Tuesday, December 09, 2008
The Board Track motorcycle race course was a peculiarly American institution. The first banked wooden racing tracks (Velodromes) were used for bicycle racing in Europe and America over 110 years ago, and in fact, such tracks still exist for bicycle sport. Motorcycles were initially used as 'pacing' machines to get the bicycles up to speed (see pic).
It became apparent early on that motorcycles were a logical choice to share the tracks with bicycles at the dawn of the 20th Century, and it was soon clear that they were much more exciting than bicycles! Crowds began to flock to these new races, and within a short time, entrepreneurial fellows saw Possibility. During these Pioneer days of motorcycling, many of the rider/designer/manufacturers of motorcycles had been bicycle racers on Velodromes in their younger days, most notably both George M. Hendee and C. Oscar Hedstrom of Indian. By 1908, their company was among the first to catalog a 'production racer' in both single and twin-cylinder variants, the 'Torpedo Tank' models (see below). [As a side note; the earliest 'production racer' I've found advertised is the Mars of 1906]
Indian, with it's founders' experience with Velodrome racing, was unique among bike manufacturers in building (with partners John 'Jack' Skillington Prince - an expat English race promoter - who had been a world champion bicyclist), their own Board Track in 1909 - Springfield Stadium (see pix below of the track under construction) - which was to serve as a test bed for their new racing models. The canny visionaries at Indian had the jump on the competition, but not for long, as a dozen other manufacturers were quickly making racers of their own.
The first purpose-built motorcycle Board Track (the Los Angeles Coliseum Motordrome) was opened on March 1909 in Playa Del Ray, CA, close to what became the LAX airport; it was 1.25 miles long (that's a lot of wood!). The track surface was made up of 2" x 4" boards, laid down lengthwise on the track surface, over a wooden framework.
'Jack' Prince (above) was responsible for the majority of Board Tracks in the US, yet had no engineering or construction background; he would draw out his track, and walk around the proposed area placing stakes where the track would be sited, leaving the rest to the builders. While bicycle racing tracks used a regulation 25degree banking, the high speeds of the motorcycles and cars racing on boards made banks of up to 60degrees possible (which is about as steep as the top of Brooklands or Montlhery banking).
Length of the tracks varied from as short as 1/4 mile to as long as 2 miles, depending on the expected crowd able to repay the investment in such a large construction project. Board tracks sprang up in towns across the US, in or near big cities (like San Francisco - ours was near the Cow Palace), and small towns (such as Fresno, Beverly Hills, and Oakland CA).
By 1911, the Excelsior company had sorted out its own racers, with their 'pocket valve' v-twin engine (see above, and note the not-smooth surface of the banked track!). Jake de Rosier, the star rider of the day, had recently fallen out with his mentors at Indian (reportedly after a bad showing at the Isle of Man TT - see the post here), and became unbeatable with the new Excelsior, setting a new record for the mile at 94mph in September, at Riverview Motordrome in Chicago. De Rosier was a real showman, and wore black tights and running shoes as his racing attire.
Board Track racing was exceptionally dangerous, as the riders wore virtually no protective clothing, the machines had no brakes or suspension, and rode on skinny skid-prone tires, while race speeds crept ever closer to 100mph averages. The best a rider could hope for in the event of a crash was a body full of long and infection-prone splinters. Plenty of riders came off far worse for their adventures, and at times spectators fell victim as well, as safety barriers hadn't really been thought out - no one had hurtled a vehicle around a track at these speeds before. Often, spectators stood on a platform or bleachers ringing the track, watching the action from just above the top of the banking - a recipe for disaster, as an out-of-control motorcycle could head straight up the 'wall', due to effects of centrifugal force (see photo below, at the Springfield track; the audience leaning over the protective 'wall').
On Sep.8, 1912, racer Eddie Hasha's 8-valve Indian crashed in just such a manner at the New Jersey Motordrome near Atlantic City, killing Eddie and 4 boys who spectating, and injuring 10 more people. According to Dan Statnekov, Eddie was a rising star from Texas (the 'Texas Cyclone'), who had set the lap record at the Playa Del Ray Motordrome at 95mph in 1911. At the New Jersey race, he was in the lead, when a misfire directed his attention to his motor, where he reached down to adjust something (a loose plug wire?), bringing the machine back to full power instantly (see pic below of Eddie Hasha).
The Indian shot up the banking and at the top, 'rode the rail' (the safety railing protecting the spectators). Four boys had been craning their heads over the railing to see the action, and were killed by the bike instantly. The machine then struck a large post, and threw Hasha into the grandstands, where he died, and injured ten other spectators. The riderless Indian then dove back down the track to strike another rider, Johnny Albright, who slid with the two motorcycles in a heap for 240 feet. His injuries later claimed him in the hospital. The New Jersey authorities shortly afterwards closed the track permanently, and the short-track motordromes gained the nickname 'Murderdromes'. (In the photo below, of the Los Angeles Coliseum Motordrome, the crowd is 'protected' only by a single wooden rail).
