Sunday 19 August 2012

What no brakes...

-SG- Visitors to this site may have wondered at the absence of brakes on some of the period shots of grass racing Nortons in New Zealand. Peter Thomson has kindly provided more information on this subject as follows:

Following a series of fatalities on the Grass Track in the very early days (c1913-14), brakes of any kind were banned and as Speedway was basically spawned from the Grass Track, 'no brakes' eventually got carried over to that discipline also.

I've tried very hard to locate the earliest possible rule book to try and find out exactly when brakes were banned but at this point in time I've had no luck. It appears that the death of Harold Plimmer in January 1914 on the Awapuni Racecourse, Palmerston North may have been the accident that tipped the scales. He was from a very prominent Wellington family and some very serious questions regarding the sport were asked by the coroner and his family following his death.

Horse racing tracks have a section of track, generally at the end of the main straight, called the "plough" which is a section that is ungrassed, ploughed up track, used by the horses to enter the centre of the course.
This plough section didn't bother the horses when they were racing but for a motorcycle at high speed pitching into the turn at the end of the main straight it was an entirely different matter. Navigating this section sorted the men from the boys and as most motorcycle races on the grass were handicap races you had the experts closing at speed on the lesser experienced riders in front of them, sometimes with very serious results.

In Harold Plimmer's case, he was closing fast on a rider in front who braked hard to cross the plough. By braking hard, this rider lost some but not all control and went a bit wide, forcing Harold to to cross the plough at the wrong angle and lose control. He crashed very heavily into the outside running rails and died in hospital of his injuries...

As said previously the coroner asked some very serious questions and the future of Grass Tracking was in doubt so the powers controlling the sport at the time had to be seen to be doing something to make the sport safer and the 'no brakes' ruling came into force. I should add that once bikes with gearboxes appeared, competitors were allowed to change 'up' but not 'down'; gearboxes were allowed but 'down-shifting' was not!

-SG- The whole idea of any speed event with no brakes and no gearbox use to help one slow down is pretty horrifying - especially bearing in mind that some of the New Zealand Grass Track events of the twenties involved average speeds of over 60 mph for ten miles or so... Brave men!