, riders lean their bikes into the bends at an angle where the handlebars just skim the surface of the ice. Speeds approach 80 mph (130 km/h) on the straights, and 60 mph (100 km/h) on the bends. The safety barrier usually consists of straw bales or banked-up snow and ice around the outer edge of the track.
The riding style required for ice racing is different to that used in the other track racing disciplines. This means riders from these disciplines rarely participate in ice racing and vice-versa (the most notable exception being Erik Stenlund).