Wall of Death Shows & The Sideways Speed Limit

August 10, 2017

What is a “Silodrome?” Well, you might say it is far less catchy name for a Wall of Death. And what is a Wall of Death Motorcycle Show? Ironically, you could say it is the safe version of a motorcycle board track race. Built for spectacle more than speed, they allow stunt riders to rely on centripetal force to ride sideways along curved vertical walls.

Origins of the Wall of Death

The Wall of Death was inspired by board track racing. Motorcycle board track racing in turn had grown out of bicycle velodrome racing. Jack Prince, a bicycle velodrome builder, saw the potential of racing motorcycles on purpose built wooden tracks. In 1910, he built the Los Angeles Motordrome with 30 degree banked turns. One year after Prince built the LA Motordrome, a prototypical stunt silodrome attraction appeared in Coney Island New York, and stunt riders were off to the races, sideways. In 1911, carnival promoters started making travelling version. By 1915, promoters were building silodromes with completely vertical walls and the “Wall of Death” name was coined in Buffalo New York. In the 1920s, the spectacle spread to England and Australia. By 1930, there were over 100 Wall of Death shows touring the U.S. as carnival attractions.

Screen Printed Wall of Death Poster featuring deaths head and motorcyle

Wall of Death Poster

Wall of Death Configuration

The typical Wall of Death is wooden barrel between 20 and 36 feet in diameter. The bottom is flat with a gradual curve at the edges, creating a circular ramp on which the rider can access the vertical wall. This allows motorcycle stunt riders to gradually accelerate, climbing the wall as their speed increases.  Once the rider has achieved a stable position on the wall, they can do tricks, like standing on the seat while riding parallel to the ground.

The audience watches the spectacle from the top of the drum, looking down at the riders stuck to the walls. The walls are around 15 to 25 feet high, placing spectators very close to the rumbling machines below. The engine vibrations travel through the wood, the rumble of the engine and the exhaust smoke travel through the air creating an immediate and visceral experience. If you ever get a chance to see one in person, it’s a spectacle worth queuing up for!

entrance booth for wall of death show

Modern Wall of Death Shows

The tradition continues in the UK and in the US. In the UK, The Ken Fox Troupe, The Demon Drome,  and the Messhams Wall of Death keep it real sideways. In the US, the Wild Wheels Thrill Arena and the American Motordrome Company produce touring Wall of Death shows.

Breaking the Wall of Death Speed Limit

Isle of Man TT racing legend Guy Martin set out to break the Wall of Death “Speed Limit” for his aptly named show “Speed.” Prior to Martin’s attempt, nobody had exceeded 45 miles an hour. Martin teemed up with silodrome expert Ken Fox to break the record.

The centripetal force you would experience in a 32 foot diameter drum at 45 miles an hour would be the equivalent of three  times earth gravity or “3 Gs”. Your head and arms would feel three times as heavy, and “down” would become sideways. For comparison, the gnarliest roller coaster rides produce about 5 Gs of force.

Vintage Motorcycle Reinforced for Wall of Death

Vintage Motorcycle Reinforced for Wall of Death Riding

Wall of Death Physics

7 Gs of acceleration makes the blood in your head so heavy it will knock you out cold. On the way to oblivion, you will experience tunnel vision and then temporary blindness. Guy knew this risks well, having passed out at 7 G in an airplane doing high G training maneuvers. If Guy were to hit his target speed of over 80 mph, the resulting G Force would be 25 times earth gravity, enough to squash his eyeballs, which he would need for navigating. What to do?

Our intuition, and our riding experience, can tell us that the G force is proportional to speed, but also to how sharp a curve you are navigating. Take a gentle wide bend in a modern high speed highway and you can barely feel it at 120 kph, but try to make a 90 degree corner at 40 kph and you can feel the centripetal force trying to flip your bike out of the turn.

So in order to achieve his 80 mph target, Guy commissioned an enormous silodrome constructed of shipping containers supporting an internal wooden track. With a diameter of 37.5 meters, around 3 times the size of a traditional Wall of Death, Guy’s 80 mph ride would theoretically produce just under 6.5 Gs of centripetal force, allowing Guy to remain conscious, a key performance factor for riding sideways at high speeds. Theoretically… So just in case, they marked a red line along his path to help him avoid shooting up the side and smashing into the roof, and a miniature hospital to keep the insurance company happy.

wall of death rider doing a stunt

Somebody Else’s Red Line in a Normal Sized Wall of Death

Wall of Death Official Speed Record

Guy and Ken had set a target of a record smashing 80 mph. The Guinness company decided that reaching 60 mph in one of two official attempts would constitute a legitimate, Guiness-worthy record. After several practice runs, under the watchful eye of Ken Fox and the Guiness officials, Guy reached 72 mph. On his second attempt, Guy hit 78 mph, smashing his own record and setting one that still stands today. In order to beat that record, you would need a considerably wider track. So who’s next?

And Speaking of Who’s Next….

We’ve got lots of crazy stories from the wild and wonderful characters from motorcycle history here at the Gentleman’s Lounge. For instance, the story of an New Zealand farm boy tinkering on a vintage motorcycle for 40 years before setting a land speed record is so far fetched, it sounds like a Hollywood movie, and indeed it was, but we’ll tell you the true story of Burt Munro and the World’s Fastest Indian.

Fritz von Opel strapped a rocket to a train, And it blew up. Then he strapped a rocket to plane. It blew up. Do you know what Hindenburg has to do with Rocket Fritz’s rocket powered motorcycle? The first digital nomad, minus the digital, Carl Clancy Stearns financed his motorcycle trip around the world, the first ever, writing the 1908 equivalent of a travel blog. The Van Buren Sisters rode across the US for women’s rights – back when pants were illegal. Read about these fascinating characters and more motorcycle history, including the unbelievably dangerous motorcycle racing “murderdromes” – board track racing –  in the Gentleman’s Lounge.