Leaning back, Harry Oxley rakes a hand through his sandy hair and flashes his big-toothed smile. From behind plate-glass-thick eyeglasses Harry surveys the brass and fern motif of the restaurant. He grunts and smiles again.
"I've really got the greatest lifestyle in the world," Oxley says. "I wouldn't trade with anybody, really. I don't know of anything that I'd like to do that I don't do. I have a lot of toys. I'm really lucky, and it's come from the sport."
And why not? Oxley lives in San Clemente when he's not flying to Mexico in his new six-passenger airplane to look in on the construction of his dream home. He bought real estate when the getting was good and that helped fill the toy box. He also runs a swap meet.
But mostly, Harry runs speedway. Every Friday night from June until September at the Orange County Fairgrounds, Harry packs 'em in, more than 6,000 fans. Packs 'em in to watch Southern California golden boys charge around on odd-looking motorcycles, making left turns and getting very, very muddy. The golden boys are reckless and daring and the golden girls who watch, and are dazzled, are devoted and pay $6 to see it all and buy T-shirts and hats and magazines and cups and buttons. And beer.
Harry runs it all. A mogul's mogul, Harry Oxley is Speedway in California. California Speedway is Speedway in America. Any way you figure it, that makes Harry a pretty big guy.
The sport of speedway is also known as "Sideways Racing," if it's known at all. Basically, what happens is riders race streamlined motorcycles counter-clockwise over a 1/8-mile track covered with decomposed granite. There are two types of races--scratch and handicap. There are also match races, pitting two popular riders in head-to-head battle. These races are fixed.
In the four-lap scratch race the riders start together and top finishers are advanced to semi-final and final events. In handicap races, the better riders start at various distances behind the start line with the idea that they will overtake the less-skilled riders in the five-lap race.
Speedway bikes are made in Europe and are low-slung, like a cheetah. A bike is allowed a maximum 60 horsepower, 500cc engine, which weighs 180 pounds and burns methanol. Methanol has an acrid, sour smell and is one of the trademark scents of the sport.
Another trademark is the racing style. The bikes seem to race out from under the riders. Riders twist and squirm and appear to barely hang on. The bikes are fast, making 0-50 m.p.h. in three seconds. Speedway bikes have one gear and no brakes. So, as the riders slide into turns, they lean their body into the turn and the bike away from it. To decelerate, they drag their steel-tipped left boot, the same way Fred Flintstone slows down in Bedrock.
The sport is faintly reminiscent of rodeo; each with its riders forced to hang on or be thrown into the dirt of an arena. Speedway riders even walk with the disjointed, clanky gait cowboys achieve after many seasons of breaking horses. Speedway has been compared to the fictitious Rollerball; riders are swathed in leather and heavily padded. Bad blood between riders leads to jostling on the bikes and the occasional slam into a retaining wall.
What a waste to compare Speedway to other sports. It is what it is. And what it is is a spectacular, loud and raucous par- tay . You'll hear Harry talk about what a family sport speedway is, but that's because Harry spends his time raking the track and not looking at the teen-agers filling his stands. And the teen-agers milling around, behind and under the stands. And the teen-agers lounging near the restrooms, snack bars, beer stands and souvenir shops, mindless of the races, thinking only of locating the party for the night and getting picked up.
But, hey, the same could be said for the crowds at pro football games. And the speedway crowd is a notch above that type of person. Maybe once into rowdiness, but not anymore.
Harry found speedway in a shambles. It had flourished in the '30s, that period in American sport when the obscure and the bizarre were outdrawing the traditional and mainstream. In the '40s, speedway races were suspended for the duration of the war, like many motor sports in the World War II era. Then, with the war over and gas rationing off, the men came home. Still no speedway. Television, the perennial bad guy, was blamed. The fans were staying home. Like last year's toy, speedway was tossed into a closet.
Harry remembered speedway. Harry doesn't forget much. He had raced motorcycles in the late '50s and early '60s, but sold his bike and gear when he got married. But the suburbs couldn't smother Harry's love of bikes. He sold the the house in La Mirada and moved he and his wife, Marilynn, to Eureka and set himself up in a motorcycle shop.
Harry found out he had a lot to learn about being a businessman.
"I was very poor at keeping books and I was a procrastinator," he said. "I learned a very good lesson. In three years I had about 10 years of schooling in what not to do. I used to go in every night and pull nickels out of the Coke machine in the shop so I could buy groceries. You wake up one morning and you are in big trouble."
