Monday, 22 March 2010

LLOYD "SPROUTS" ELDER - The First American Speedway Superstar.

Lloyd "Sprouts" Elder was one of the pioneers of speedway racing and possibly the first great international speedway superstar.


Young Lloyd's first love was horses and he set his heart on becoming a jockey. At the age of 16 he found himself a job as a stable hand, but by the time he was 18 he had "sprouted" to over six feet tall. Too tall to be a jockey and the nickname "Sprouts" stuck with him for the rest of his life. Sprouts allegedly then ran away and got a job in a motorcycle store, where he found a liking for another form of horsepower.

Elder learned his racing skills on the dirt-tracks and also on some of the last surviving board tracks during the 1920s, but he really began to make a name for himself during the late 1920s by racing overseas. In the winter of 1925/26, he joined Eddie Brinck and Cecil Brown on a trip to Australia where they competed with another nation who had discovered the art of broadsiding and thus began the real history of speedway racing as we know it.

During his stay in Australia he was introduced to Johnnie Hoskins who allowed him to ride at the Speedway in Sydney. Hoskins said that he was impressed with Elder as he was a showman. Hoskins went on to say that Sprouts would ride flat out, full bore for the first part of a meeting, but would then deliberatley hit the fence, fall on the track and lay still for a few moments "... just to get his breath back". During his stay in Australia, Sprouts gained another nickname too - "the Red Streak", which referred to the tatty old red jumper he always wore over his leathers. He also brought himself to the attention of the authorities by refusing to wear a proper helmet in favour of a leather flying helmet. If nothing else, this little episode gained him even more publicity and notoriety from the press.

The "Red Streak" wearing his favourite red pullover and leather flying helmet.
With motorcycle racing in America at a low ebb in the late 1920s due in equal measures to the depression and the failing image of board track racing, Elder turned his attention to racing somewhere new. He joined another Australian trailblazer, A.J.Hunting, and sailed to Great Britain,  where Elder joined up with Jimmy Baxter's Dirt Track Speedways company. By July 1928, Elder would be demonstrating another side to his nature, that of the businessman, when he a became a director of DTS who were running the tracks at West Ham and Southampton, two clubs that Sprouts appeared for during his career in the UK.

Sprouts became one of the most popular riders in the country in the new sport of dirt-track racing. Crowds of 30,000 to 40,000 were not uncommon during the heyday of speedway racing in England. The lanky, spectacular Californian was hugely successful on the british dirt tracks, alledgedly earning around £150 per meeting, and the "Speedway News" honoured Elder by calling him the "Greatest showman of all time!". Representing West Ham, Sprouts rode in the initial Star Riders Championship, the forerunner of the World Championships, but went out at the semi-final stages.

1928 - Sprouts in London an a Harley-Davidson "peashooter".

Sprouts thrilling the crowds at Crystal Palace in 1928
Front page news - Sprouts thrills Paris.
He was not without controversy though and was actually suspended by the ACU from Oct 1st 1929 to Apr 30th 1930 for "conduct prejudicial to the sport" (i.e failing to fulfill bookings - for example, at Lea Bridge Sept 25th when he failed to arrive for a match race with Jack Parker, and was replaced at the last minute by Tommy Croombs). The suspension was "national" (only in the UK), so on Oct 3rd he went off to Hamburg to race, then to Argentina with Frank Varey for the British winter.

Controversy followed him in his private life too. Elder was married twice, but when the divorced his first wife, he offered to let his ex-wifes new husband adopt his son Edgar in an attempt to avoid paying the alimony.  Like it or not, money was a big motivator in Elder's life and I'm sure he simply saw this as a good business decision.


Sprouts returned to the UK in 1930 and continued to race in Europe too but during the early 1930s. League racing was becoming more and more popular in the UK and despite a well publicised move to Southampton and riding as their captain, the discipline of team riding did not appeal to the devil-may-care Elder. All good things come to an end, appearance money was abolished in British speedway and the novelty began to wear off, so, to the dismay of his fans, Sprouts eventually packed his bags, pocketed his money and returned to racing in Europe.


In 1931 he passed through British waters for one last time, heading back to his home in America aboard the liner Bremen. Once he was settled back home, Elder established a dirt track on some farm land near to his home in Fresno. He taught many young riders and was instrumental in getting speedway tracks opened in San Diego, Santa Ana, Long Beach and Los Angeles. For a short period during the mid 1930s, speedway racing was one of  the most popular forms of motorcycle sport in the country. Elder, along with Jack & Cordy Milne, Wilbur Lamoreaux, Miny Waln and Bo Lisman, were the real pioneers of speedway racing in America. Elder's racing career came to an end when he was hit from behind by another rider causing some injuries to his spine, but he continued to promote speedway meetings and cut a fine figure with his wide-brimmed fedora and film-star moustache.


Unfortunately, Elder ran into financial trouble when an investment in a silver mine cost him his fortune. He retired from the speedway scene and joined the California Highway Patrol in his native Fresno. Speedway racing was still very close to his heart though and Officer 606 Elder was responsible for getting the Highway Patrol to sponsor a number of speedway races during the late 1930s. His career with the Highway Patrol came to an abrupt end though when he was seriously injured in a traffic accident and was left disabled, A few years later, when his second wife Laura died, Sprouts Elder took his own life. It was a sad end for a man who had thrilled speedway fans the world over.
Lloyd "Sprouts" Elder was inducted into the American Motorcycle Association Hall of Fame in 1998


This magnificent painting of Sprouts in action aboard a 500cc dirt-track Douglas is by the artist John Proud. You can see more of John's action packed, vintage speedway artwork by clicking on this link.

2 comments:

  1. The photo of Sprouts with the American flag race shirt was taken at Lea Bridge, London.
    Sprouts built his own track with the intention of giving demonstrations of this "new" sport to potential backers, Sponsers(Promoters)etc.This he did with the aid of his friend Ray Tauser (Star rider with Wimbledon).

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  2. This magnificent painting of Sprouts in action aboard a 500cc dirt-track Douglas is by the artist John Proud is really the significant of meaning in motor cycle history although.The classical bike shape was stunning and rare design shape.Thank you for your nice post.

    ReplyDelete

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Whitehaven, Cumbria, United Kingdom
Disenchanted City Boy who rode out of the fast lane and into the back lanes! Life on Two Wheels is so much fun.