Murderdrome

The passion the Americans feel for the oval race tracks is nothing new, it goes back to the beginning of the last century. The idea of a track where the drivers could go flat out almost throughout the whole course isn’t new, but oddly enough, it started with a very popular sport in the mid-1800s, bicycle racing.

Bicycle racing was quite popular at the time, it was fast, competitive, and convenient for the spectators since the races were held on closed circuits, and they could watch the whole action from the stands. Those race tracks were called Velodromes.

To build a smooth surface for the bikes and the structures for the banked turns, the constructors used the cheapest material they could find in the mid-1800s, wood. Since not only wood was plentiful at the time but also labor, a Velodrome could be erected in a matter of a couple of weeks.

Motorcycle racing

Harry Rembrandt Fowler (1882-1963) the one wearing goggles, and his famous Peugeot-powered Norton. The winner of the first-ever Isle of Man Tourist Trophy (TT) on May 28, 1907.

Back in the early 1900s, the motorcycle was a fairly new invention, but as soon as the machines became commercially available in the US and Europe, the owners and manufacturers started to organize races. Those events were held on open roads or even on dirt tracks, used for horse racing.

It was only in 1910 that two guys decided to get together and bring motorcycle racing to a professional level. One of them was Jack Prince, a British bicycle racer that came to the USA to promote the sport and to build velodromes, and the other was Frederick Moskovics, a Hungarian born mechanical engineer, who became the manager of the Daimler Racing Team in 1904. Together they came up with a simple plan, to build stronger velodromes that could stand the weight and the speed of motorcycles and even automobiles.

Their first enterprise was the Los Angeles Coliseum Motordrome, located in Playa del Rey, California.

Construction began on January 31, 1910, and it took almost 2 months to be completed. Pine was used for the track surface since it was the most resistant wood against the scorching California sun.

Millions of tiny 2-inch (51 mm) x 4-inch (100 mm) boards were meticulously nailed side by side to form the 1-mile (1,609 km) long by 75 feet (23 meters) circular track. The builders estimated that over 30 tons of nails were used during the construction. When done, the track was coated with a layer of glue mixed with crushed seashells, to improve traction.

The LA Motordrome was a very well thought project, with guard rails, lighting for night racing, and stands to hold 12,000 spectators. The whole circuit was banked from 18 to 25 degrees, but judging by some of the pictures, it seems steeper than that. The outer rim is 25 feet (7.6 m) off the ground, making it impossible to watch the races from the outside. A small railroad was built in the vicinity by the Pacific Electric Railway in order to ferry spectators to and from the race track.

LA Motordrome, 1911. Photo Phill Wassil, AAA Dirt Car Researcher Project.

The LA Motordrome was a smashing success, attracting numerous competitors and large crowds of spectators. It quickly became one of the main race tracks in the country, second to only the Indianapolis Speedway.

But the enterprise came to an abrupt end when, in 1913, the track was partially destroyed by fire and the owners decided not to rebuild it.

The end of the LA Motordrome didn’t mean the end of the wooden race tracks, the achievements of the venue were an inspiration for the entrepreneurs to build more of them.

The board track fever caught on the whole country. From 1920 through 1931, the American Automobile Association sanctioned 123 championships events and 82 of them were held on wooden Motordromes, scattered across the country.

The tracks

Board racing quickly became the favorite motorsport in the USA at the time, it was crazily fast and extremely dangerous. The daredevil riders reached the status of idols and the adoration of the fans just encouraged them to disregard the most basic concepts of safety.

The motordromes were more like a trap than a race track. The seashell coating, used to improve traction, didn’t last long and most of the time the riders had to deal with a very slippery surface. Blown engines were a common problem and they would leave a layer of oil covering parts of the track, making the ridding even more dangerous.

It would take only a couple of months for the exposed pine boards to become brittle and with the constant punishment of cars and bikes travelling at 90 plus miles per hour, splinters of the size of a kitchen knife would fly all over the track. There are even some stories about kids removing a few boards before the start of the race, just enough to stick their heads out to play the chicken game of ducking in the last second before being hit by a car or a bike. The wooden tracks required constant maintenance, but the owners, always looking for more profits, mostly disregarded it.

