Today, we will take a look back at the brief and bloody era of vintage motorcycle board track racing. An era when wood met metal, an era of speed and splinters, blood and oil. Young men challenged the limits of speed and gravity, the limits of their machines, and the limits of their own sinew and moxie hurtling along the steeply banked wooden tracks on machines with little suspension and no brakes. These death defying feats took place in an historical context that, while very different than our current world, was in some ways similar.
The Origin of Vintage Motorcycle Board Track Racing – An Era of Change
We are living in an era of rapid technological changes and developments that would be hard to imagine decades before. The new futures that we are thrust into daily offer ample opportunities to marvel at the magical innovative madness of humankind. At the same time, we feel a sense of nostalgia for simpler times. Even in those imagined “good old days” we would, perhaps, be startled by progress. Maybe nothing stays the same so much as the ways things seem to change.
Imagine, if you will, living at beginning of the 20th century…
A decade before, the first internal combustion powered motorcycle, the 1894 Hildebrand & Wolfmüller Mottorad, reached a top speed of less than 30 mph. Early manufacturers like Excelsior, Royal Enfield, Triumph, Norton, Indian and Harley Davidson jumped into the business less than 10 years after Hildebrand & Wolfmüller’s innovative ride hit the road. Racing for speed records drove manufacturers to design board track racing motorcycles built purely for speed: simple, light designs untrammeled by luxuries like brakes.
The competition and innovation led to motorcycles capable of top speeds of 100 mph by 1912. The new designs shattered the prior functional speed limit of 30 mph for a human on a horse or a Mottorad. Suddenly, people could hurtle around at over three times the previous highest possible speed, which had remained unchanged for millennia!
The First Vintage Motorcycle Board Track
The earliest motorcycle racers careened around around dirt tracks built for horses. As speeds rapidly increased, the power of the motorcycles small engines exceeded vintage motorcycle tires’ traction in dirt.
Mechanical engineer Frederick Moskovics envisioned the simple solution. He approached former bicycle racer Jack Prince. Prince was a former world champion high wheel bicycle racer. He had a successful business building banked wooden tracks for “velodrome” bicycle racing.
Motorcycles were already used for pacing the start of a bicycle race on velodromes. A few promoters had already even set up board track motorcycle races in bicycle velodromes. But the size of the tracks and the angles of the velodromes were not ideal for motorcycles, nor were they sturdy enough. Moskovics and Prince designed a more steeply banked velodrome. Their design featured a laminated floor capable of supporting the weight and speed of motorcycles and cars. They called it the Los Angeles Motordrome.
Prince secured investors and built the facility in 1910 at a cost of around $1.7 million in current dollars. The gamble on the board track paid off; the new spectacle of vintage motorcycle board track racing spread across the nation. Prince built several more tracks and regularly attracted crowds of 10,000 or more.
Speed, Splinters, and Spectators
Prince promised shattered speed records and the new track delivered. Jake DeRosier established 25 mile, 50 mile, 100 mile and one hour records at the first major motorcycle racing event at the Los Angeles Motordrome in 1910. In 1911, Eddie Hasha pushed the speed record to 93 mph, and in 1912 Lee Humiston broke 100 mph.
Prince built his first track with a 30 degree slope, but as speeds increased, track angles rose all the way to a steep 60 degrees. Dressed only in sweaters and jeans, leather caps and no goggles, young racers flew around these tracks dueling for position, inches apart traveling close to 100 mph on the steep wooden wall.
The lubrication systems of early board track racers were not contained. Excess oil flew out behind the riders on the track. Flying oil would coat goggles, so riders opted for squinting as the best defense against flying splinters. Adding to the hazardous conditions, the oil coated the tracks reducing traction for the thin vintage motorcycle tires. Crashes were frequent and brutal or fatal. Worn tracks shredded on impact, driving a forest of splinters into tumbling riders. Spectators numbering in the thousands crowded into the grandstands from these events, sometimes choosing to lean over the guard rails at the top of the wall for a closer look. Does that sound like a good idea? Foreshadowing…
Blood on The Tracks
The top places in the sport came with a hefty paycheck – up to $20,000 a year, or half a million dollars in today’s money. Offsetting the pay check, many riders paid the ultimate cost. Pioneering racer Jake DeRosier cracked his skull, broke his left arm, severed an artery, broke his left leg three times, and suffered serious burns from flaming engines. He died in 1913 from complications from injuries from a crash.
Having set the speed record in LA a year earlier in 1911, Eddie Hasha ended his career with a fatal crash in September of 1912 at the Vailsburg Motordrome in Newark, New Jersey. Hasha’s bike had misfired. He reached down to adjust a wire and the bike roared to life with full maximum power. Hasha hit the guard rail and slid along it, killing four young spectators who had been leaning over the rail. His motorcycle hit a post and Hasha flew into the grandstand where he died. The motorcycle continued back onto the track and hit Johnny Albright who also died from complications of the crash, bringing the death toll to six.
A little less than a year later, in August 1913 in Ludlow Kentucky, racer Odin Johnson crashed into a light pole, killing himself and rupturing his gas tank, spraying fuel into the crowd. As Murphy’s Law would have it, the light pole wiring shorted, igniting several people in the fuel-soaked crowd. A total of seven spectators died as a result of injuries connected to the crash.
The End of Vintage Motorcycle Board Track Racing
In 1919, the American Motorcycle Association banned vintage motorcycle board track racing on tracks under 1 mile. Responding to public pressure, in 1926, the AMA introduced a smaller 750 cc class. The AMA anticipated that the less powerful bikes would bring down speeds and reduce risk. In the year the class was introduced, a rider set a new record at 120 mph.
Prince, the impresario behind the rise of vintage motorcycle board track racing, died in 1927. Many of the tracks had already closed down facing high maintenance costs and pressure from municipal governments over safety issues. In 1928 the last board track races were held in Rockingham Newhampshire and the era of the spectacle of speed and splinters, vintage motorcycle board track racing, had come to an end.
If you are feeling the need to read more about speed, check out the fascinating story of Burt Munro and the fastest Indian motorcycle. We’ve also got articles on vintage motorcycle tires and vintage motorcycle brakes.