Wednesday, 19 January 2011

"SMOKY" STRATTON - Speedway Trailblazer...

I have a fascination with the pioneer dirt-track riders of the 1920s and 30s, some of whom have featured in previous blog posts, but there are three in particular who have really captured my imagination - Frank Charles, Clem Beckett and "Smoky" Stratton. They all led wildly different lives and were much more than just successful speedway riders. My interest in Stratton was awakened when I discovered he was killed in a road accident just a few hundred yards from my first home in the Lake District. I then discovered that he was buried in a local cemetery and have continued to research his career and visit his grave ever since.

Spencer Charles Stratton, pictured in the UK in 1928.
Spencer Charles Stratton was a true speedway pioneer and a real-life motorcycling free-spirit, always searching for a new and exciting challenge. He left his New Zealand homeland in 1923 aged just 19 to go racing in Australia. Less than 12 months later sailed half way around the World to the USA to try his luck on the American board tracks and eventually landed in Britain in 1928 to join the speedway revolution and quickly became one of the sports first international superstars. He risked his life racing motorcycles on every type of circuit, grass, board, cinders and even concrete, so how ironic that he was tragically killed in a road accident, driving home from a speedway meeting in rural Northern England, a meeting where he wasn't even racing.

Born in 1904, Stratton was the second youngest of 8 children and spent his early years on the family sheep farm at Colyton, just outside of Palmerston North, New Zealand. He was a bright kid, but had a lust for adventure and mischief too, which often got him into trouble. In an effort to control his behaviour he was sent away to Scot's College in Wellington, but managed to get himself expelled!

What drew him into the world of motorcycle racing I do not know. but his racing career appear to have begun in 1922 when he was just 17. One of his earliest meetings was at Marton on February 11th 1922. He made great progress and his first notable victories included the North Island Grass Track Championships and the 1923 New Zealand Middleweight Championships at Stockton. At the age of 19 he travelled to Australia to race and was soon bagging trophies, titles and records virtually everywhere he appeared. One Australian newspaper described him as "the most promising rider of the season" and predicted that Stratton "... will be the leading figure in motorcycling ... next season."

On 7th May 1924, he left Sydney aboard the SS Ventura arriving in San Francisco on May 26th. The challenge? To try his luck on the infamous board tracks of the USA. Whilst he was there he found work in the R&D department at Indian Motorcycles and also acted as a test rider helping to develop the Indian Prince. He also raced on the famous American fairground dirt-tracks, which is where he perfected his broadsiding skills. He returned to Australia later in the year, winning the 15mile Championship of Queensland and setting 6 World Records over 1 mile, 3 miles and 5miles at Brisbane on August 24th using both his 350cc and 1000cc Indian motorcycles. Stratton was also quite an exponent riding his Indians on the fabulous 1 mile banked concrete Olympia Motor Speedway at Maroubra, in Australia and held the track record with an average speed of 103mph. Spencer was also married during his time in Australia, his bride was Monica Agnes Barry and they tied the knot in Melbourne in October 1925.

The infamous Maroubra Speedway in New South Wales, known locally as the "Killer Track".  Stratton set a record of 103mph on the 5/6 mile concrete track riding his 997cc Indian. 
Following this second successful spell in Australia, Stratton returned to the USA in April 1926 in the company of American racing legend, Cecil Brown. Their destination was Springfield again, the home of Indian Motorcycles. Stratton had obviously made a big impression on his first visit to the company as he was soon riding with the Indian Works team and recorded some notable performances on the Milwaukee dirt-tracks and the Altoona, Rockingham, and Fresno Board Tracks. In September 1926, Spencer was to be found racing at the famous Rockingham Speedway in New Hampshire where he was racing against the likes of Art Pechar, Eddie Brink, Reggie Pink and Chuck Remington. He returned down under before the year was out and it was reported in the Canberra Times dated 2nd December 1926 that "... Speeding Stratton registered 95mph on his Indian across the Bredabane Plains". Always pushing himself and his bikes to the limit, Stratton survived an horrific crash at the Hamilton Speedway in Newcastle, NSW, promoted incidentally by another New Zealander, the legendary Johnnie Hoskins. He remained unconscious for 23 days but eventually recovered, got right back on his bike and continued to set records and win titles at tracks in both Australia and on the 1 mile grass tracks in his homeland.

