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Board Track Racing – Gladiators Motordromes

Lee Humiston’ s Excelsior covered the one-mile Playa del Rey in 36 seconds or 100mph Dec 30th 1912An Englishman introduced velodrome racing to the USA, although Jack Prince could never have foreseen the carnage that follows when powerful engines and cycle frame combine…

Little more than beefed up bicycle frames, minus brakes, 2 ¼ inch tyres with no clutch, these racers required a tow start to fire their mighty engines, pilots using the motors kill switch to form a rolling start for the 5 mile Newark handicap race; the final event of a busy day. With half lap disadvantage the King brothers (John and Frank) were at the back and just a quarter lap ahead Roy Peck with John Albright. At the front Eddie Hasha alongside Ray Seymour, both superstars of the sport and both with a point to prove on September 8th 1912. Hasha was the pace setter at Playa del Ray circuit whilst Seymour had previously taken the 1-mile speed record, both would be aboard 8 valve Indian racers capable of 100mph.

The aerial view of Beverley Hills circuit of 1.25 miles that ran from 1920The 60 degree banking stretched ever skyward and leaning over the guard rails thousands of fans cheered the riders once the starters gun began the race at 4 o clock. By lap three Hasha and Seymour were exchanging first position when the Indian beneath Hasha began to misfire requiring a quick adjustment on the move, this allowed Seymour to open a small lead. Closing the gap by riding high on the banking it’s possible the high G-force caused Hasha to black out but the next few seconds stunned both the New Jersey raceway and America. Veering up the banking at 90mph into the guard rail, his machine dragged its unconscious rider towards the crowd.

Four young lads were killed instantly (3 between 12-14) but as the big Indian destroyed itself against the grandstand, debris flew in all directions injuring many more. Hasha himself was thrown into the stands, his neck instantly broken before his machines remains spilt back onto the track collecting the passing John Albright who went down in a tangle of wrecked machinery; fracturing his skull and right leg. Albright endured over 30 slivers of wooden board impaling his body and would passed away later the same day having never regained consciousness; he was 21. His team mate and friend Hasha just 19. Press reports at the time concluded that in the stampede to get away from the carnage 13 were injured with six seriously, adding to six killed in the accident.

The Origins

The longer, wider and more open tracks were safer also and shared with 4 wheel racersLessons learnt from the arduous city to city races during the early part of the 20th century meant the internal combustion engine began to enjoy reasonable reliability, as a consequence performance became the priority. Stateside, young amateur motorbike racers had begun to compete in local events and their venues included horse tracks, dirt ovals and even street races. Hungarian motor racing engineer Frederick Moskovics had considered oval racing for the automobile ‘Stateside’ and met with John Shillington Prince and several wealthy Californian businessmen to begin a new project; no doubt inspired by the Indianapolis Speedway construction of 1909. Spotting the potential for an all new and profitable stadium based race series, Englishman ‘Jack’ Prince took what he had enjoyed so much within the world of cycling and proposed the velodrome capable of including petrol power; work began early in 1910.

Born in Coventry 1859, Prince had established himself as a cycling superstar in his early 20s and a move to America saw him not only promote UK machines but also build velodromes for US enthusiasts to compete. As the tracks became larger, permission was granted for automobiles to race on the banked wooden structures and naturally motorcycles quickly became a major draw that filled the promoter’s coffers.

The Tracks

Maintenance was not an easy task when the boards climb to 60 degree anglesVelodromes or Motordromes ranging from ½ mile to 2 mile lengths sprang up across the US, a basic construction of 2 x 4 planks cut roughly to allow for tyre grip, the boards nailed together; their banks varied from 15 to a massive 60 degrees. The initial Moskovics/Prince 1910 construction was at Playa del Rey just outside Los Angeles and it is suggested 3 million feet of board with 16 tons of nails combined to achieve a facility that looked to entertain 10,000 (later constructions took many more) spectators at $1 per ticket. Taking just six weeks from start to finish, once completed local business took over the daily running and Prince moved on to his next build; such was the popularity of the board tracks by 1915 at least 24 US cities featured their own. It was fortunate these venues didn’t take long to construct because their life expectancy was as short as the brave souls that rode them. They were also cheap in comparison to permanent constructions such as the 2.5 mile Indianapolis Speedway which cost $700K in 1909 whilst the two mile Tacoma motordrome was finished at $100K in 1915; saying that, its racing days were also over just five years later.

