Ahead of the 2016 Adrian Flux British Grand Prix on July 9 we’ve taken a look back to how the sport was portrayed in fiction in its first golden age.
Speedway was an instant hit when it reached the UK in the late 1920s. This was an era when new technology opened up exciting possibilities for entertainment for a public keen to let its hair down after the First World War.
Children’s story papers were also going through a huge boom in popularity, with a dizzying range of weekly magazines available to entertain the nation’s youngsters with weekly stories, improving facts about Britain’s Empire and the latest advances in modern technology.
In many ways they were the precursors of superhero comics, which would eventually replace them. Some of those behind the early speedway adventures in children’s papers went on to become some of the most acclaimed writers in the world.
According to the exhaustive site Speedway Fiction, one of the earliest stories featuring speedway was published in Boy’s Magazine in 1928, the same year that speedway as we know it now was first raced in the UK.
A thrilling tale of a daring speedway racer and how he foils an attempt on the life of a visiting African king, it is, unsurprisingly, very racist to modern eyes. Even without the shocking reminders about the attitudes of the past, it’s not a classic speedway story. The racing is little more than a backdrop to a fairly standard adventure yarn, perhaps indicating that the anonymous author wasn’t basing the details on first-hand experience.
(Above: Action from the politically incorrect Black King’s Treasure)
In April 1929 Boy’s Magazine published another speedway story, this time called The Black Ace. While hardly progressive by modern standards, it does at least ease off the racial slurs.
Things gather momentum slightly from here on out. Another paper, The Modern Boy, picked up on the speedway craze the following year. Their story was a mixture of two of the standards of these papers, the tales of sporting heroes and the school drama.
Yarns of jaunty young chaps called Algie and their scrapes with angry teachers, that kind of thing. The writer was Alfred Edgar, who would go on to become one of Hollywood’s most celebrated screenwriters under his pen name, Barré Lyndon. His credits include the 1944 version of The Lodger (inspired by the Jack the Ripper murders) and the 1953 adaption of War of the Worlds, among many others.
It was, however, speedway that helped launch his career, with a serialised tale following the adventures of Dave and Con, who had been expelled from the fifth form at St Clair’s school because of their love of dirt-track racing.
Unlike the previous tale, the Modern Boy’s story gives a fascinating glimpse into the sport in its very youngest days, providing brief but vivid sketches of the atmosphere of those early races.
A later instalment sees our heroes returning to their old school where they learn that the boys of the third form have built their own speedway track. This includes the astonishing section where a schoolmaster discovering the illegal race is knocked out and tied up. Towards the end of the story the boys complain that this man “won’t let it rest” as he’s a “mean, spiteful hound”. Wonder why?
(Above: It’s why they call them the best days of your life)
The 1930s saw a trickle of speedway stories appearing in a selection of magazines, but they were just one of many new and exciting forms of transport capturing the imaginations of British children. Possibly the real-world availability of speedway, with stadiums opening in towns up and down the land, meant there was less demand for fictional stories compared to sports cars, tanks, aeroplanes and other less accessible forms of transport.
Most boys’ papers ceased publication for the duration of the Second World War. The next speedway serial was published in The Champion in 1947, called Double of the Mystery Speed Ace.
This tale was written by a true legend of British comics, Ted Cowan. Over the course of his career he worked for all the big comic publishers in the UK – including IPC, Fleetway and DC Thomson.
While Johnny Speed didn’t settle in the public’s imagination, his later creations like Robot Archie and The Spider are still fondly remembered by readers of a certain age. The motorcycle content of these stories is slim at best, but they do give us the chance to look at a very cool painting of a robot fighting a dinosaur.
By the 1950s the serialised story was falling out of favour with children in the UK as competition in the form of comic strips – and, increasingly, television – began gaining popularity. Story papers were beginning to look a bit old hat. Speedway, while still popular, didn’t reach similar mainstream prominence until the 1970s. Our next article will look at how the media covered the sport back in its next golden age.