When the sport of dirt track (later called speedway) left American shores and reverberated back from Australia in the mid-1920s, it was suddenly a big deal, everywhere in the world.  The old board track racing days were over, as they were simply too dangerous for riders and spectators alike, and their popularity faced with a withdrawal of support from the sanctioning bodies of racing.  Speedway riders recaptured the public’s attention, using spectacular broadsliding techniques to slide around circular or oval tracks while hard on the gas, and many credit Sprouts Elder as the man who perfected the form, and brought it to Australia on a racing tour.  Traveling to Australia, New Zealand, and South American in the winter months meant these riders could work all year ’round, and while at first (1925-28) Douglas flat-twin racers were the bike to beat, it wasn’t long before Indian and Harley-Davidson offered their own specialized dirt-track racers in single- and twin-cylinder form.

August ‘Buck’ Wolters aboard Don Johns’ 1915 single-cylinder Cyclone, still a force to be reckoned with in 1927. Shot Jan 8 that year at Ascot; the Don Johns Cyclone twin is still extant, in original paint condition, in the collection of Jim Lattin  [Bonhams]
There was a time in these early years when successful riders could earn a significant income from racing, especially as crowds at some venues could exceed 30,000 people. These riders were superstars in the most popular motorsport of the day, and Sprouts Elder, Joe Petrali, the Milne brothers, were household names. These publicity photographs are a terrific record of these racers, as all are shot between 1927-1933, the glory years of American speedway racing, and the dawn of American factory participation in this relatively new sport.

Johnny Krieger in 1927 at Ascot, with what looks like a modified football helmet made entirely of leather. Riders knew the need for head protection, but the science (and manufacture) of protective gear lagged far behind the 100+mph speeds of their racers, with tragic results. [Bonhams]
These photographs, captured at the Bonhams Las Vegas sale, were part of an album of  publicity photos showing 1920s/30s California racing history.  They were obviously collected by a fan (or promoter), and show a few of the most famous and successful professional dirt-track and hillclimb racers working the West Coast tracks at the time.

Johnny Duke at Ascot in 1929, aboard a mashup: a Harley-Davidson Peashooter chassis with a racing AJS K10 overhead-camshaft 500cc motor – tricky stuff! [Bonhams]
Legendary salt flats racer Sam Parriot pictured here at the Laguna Beach hillclimb ca.1930, undoubtedly aboard an Indian, although he’d switch to Crockers in the later ’30s [Bonhams]
Another shot of August ‘Buck’ Wolters on the Don Johns Cyclone single-cylinder board track racer, in 1927 [Bonhams]
Joe Petrali aboard, of course, a Harley-Davidson, the marque he was faithful to, and set American land speed records with, and raced with great success. This is a 1927 ‘Peashooter’ dirt track racer at the Ascot track in Los Angeles, 1927 [Bonhams]
 

A very famous photo, rarely identified; Bo Lisman in 1934 with his speedway riding gear up top, but no jacket. With cinders or dirt flying, face protection was essential – even the best racers weren’t always out front! [Bonhams]
An all-Indian racing team at Ascot in 1927 [Bonhams]
Joe Petrali with an interesting helmet in 1928, that looks quite modern, and is probably made of a varnished fabric (proto-fiberglass) shell, with a cork and leather lining – a step in the right direction for rider safety. Ex-Air Force goggles were common, as they had shatter-proof lenses. A close look at Joe’s face reveals a mass of reconstruction and scars from racing spills – but he still looks like Humphrey Bogart! [Bonhams]
1930; Jack Milne and Karl McCoy (in uniform) attend a JAP-based speedway racer [Bonhams]
An unknown rider at the Colton raceway in 1928, with a leather flying helmet, not much good in a crash [Bonhams]
Miny Waln at Ascot in 1929, with his Indian OHV single-cylinder racer, in amazing company – note the amazing Miller race car behind him on the right, and other dirt racing cars in the pits, from the era when GP/Indy cars ran on dirt and pavement! [Bonhams]
Legendary racer Sprouts Elder, whose book ‘Thrilling the Millions’ outlines his pioneering speedway riding in the mid-1920s, around the world. This shot is from 1933, when team riding was well established, with sports contracts etc [Bonhams]
August ‘Blick’ Wolters at Ascot in 1929 with his Harley-Davidson Peashooter [Bonhams]
Joe Petrali in another shot aboard his Harley-Davidson Peashooter in 1928 [Bonhams]
Racer Jack Milne in civilian gear in 1934; a country boy making good on the racing scene, when riders on early speedway venues could make a significant income [Bonhams]
Tuffy Jacobs aboard an Indian OHV single at Ascot raceway in 1929. Note the Harley-Davidson JD with zeppelin sidecar (#3) in the background! [Bonhams]
Sprouts Elder also in 1933, with a different helmet and team jersey [Bonhams]
Sign on the dotted line, son! Impresario, publisher, motorcycle manufacturer, and future felon, our own beloved Floyd Clymer ready to manage the career of a racer, ca.1930. [Bonhams]
Bill Church in 1928 at the Colton raceway in Southern California, aboard an Indian OHV 500cc racer, which has a very different from their Prince OHV roadster; the racer has a bronze timing cover that hides a twin-cam setup inside, while the barrel and head are also different from the roadster. [Bonhams]
Joe Petrali in 1927 aboard a Harley-Davidson Peashooter [Bonhams]
 

 

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