Steel Shoes Steal the Show

Steel shoes on the race track were slow to catch on until every flat track racer’s left foot was inside one, thanks to several clever racers.

  • parting shots
    1980 and 1983 AMA Grand National Champion Randy Goss doing the big steel-toed slide aboard his XR750.
    Motorcycle Classics archives

  • parting shots

Before Maldwyn Jones joined the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) Hall of Fame in 1998, he already had firmly planted one foot into history during a flat track race in 1910. That was the year he's credited with being the first motorcycle racer to wear a steel shoe for flat track racing.

According to an article penned by Jerry Smith for the April 1983 issue of Cycle Guide, Jones fashioned and fastened a special steel plate to the sole of his left boot in an attempt to minimize wear to his boot. Turns out that Jones and other racers often dabbed their left feet as gently as possible above the track's surface while cornering to prevent a fall should the bike's tires lose traction. If the bike began to slip, the racer would fully extend that dangling left foot onto the ground. It's what Jones termed the "big slide." As you can imagine, leather soles wore out quickly using that technique, so Jones reasoned that a piece of steel under the sole might help extend boot life, in turn minimizing his racing expenses.

His idea caught on, but little progress was made concerning steel shoe design and application until the 1930s, when the personable and dynamic speedway racer Lloyd "Sprouts" Elder returned to America after spending a few years competing in England where speedway racing was popular. Speedway racers there had perfected the art of the three-point slide — two wheels and one foot — and Elder (who, incidentally, also was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1998) demonstrated the technique to American flat trackers. The steel shoe now had a reason to exist on every flat track racer's left foot, prompting some of the more industrious competitors to dabble in creating their own versions of footwear for the track.

But it wasn't until the early 1950s that one particular racer stepped forward to provide suitable steel shoes for everybody. That was Ken Maely, a young man with blacksmithing skills that enabled him to fashion shoes for AMA pros, among them Indian-mounted Bobby Hill, who wore his Maeley steel shoe when he won the AMA Grand National Championship in 1952. Hill's feat (or, dare I say, foot?) began a string of Maely steel-shoe-shod AMA champions for years to come. Carroll Resweber wore a Maely shoe. So did "Black" Bart Markel and Kenny Roberts, and Jay Springsteen and Scott Parker, and the list goes on.

Maely based his steel shoes on a section of 0.060-inch-thick annealed steel that he custom fit to each racer's boot. Using an acetylene torch, he then patiently applied a special hard-face surface to the bottom sole. That hard surface, which also could be specifically contoured for each particular type of racing application (short track, half-mile, mile and speedway) became Maely's trademark, and the secret to his success. Maely went on to design and sell speedway bikes of his own design, but he's best remembered for his steel shoes. It's ironic, perhaps even appropriate, that Maely followed closely in Jones' and Elder's footsteps; he was inducted into the AMA Hall of Fame the following year, 1999.

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