When motorcycles started to become a popular means of transport at the beginning of the 20th Century, it was predictable (boys being boys) that competition would start amongst the riders and manufacturers. Those early competitions were intended to demonstrate the rider's skill and the reliability of these new fangled contraptions to encourage the public to ride motorcycles as a safe and dependable means of transport.
Trials and hill climbs were the most widespread competitions. These were held on public roads, and in fact members of the public often 'tagged along' with an event, predictably getting in the way. As there was no way of controlling the spectators, there was no means of charging them, so it was unavoidably an amateur sport.
The Isle of Man provided a rare opportunity to close public roads and run a straightforward 'first past the post is the winner' race. The first TT was held in 1907, the same year that Brooklands opened in Surrey, though the first motorcycle event wasn't until the following year. Through the 20s & 30s generally the machines raced at Brooklands were the most powerful models available, making it a somewhat 'elite' branch of the sport.
After WWI, and through the early 1920s, trials and hill climbs were still the main form of motorcycle competition, apart from the annual outing to the TT Races. The first Victory Trial in 1919, to celebrate the end of the war, was won by Gus Kuhn. These events continued to attract large entries and huge crowds but as road traffic increased the RAC and ACU had to give way to public pressure and a ban on speed events on the public highways was introduced in 1925.
Events went off road and the name 'scramble' was coined. This also gave the opportunity to charge spectators, bringing more money into the sport. Grass track racing became popular (a misnomer - after the bikes have done a couple of laps, there's no grass left!). They tried Gymkhanas too, with novelty events like football matches and surfing. In 1927 races were held around the 'paths' in the grounds of Crystal Palace and these proved to be very popular with the public. Similar events were held at a small number of other venues around the country in the 30s.
Meanwhile, in Australia and America they had been racing motorcycles around cinder covered oval circuits and early in 1928 they tried it at High Beech in Essex. It was a huge success, and dirt track racing swept across the country. Fifty speedway venues opened in the UK in 1928, which indicates the promoters' confidence in the public's demand for the thrills and spills of speedway. They were probably quite cheap and easy to set up bearing in mind that the surface was only cinders or shale and Health and Safety Regulations were not what they are today.
The riders and promoters spent the first year getting to grips with this new sport, with help from the Australian 'old hands'. By 1929 they had organised themselves into teams and started running League championships. Gus Kuhn led the Stamford Bridge team to victory in the first Southern League championship.
Inevitably, 'as the dust settled' most of these new venues did not survive beyond a few years and World War II finished off nearly all the rest. During the war there were a few speedway events but post-war it failed to return to its early glory days. Its country cousin, grass track remained popular, as did trials and scrambles - which eventually became moto-cross.
During the 30s there had been a few circuit race tracks, the most notable being Donington Park, on dirt and paved surfaces. However, in 1945 the country was littered with obsolete airfields, providing hard surfaces to race on. Circuits sprang up all over the place and modern circuit racing, as pioneered by Brooklands, started to develop. Some race machines were based on road going motorcycles and others were purpose built racers. In the 1970s the Gus Kuhn race team were involved in formulating the Superbike class based on road machines and had great success in this new class, which later evolved into the BSB and WSB racing of today.
Up until the 80s it was known as road racing, to differentiate it from the off-road competitions which were not on a paved surface. Now the term is only used for real road racing, i.e. racing on closed public roads, like the TT and the Irish road races. This requires a very different style to racing on modern, purpose built circuits with all their safety features and spectator facilities.