The Artful Skill of the Broadslide – 1970s Speedway Motorcycle Racing at Irwindale CA

“The balance of a surfer, strength of a good middleweight fighter and raw courage of a bullfighter. That’s Speedway Short Track”

Steve Evans (1970s Irwindale Speedway track announcer)

“Completely without brakes!” was the key phrase repeatedly stressed by Irwindale Raceway announcer Steve Evans as he described the drama of 1970s Speedway motorcycles rocketing around the track. He was the voice of the devil-may-care fantasy of every Los Angeles driver hopelessly locked in the area’s monstrous traffic congestion[1]. The 1970s Arab oil embargo mandated fuel-saving speed limits that rubbed drivers the wrong way. Speedway motorcycle racers Steve Bast from Sherman Oaks, Sonny Nutter from Topanga, Mike Bast from Canyon Country, Bruce Penhall from Balboa, Jeff Sexton from Montclair and others competed at the precarious edge of control on the Southern California short track circuit. The riders were twenty-something heartthrobs with blow dried hair: expensive ethanol (the champagne of fuels) guzzling heroes. They spit columns of dirt into the audience and used their artful skill to balance full-throttle speed with the slingshot friction of the broadslide.  The bikes were thin and lightweight, hybrid hardtail frame designs special to the sport:  500cc, single-cylinder, sixty horsepower, one gear transmission machines that made a lot of torque and topped out around 70 miles per hour on a tight ¼ mile, flat oval dirt track. Races were structured into quick four- to six-member team based, four lap, round-robin elimination heat contests. Evans described the heat race team goal to the crowd: “3 points for first place, 2 for second, 1 point for third and 4th place is ZERO….” Emphasis on the Zee-row.

Steve Evans commenting on a Winston Cup Series race. [Wikipedia]
There was a local summer carnival vibe at the Irwindale track for the thousands of fans seated day and night in no-frills bleachers.  Cheap-foamy-beer-in-paper-cup-drinking working class people who lived around Long Beach, California: long haired surfer guys and their girls rubbed shoulders with thick necked, buzz-cut worker families, but everyone wound their heads around and around in identical, elliptical, syncopation as they followed the screaming bikes. Long Beach is only fifteen miles from downtown LA, but during the 1950s, 60s and 70s the area was transitioning away from its historical legacy of cattle, sheep and horse ranching. Huge parcels of then unused ranch land represented an opportunity: the ascendency of automobile, motorcycle and youth culture in California prompted entertainment entrepreneurs to put the vast tracts of idyll land to use and build moto-race tracks. There were mixed use auto, motorcycle, drag strip tracks all around southern California: Gilmore Stadium (pre WWII), Ascot Park (1978-80), Bakersfield Speedway (1972-77), Irwindale Speedway (1970-77), Paso Robles Speedway (1966-67), San Bernardino-Inland Motorcycle Speedway (1975-87), Santa Ana Speedway (1977-79) and Whiteman Stadium, Van Nuys (1967-68).

The superb imagery of Pat Brady, using no flash and shooting at night, took time to perfect. This is three-time World Champion Rick Woodsnick, ‘the Huntington Beach rocket.’ [Pat Brady Archive]
Short track Speedway motorcycle racing was literally a perfect fit for Southern California communities like Long Beach. Track owners could actually make money. The smaller oval tracks had lower land-lease expenses (the entire Irwindale Speedway track complex was 63 acres), the low-tech, unbanked flat oval dirt track was easy to construct and maintain. Revenue from ticket sales and the snack bar could be used to pay the rent and reward young riders with cash prizes and trophies. Racing cars and bikes became a theme in Long Beach culture and there was something for everybody. In contrast to the beer drinking short track crowd at Irwindale, glitzy Formula One Grand Prix style racing on Long Beach streets was introduced in September 1975 as a Formula 5000 event that became Formula One in 1976 (Mario Andretti won the 1977 US Grand Prix at Long Beach. Andretti’s victory remains the only time an American driver won a Grand Prix on home soil). The Long Beach area was defined by its diverse racing venues.

