What The Heck Is Speedway?

Please welcome Lee Wilcox to RG! He wrote some most excellent motorcycle-related content for CC several years ago, and he has given me permission to re-locate them to this fine site. So here we go! There will be more in the future. Please give him a warm welcome. -Klockau

The recent flat track article started a discussion about Harley-Davidson’s lack of competitiveness when it comes to motor sports outside the USA, notably Speedway. Although I view Speedway as riders mounted on overpowered, bicycle-looking motorbikes sliding around a track, I find both it and flat track beyond my capability as a rider. But I’m going to tackle the subject as a writer.

According to my research, both can trace their origins to pre-World War One board track motor sports racing, from which they diverged into two branches, each governed separately; Speedway, by the Federation Internationale de Motocyclisme (FIM), and dirt track by the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA).

As you’d expect, Speedway bikes are different because Speedway rules are. Speedway tracks are much shorter than dirt tracks (likely because Speedway didn’t emerge from county fairs or racing on horse tracks), but in both cases, bikes relatively short on horsepower and  braking performance require their riders to negotiate the track in much the same way.

Getting to know more about Speedway bikes proved to an interesting lesson in how to jam the most power into the lightest  package.

The picture above shows a typical older Speedway bike, this one manufactured by J.A. Prestwich. Its engine is upright, and although today’s riders seem to prefer a laydown motor and a lower center of gravity, this early model is functionally similar to today’s bikes, as you’ll soon see.

For all the world, it still looks like a bicycle with a motorcycle engine transplant to me. Speedway bikes are allowed one gear and must run on methanol. A kill switch is also mandated since the bike’s high compression (perhaps 14:1) engine and huge rear sprocket comprise its entire braking system. A Speedway bike must weigh at least 170 lbs, while its flat track Expert Twin counterpart weighs a hefty 310.

Speedway track length can range from 260 to 425 meters. (By my math, that’s .16 to .287 miles.) The shortest track for flat track is .25 miles. The mandated width of the Speedway track is 10 meters on the straights and 14 meters on the curves. The Speedway track can include various strata, but always must be topped with shale as opposed to a clay- and dirt-topped flat track.

Over the years the most prevalent Speedway bikes have been JAP or JAWA. JAP took its name from the initials of J. A. Prestwich, a British engineer. JAWA combines the first two letters of “Janacek” and Wanderer, from Mr. Janacek and the motorcycle company he owned.

Meanwhile, on this side of the Atlantic an Indian dealer named Crocker decided to participate in Speedway. The bike seen above was his first effort. Crocker got out in 1934 because he was being outspent by JAP; besides, he wanted to build the world’s fastest street bike and couldn’t afford to pursue both that goal along with his Speedway efforts. Today, most enthusiasts remember Crocker for his street bikes.

Harley’s effort was more typical. While the Crocker looks like a dirt-track bike, this Harley certainly suggests Speedway. Despite the twin exhaust pipes, I believe the engine was a single. Like Crocker, Harley eventually left Speedway but not much information seems to be available about their effort. Unlike Crocker, Harley is well known for both its dirt-track racing and street bikes.

This BSA effort is not the antique its appearance suggests. The factory effort involved work on the B50 engine with compression increased to run methanol (note that the cooling fins have been removed). The effort ceased when the BSA factory closed in 1974 after having produced two models.

This effort appears to be privateer, and exactly what you’d expect from hot rodders who take what’s available and make it competitive. The frame is either off-brand or homemade. Note the Earles-type front suspension, which can be more clearly seen in the two images below. This, or something like it, was normal for street bikes before BMW started offering telescopic shocks. The engine is labeled “450 Honda”, and it’s likely that its compression ratio has been raised to the 13/14:1 range of most other methanol engines.

Despite its obvious  similarity to the Honda-powered bike pictured above, this one is perhaps 50-60 years older. The only differences I can spot are in the front downtube, front suspension, handlebars and front forks. Both bikes attempt to place their center of gravity very low. The sprocket side of the rear wheel has exposed spokes, while the streamlining on the other side is reminiscent of lake type wheel covers on LSR cars.  All told, the builders of both bikes did what they could to keep them light and low.

This bike takes long and low to a new level.  The apparently plastic fuel tank is low-mounted, the weight on the front wheel is carried low relative to the hydraulic telescope forks, the engine is mounted low (only the air cleaner sits noticeably above the axle), the muffler and pipe are low….anyone detecting a pattern here?

This bike, while similar to the JAWA shown previously, is even more extreme–note the use of ultra-lightweight materials and the slippery aerodynamics of everything but the rider.

Conclusion:  To my mind, these are not two sports to compare, but opposite ends of the spectrum of the same sport.  That’s not meant to imply that one is better than the other, but only to illustrate the difference between them in size and scope. The longest Speedway track is only .037 miles longer than the shortest flat track. The largest Speedway motor is 500cc, and the smallest flat track motor 550cc. As for horsepower, who knows? Horsepower varies from bike to bike, after all.

E Speedway tops out at about 80 mph, mostly due to the short track and the restrictions imposed by having only one gear available. While the bikes could be made faster by adding another speed, the tracks would not easily support that. The flat track bikes (Expert Twin) reach speeds over 130 on their larger (one-mile) tracks. Perhaps in a future article we can compare bikes that run quarter- and half-mile tracks.

As a lifelong fan of the old VW beetle (and briefly having raced a blown ’66), I can say with great respect that Speedway reminds me of this.

Or this. I wish I had a dollar for every V8 I surprised with mine!

On the other hand, the bigger (one-mile) track bikes remind me of this full size Jeep.

Everything you’ve seen here is a dedicated race machine, but I find the thought of putting them on the same track incongruous.  The XR750 cannot come close to top speed without straights to accelerate. The Speedway bike would run out of wind on the long straights. The quarter- and half-mile bikes do have more in common–tell us you’re interested and we’ll do a full story. As always, I hope you enjoyed the ride. Your comments are most welcome!

5 Replies to “What The Heck Is Speedway?”

  1. NoID

    I work with a guy who owns a sprint car team and has been in the sport for decades, both as an owner and a driver.

    He thinks these flat track and speedway riders are nuts.

  2. -Nate

    Speedway riders certainly are insane .

    I used to work with one and we’d go to the Speedway races in San Bernardino and Ventura every week, it’s a lot of fun but also physically very demanding .


  3. Dirt Roads

    Sprint boats are also fascinating. I wouldn’t mid seeing an article on them.
    I thought I had a fast boat until one day I was flying down the bay at top speed and a sprint boat came from the shore, passed me, then did a circle around me (whilst still at full tilt) and took off in the other direction.
    Thanks for the article, new guy 🙂 The last time I was interested in flat tracking was On Any Sunday with Mertz and his HD #1.

    • Rick T.

      Looked them up on Youtube. That’s pretty impressive acceleration and manuverability. What the heck is the copilot there for? Ballast?


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