▲ JAP, or J-A-P, stands for John Albert
Prestwich, a North London based builder of motorcycle engines. Until the 1960s, JAP engines were the predominant speedway powerplant. Today, selected engines are highly prized, but you can still pick up a rough 500cc example for around £1000. Or less. But you'll have to look hard.
▲ The golden age of speedway; no Kevlar, minimum head and face protection, basic knee & shin pads—and a whole lot of sepia. It was a tough sport for tough men. Check out some of those golden age riders by following the link below ...
▲ Back in the 1920s and 1930s, steel slippers
were what you used to keep the skin on the underside of your sliding foot.
▲ There's a thriving market in speedway pennants and sundry memorabilia from the golden age and onward. If you were ever a fan of the sport, check your attic. You might be sitting on, or living beneath, a gold mine.
THEY SAY YOU CAN STILL SEE the original British speedway track at High Beech in Essex (also called High Beach both by the RAC and the local confuserati). But we've never seen the track for ourselves. Not that we've really looked, mind. However, if you're interested, you can find it (allegedly) in the forest somewhere behind the King's Oak public house.
High Beech (or Beach) is a motorcycle watering hole within striking distance of London and on the edge of Epping Forest—which used to be known as Waltham Forest prior to sometime around the 17th century. It's Dick Turpin country; that legendary highwayman and generally nasty piece of work who stole from the rich and ... well, kept it. And famous too for the place where cop killer Harry Roberts hid out in the mid 1960s, and more lately for the hoard of mountain bikers and horse riders seemingly intent on destroying what's left of a couple of iron age encampments. And there was an asylum there too, apparently.
But on 19th February 1928, a bunch of guys on high performance motorcycles got together to publicly try out a new idea recently imported from the antipodean colonies, an idea that pretty soon came to be known in Britain as speedway.
The Australians didn't invent it. Not exactly, anyway. Rather, it developed from the antics of various biking heroes of an earlier age who had a propensity for broadsliding their machines around tracks in the UK, the US and down under and kicking dirt and cinders in everyone's face, much to everyone's delight. But it's fair to say that the Ozzies are the spiritual fathers of the sport.
What makes speedway so visceral is its immediacy. Its nowness. Its hardboiled impact—in every sense of the word. It may not be a shadow of what it used to be, but it's still out there in a town or city near you, and is recommended as a good night away from the TV. Go at least once before you die.
The modern rules are simple enough. The bike must not weight more that 77 kilos (empty); it must be a methanol fuelled carburated single; it must have various guards and safety apparatus; it must have handlebars wider than 650mm but narrower than 850mm; and when the line goes up, you have to go like derklappers around an oval track, preferably in an anti-clockwise direction.
There are two teams of two riders each. Women can apply too—although for many years they were banned despite (or maybe because of) the fact that they gave a pretty good account of themselves on the tracks back in the 1920s.
And one more thing; forget about brakes. You don't need 'em, and you can't have 'em. So if you need to stop in a hurry, eat dirt.
That's basically it. That's British speedway.
What we have here is a little homage to one of the greatest motorcycle sports of them all—perhaps the greatest. We'll try to add to this feature as and when time allows. And because Sump is largely a classic British motorcycle site, it's natural that we've focussed on the classic age.
The history of British Speedway is irrevocably tied up in the history of 20th century Britain. Hope you enjoy our feature.