Underneath the floodlights of the Costa Mesa Speedway, racing jerseys shine bright as the brakeless motorbikes erupt at a break-neck speed down the “short straits” of the oval track.
After nearly two years of silence at the Speedway, due to coronavirus closures, fans can once again hear motorcycles rip through the clay-based track.
With stadium seats perched just above the adrenaline-fueled race, the Speedway is a spectator’s dream, where the unedited drama of motorcycle racing can be experienced firsthand.
“After 51 straight years of consecutive events, we were shut down for 954 days because of COVID. This year, we came back in May and resurrected the Speedway,” said Brad “Rad Brad” Oxley, promoter and “head” of the Costa Mesa Speedway.
The COVID-19 pandemic really challenged a number of sports venues, especially early on. For a time, some venues even held sports events without crowds.
But that was never an option for the Costa Mesa Speedway, according to Oxley. “Doing anything without them is not an option. It wouldn’t be an event.”
The track reopened earlier this year, and has since boasted a number of speedway races and motorbike-related events.
Although speedway racing and motorsports as a whole is a male-dominated sport, the Costa Mesa Speedway attracts an eclectic group of Orange County residents. Mothers with young children mix with die-hard motorsports fans and twentysomethings with patchwork tattoos.
Speedway boasts a myriad of motorcycle related events – including “Harley night,” sidecar racing, and solo racing, where brakeless motorbikes race in a more traditional speedway style.
Aside from the obstacles related to the pandemic, Oxley faced a much more personal obstacle — a Baja motorcycle accident that left him in critical condition in 2021.
In the remote desert of Punta Chivato, Mexico, Oxley was knocked unconscious on his dirt bike after being blindsided by a deer. The collision left him unable to communicate, alongside a severe concussion, collapsed lung, ten broken ribs, and a ruptured aorta that could have cost him his life.
Despite the major injury, Oxley is still running circles around the other speedway staff.
Speedway has been a family-run business since its founding in 1969.
“Myself and my sister started doing the promotions for Speedway in the early 90s, I was a racer as well,” Oxley said, “It’s personal to me. I’m not just the promoter, this is a family legacy and a Southern California tradition. The racing community is tight and they have high expectations. My dad is my hero – I do this to honor him even if there have been lean years.”
He attested that the Speedway continues to be family-operated even to this day, adding “My mother-in-law who is turning 80 on Sunday is my ticket manager. My nieces are in the ticket booth. My sons are on the track helping me run the event.”
Oxley feels that the family-operated aspect of Speedway has been key in its longevity as a local attraction.
“I don’t think the Speedway could have stood the test of time if it wasn’t family run,” he said. “A small event track on the level of the Costa Mesa Speedway would not have survived without having people involved that had the interest of the community and competitors in mind.”
Credited with the Southern California “renaissance” of motorcycle speedway racing, the Costa Mesa Speedway was opened in 1969 by Harry Oxley and 1937 Speedway World Champion Jack Milne. The 185 yard “bull ring” oval track is nestled within the Orange County Fairgrounds, a familiar location for many Orange County residents.
Speedway racing was exclusively a European sport in the early days, but found its way to Southern California after Harry Oxley began working for Milne’s cycle-shop after a failed business venture of his own.
“My grandfather, Jack Milne, won the 1937 Speedway Champion at Wembley stadium. My dad worked for him as the general manager at Milne Brother’s, a motorcycle and cycling shop in Pasadena,” shared Oxley, son of founder Harry Oxley.
“Speedway is the oldest world championship in motorsports, starting in the early-to-mid 1920s. The real ‘heyday’ was during the 30s-60s in Britain. Speedway had been dormant in the US since WWII. All public events were stopped in the US because of the war.”
After stumbling upon the oval dirt track nestled within the sleepy Orange County fairgrounds, Harry Oxley and Milne opened the Costa Mesa Speedway, joining in on the wave of “alternative” action sports sweeping through Southern California.
“Rad Brad” Oxley shared that “In the 70s, motocross, skateboarding, and surfing made their way onto the scene as alternative sports. It was a very special time. Speedway was in the middle of riding that wave.”
On June 13, 1969, the Costa Mesa Speedway hosted its first event, and attracted a crowd of 2,000. By the 1972 National Speedway Championship, the crowd grew to 8,900, according to Oxley. “The $6 ticket and $2 beers were very attractive to people then,” he said with a chuckle.
Today, general admission tickets cost $20 cash for adults, and can be purchased at the ticket booth prior to the race. Children’s tickets for ages 3-12 are $10; anyone under the age of 2 receives free admission into the Costa Mesa Speedway.
The Costa Mesa Speedway is “a local event that is super unique, fast-paced, colorful, and unpredictable,” Oxley shared, “In our 2 hour and 15 minute program, we run between 35 and 40 events, a race every 3 minutes.”
“The racing format is very unpredictable. These bikes have no brakes, they run on methanol and they burn vegetable oil, something that is unique to motorsport. They have a super powerful, clean burning engine – It takes a special kind of human being to want to sign up for that,” Oxley said, having had a 30-year racing career of his own.
Shawn “Mad Dog” McConnell, 63, is just one racer that has taken on the volatile format of speedway racing. McConnell has raced for 51 years, a lifetime for some. “I started racing in ‘71, started speedway in ‘74 when I was 15… I lied about my age. I got protested by the other riders because of my age, so that was the end of that season. I came back after high school and have been racing ever since.”
McConnell feels that he is “getting to the end, I’m 63 years old. I wasn’t even sure after COVID, sitting out for two years, if I could even do it. I did it, and I’m still fairly competitive. I’m not as fast as I used to be, but we are already looking forward to next season.”
“This is the hotspot of speedway in the country. It has a reputation all over the world – Costa Mesa – anywhere in the world, they know about Costa Mesa Speedway. It has so much history – so many national champions the riders started at this track,” McConnell said.
Many speedway racers received their start in the sport at Costa Mesa Speedway, and have ultimately gone abroad to race in Europe, such as Oxley and McConnell.
Younger speedway racers, such as Hayley Gudgel, 25, go wheel-to-wheel against moto-legends like McConnell at the Costa Mesa Speedway.
“I started at Costa Mesa Speedway when I was 8, I came to my first race at 7, and I told my mom ‘I can ride faster than the boys’ on the little 50s. I started riding out in the desert, and next season I got a dirt bike for Christmas and started racing here. I’ve made my rounds through every division here, and it’s been a fun experience.”
“Brad, the owner, and Shawn McConnell taught me how to ride. Without them, I wouldn’t be where I am now,” Gudgel said, “The comradery of Costa Mesa Speedway has given me a place to belong my entire teenage years and into my early adult years. I just turned 25, and I’ve been here as long as I can remember. My entire childhood was here – I wouldn’t have experienced speedway without Costa Mesa.”
Post-race, the crash wall gates are opened, allowing fans to walk where many have raced. It’s almost uncanny to walk in the disheveled dirt after witnessing speedway racers ride nearly parallel to it, or at another equally impossible angle, after throwing their bike into each curve of the track.
“October 1 is our 52nd National Speedway Championship, the same race that legends of speedway have been racing since 1969. It will be full of young, fast, hungry talent that hasn’t been hurt yet. I think it will be an exciting event. It’s been 1,100 days, and it’s much anticipated – everybody’s pumped,” Oxley shared.
With a 52-year legacy, the Costa Mesa Speedway is more than just a hub of 70s motorsports nostalgia, it is a labor of love.
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