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 in the 1880s, 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 Vailsburg Motordrome in Newark, New Jersey, 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)


William said...

Brilliant! There's no better historical car or motorcycle blog around. Where do you get all these pictures? If they're scans, do they come bigger?

vintagent said...

I post my scans full-size, and if you click on them you get what I've downloaded, without compression (thanks Google!); if the images are small, they are probably from the Internet, not from my library, and are as good as I could find.

Anonymous said...


Just a note to say how much I enjoy your site. There’s a lot of work going into it and it shows.

Best regards

Hugo Wilson

Anonymous said...

hello Paul,

what a great site you got ! super fun and interesting,really enjoying
your work, good going mate!

ciao roli

dmar836 said...

Love your blog! Great to see BTR info being blogged about.
I still have to visit the Bendix plant in south KC. Local rumor says they have a large photo of the board track(once on the property) in a lunch/break room.
Keep up the good work.

The Creeper said...

Hi Paul,

Great article, Im a little late but I wanted to point you to a few "pusher" bike photos from our German friend Uwe that look somewhat like the example in your post. Amazing beasts!




Craig Howell

Eric said...

Great history!
I'm currently working on a compressed air motorcycle inspired by board track racing. Check out my blog for the development.
Thanks again for providing everyone with this site, its great to see the preservation of this sport.


Anonymous said...

Awww man, What happened to the video? Stupid youtube... grrr

John L. Hasha said...

Good description of Eddie Hasha. Great blog on vintage motorcycle racing.

John L. Hasha
1st Cousin, Once removed of Eddie Hasha, (William Edward Hasha, 1891-1912)

Chopper Dave said...

Hey Guys, Join the fun on Facebook "Board Track Tribute Society"

Bakhirun said...

Astonishing and compelling presentation - thank you for assembling this. The era was clearly biased toward the "daredevil", with scant thought of safety (today all veers toward the other extreme, with MotoGP racing on go-kart-ready slot-car courses, huge runoffs, air fences and an ever-strengthening nanny-state move to ban racing). Having competed once at the detestable Daytona, and experienced the fight for control against mammoth forces and unnecessary dangers (on tires particularly) the thought of running on boards at a 60 degree banking, on those skinny tires and without brakes - is appalling.

What guys they were, wow.

mrjericho57 said...

The live footage was taken in 1919 at the 2 mile Sheepshead Bay Track in New York. I was able to slow and pause the film and can positively state this as Fact.
scott at Cycles Past Co.Motorcycle Historian 1900-1920

I am currently involved in a historical project on the early days of American Motorcycles and have been going through Motordrome and Board Track Archives for over 15 years,...thanks for letting me view your site,...good work

VOF Johnson said...

In 1914 thru 1916 Dodge City Kansas was the location of the World Championship on a 2 mile dirt track oval. Indian and Harley began their rivalry here and the "HOGs" were first seen at these races.

At present, Dodge City is planning a 100th anniversary celebration of this important race. We are seeking moto-historians, antique racer collectors and vendors of all sorts for the big event. We hope to have many original bikes from the teens and twenties that would have raced here. There will be a Concours D'Elegance as well as many other events over the 4th of July weekend, 2014.

If you are interested, please contact us! A Facebook page is already in place and a website will soon follow.

Jim Johnson
1001 1st Ave
Dodge City, KS 67801

Kyle Weck said...

Is it possible to get full size files of these images? I'd love to have a few of them for my personal collection. Any source info where I could find them would be greatly appreciated!!

Kyle W.

Anonymous said...

Mrjericho57 email is cyclespast@vermontel.net regarding The Historical Motordrome research project
thanks scot

Anonymous said...

Definitely Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn NY area. Unmistakeable.

Unknown said...

Eddie Hasha crashed at the Vailsburg Motordrome in Newark, NJ, not in Atlantic City. This was written up in the NY Times on 9-12-1912. The quarter-mile Vailsburg Motordrome closed after this crash and was never used again. It was torn down in the late 1920s. The site of the old motordrome is north of Vailsburg Park, which is just west of the present-day Garden State Parkway.

Ed Zaslow
Miami, FL