In an insane pursuit for more speed, the banks were getting higher and higher to the point of reaching 45 degrees, making it impossible to ride a motorcycle below 100 miles per hour.

The machines

1919 Excelsior board racer, 1000cc V-twin

The motorcycles used at the motordromes became known as “board racers”, they were purpose-built machines, conceived with one thing in mind: speed. To achieve maximum performance, lightweight was paramount. The bikes look more like bicycles, with a simple hardtail frame and skinny wheels and tires.

1912 “Flying Merkel – 250cc mono cylinder. Look, mom, no brakes!!!

Hydraulic brakes didn’t exist back in the 1910s/1920s; the system was operated by cables and rods, making it heavy, complicated, and unreliable. To solve the problem, the teams came up with a very ingenious idea: build the bikes with no brakes whatsoever, after all, they were meant to be ridden at full throttle from the beginning to the end of the race. A simpler time indeed.

A close-up of the hand-cranked oil pump, installed on a 1917 V-twin Excelsior.

To make matters even worse, those ancient engines didn’t have an efficient lubrication system and the riders had to manually pump oil every mile or so, during the race.

Following the mantra, “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday“, many North American motorcycle companies had their own race team. The picture above shows Johnny Seymour, one of the official Indian race riders.

The riders

Joe Wolters posing with his brand new Haley Davidson, at the Chicago Speedway Park, 1915.

In the 1920s, a top rider could make 20,000.00 Dollars per year at board racing, (around 280,000.00 Dollars in 2022 money), enough cash to lure young daredevils to risk their lives in the motordromes.

Their racing suit consisted of a leather helmet, goggles, wool sweater, and leather boots and gloves. It is clear that the protective gear didn’t do much to save the riders’ lives when they crashed, and crashes were fairly common during the races.

With skills and luck, some of them dodged death long enough to become heroes. Names like Jim Davis, Otto Walker, and Albert “Shrimp” Burns (pictured above) might’ve faded away after more than a century, but back then, they were idolized by the fans.

The end

By the mid-1910s, the board racing reached its peak. People couldn’t get enough of seeing the competitors racing on the edge of the knife, but the price the riders and the spectators alike were paying to keep the show going on became too high.

In 1912, during a race near Atlantic City, a legendary racer called Eddie Hasha (aka the Texas Cyclone) lost control of his Indian and flew over the guard rail, he died in the crash and the spiralling bike landed into the crowd, killing three young boys and a man, and injuring 10 other spectators.

Another horrible accident happened in Ludlow, Kentucky, on July 30, 1913, the top racer Odin Johnsons crashed while fighting for the first position. He hit a lamp post, which caused the rupture of the fuel tank and exposed electrical wire ignited the spilled gasoline. Johnson and a young boy were pronounced dead at the track; more than 25 others were taken to local hospitals, where six of them died several hours later from their injuries. Two other spectators succumbed three days later. The scale of the tragedy was so enormous that many spectators at the park used their cars as ambulances.

Johnson was only 24 years old when he died. His widow started a campaign to ban board racing altogether and she found strong support among the media. The newspapers began calling the tracks “murderdromes”. But during a time when the news travelled at a much slower pace than today, the ban campaign would take another 10 years and many more casualties to pick up momentum.

Saint Louis Motordrome. 1914. Packed house to watch the modern gladiators.

It was only when the motorcycle companies, local governments, and the entrepreneurs started to question their involvement in such a controversial sport that the board racing began to lose steam and by the 1930s it was already a thing of the past.

Of course, here I focused on the motorcycle side of the motordrome, but the race drives also faced the same danger, even if their cars had brakes.

Jack Prince, the guy who conceived the motordrome, never stopped believing. He kept building more oval (or circular) race tracks but replaced the wood with steel and concrete.

Those tracks morphed into the modern super speedways we all know today. It became part of the American sports as much as baseball and football.

Oval tracks are still dangerous but in a more acceptable way and the “gladiator spirit” of the early racers still lives on among the today’s competitors.

Published by Rubens Junior

Passionate about classic cars, motorcycles, airplanes, and watches.

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