The longevity of the boards (or lack of) was mainly down to exposure to the elements and once the planks began to break up another danger was added to the riders list; being impale on large splinters up to 5 feet in length. With engines of the period running total loss systems, the wood became extremely slippery as oil contaminated the surface and to combat this the timber was regularly cleaned with Lye. Its real name, Sodium Hydroxide Lye, a powerful caustic cleaner that no doubt removed the oil but left a white powder that was clearly seen as dust flying up behind the racers on period footage; this burnt the riders unprotected skin. Post WW1 these monuments to speed were full most weekends, their owners providing buses to bring excited families to view America’s premier sport. Eventually some 34 locations from New York to Beverley Hills and Miami to Chicago enjoyed local heroes, capacity crowds, glory and death on both two and four wheels.

The Machines

Jim Davis won a host of championships for many manufacturers never seriously injured and he lived till 103Throughout the two decades the boards were awash with roaring open exhausts as several manufacturers fought a battle to be the fastest and more important ‘winningest’. Indian Motorcycles were heavily involved from the start and their 8 valve twin was the machine to win on for many riders; they were also the first to enjoy a factory team and employed the best riders. Excelsior also looked to the V twin with OHC and built the Big X, the first machine to see a 100mph lap with young Lee Humiston in 1912 and it also took Indian’s existing record for 100 miles’ travelled. The Flying Merkel was certainly the most distinctive of all the board racers and when launched pre WW1 was reputed to be the most successful. Superbly built with German precision bearings installed within its 61 cu in V Twin. The Merkel also enjoyed a throttle controlled oil pump, whilst other manufacturers relied on the riders remembering to manually pump lube to the tappets whilst in the heat of battle.

Thor, produced by Aurora, were originally suppliers of engines to Indian but produced their own machines prior to WW1. They understood the value of constant improvement brought by racing, culminating in 72cu in V twin and enjoyed great success around 1912 but post war production dwindled as did their racing achievements. Harley Davidson enjoyed little in the way of silverware in the early days of board track, initially run by privateers who would modify their steeds. By 1915 HD had produced a worthy machine offering 50hp from an 8 valve V twin plus a factory team known as the Wrecking Crew; their mascot was a hog which many believe is where Harley Davidsons nickname originated. There were certainly many other manufacturers represented on the boards; modified versions from Pope, Yale, Cyclone and Waverley to name just a few who wanted into racing and a share of the limelight; unsurprisingly, remarkably few machines survived.

The Gladiators

1920 Team Harley included Shrimp Burns, Red Parkhurst and Otto Walker managed by Bill OttawayBetween early April and the beginning of August 1913 the press recorded 18 motordrome deaths, the final episode involved Odin Johnson on the 31st July. At the Cincinnati track known as the Lagoon Motordrome, racing high up the banking Johnson lost control and crashed into a flood light pole, he was killed instantly. At over 80mph his machines petrol tank was torn from its mounting and flew into the crowd with fuel igniting, killing ten and injuring 35; but still the crowds came. The top riders were paid a $20k salary which in period was an absolute fortune, equivalent to ½ million dollars today, although most never got to enjoy their wealth. At its height, racing on the boards was America’s leading sport, overtaking even baseball and the stars of the show featured heavily in the press who often previewed up and coming events; hyping up the battles and grudge matches.