On Dec. 30th, 1912, Lee Humiston became the first rider to circle a mile track at 100mph, on an Excelsior twin. One week later, he broke de Rosier's record for the 100-mile average by 7.5 minutes, and gained the name 'the Humiston Comet' (gotta love those Press names). Excelsior gained the reputation as the fastest motorcycle in the world (see photo below).
But of course, the Indian 8-valve racers were neck and neck with Excelsior for speed, although it must be said that the Indian engine was a Factory special, and had little relationship with their showroom models, while the Excelsior bore considerable kinship with their road model.
By 1913, Board Tracks under 1/3 mile lost sanctioning for Championship events. The Playa del Ray track closed. Cyclone introduced its amazing overhead-camshaft racer, which was instantly unbeatable in shorter races, but which lacked development to maintain full power over a 2 or 300 mile race. Lubrication issues are usually cited (see racer below, in the 'alternate' blue color).
Racing is never static, though, and the rivalry between Indian and Excelsior gained a new competitor in 1914; Harley-Davidson, who had previously eschewed racing of any sort. In 1913 they hired riders and sorted out a racing engine, and was soon a force to be reckoned with on the Boards. Also, Cyclone, Pope, Thor, and other manufacturers were making Board Track racers for sale to an eager cadre of riders willing to risk the dangers of the tracks, and the potential for a $20,000/year salary in winnings possible for a good rider (including advertising deals - see 'Oilzum' ad below - plus actual race winnings).
By 1916, the Harley 8-valve engine (which had been sorted-out in testing by none other than Harry Ricardo), became the engine to beat, and Indian and Excelsior traded places with H-D at every race. There was a lull in Board Track racing between 1916 and 1918 while most of the factories concentrated on war production, but every race department continued to develop their machines on the side (pic below shows a Harley 8-valve racer).
In 1918, Chicago's Speedway park and Brooklyn's Sheepshead Bay tracks closed. By 1919, racing on short motordrome tracks was banned completely, and only track of 1 mile and longer were allowed to remain open. In an interesting speed contest on Daytona Beach, Florida, the Harley and Indian race teams spent alternate weeks with timing equipment and several types of their racing and road machines, to see who had the fastest motorcycles. The Harley 8-valve managed 112.61mph, while the Indian 8-valve hit 115.79mph. Not bad going for 1920 (although timed by the US sanctioning body, these speeds were not recognized internationally as the World's Fastest, due to political disagreements with the FIM. The first 'internationally recognized' speed record was in 1920, when an Indian was timed by the FIM at 104.12mph at Daytona beach).
By 1921, Otto Walker (above), riding a two-cam Harley sidevalve racer, became the first rider to average 100mph for a race, at the Fresno 1-mile Board Track, where he exceeded 107mph in a 1-mile time trial, and 101mph for the 50-mile main event. (This same model Harley became the first motorcycle to achieve 100mph over a timed course in England that year, with Douglas Davidson -no relation- riding). Excelsior, who lagged behind on developing their engines, struggled to make their powerful overhead-cam v-twin engine last the distance, just as had happened with the futuristic Cyclone ohc racers a few years earlier (see below - the problem was inadequate oiling). Later that year, Indian recorded a mile record at an average speed of 110.67mph. Also that year, the Tacoma, WA, track closed.
In 1922, the American motorcycle racing sanctioning body granted National Championship status to the 500cc classs (30.50 cubic inch), as a response to the public outcry at the high speeds and frequent fatalities at the race tracks.
In 1924, the Beverley Hills and Kansas City tracks closed. In 1926, the 45 cubic inch (750cc) apacity class was recognized for National Championship status, and Indian and Excelsior twins were dominant in this class; by August, an Indian with a sv 750cc 'Altoona' motor (see above) had lapped a Board Track at 120.3mph. So much for dropping race speeds by shrinking the engines! This record would stand as the fastest speed ever recorded on a wooden track, as within two years, all motorcycle racing would cease on Board Tracks, although cars would continue to use them for another three years (until 1931).
The film below has been floating around the internet for a while, but it's worth having here as the footage is remarkable. The attribution is the Czech importer of Indian Motocycles, a Mr. Frantisek Marik, who made the films during a trip to the USA in 1920, presumably to visit the Springfield, MA, home of Indian. The video claims that Daytona, FL, is the location of this Board Track, but there was never such a track there, only sand racing. It will be difficult to sort out the actual track location without a proper hi-res copy of the film to find sponsor's ads and such on the stands.
Many thanks to Dan Statnekov for his fascinating online history, 'Pioneers of American Motorcycle Racing'. Also, to Steve Wright's 'American Racer 1900-1940' (Megden, 1979), Jerry Hatfield's 'American Racing Motorcycles' (Haynes, 1982), and Alan Girdler's 'Harley Davidson and Indian Wars (Motorbooks International, 1997)