Against the Grain


When Motorcycles Raced on Wood

Words by Brett Smith


  Photo courtesy Harley-Davidson archive

Photo courtesy Harley-Davidson archive

 

“It is a commentary on American Standards that we take pains to prohibit prize fighting and horse racing in many States, and hold up our hands in horror at the suggestion of bullfights as a national sport, and yet flock in thousands to see reckless young men riding madly around a track sloping at a 50 percent angle glorifying in the thinness of the thread that divides life from death.

—The Washington Post, Sept. 10, 1912

 

 

They saw it coming. They must have. With six motorcycles racing together at more than 90 miles per hour on wooden circle tracks with steep banks, the consequences of board-track racing could not have been a surprise. But the thrills were magnificent. The fascination with seeing and feeling speed was so new in the first 20 years of the 20th century that it led crowds of 10,000 to climb above the courses where only a thin rail made of pine or spruce separated them from the motorcycles that raced counterclockwise on the wooden track below. So scant was the partition between onlookers and racers that young boys often stuck their heads through the opening beneath the guard to be closer to the machines, which were getting faster with every new model. 

 

  Photo courtesy AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame

Photo courtesy AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame

 

In the spirit of putting the action in front of the audience, where the entire race could be seen in one spot—much like the original idea behind supercross—early board-track races were held in small stadiums nicknamed “saucers” and “pie pans,” the latter moniker because of their round shape and continuous steep banks. They were little more than beefed-up bicycle velodromes. In 1908—the same year the first Model T was produced, General Motors was founded, and Jack Johnson became the first black heavyweight boxing champion of the world—the excitement factor of watching a motorcycle do a mile a minute was still very fresh. 

On July 5, match races were held at the Clifton course in Paterson, New Jersey, on a “six-lap track, brand new, of wood, fresh from the sawmill and the carpenter’s hand,” according a five-page account in the July 15, 1908, Motorcycle Illustrated. The course, built by former bicycle racing champion and British expat John Shillington Prince, was one-sixth of a mile. After his own two-wheeled racing career ended in the late 1880s, Prince moved on to building and promoting velodrome races. On the velodromes, high-banked 1/6th- and 1/10th-mile courses, motorcycles were originally employed to pace bicyclists for races and in training. Interest in the possibility of what a motorized machine could do on the planks grew and Prince used his velodrome designs to build what became known as motordromes. 

 

  Photo courtesy Harley-Davidson archive

Photo courtesy Harley-Davidson archive

 

In Clifton, because of the tightness of the course and potential for tragedy, only two riders competed at a time. Nothing tragic happened that day in 1908. Jake DeRosier, the Canadian-born, Massachusetts-raised racer who became America’s first motorcycle superstar, hit more than a dozen speed milestones on a prototype Indian, including the 1-mile record, which he set at 56 seconds (64 mph). Despite the 5,000 open-mouthed and applauding spectators, as Motorcycle Illustrated described the crowd, the magazine wasn’t on board. 

 

“Of course, this is not motorcycle racing,” a separate editorial pontificated. “It takes three to make a race and four are better. But neither three nor four will probably ever be raced together on the Clifton Saucer. To permit it would be criminal.” 

 

Prince traveled around the country, convincing residents and city halls to allow him to build a motordrome in their towns. His design changed to courses one-third of a mile in length, and one of the first he built at that spec was the Los Angeles Coliseum Motordrome, in 1909, which was three and a half laps to the mile. From 1909 through 1914, 21 motordromes one-third of a mile or less were constructed across North America (not all by Prince), from Springfield, Massachusetts, to Brighton Beach, New York; Vailsburg, New Jersey; St. Louis; Detroit; Atlanta; Milwaukee; Denver; Los Angeles; and others. Prince was churning out the stadiums in just a few weeks. The Brighton Beach (Brooklyn) course held its first event on June 29, 1912. The New York Times announced the project on May 7 and said, “An army of men will rush the construction.” The project cost $30,000 and was made with 1.5 million feet of lumber, mostly 16-foot lengths of 2x4s, with the 2-inch face up. The length was one-third of a mile, the angle 53 degrees, and the capacity was 10,000 in the grandstands.

 

  Photo courtesy Harley-Davidson archive

Photo courtesy Harley-Davidson archive

 

The motorcycles were developing as quickly as the courses were being built. They had one gear, no brakes, no clutch, no suspension, and the carburetors were set wide open. The engines were total loss, meaning the oil wasn’t pressure fed. An oil tank fed the engine what it needed to consume. Instead of recirculating back into the engine, the used oil was expelled into the air in the form of smoke. 

 

“They hadn’t yet realized they needed to figure out how to cycle the oil down to the motor and pump it back up,” says Matt Walksler of Wheels Through Time. When riders crashed, oil leaked onto the course, which led to more crashing. Performance was entirely by experimentation, and the 61-cubic-inch (1,000 cc) engines were nearing 90 mph in 1911. And that was at only 7 horsepower. 