Harry's trouble soon turned into bankruptcy. He owed about $10,000, while his friends owed him somewhat more. Harry went to work for Jack Milne, the former world speedway champion (1937) at Jack's cycle shop in Pasadena. It was there that Harry pulled speedway out of the closet and blew off the dust.
"There were a lot of guys around who remembered speedway racing," Oxley said. "At Jack's there were a lot of old bikes from 20 years ago laying around. We just started racing with a rag-tag bunch of junk, is basically what we did. I was like a lot of guys who could not make it in other motorcycle races."
Harry took his geriatric bunch of riders and bikes and set up a track at the Orange County Fairgrounds. Milne put up $1,500--$500 for Harry--and named the venture International Speedway, Inc. That was in 1968 and the company has been turning a profit ever since.
It was a labor of love for Harry and just flat out labor for Marilynn.
"I was still running the shop in Pasadena," Oxley said. "For four years I did this: I'd get off work at six in Pasadena. I'd drive down, do all the maintainance on the race track and get the track together while my wife worked on the book work. Then we would both work until about 4-4:30 in the morning. Drive back and get up at nine to do it again the next day. And, we had four kids for Marilynn to raise during the day."
Speedway didn't exactly take off like Harry hoped, but it grew steadily, mostly by word of mouth. The breakthrough came in 1974.
"We did fantastic in 1974, opening night we sold out the stadium," Oxley said. "That was the year streaking was in vogue. We didn't have a streaker, we had seven. The Costa Mesa Police Department was doing our security at the time, and they caught them and had this naked streaker handcuffed to our guardrail that night.
"Did I plan it? No way. I went nuts. I figured that was the end of it. I thought no one would come. The next day The Pilot (an Orange County coastal newspaper) headline said "Streakers Race Speedway." Front page headline. I damn near died. We sold out 11 of the first 13 weeks. And--strike me, this is an honest true story--about five weeks into the season a little old lady from Pasadena said to me one night, 'When are the streakers coming on?' I said, 'Never, I hope.' She said, 'I've come all the way from Pasadena. I've seen streaking on television, but I've never seen a streaker live.'
"It just goes to show you. If I would have planned that, it wouldn't have worked."
It's a cute story, but the point not to be missed is that Harry the publicity hound might have planned it if he thought it might work. Harry was spending money on newspaper and radio advertising long before others promoters thought of printing business cards. Harry started out in 1968 spending about $1,000 on advertsing. Today his advertising budget is around $75,000.
See, real quick Harry hit on the perfect promotional approach for speedway. The ingredients could be found in your average Beach Party movie, i.e., teens at the beach, cloddish adults with sand in their loafers, Annette whining that Frankie takes needless chances on his motorcycle but secretly she thinks it's exciting. Endless Summer, with the timeless American theme--vehicles and speed as a metaphor for the frontier freedom lost when the Wild West was tamed by civilization.
So maybe Harry wasn't thinking all that, but he sure sensed it. Anyway, he had the whole sport to himself, to shape in his image.
"We were the only game in town for a long time," he said. "We saw 14 or 15 tracks come and go. They would last one or two weeks. And every one was this big threat or problem, you know. I don't even worry about it anymore. If someone says he is going to open next door to me, I wait until they open, then I've got a problem. No one has (opened next door), except once. That didn't work, either."
A couple tracks did manage to hang on. The Inland Motorcycle Speedway at San Bernardino started in 1974. Ventura opened a little before that. Each track developed its own style. San Bernardino became the hardcore track. Get this--fans watched the race. It was a breakthrough in the sport. IMS might have attracted more Hell's Angels than the other tracks, but the big guys seemed happy enough to watch and keep to themselves. They even bought tickets.
Soon, a regular group of riders began driving a circuit. Tuesday at Ventura, Wednesday at San Berdoo, Friday night at Costa Mesa. The riders would work construction or landscaping jobs at the beach during the day and in the afternoons strap their bikes to the beds of their pickups and head to the track. In those days, the rider did it all. A rider did his own work, maybe his brother or girlfriend was his pit crew.
"It was different then," Alan Christian said. Christian, 29, has been racing speedway for 15 years. He's married, has two kids and takes his racing very seriously.
"I have quit two times," he said. "I'm tired of turning the same circles at the same tracks for so many years. I'm fed up with it. But I have seen a growth. I'll stay with it for a while. I like the life style."
The life style for today's rider can include a good living. How much can a professional speedway rider earn in a year? A handful of speedway racers earn between $35,000 to $75,000. That's for four months riding. Then there's sponsor money. A rider can make $1,200-$2,000 per night in prize money.
