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Speedway's deadly decade

By Peter McKay, 25 Jun 2009 Features

Speedway's deadly decade

Speedway racing in Australia exacted a tragic toll on drivers and riders in the 1960s. A just-launched book captures some of the high-flying drama.

Californian Hank Butcher arrived in Australia for the 1969 summer season of speedway racing with his Offenhauser speedcar fitted with the latest safety feature from the United States, a new bolt-on rollcage.

But Australian speed car authorities, not always the sharpest knives in the cutlery drawer, were not impressed. Butcher was told to remove the life-saving cage before he could race the car at the Sydney Showground. He asked if he could address the crowd, took the microphone and told the stunned spectators that he would race but only if race officials agreed to call his wife back home should he be hurt or worse in the cageless Offy...

Within a few seasons, from 1973 onwards, roll-cages were obligatory and the shocking stream of fatalities in speedcar racing slowed dramatically.

The 1960s is remembered as the most dangerous decade in Australian dirt track racing. It was also a time of genuinely huge crowds and regular lurid back page and front page stories in the tabloids.

One of the biggest names of the first half of the 1960s was jug-eared Jeff Freeman, a working-class hero from Sydney's Paddington, who fought some epic battles with Johnny Stewart, Andy McGavin, Garry Rush, Ray Oram and a fresh-faced Johnny Harvey, making his way as one of the kings of sideways motoring before being lured to road racing.

Freeman's death on Mother's Day 1965, when his Offy overturned and his head hit a safety fence upright at Westmead Speedway, plunged the sport into mourning. Others died before and after Freeman, but he had always seemed too good and too indestructible to lose his life.

Stewart went on to develop a keen rivalry with Kiwi Barry Butterworth, a controversial figure who caused a near riot at the Showground when the crowd invaded the track in protest at his exclusion from a race.

Another star of the day was a Brock - the irascible rough nut, hard living Leadfoot Len Brock.

Americans Bob "Two-Gun" Tattersall, Merle Bettenhausen, Mike McGreevy, Larry Burton, Jimmy Davies visited, bringing a dash of international glamour to the Brisbane Ekka, Perth's Claremont, Adelaide's Rowley Park, and Sydney's Showground. And later in the decade, suburban Liverpool.

The excitement and ever-present danger of racing in that era is captured in a new book called Speedway's Sensational Sixties, sub-titled with some justification, The Deadliest Decade.

Mainly pictorial, it's 160 pages of black and white shots on quality paper, has been compiled by log-time speedway enthusiast and photographer Tony Loxley, who's dedicated the publication to the much-admired speedway great George Tatnell, who passed away last year.

Loxley has sifted through thousands of photos taken by the stellar lensmen of the era including Warren Bridge, David Cumming, Larry Taylor, Ian Smith, Bill Meyer, Gordon Hogarth, Des Lawrence...

The images extend beyond the speedcars that were the staple of the sport during the 1960s to solo motorcycles, sidecars and the new categories on the move - sedans and super modifieds.

Included is the classic shot of Bob Holt's Holden launched high into the night sky during a Sydney Showground feature race in 1963. Wearing shorts and a sleeveless shirt, Holt survived the mighty shunt. Thirty five years later, as a wiser veteran racer, the great survivor Holt became the national speedcar champion.

There are shots of fatal crashes, and lucky escapes, which marked Saturday at 'the skids' in the bloody 1960s. Loxley has also included a smattering of press cuttings of the time, but frustratingly they are too small and impossible to read. That's a shame.

Speedway's Sensational Sixties is published by Bookworks-Haynes and is available from Sydney's Autobookworld and other good specialist book stores at a recommended retail price of $39.95. Though let down by a few proofreading slip ups, it's a must for any speedway fan.