Dirt-track racing (soon to be re-christened Speedway) had arrived in the UK amid a blaze of publicity in 1928 and a flood of Aussie riders made their way to Britain to try and earn their fame and fortune. Smoky was amongst the first to join the exodus, joining promoter and good friend Johnnie Hoskins aboard the SS Oronsay as it set sail from Sydney bound for Southampton. Stratton most likely left the ship at one of the Mediterranean ports and traveled across Europe by train in order to arrive in the UK much earlier. He arrived in the UK sometime during May 1928. 
350cc Indian single, similar to the one used by Smoky Stratton
Smoky loved his 1000cc V-Twin Indian Daytona
At this stage of his career Stratton had been exclusively racing two Indian motorcycles, a 350cc single and a 990cc Daytona Indian Chief, but he switched to riding the famous 347cc Harley-Davidson "peashooter" when he first landed in the UK, switching to the British dirt-track Douglas later in the season. He was one of the first real "Broadsliders" to appear on the British tracks and his name adorned the billboards all over the country -  from Stamford Bridge in London to Marine Gardens and Glasgow in Scotland.

Smoky aboard his Douglas in the UK 1928.
"Smoky" Stratton never really got to grips with the tighter tracks in the UK and reports in the speedway press during 1928 often mention his failure to complete races. He soon spread his wings onto the continent where he could earn a fortune racing for Dirt Track Speedways Ltd. On June 10th 1928 he appeared in front of over 8000 spectators at the Red Star Stadium Speedway in Paris. He also ran his own track in Cologne in front of crowds in excess of 75.000! Motorcycle historian Cyril May described the spectacular German venue in an article in the Speedway Star and News dated 17/12/1967. "Stratton's track gave a lap of 400 yards and was built immediately inside a concrete cycle racing track. The cycle track was banked almost vertically on the bends and on top of this banking, the front rows of spectators stood and looked down. ... Quite a lot of trouble was experienced in the matter of obtaining a permit from the police, who then controlled everything in Germany. Two weeks elapsed before they would give permission for a private demonstration and when some of the boys were at last allowed to put it over, the police ran for cover! It was only when things had been going on smoothly for about ten minutes, free from any slaughter, that they could be induced to spectate. In the end they were all for it."

In 1929 Stratton became a partner in Provincial Dirt Tracks Ltd, the company that built the Owlerton Speedway Stadium at Sheffield in the UK and the White City Speedway at Cardiff in Wales. His partners included fellow riders Clem Beckett and Jimmy Hindle and a businessman named Edgar Hart. Even though his wealth and business portfolio were starting to grow, Smoky still had a thirst for speed and danger and continued to race all over the World, never settling in one place for too long and always looking for the next big challenge. As well as being part owner of Sheffield, he also rode for the Yorkshire team in the 1929 English Dirt Track League and competed in the beach races at New Brighton near Liverpool. In one match report it was said that he flew to Cardiff  from Sheffield to take part in a series of match races, but once again, he failed to complete any of his programmed rides. At the end of the British season he returned to the USA where, reunited with his beloved Indians, he continued his excellent form racing on the board tracks.
Another portrait of Smoky on his Douglas. This looks like the pits area at Sheffield.
Back in the UK in 1930 he joined the Nottingham speedway team and by December of that year he had returned to Australia where he set another World speed record at the Ashfield Autodrome, covering a quarter mile in 17.8 seconds. Whilst in Australia he could often be found riding on the same bill as another New Zealander, Ken Stratton. So far I have failed to determine whether this was Spencer's youngest brother Howard Kenneth Stratton, who was born in 1908. Howards family do not believe that Howard ever raced motorcycles, but who knows for sure?

Spencer returned to the UK again in April 1931 and rode in couple of challenge matches for the non-league Plymouth speedway team, but his performances were well below par. He was still a very active businessman and was seriously considering opening new speedway tracks at Derby and Reading, neither of which came to fruition. Smoky continued to ride on the continent too, and appears to have spent most of the 1932 season riding in Germany and Austria. One such meeting was the very first dirt-track meeting to be held in Vienna on September 1st 1932.

"Smoky" (sitting on the bench), tends to his bike in Vienna 1932.
(© Artur Fenzlau/Technisches Museum Wien - www.technischesmuseum.at )
.
This is the point where Smoky's exploits have become lost in the mists of time. I have no record of the date he returned to the UK, but I do know that at the tail end of 1932, he once again set sail from the UK heading back to Australia. During 1933 he made a brief visit to his youngest brothers home in New Zealand, accompanied by his wife Monica, but Spencer's globetrotting appears to have taken its toll on his marriage too as he and Monica were divorced in Sydney in December 1935. Other than these small facts I don't know his whereabouts or activities until he turns up back in the UK in 1938. I do know that his address was listed as Portsdown Rd, Maida Vale, London when he accepted a calling from his old pal Johnnie Hoskins to take on the role of general manager at the newly re-opened speedway at Brough Park, Newcastle Upon Tyne.

The Newcastle squad included eight Canadian riders at the time and also featured Roland and Maurice Stobbart from Cumberland. Roland was also promoting speedway at the Lonsdale Park track in Workington and had invited some of the Canadian riders to participate in a challenge match at the non-league venue on June 4th 1938. "Smoky" came along as team manager for the night and also acted as driver for the three Canadians, but on the journey home, driving along the Workington to Cockermouth Road, their car was involved in a head on collision with another car near to the village of Brigham.

