Modern motorcycles have some of the most sophisticated technology available today. Every time the motorcycle industry comes out with something new—electronic fuel injection, dual clutch transmissions, push-button shifting—somebody stands up and complains that bikes are becoming too complicated, too hard to understand. But there’s one kind of bike those complainers would like—until they had to ride it.
I’m talking about speedway bikes, a breed of racer that’s remained pretty much unchanged since the days of the Great Depression. They consist of little more than a spindly frame, a single-cylinder 500cc methanol-burning engine, and two skinny wheels. But what really sets them apart from their modern descendants are their brakes—or rather, their lack of brakes. Speedway bikes don’t have any.
I had the opportunity to ride one of these brakeless wonders back in late 1986 when I was assigned a story to complement Joe Kress’s article about speedway racing, a story titled “Sideways In The Stadiums.” The two stories appeared in the January 1987 issue of Cycle Guide. I rode Billy Gray’s Jawa speedway bike for my riding impression.
“Gathered at Costa Mesa Fairgrounds, North America’s most famous Speedway track, were the sport’s more distinguished retirees…Walking among them, obvious as a wart in a vanity mirror, was Cycle Guide’s sport editor—me—there to do a riding impression.” –Cycle Guide, January 1987
I was scheduled to ride Brad Oxley’s state-of-the-art Weslake-powered bike, but when its engine spun a main bearing I was left standing in the pits. Oxley put out a request to his fellow racers to see if any were brave (foolish?) enough to let a magazine guy ride their bike around the bullring oval track so that we could fulfill my end of the planned article. “Don’t worry about him crashing,” he told them. “He’s got a high-paying job, so he has to be back to work on Monday.”
“Oxley’s sales pitch worked, and Billy Gray volunteered an antiquated two-valve Jawa.”
Was there something I didn’t know about my job in terms of money? It really didn’t matter, and more to the point Gray stepped forward with his backup bike, an aged Jawa with affectionately nicknamed Super K. I don’t recall why the old racebike was called that, but I can testify that it had been piloted by some of the top names in American speedway racing during the previous 15 years.
“If you don’t recognize Gray by his real name, perhaps you better know him as Bud, the motorhead son on [the 1960s television show] ‘Father Knows Best.’”
Even though the basic design of speedway bikes hadn’t changed much since America’s Jack Milne won his world championship back in 1937, engine technology was the driving force of the sport during the late ‘70s and into the ‘80s. The old bike that Gray handed over to me had a two-valve Jawa engine, much inferior to the four-valvers that filled the paddock.
“He briefed me about the bike, then sent me out on Super K to conquer Costa Mesa’s tenth-mile oval.”
A speedway bike’s frame geometry is such that chopping the throttle makes the bike go straight, so the only way to steer it through a corner is to gas it and hang the rear wheel out, making it spin like a buzz saw. There’s some sort gyroscopic effect that comes into play, one I can’t really describe, but I know it’s essential because going into the first turn that day in 1986, I shut off the throttle, and in an eyeblink Super K and I made a beeline for the outside wall. I instinctively laid it down and next thing I know the bike and I were wallowing like a couple of mud wrestlers, sliding slowly and safely to a stop before we careened off the plywood wall.
“I made myself right at home on the tiny track, crashing in the first turn.”
“You OK?” Gray asked, feigning interest in my safety but showing major concern for Super K.
“Yeah,” I said, feigning interest in Super K but inwardly saying a prayer to you-know-who for my survival. Again.
I picked up Super K and made a few laps to familiarize myself with the bike. In truth I had ridden a speedway bike before, Bruce Penhall’s four-valve Jawa back in 1977, and with each lap I became more and more comfortable with the bike. So while I motored around the fairgrounds track, I disciplined myself to keep the throttle open entering the turns. This simple solution worked and I didn’t fall again. That ended my first session, giving me a chance to lick my wounds, as petty as they were, back in the pits.
“Lesson one about Speedway bikes: If you don’t judiciously use the throttle, the bike won’t turn. Period.”
Gray gave me a pep talk and, like Rocky Balboa in the closing rounds of the fight, I was ready for round two, which was to be my final session on the bike. Gray’s most profound piece of advice was that I should make a concerted effort to accelerate at the turn’s apex. But accelerate is a relative term because you need to drive the bike towards the apex in the first place. Anyway, I heeded his advice and did okay, and brought Super K home in one piece.
“I felt better about my performance, too, but I just wasn’t sure if Gray’s smile was for me, or because I hadn’t sent the old racebike to its just reward.”
Was it fun? You betcha. Was it a challenge? You really betcha, because riding a 180-pound bike with about 60 horsepower and no brakes, and power sliding it into a corner lined with a plywood retaining wall, requires you to lock your survival instincts in a closet and swallow the key. But I survived another ride and Super K was given another lease on life. I don’t know whatever happened to the old bike, but I can attest that I’m still trying my best to keep bikes that I ride up on two wheels. –Dain Gingerelli
Postscript: Back-Protector To The Future
It was strange at first, an ordinary magazine guy like myself riding a bike that not only was a legend within the sport of speedway racing, but belonged to a Hollywood celebrity. Despite his television background, Billy Gray was a unassuming guy, just another racer among a throng of talented riders. But I found it most interesting the interest that he showed in the Dainese back protector that I pulled out of my gear back before saddling up on Super K.
“What’s that?” Gray said.
“A back protector,” I said, “and I really hope I won’t need it today.” We both chuckled, but he asked to hold it, curiously examining it while I buckled my boots. We went about the remainder of our business, and after I changed back into my civvies, I presented the back protector to Gray as a thank-you gift.
“Here,” I said, “I want you to have it.” Gray’s eyes lit up like a five-year-old’s on Christmas morning. I found it curious that a celebrity like him would delight in such a small gesture, but he was very grateful and couldn’t thank me enough.
But it was me who couldn’t thank him enough for allowing a regular magazine guy like myself to ride a bike that was a legend. Thanks again, Billy, wherever you are today. —DG