The popularity of Speedway racing was global in the 1920s, and professional riders did very well on a worldwide tour of racing, from England to Australia to South America to the USA. Here’s British rider Frank Vary racing at the Huracán circuit in Buenos Aires in 1929 on a Douglas ‘Red Devil’ Speedway model. Note his ‘leg trailing’ riding style – the full broadslide had not yet been perfected, ‘Sprouts’ Elder is generally credited with revolutionizing the sport. [The Vintagent Archive]
While racing on oval dirt tracks predates motorcycling, the origins of Speedway racing on short tracks are a bit fuzzy, but most agree some form of the sport first (then called Dirt Track) took shape before WWI in Australia[2] and migrated to England (and the Northern Hemisphere) at a track in High Beach in 1928, and quickly became the most popular motorsport in the world.  Dominance of the sport as it developed in the early 20s began with Douglas, then switched to Rudge and Harley-Davidson (who copied the Rudge frame for their Peashooter model), then finally in the mid-1930s it was JAP-powered specials with ultra-light, short rigid frames and limited-travel forks that perfected the form, with little chassis change since then except the make of engine (JAWA, Weslake, Godden, etc). Tracks used in professional Speedway racing are regulated by the Federation Internationale de Motocyclisme (FIM) that was founded in Paris in 1904. For spectators, the sport is noisy and fast; tracks are between 260 and 425 meters in length with two straights joined by two semi-circles, and it takes about a minute to complete a four-lap heat.

Factory promo shot of a 1929 Rudge Speedway model: note the frame bracing across the crankcase and from the steering head to rear axle. The ‘keystone’ frame resulted in an ultra-low center of gravity. [The Vintagent Archive]
Pat Brady was brought up near the Irwindale track during the 1970s and explored the racing action with his 35mm camera. It was tricky shooting at night; Pat made trial-and-error experiments with the exposure latitudes, balancing ASA, F-Stop and shutter speed to capture the action. The beautiful black and white photos he shot during night races at Irwindale are now important historical documents. “Here’s what happened,” Brady said. “I was very interested in Speedway racing that became popular at that time (early-mid 1970s). As a photographer I thought, Wow! This is kinda cool! I was going to design school and free-lancing as a photographer. As I was getting deeper into photography, one of my friends was racing Speedway. We met with each other and he said, ‘Man… You know, your stuff is pretty good.’ I was coming more from trying to capture the art and the look of a ‘slide’. I was shooting 35mm Tri-X with a Nikon. I was using a 50mm lens. There were other guys shooting Speedway at the time who were using a Hasselblad and a flash, but I noticed the flash made the riders look like stick figures. The flash would freeze them and there they are. So I said, I want to shoot this differently. My friend Scott Sivadge was a really good racer and he said, ‘OK let me work on getting you into Irwindale.’ I went to the track with my Nikon, 50mm lens and Tri-X film and it took me a couple rounds. I’d develop my film and go whoa, there’s nothing there… I’d go again and shoot it and nothing…  And then somewhere along the line I remember I was in the garage developing my film and looked and Wow! There’s a bunch of images! So that’s when I said, I think I have something…”

Irwindale racing program from June 17, 1976, featuring an All-Star Match. [Pat Brady Archive]
“I took Tri-X and started pushing it to where… OK here’s the formula… I pushed it to 1200 ASA and I was shooting at 125th of a second. If you go at 60 everything is blurry. I figured out, ah… I can freeze the actual rider… you can see I was panning with everybody to get the shot… It was F2 at 125th of a second… I could see the look was very cool of all these people racing and sliding and stuff. My whole thing was, I can’t focus on them because they’re coming down the line way too fast. So what I typically did was pick a spot and I’d totally dial in on the dirt at that spot and as they were coming I would pan with them and I knew right where they hit that spot. You are catching more of the slide, not the typical documentary type shot. Then somebody saw what I was doing and then Dirt Bike Magazine contacted me and asked me to shoot some stuff.”