Dozens of manufacturers competed for market share in the United States: Excelsior, Indian, Thor, Cyclone, The Flying Merkel, NSU, and many more. Absent from the results columns was Harley-Davidson, which did not officially field racing teams until 1914. Arthur Davidson was staunchly against racing. In a 1912 editorial in The Harley Dealer, he said,

 

“Any dealer who contemplates hooking up with a promoter in the ‘murderdrome’ business, I have found it to be my experience, has nothing to gain and everything to lose. The board track game will work out its own destiny in a mighty big hurry.” 

 

  Photo courtesy Chris Price, Archive Moto

Photo courtesy Chris Price, Archive Moto

 

Murderdromes. Arthur Davidson saw it coming. Engineers were quickly learning how to wring more out of the internal-combustion engines. On Dec. 30, 1912, on a 1-mile board track in Playa del Rey, California, riding a big-valved Excelsior, Lee Humiston tucked into his handlebars to record a 36-second lap. He became the first rider to officially set the record for 100 mph (146.7 feet per second) on a motorcycle. Two years later, J.A. McNeil went 111.1 mph on a Cyclone. The bike used overhead-cam technology, new at the time, and put out 45 horsepower at 5,000 rpm. Unfortunately, the Federation of American Motorcyclists refused to recognize the feat on the grounds that the speed could possibly be 10 percent above the existing record. The increase in speed and power and the steepening angle of the courses, which was hitting 60 degrees and producing enough centrifugal force to shoot riders and machines out of the circle, also increased the potential for catastrophe. 

 

  Photo courtesy Don Emde Collection

Photo courtesy Don Emde Collection

 

On Sept. 8, 1912, in Vailsburg, the first of two such major tragedies was splattered on newspapers in multi-stack headlines across the country. On a four-lap motordrome west of downtown Newark, New Jersey, with 5,000 spectators in attendance, Eddie Hasha’s eight-valve, 61-cubic-inch Indian—at 92 mph—veered sharply upward toward the guardrail and grinded along it for 100 feet, killing three boys whose heads were hanging into the barrier openings, according to newspaper reports. It was about 5 p.m., the final lap of the final race on the card, and Hasha was going for the lead. After hitting a post, Hasha was hurled into the crowd and the motorcycle careened back down the course and into the sixth-place rider, Johnny Albright of Denver. He was thrown from his bike and pronounced dead hours later at a hospital from lung hemorrhaging. 

 

Many papers reported that witnesses saw the sprocket come loose from Hasha’s bike and “literally tore off the skull of a little boy who had been one of the most excited enthusiasts at the race,” according to The Washington Post. Hasha, as described in the Post, “was pitched 50 feet into the air, and must have been killed instantly in the collision. His body was shapeless from broken bones when it was picked up almost at the feet of his wife seated among the men and boys in the bleachers.” Six were killed that day, including the two riders and three boys under 18. Two more men died in the hospital days later. 

 

  Photo courtesy Harley-Davidson archive

Photo courtesy Harley-Davidson archive

 

The New York Times had interviewed Hasha before the race and reprinted an ominous discussion about the dangers of saucer racing.

 

“I suppose it’ll get us all each when his turn comes,” he said. “Oh, I know it’s a dangerous game, but I am stowing my money away in the bank and the wife will be fixed up if I go.”

 

The best racers were reported to have been paid $20,000 a year from their teams, a huge sum of money in the early 1900s. But Hasha was only 19 and turned pro in 1911. No doubt, he wasn’t set for life. His wife, Gertrude, later married Al Crocker, a motorcycle manufacturer whose machines bore his surname. 

 

  Photo courtesy AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame

Photo courtesy AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame

 

Opened on Independence Day 1912, the Vailsburg track was never used again for motorcycle racing. Less than a year later, in Ludlow, Kentucky, Odin Johnson jumped the track and struck an electric light pole at the Lagoon Motordrome. The gas tank exploded after coming into contact with a live wire. Eight people were killed and dozens were burned. “Mothers with babies in their arms were showered with blazing gasoline,” wrote The Washington Post

Board-track racing had a short but explosive life in motorcycle history, but not nearly as short as some have erroneously documented. The discipline didn’t disappear after the widely publicized incidents of 1912 and 1913. Following the Kentucky tragedy, only a few more three- and four-lap motordromes were built. Newspaper headlines decrying them “murderdromes” made business difficult. Harry Glenn, who rode for Indian from 1912 to 1924, was the pallbearer for 19 of his competitors. In 1915, board tracks 1, 1.25, and 2 miles in length popped up in Chicago, Tacoma, Omaha, Des Moines, and Sheepshead Bay, New York, and featured automobile racing too. They were the precursors to modern speedways, but they were still made of wood, which made them impossible to maintain for the long term. Jack Prince didn’t get to see the end of the board-track era. He died in October 1927 at 68. The last major motorcycle races on the boards were held in 1928, and the final board track, Woodbridge Speedway in New Jersey, closed in 1931 after deteriorating beyond repair. It was replaced by a dirt oval. 

 

  Photo courtesy AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame

Photo courtesy AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame

 

Some historians believe it was negative press from the board-track tragedies that put motorcycling in the category of daredevilry and gave it notoriety as a dangerous and foolhardy sport, a designation that two-wheel enthusiasts are still trying to overcome. Board-track racing isn’t remembered for the damage it did to an industry; today it’s revered for the incredulousness it impresses upon the people who take the time to learn about it.

 


Read the story in Volume 004