Mike Bast was the top American speedway rider of the 1970s. A prolific performer, Bast compiled an amazing win record in speedway racing after the sport’s U.S. revival in the late 1960s. He established a record of seven American Speedway Championships, including an incredible streak of five consecutive titles from 1975 through 1979.
Bast was born in Los Angeles in 1953. He grew up in Van Nuys, California, in a family of motorcycle racers. Mike and his older brother, Steve, watched their Uncle Harlan race off-road and flat track races while growing up.
“We couldn’t wait to get old enough to race,” Mike said of his childhood. “I started riding when I was 9 and racing when I was 10.”
In addition to his uncle, Bast called Dick Mann his biggest racing hero.
“I watched him race at Ascot Park when he won his first AMA national championship in 1963,” Bast remembers. “I think Mann was the big hero to most of the riders from my generation. I started racing right around that time, so those memories are pretty vivid to me.”
At first, the Bast brothers raced TTs and scrambles around Southern California, before getting flat-track experience on short tracks in the area. Mike’s first racing bike was a 50cc Honda C110. One of his first big wins came at the Grand Prix at Corriganville (later known as the Hopetown GP) in 1965 when he won the 50cc amateur class.
Bast’s future in racing took a sharp turn in 1968 when his family saw a poster advertising speedway races at Whiteman Stadium in Pacoima, which was close to their home. Whiteman Stadium was built on the corner of the Whiteman Airport. A quarter-mile asphalt track was built and later an eighth-mile Speedway track was fashioned inside that oval. Former speedway racer Dude Criswell began promoting the races, trying to revive the sport of speedway in America. The competition utilized powerful 500cc single-cylinder alcohol-burning motors stuffed inside spindly-looking motorcycles with narrow tires. Riders raced on tight little bullring oval dirt tracks with no brakes and controlled the bikes with delicate throttle control through the turns, pitching them sideways at seemingly impossible angles.
The Basts went to check out the racing at Whiteman and saw a few old speedway bikes circulating.
“We got our Bultaco short track bikes and came out the next week,” Bast said. “We didn’t know it at the time, but we were right there in the middle of the rebirth of speedway racing here in America.”
Before long Mike got an old JAP speedway machine (which at first he had to share with his brother Steve and fellow racer John Hateley) and quickly became one of the top riders in the budding sport. At first, speedway racing was essentially vintage, with riders competing on Crockers, JAP and other pre-war motorcycles, including Bast’s 1934 JAP.
A year or so after Bast began racing speedway, he witnessed an exhibition put on by speedway world champions Ivan Mauger and Barry Briggs, both of New Zealand.
“We were all racing American short track style [leaning the bikes into the turns] trying to ride like Sammy Tanner, Don Hawley and Eddie Mulder,” Bast said. “Mauger and Briggs showed us how to ride the real speedway style. We’d never seen anything like it before. They gave a school to us and taught us how to ride those old vintage bikes. Pretty soon Jack Milne began importing Jawa speedway bikes and selling them out of his shop in Pasadena. Around 1970, we all had state-of-the-art speedway bikes. The sport really began to flower after that.”
With Speedway racing popping up all across California, Bast, still in his teens, found himself starting to earn very good money.
“In 1970 and ’71, I was averaging $2,000 per week speedway racing,” he says. “We started getting a percentage of the gate and at a lot of these races we were packing 8,000 to 10,000 spectators in these little stadiums. I never had a trade; I just kept racing five nights a week. Before we knew it we were living a dream.”
Not only did the money begin flowing, but Bast and his brother also got the opportunity to travel internationally as a result of Speedway racing. During the winter months they went to Australia and New Zealand to race. The tracks there were much larger and the speeds higher and it honed Mike’s skills as a rider.
“After riding against those guys down in New Zealand and Australia on those tracks, coming back to the little tracks in California felt like nothing,” Bast remembers. “On the tracks here, we might hit 45 or 50 mph. Over there, the tracks were so much bigger we were going 90 mph. The dirt spray from the bikes in front of you would take your breath away. I really studied every move of Ivan Mauger when he raced. I learned how to get a good start and how to set up the bike.”
In 1971, Bast surprised everyone by winning his first American Speedway Championship in a runoff against Mike Konle at the Costa Mesa Speedway at the Orange County Fairgrounds in Southern California. He was just 18 years old at the time.
“My dream was always to be a champion, and when I crossed the line I had tears in my eyes,” Bast said of winning his first national title. “I put my whole life into speedway racing and I was in awe that I won the championship.”
Bast lost the title to Rick Woods in ’72, before coming back to win the championship for a second time in 1973. Mike’s brother, Steve, won his second title in 1974. Then Mike went on his run of five consecutive U.S. championships, making him the undisputed king of speedway racing in America. He won his early titles riding a Jawa and his last four titles came aboard Westlake speedway racing bikes.
By the early 1970s, several U.S. riders, such as Scott Autrey and Dewayne Keeter, were leaving America to race Speedway in the British League, to qualify to contest the World Finals. Bast went to England to check it out.
“It was cold, miserable, the food was bad and there was no money,” he said. “I was making 50 to 60 thousand a year in America living at the beach. So I never really rode British League. I kind of thought I was the world’s best at one time, but since I never competed in Europe on a regular basis, I never had a real shot at winning the world title.”
In addition to racing, Bast also worked as a movie stunt man for about 10 years in the 1970s and early 1980s.
Bast continued to race through 1985. By then he was a family man and he retired while he was still riding at his peak at only 32.
Bast’s father-in-law, who followed nearly his entire career, kept a tally of all of Mike’s wins and figured in his 18-year speedway career he’d won over 4,000 races including heats, semis and mains. In addition to his seven American titles, Bast also won six state titles.
Bast was one of the key riders who played a major roll in speedway racing’s rebirth in America, paving the way for American riders like Bruce Penhall, Sam Ermolenko, Billy Hamill and Greg Hancock, who went on to win World Speedway titles.
After retiring from full-time competition, Bast co-founded a construction company and later moved to Northern California. He and his wife, Dee, had three children. He stayed involved in the sport by working with up-and-coming riders.