Using only the stadium lights, Pat Brady captures the drama and balletic motion of 1970s speedway racing. This is racer Sonny Nutter. [Pat Brady Archive]
“I was also very into what was going on. I started to get into the whole thing… It was like going to a concert. At Irwindale it was very exciting, it was on Thursday nights… Out of all the circuit tracks… I think there were five of them…  Ventura, Bakersfield, San Bernardino, Irwindale, Costa Mesa (Friday night races that got the most attendees) but Irwindale was absolutely electric. And it was because of certain things: Irwindale was on a Thursday night. The track was a little longer, a little wider so it was the fastest out of the circuit tracks. About 2-3 thousand people would show up. It felt like there were a lot of people there.

Pat Brady’s photography was regularly published in magazines and on the cover of Speedway racing programs. [Pat Brady Archive]
“The seating was all the way around the track and it was very close to the wall. The seating was like right there! That made it like wow! This is a spectacle. The lights that were on seemed to be brighter than some of the other tracks. That light helped me get the shots because I was never shooting with a flash. Bruce Flanders was the announcer and he became kinda well known. He became the voice of the Long Beach Grand Prix. It’s the biggest race west of the Mississippi. So all these things came out of Irwindale. Like Bruce Penhall (b. 1957). The racing was fierce. It started in May and would go to October. 500cc, one gear, no brakes… A lot of torque, a lot of pick-up. They move fast. That’s the whole game of Speedway… It’s a super quick sprint. Late ‘60s early ‘70s the racing became like a rock concert. At Irwindale in the air was a strong scent of fuel. Methanol… Heavy duty… Some people would call it Nitro.”

Using a panning camera motion, Pat Brady was able to capture the motion on the track with clarity of the rider. [Pat Brady Archive]
“In the crowd they always had a lot of beer because they had beer stands…. So there was a mix between the smell of beer and the smell of fuel and the ‘electricness’ of the whole thing. The rider’s leathers were really colorful, their helmets were sparkly. It was something. So I thought I am going to capture the slide part of this. It was very competitive, the guys would go hard. The average rider was 18-24 years old. Slidin’ Sonny Nutter (b. 1958) was the oldest guy and he was 30. Very handsome. All the ladies liked him. He was considered the old guy.”

The Irwindale track program with Pat Brady’s photo for Thursday June 24 1976. [Pat Brady Archive]
“The crowd was much more of a younger, good looking, surfer girls, it was more like a concert. It was very hip. Lots of surfer people would go there. Rick Woods was a well-known surfer out of Huntington Beach but he made his living and his fame out of Speedway. One of his very good friends was a famous Hawaiian surfer out of the ‘60s and ‘70s David Nuuhiwa. He’d be in the pits standing with Rick Woods. It was that kind of a scene. It was cool. Woods would pull up in a really cool, old bathtub Porsche.  A biker group would show up and you’d have one big get-down all mixed together. They’d play music on the PA so it was like a full-on entertainment center. There were some different riders who had reputations and mystique. Bruce Penhall was young and very fast; he was gearing off a couple other guys- Mike Bast (b. 1953) who was a super precision rider, Rick Woods… A lot had nick-names, Rick ‘The Rocket’ Woods (1948-2012)… There was one guy who was a spectacle, he was super-fast and super good- Danny Becker (d. 2013) and he got the nick-name, Danny ‘Berzerko’ Becker. Certain guys would go into a corner and then they’d pull up so the back end would get traction, Danny Becker would do head-high wheel stands. No one could figure out how he would stay on the bike. It looked completely out of control. It looked like he was going to kill everybody. People would show up just to see him. It almost seemed reckless but he would win races. The best guys would say, ‘This guy’s crazy.’ And he was nick-named ‘Berzerko’. It was such a spectacle.

