Britain in the 1920s had almost 450 companies manufacturing their own interpretations of motorised two-wheeled transport. Motorcycles were used in competition of all forms, from circuit racing to trialling and hillclimbing, but it took two Australian riders to inspire the country to adopt the new sport of dirt-track racing.
Englishman Jack Hill-Bailey, founder of the Ilford Motor Cycle and Light Car Club, had heard from his friend Lionel Wills who was travelling in Australia. Wills had seen dirt-track racing for himself and suggested that Britain could adopt it.
A track usually used for horse-racing was initially mooted but, when this didn’t prove viable, Hill-Bailey found a D-shaped, cinder-surfaced track located behind the Kings Oak Pub in High Beech, Epping, north-east of London.
How popular the first event would prove was a matter of pure speculation. Hill-Bailey and his wife Kay printed 2000 sixpenny admission tickets and 500 event programmes – but would they sell that many? By 8am on race day, more than 2000 people had already gathered around the Kings Oak pub; by 9.30 all tickets had been sold. Before long all the circuit fencing had been flattened and an estimated 30,000 spectators (one of them this writer’s grandfather) packed the area. The Auto Cycle Union, officiating at the event, had stipulated that spectators should view only from the inside of the track, but this was now clearly not possible as vast crowds excitedly waited for the spectacle to begin.
Two Australians, Billy Galloway and Keith McKay, had raced in their homeland since 1925 and had been invited to put on a show. Their broadside sliding technique developed because they were prohibited from using brakes; the ACU allowed British riders to have them, though. Eight races delighted the crowds with novice classes, sidecars and solo racers aboard a variety of machines from Triumph, Sunbeam, Norton, Douglas and AJS.
A new sport had been born in Britain. After the event, Hill-Bailey said: ‘My boy, it looks as though we’ve started the ball rolling and no one knows where it will stop.’ Neil Godwin-Stubbert