Nanae Okamoto – Cinder lady

Rider Profile

Publicity shot of Nanae Okamoto taken in Sydney 1964.

Story: Jim Scaysbrook • Photos: Peter White, Brian Darby and OBA archives.

Solo speedway is one of the few forms of motorcycling that has always been traditionally male dominated. This is the story of Japanese lady speedway rider Nanae Okamoto.

Back in the pioneering days, Irish lass Fay Taylour learned race craft on English grass tracks before switching to solo speedway, where she was quite successful. Her battles with another speedway lady, Eva Askquith, were a promoter’s dream. She also realised her worth and toured the world extensively, including several stints in Australia and New Zealand. But when women were banned from motorcycle speedway in Britain in 1930, she switched to cars, as well as campaigning to break down the stigma that surrounded female participation in many sports, not just motor racing.

Giving the Kyokuto the berries at the Sydney Showground. Note the asymmetrical handlebars with the left side much higher than the right. Inset: Sydney Speedway Royale program featuring the up-coming appearance of Nanae Okamoto.

That stigma kept women off the dirt tracks for many years until the arrival in Sydney of the tiny Japanese lady racer Nanae Okamoto. She brought with her a Japanese-built Kyokuto 350cc machine (meaning ‘Sunrise”) built by the Honda family (no relation to Soichiro Honda). Unlike the rest of the field, the chain-driven overhead camshaft Kyokuto engine ran on petrol rather than methanol.  Kyokuto provided both 350cc and 500cc engines for Japanese speedway from the 1930s up till fairly recent times when the class was changed to mandate a special parallel twin engine specially made by Suzuki.

For the 1963/64 and 64/65 summer seasons, Nanae raced at the Sydney Showground Royale, where she worked her way back to the 40 yard mark in the popular handicap races. Showground promoter John Sherwood told the press that it was a major battle to get permission for Nanae to race. “The Speedway Control Board frowns on women competing , especially on motorcycles. We have to assure the board that the women have raced with success overseas and are skilled enough to appear against men rivals.” 

Left: Nanae in Sydney with a young admirer. Right: Dressed for action, Nanae in her Rising Sun vest.

During her season in Australia, Okamoto competed at Claremont in Perth, the Brisbane Exhibition Ground, and Rowley Park in Adelaide.  The Sydney Morning Herald of January 27th, 1965 reported, “In her late twenties, Nanae, undisputed queen of the speedway circuit, is completely fearless when on the track, attired in her black riding suit. Nanae began speedway riding eight years ago at the Hamamatsu Speedway near Tokyo, and much to the surprise of many veteran riders, won her first race. Since then she has risen to the top of the sport in Japan and now concedes starts of up to 100 yards to many of her male opponents.”

Okamoto’s 350cc Kyokuto in the Sydney Showground pits. The badge with the company’s “Sunrise” motif is visible on the timing chest.

In her native Japan, Okamoto was not the only female competitor, but most ladies preferred to compete on the tarred ovals known as Auto Race, where one competition class catered exclusively for females. Of more than 60 lady racers competing in the ‘sixties in Japan, Nanae was the only one to regularly compete on the dirt ovals, which were all gone by the time the next decade rolled around. In both of these categories, where betting was firmly entrenched, riders were required to own their own motorcycles and carry out all maintenance themselves, so Nanae classed herself as an expert mechanic. Okamoto retired from racing in 1967, and no new female racers would appear until 2010, when a special training school was set up in Japan. 

Nanae holds the tight line at the Sydney Showground while Noel Thorley clips the fence and slides to earth.
This article first appeared in Old Bike Australasia Issue 53.