Harry, to nobody's surprise, had a say in the prize-money structure. Every track in Southern California uses the Oxley system. He still regrets it.
"The way the purse came about is interesting," Harry said. "Jack Milne helped me lay out the first purse. We were going to pay $600 total (in 1969). We figured all the main events, the finals, but we forgot the heat races. So, when I went to pay the riders, it cost us $900. We still made money so we said, "OK, that will be the purse, $900. We'll guarantee that every time."
"At the time, tickets were $2.50 and we were drawing about 1,500 people. We said we'll pay everyone who rides. A guy comes up and doesn't transfer out of his race, we'll pay him enough to pay his entrance fee. Now, the purses are predicated on the crowd. It's the worst thing I ever did. Years ago, all the Class C events were based on a percentage of the gate. We had a lot of Class C riders, they were used to that, and that's what we did.
"If I had paid flat purses, I would have made a lot more money. It turned in to a bad deal. But once you start, you can't change it, can you?"
A rhetorical question. The pay structure hasn't changed in 15 years, but not through lack of trying by the riders.
Which brings us to the strike.
Once it became apparent that Speedway was here to stay, the riders decided they wanted a bigger cut.
"The strike lasted three weeks," Harry said. "We didn't run for three weeks. At the beginning of the season, I went to a meeting of the riders and said, "OK guys, I've had enough. Anyone who wants to race, we're going to race Friday night. Anyone who doesn't want to race, stay home. Most of the top riders came out and rode. The guys who went on strike picketed, but it was a real weak movement. When there were 100 guys in a room talking about it, it was great idea. But when you got there in the cold, it wasn't such a good idea.
"If the riders came to me and said, as they did only once, 'We're going on strike.' I'd say, 'See 'ya, guys. I'm going to Mexico.' I'd just shut her down. They'd solve me one big problem. I wouldn't have to worry about it. The reason I say that is they're being paid over and above what I think anybody else in the business is getting paid, on that percentage deal. They are being treated well and fairly."
By sheer weight of his power, Harry broke the strike. It was the first, and perhaps last, act of defiance from the riders. Mike Bast, seven-time national champion, was an upstart who tried to get the strike momentum started. His feuds with Harry are legendary. He has virtually retired from speedway at 33, chased out, he says, by Oxley.
"It was in 1975, before the national championship," Bast said. "We all stuck together, until the last minute. There was no rider backbone. The riders never called his bluff, that was the problem. I've been in motorcycles for 23 years. All the motorcycle riders I've ever known--you can't get two together.
"I loved my riding, but I just couldn't get along with the riders. And the promoters. I got so tired of the politics and the nitpicking games. The promoters call all the shots and make all the money. Harry is the czar. I don't begrudge Harry Oxley making a living, I hope he makes a million bucks--as long as it's fair."
Bast and Oxley also quarreled over Bast's refusal to ride handicap races. Bast complained that handicap races are unsafe because the lower division riders are less skilled and cause crashes. Harry likes handicap races because the better riders come from behind and pass, something the crowd loves.
"Mike Bast and I had an ongoing war for three years," Oxley said. "He didn't try to transfer out of the handicap. So I left him off the program. It'd be like a baseball player saying, 'I only want to bat.' If I let Mike Bast ride only scratch, why should I ask Kelly Moran to ride both races? That's part of the business and part of the sport. The sport is built on handicap racing. If you don't race, you don't play. What we are selling for six dollars is a complete program."
How is it that the riders haven't formed a union for leverage against the promoters? Imagine the professional baseball players' union taking this? Because Harry doesn't want it, is why.
"Union?" Harry spits out the word. "There couldn't be, otherwise the sport would go upside down. They're nuts. Riders are not a premium. We have racing and we have race tracks and we are going to have riders, and plenty of 'em. We've got more riders than we can handle right now.
"We've got three or four of them we'd hate to lose. I learned a long time ago, the world doesn't revolve around one rider. There's only one racing entity that's like us, or we're like them--NASCAR. No unions. Bill France runs NASCAR, if he didn't run it with an iron hand, it'd be junk racing."
The not-so-subtle message is "Don't Cross Harry." Harry has a very wide bad side, so it's easy to get on it. But difficult to get out. Robert Fitzpatrick is the editor and publisher of Speedway Magazine, a two-year-old Orange County monthly. Fitzpatrick makes this observation: "The main problem with speedway today is that there is no central governing body that takes an active interest in the day-to-day activities in the sport. Harry is excellent, but there's too much power in one position."