Modern day MotoGP often involves some elbow out riding but on the boards it was not unusual to witness riders kicking their opponents machines at speed or partaking in some post-race ‘fistycuffs’. The rivalry between champion rider Jake DeRosier and Charles Balke is legendary. DeRosier, a Canadian with hundreds of race wins also qualified fastest for the 1911 IOM TT and then set a new mile record at Brooklands; he disliked teammate Balke (known as the Fearless One) immensely. Considering Balke a young upstart, DeRosier used strong tactics to ensure victory at their first meeting, something that continued even after both wore the jumper of Indian Motorcycles.

The steeper the banking, the faster the speed, the greater the tragedyWhen Indian took DeRosier racing in Europe, Balke enjoyed a winning streak but upon his return their battle intensified which culminated both being released by Indian and joining Excelsior. Their final meeting took place in Los Angeles March 1912 and press reports tell of the pair fighting even before the race began. It was DeRosier’s final event; on the 12th lap the pair clashed and both ended up tumbling out, but the Canadian came off worse. His left leg shattered and career ended, DeRosier endured a series of major operations only to die under the knife twelve months later. Balke was killed in a horrific accident the following year. Survival racing on the boards with four wheels certainly wasn’t taken for granted but on two the death toll became a national scandal, even before the First World War. The press labelled them ‘Murderdromes’ after the tragic accident at Newark involving Eddie Hasha but the brave young riders returned to do battle every week. Their uniform consisted of soft leather helmets and pants with gauntlets plus knee high boots; their manufacturers name was emblazoned across a woollen racing jumper. Thousands continued to pay their $1 entry as there was always new young men desperate to wear the racers jersey.

The Demise

Fumes from the exhausts combined with dust from the Lye; this was applied to the surface to clean up the oil spillsInto the 1920s, and although the sport had lost much of its lustre, plus all of its innocence, new arenas were still being constructed and teams of young racers were greeted by huge audiences as they battled for supremacy. The Great Depression nailed the sports coffin shut but it was the endless funerals of riders in the 1920s that brought on its demise. When Albert ‘Shrimp’ Burns was killed in Ohio August 1921, Harley Davidson looked to withdraw from the sport. Ray Weishaar also part of HD’s ‘Wrecking Crew’ crashed and died in LA duelling with Indian rider Gene Walker in 1924; Walker was killed two months later. Eddie Brinck survived another three years but succumbed to the dangers of the board track racing in Springfield MA. Just some of the many names on the epitaph of motor sports most dangerous monuments; there were so many more. For just $1 the motordromes guaranteed the fastest of machines with the bravest of riders, this also ensured many of those that took to the boards at the start did not go home when it was done.

Enjoy some amazing in period footage with two great short films from the time of the Motordrome. The story of Charles Balke is found in the book ‘Fearless’ Lord of the Murderdrome by Rick & Lane Ongstad.

Grant Ford for classic-motorbikes.net.

 

 

Amazing footage from the Beverley Hills Speedway in April 1921 by which time Triumph powered machines had entered the fray. On this day ‘Shrimp’ Burns raced, crashed and returned from the hospital to race again at average speeds in excess of 100mph; he would be killed just a few months later.

Indian Board-Racer at 102 Years Old

Meticulously and lovingly restored by Nick Pearce, this 1915 Indian Board Track racer was proudly displayed in the pit area at the Goodwood Revival. A project that took over two years to complete and with detail that is more than impressive; certainly the entrants in the 2017 Barry Sheene Memorial Trophy took time to admire, especially Bruce Anstey would have been off around the Sussex circuit given the chance!

Meticulously and lovingly restored by Nick Pearce Meticulously and lovingly restored by Nick Pearce, this 1915 Indian Board Track racer was proudly displayed in the pit area at the 2017 Goodwood Revival Indian Board-Racer Indian Board Track Indian Board Track racer Indian Board Track racer engine Indian Board Track racer Indian Board Track racer Indian Board-Racer at 102 Years Old 1920 Team Harley included Shrimp Burns, Red Parkhurst and Otto Walker managed by Bill Ottaway