Stratton was killed instantly, he was only 33 years old. The three Canadian riders, Bruce Venier, Ellwood Stilwell and Robert Sparks all suffered head and facial injuries, as did the occupants of the other car, local driver John Roan and his passenger, George Smith of Whitehaven. All five were taken to the cottage hospital in Cockermouth. Ironically, another Canadian rider was also injured in a car accident that very night. George Pepper, the Newcastle captain, had turned down the chance of riding at Workington as he was due to ride at Edinburgh on the same night. He was involved in a head on collision on his way to Edinburgh and suffered cuts to his leg. The meeting he was due to race in was subsequently cancelled.

Maurice Stobbart had the sad task of identifying Smoky's body at the inquest, which was led by Inspector Woolcock. As "Smoky" had no family living in the UK, it was decided to bury him locally at the cemetery in Cockermouth.

The Inspector and one of his officers escorted the funeral cortege out of town and along the Lorton Road to the cemetery. The whole population of Cockermouth lined the streets to pay their last respects to this great sporting legend. Riders, officials and supporters from the Newcastle and Workington speedway tracks attended the funeral, along with his personal secretary, Miss McQuillan, Mr Ivison, the secretary of the Speedway Control Board, Jimmy Fraser, director of the Edinburgh Speedway and his great friend Johnnie Hoskins. Hoskins had played a big part in Smoky's life and it was only fitting that he should be there at the end too. Hoskins was so upset over Smoky's untimely death that he paid for a gravestone to be erected to commemorate his friend and colleague.

Whenever I visit Smoky's grave I am always pleased to see fresh flowers laid there, but my inquisitive mind wanted to know who put them there as he had no family in the UK to my knowledge. Questions in the newspapers, on the Internet and through the speedway fraternity had led nowhere, but a chance remark by Johnnie Hoskins in a 1967 edition of the Speedway Star and News gave me a clue. Hoskins said... "I still often think of Smoky when he was with me at my Newcastle track in Australia, riding the big Indians in the mid twenties and also of his exploits on the big concrete track of Marouba. Neither have I  forgotten those two devoted speedway supporters that corresponded with me for quite a time after the Stratton tragedy ... they were the ones who so kindly tended 'Smoky's' grave in the little town of Cockermouth"

Then. out of the blue, I received a reply to a note I had left at Smoky's grave, which gave me all of the answers. Inspector Woodcock, the man who had led the inquest and escorted Smoky's coffin to the cemetery, was a speedway fan from the Workington track. His young daughter was also a big speedway fan and felt so sorry for Smoky being buried so far away from his family and homeland that she promised to care and tend to his grave. Both of them wrote to Johnnie Hoskins and through him they traced his family in New Zealand and began to correspond with them too - This young lady kept her promise and laid flowers at the grave every weekend until she passed away herself a few years ago and now her daughter and grandaughter are carrying on the tradition.
Johnnie Hoskins paid for a headstone to be erected on Smoky's grave. Fresh flowers are placed there every week.
The inscription reads...

TO THE MEMORY OF
SPENCER CHARLES STRATTON
SPEEDWAY RIDER
FROM NEW ZEALAND
WHO WAS KILLED AT BRIGHAM
4th JUNE 1938 AGED 33 YEARS
So Spencer Charles Stratton is not alone and I too will continue my little pilgrimage to the quiet, lonely grave of "Smoky" Stratton and pay my respects to a true motorcycling Trailblazer.

(With huge thanks to Dave Gifford, Ross Garrigan, Nigel Bird, Leitha Martin and relatives of Spencer himself for their input, research and information).

4 comments:

  1. That's a very moving tale fella, thanks for sharing.

    ReplyDelete
  2. As the grand daughter of Spencer Stratton's youngest brother Howard, I am extremely grateful and touched that so much research has been undertaken. The mystery of the flowers on the gravestone has at last been resolved: when my grandfather went to the UK and visited the grave with my uncle they were mystified by the fresh flowers. My grandfather would have been delighted to read your account. Thank-you. Leitha Martin.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Leitha - I am so pleased that you enjoyed my article. I am sure that I will keep visiting Spencer's grave and I will continue to find out more about his fascinating career. Do you have any other information/photographs that I have missed? It would be wonderful to hear more about Spencer and his family.
    my contact details are...
    MotoFreako@gmail.com

    ReplyDelete
  4. I see this article has been around for awhile but Im pleased I finally came across it. My grandfather was the son of Spencer's brother Laurence and he always told us his uncle was a famous motorcyclist and that he had been killed in a crash but we never found out the whole story before my grandad passed away. I've been compiling a family tree/history for a while so its good to be able to put some pieces of the puzzle together! Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge

    ReplyDelete

About Me

My photo
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.