Well, there is a governing body, the American Motorcycle Assn. Bill Boyce, the director of racing for the AMA, reports that, with jurisdiction over all motorcycle racing, his organization is busy. The AMA lists about 800 licensed riders and 10 tracks. The AMA sponsors a Speedway Control Board. Headed by Harry Oxley.
Harry had a vision of speedway. He had a vision of what speedway could be. When he pulled speedway out of the closet he did more than revive the sport in Southern California. He picked it up, brushed off the mud, covered the tattoos and planted flowers on the infield. He took it away from cycle social clubs and brought it to the beach. Parents used to look forward with horror to the day their Biff would fancy a set of his own wheels. Harry made it OK to be involved with motorcycles.
This is not a grease monkey sport. Forget the image of the slow-witted mechanic with the bill of his cap turned up, wiping his hands on a greasy red rag. The riders weren't weaned on muscle cars running moonshine. No southern drawls.
This is a teen sport. Most of the riders look as if they walked out of the pages of Tiger Beat. Or GQ Jr. They are among the most accessible professional athletes you'll ever meet. Friendly, they haven't worked up to the mega-egos of other athletes. You have guys such as Kelly Moran, Lance King and Rick Miller--all blond and handsome.
So how come no one from the sport has made it big, crossed over? There was one guy. You remember Bruce Penhall, the two-time U.S. champion? Bruce was blond, outgoing and a nice guy. Girls liked him. He got semi-famous on CHiPs, the television show, not the cookies. His acting career semi-died.
These riders have no agents, business managers or attorneys working for them. No one to run interference with Harry. No one to seek out sponsors. No wonder the sport isn't bigger.
Big it may not be, but popular it is. The sport is healthy enough to support two new tracks, Ascot in the South Bay and Carlsbad Raceway. Both are in their first season. Each is drawing the rabid speedway fans, many of whom travel to each of the the five Southern California tracks.
Scratch a trend and you're likely to find a Southern California teen-ager. Let's start with the girls. These are not redlining racing fans. Eyeliner is more like it. Tracks such as Costa Mesa are fashion parades. The girls are there for three reasons: to watch the riders, to watch the boys watching them, to size up other girls' outfits. The hard core speedway groupies have eyes only for the riders. Skidmarks on my heart.
"The riders are great, they are so nice," said Valerie Davis, 18, of Irvine. Valerie attends speedway four nights a week. She is planning a trip to England this summer, where she will attend international speedway races. "Some kids come out here and it's like a big pick up place. Some come here to drink. But I really think the racing is exciting."
Valerie was the Trophy Girl that night at Ascot Park, where speedway is called Rock 'n Roll Racing. Chuck Long sells beer at Ascot. He calls speedway "The under-21 singles bar."
"We go through 10 kegs per night," he said. "You figure the kids come in here and spend $20 a head. You don't think the people here are making money? Look at all these kids drinking and hanging around. What do you think is going on? No one is even watching the races."
Each track has its own way of supervising the sale of beer. It seems easy to keep people under 21 from buying the beer, but keeping them from getting it from others and drinking it is more difficult.
"We're really concerned about that," Oxley said. "That's one thing that can get us in big trouble, and we know that."
But still the social aspects are a major drawing card, especially in Costa Mesa. "The teen-age girls are phenomenal," Oxley said. "They'll come in at quarter to ten and pay six dollars and there'll be four or five of them. And you say, "How come you came so late?" They'll say, "Oh, we cruised around town and there wasn't anything happening so we came out to see if we could meet any guys."
Speedway is poised on the edge of something. Everyone senses it. Why hasn't the sport been exploited? Some say Harry and the rest of the promoters want to keep it small. If the riders traveled to tracks in the Midwest or the East, the fans would lose touch with their favorite riders.
Some think speedway is hampered by the dirty-necked image associated with motorcycle racing. Fans are intimidated by the noise and rowdiness, the theory goes.
How can this be? Here is a sport that is everything Americans demand from entertainment. It's exciting. There are dramatic crashes, people get hurt. The riders are one of them, of the people, not out of reach like most stars. The riders are clean-cut and handsome. They are from Southern California. The racing fits into the attention span of a television-bred generation: the races are brief, 90 seconds and it's on to the next act. It could be televised with two cameras, not like golf.
Maybe it has something to do with Harry. If Harry wanted speedway to be huge, it would be. He's a guy with simple tastes. He loves his job, his family, his life. Since when do you mess with a good thing? He's a big man in a small world. If the sport grows into a national mania, as it has in Europe, where would that leave Harry?
Raking mud in Costa Mesa?