It’s just after World War I in sunny England, and you really want to go motorcycle racing. In modern times, this kind of thrilling activity is pretty well supported in most Western countries, but back then, things weren’t so developed when it came to going fast at motorbike. Of course, you can just do it on a public road and pray you don’t get slashed by the cops or have an unfortunate encounter with a rare but still very solid automobile. What if you wanted it to stay legal? Then what ?
Now, if there’s one thing England usually have plenty of, it’s grass. An English summer seen from above is greener than an explosion in a Kawasaki factory. And as if this were before the era of purpose-built motorcycle racing tracks (except perhaps for a few open-minded motor racing establishments), you think that race your bike in a large grassy field is as good an idea as any. Congratulations, you have just invented track racing.
Grow grass (for racing)
Grasstrack became an official racing genre when the Auto Cycle Union in Britain banned racing on public roads in 1925. Spoilsports. Passionate motorcycle racers like mustard therefore turned to private grass fields and in 1927 the Whitgift Club held the first recognized grasstrack meeting on a former golf course near Croydon. Is it just me, or does tearing up an old golf course on a bunch of loud, fast bikes sound like an incredible idea?
So, like a whole series of motorcycle racing, grasstrack was to emerge from the sheer will and bloody determination of early 20th century motorcyclists to go fast and put themselves and their machines in mortal danger. The number of modern, bitumen-free racing genres that have emerged from this need is mind-boggling: besides grasstrack, you can also count speedway, flat track, trial racing, scrambling, motocross, enduro , ice racing and hill climbing. All from the simple question of whether you could go as fast off-road as on one.
Who is your dad?
Informally, you could probably argue very strongly for track racing to be considered the origin of all off-road circuit racing; mainly due to the informal nature of its accommodation needs. With nothing more than an open field and a few basic markers planted in the turf, runners in the 1920s staged events between local protagonists. Of course, those in the know will probably tell you that “scrambling” racing was done before WW1, but since it was more of a point-to-point business, grasstrack and its “circuit” approach to going fast seem to be at ground zero.
The genre’s popularity took off in the 1920s, and before long things started to pick up. The counter-clockwise tracks took on a kidney-shaped appearance in order to give riders right-hand turns to contend with, and there were also tracks that were intentionally laid out on gently rolling terrain to give to the runners a little more challenge. And since the races were mostly held on farms and in fields, the events were seasonal – as the grass (and sometimes hay) they raced on was in perfect condition for speed immediately after the farmers had spent their harvesters on it.
The same but different
Now, there are clearly a bunch of similarities between grasstrack and speedway racing. Surely it’s pretty much the same thing, except a bit of cow food, isn’t it? Well no. And while they clearly share common roots (pun intended entirely), trail bikes differ significantly from speedway bikes. Yes, they share looks to some degree, but speedway bikes have no suspension and only one speed. Grasstrack bikes have front and rear shocks (of course) and a two-speed gearbox. They also operate in different displacement classes.
According to online sources, modern Grasstrack racing has three solo classes at 250cc, 350cc and 500cc as well as three sidecar classes; a 500cc and 1000cc left-handed (turning left) and a 1000cc right-handed (turning right). And if you’re wondering how exciting a one-liter bike with two people on it and flat out on the grass is, the answer is a “very, very exciting”.
Somewhat quizzically for such a niche sport, you’ll find that British sidecar motorcycle variants come in both left-handed and right-handed configurations. Sports history explains this rather eccentric event as being the result of continental Europeans racing into the sport and some cross-Channel pollination. Indeed, the European sport of “Long Track racing” is more or less identical to Grasstrack (except for a few espressos and croissants).
Even more surprising is the persistence of the sport to survive. No doubt largely due to its economic nature and lack of infrastructure needs, it continues to this day in the UK, COVID be damned. UK sports websites show a plethora of events scheduled for 2022, including nine (yes, nine) races hosted by the Auto Cycle Union in July 2022 alone. And to think that until a few minutes ago, the vast majority of people reading this article wouldn’t have had a clue that the sport even existed. And you call yourself motorcycle fans!
Cheap but not so easy
Personally, I like the idea of running on grass. As someone who has never ridden a motorcycle in a real honest event the idea of grass being slightly forgiving both in terms of traction and collision I think a 250cc racer might be something that wouldn’t take too much toll – financially or physically – on my old man bones.
At least that has been what I thought until I watched some of the videos like the one below. Having a softness on super soft and very lush British grass is one thing. But the prospect of being run over by a fully loaded 1000cc grasstrack sidecar monster with two pie and pint loving English gentlemen is quite another.
If your appetite is whetted enough, you can find plenty of Grasstrack and Long Track races on Youtube. Watch out, it’s really addictive stuff.