Saturday night motorcycle racing at the Claremont Speedway was one of the most exciting things to do in Fremantle in the late 1920s.
Daring young men would fling their motorbikes around the dirt and cinder track, thrilling the spectators.
Percy Mulligan’s proud parents were there the night of March 2, 1929 when he became the second person to lose their life at the speedway, which had opened two years before. And following on only two months since the first death, it set off community debate about the safety of the popular sport and that particular track.
Percy fell at the grandstand corner during the third heat of the A Grade Handicap. The track had been graded before the event, with a steward saying it was in as good condition as possible.
As he started to crawl towards the fence, the following cycle hit his, throwing him back into he race, where the front wheel of the third rider, Hector Williams, struck him at the base of the skull, ripping off his crash helmet.
Williams said he had been close behind Mulligan. He estimated they were travelling about 50 miles/hour.
As they approached the grandstand corner in the third lap he saw Mulligan’s cycle “turn right around and skid sideways, before going down to be obscured in flying cinders.”
Mulligan had fallen to the inside of the track so Williams headed to the outside, as he pulled his goggles down in an attempt to see better.
He remembered nothing from then until when he woke up in the Perth Hospital.
The two were carried off the track by ambulance officials and Mulligan died in the casualty room a few minutes later.
A post mortem found that death was due to fracture and dislocation of three vertebrae, with compression of the spinal cord.
“Percy Mulligan was one of those healthy looking young Aussies whose ambition was to become a cinder track champion,’’ reported The Call.
“About twelve months ago he refused an offer of a car from his father in favor of a motor bike. When he found he could “show up’’ some of the speedway riders as he practiced laps at a track near his home, he sought permission from his father to race but was repeatedly refused.
“There’s no risk Dad” he used to say, and eventually his father gave in to him.
Percy was promoted to the A grade ranks on his second appearance, partly due to a strike by riders seeking better prize money.
On his third, he died.
Percy’s proud father was known as a Fremantle “sportsman’’, which seems to be a euphemism for gambler.
The Call News newspaper took it as a sign of Bill’s great sportsmanship that when his son died, he requested the night’s entertainment go ahead.
Mulligan’s parents ordered one of the tallest monuments in the cemetery, a 2.5m polished granite base with a 2.1 metres marble angel from Italy. It cost the equivalent of an average house at that time.
Percy, 18, was by no means the last to die at the speedway. There were 19 deaths between 1928 and 1995, among motorcycle, sidecar, car and spectators.
Call News-Pictorial, Friday 8 March 1929, p 17, Wednesday 27 March 1929, p7, Friday 8 March 1929, p22, Friday 1 March 1929,p21
Percy Mulligan, Fremantle Cemetery Heritage Walk Trail One mcb.wa.gov.au
Speedway and road race history: viewed at http://www.speedwayandroadracehistory.com/perth-claremont.html
The Daily News, Friday 22 March 1929, p9