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.