Danny ‘Berserko’ Becker is highlighted in a foursome at Irwindale. [Pat Brady Archive]
“The word got out about Danny and people were showing up from all different places- more than just motorcycle people. Then the greatest of all Speedway racers shows up; Ivan Mauger from New Zealand, Barry Briggs from New Zealand, Peter Collins shows up from England… These are world champions… They are the guns… The American guys are young and brash… They are like fuck you and your reputation… let’s race. The Europeans are taken aback, like who are these kids? There were some intense battles with these guys. The Europeans called the young California guys the “Young Lions”. Bruce Penhall then goes to Europe and wins the World Championship in Europe. This opens the door and since there have been a number of Americans who have gone to Europe and won the World Championship. You have to remember the bikes were basically identical- 500cc, no brakes. Maybe some specialized tuning, but basically the bikes were identical.”

Scott Sivadge at Irwindale. You can see the roostertail of dirt being sprayed in his wake. [Pat Brady Archive]
“There was a subculture about the dirt. A special mix to the dirt on the track. Before the race a water truck would go around the track and water it down to help the traction. Racers would grab a clump of the dirt and check it out. They were sensitive to the dirt texture and had a sensibility about it. Halfway through the night, the water truck would go around again. Different riders used different kinds of knobby tires depending on how the track looked that night. Different tracks set up different ways to deal with the dirt. Each track had a guy who was doing the dirt with a tractor and he’d come around and get the track dirt composite to be a certain way. It wasn’t just dirt… They had some kind of special mix to it. It was good stuff because these guys were going to race on it. I saw some guys get hurt during the races but never did I see anyone die racing Speedway. I knew a guy who broke his leg one night. There was a definite element of danger but it wasn’t where they were carting people to the hospital all the time. It was fierce, loud and dangerous.”

Speedway racing always had a whiff of danger, although deaths are very rare. This is a spectacular getoff captured on an Australian track in the late 1920s. [The Vintagent Archive]
“Today, the racing culture of Irwindale and tracks that existed in the same Southern California region have disappeared. The Irwindale Speedway and a famous drag strip that was a part of that property (Lions) is now a brewery where they make beer. This culture went away. The original operator Irwindale Speedway LLC filed for bankruptcy after the 2011 season and the track sat vacant. A real estate group developer purchased the 63-acre site, September, 2022. The flat track races at Irwindale was a magical crazy thing that happened on Thursday nights. Speedway racing still goes on at City of Industry (in the San Gabriel Valley, eastern Los Angeles) that’s not very far from Irwindale. There is some Speedway in Costa Mesa right by Huntington Beach at the Orange County Fairgrounds to this day during Speedway season. But it’s not at the same level of attendance and excitement that took place in the mid-seventies. (3000 plus at Irwindale Thursday night races, Costa Mesa boasted having 10,000 in attendance at Friday night races, with around 25 elimination heat races each night).

Mike Bast racing – note he has no glove on this throttle hand, preferring total feel for throttle control. [Pat Brady Archive]
“Success on the track came down to riding skill and strategy – how good are you at finding the traction on the slide and going fast down the straightaway. If you look carefully at my photo of Mike Bast (b. Van Nuys, CA 1951-2007), he was so precise riding the inside line… a very precision rider of Speedway. If you look, he isn’t wearing a glove on his right hand. He always wanted to feel his throttle. That was his thing. 1972-1976-77- that was the zone. I am glad that I documented the culture of the broadslide at Irwindale.

[1] A Historical Perspective on Los Angeles’ Traffic Congestion Fight. Melany Curry, 2020.

“Understanding why traffic congestion matters is… not a matter of documenting real, observable conditions, but rather one of revealing shared cultural understandings.” Asha Weinstein

[2] An in depth article titled: Motorcycle Speedway is available at Wikipedia. Other articles on Speedway history on The Vintagent include:


Michael McCabe is a New York City tattoo artist and cultural anthropologist. He is the author of New York City Horsepower, Kustom Japan, New York City Tattoo, Japanese Tattooing Now, Tattoos of Indochina, and Tattooing New York City. For New York City Horsepower, Mr. McCabe spent two years discovering and documenting underground custom motorcycle and car garages in the City, as rapid gentrification put their culture under tremendous pressure. He interviewed and photographed New York City customizers about their personal histories and creative sensibilities.
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