The world is entranced by the high-speed events of MotoGP or the thrilling jumps of supercross. Wherever there are motorcycles of any variety, there is racing. But few are still alive who remember the first competitive motorcycle sensation on a large scale: board track racing. Now it is only a piece of a faded memory, remembered only by historians and motorcycle enthusiasts. But its lust for speed and deadly daredevilry makes it an interesting chapter of the past.

Two Motorcycles Board Track Racers

Motorcycle Board Track Racing

If you’re familiar with the early days of motorcycle racing, you’ll undoubtedly know about board track racing. It enjoyed a sudden explosion of popularity, and then it rapidly fell out of public favor. But it is an important part of motorcycle racing history all the same.

The Rise of Board Track Racing

The first production motorcycles started becoming available to the public at the turn of the 20th century. Before long, races were being held wherever they could. For the most part, public roads weren’t a viable solution for official races because the roads would need to be shut down. Some paved courses existed specifically for racing, but they were expensive to produce. There were also a number of dirt tracks available, but they weren’t as conducive to the thrills of high speeds as what was about to hit the nation.

A Modern Bicycle Velodrome in the London Ice House in Ontario, Canada

Motorcycles were an evolution of the bicycle. Why not look to bicycle racing for inspiration? Velodromes were oval-shaped tracks designed for cycling, built with banks around the corners to allow for higher speeds around turns. The velodromes were generally built out of wooden planks placed tightly together, and this is where the term board track comes from. Velodromes were – and still are – an important part of racing in the cycling world, and former racing star Jack Prince had a thriving business building them around the United States in the early 1900s.

A partnership among Prince, engineer Frederick Moskovics, and local Californian businessmen led to the creation of the Los Angeles Motordrome in 1910, a mile-long velodrome designed specifically for motorized vehicles, including motorcycles. Prince promised that speed records would be broken, and he was right – even within the first week of opening!

An Illustration of the Los Angeles Motordrome

Soon, motordromes were being built around the country, and they often attracted huge crowds of spectators. They could be built quickly and inexpensively, and by building bleachers along the edges, they could accommodate a large audience – and every seat offered good visibility for the entire track. Automobile racing flourished, but there was a special place for motorcycle racing in motordromes as well.

Motordromes allowed motorcycles to go increasingly faster than they ever had before because banking around corners reduced the need to slow down around turns. In fact, the bikes didn’t even have brakes. Originally, turns were banked at about 15°. But while this curvature may have been well-suited to the slower speeds of cycling, it soon became obvious that banks could be steeper for motorcycles. Motordrome designers kept pushing the envelope, eventually reaching banks as steep as 60°. Speeds kept getting faster, reaching and then surpassing 100 mph.

Various Degrees Illustrating Banks: 15°, 30°, 45° and 60°

The intense speeds afforded by motordromes fascinated the public, but they weren’t the only ones. Young motorcyclists were drawn to prove their talents and claim $10,000 prizes (an unprecedented amount for the time period, approximately equivalent to $250,000 in today’s dollars).

The Perils of Board Track Racing

However, anytime speed increases, so does the potential danger, and board track racing proved to be an especially perilous sport. For one thing, the breakneck speed was enough to do just that – break necks. The safety equipment of the day was far below the requirements of today’s standards, and a single mistake could quickly be a racer’s last. It didn’t help that the intense rivalries sparked at the time often led to competitors racing side by side, refusing to let each other gain on them.

The design of the motordromes themselves – while brilliant in their function and inexpensive to erect – eventually proved to be a dangerous flaw. Since the bleachers were built adjacent to the track, front-row spectators could literally stick their heads out onto the track to watch the action. An out-of-control bike could rip right through the wooden railing and into the midst of fans. Furthermore, the planks deteriorated rather quickly, and it wasn’t unusual for bikes to tear them up and launch wooden splinters sailing into mechanics, spectators or other racers.

A Motordrome in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, New York

One high-profile incident involved a rivalry match in California between Excelsior racer extraordinaire Jake DeRosier and his teammate Charles Balke on identical bikes. It was a thrilling race with both competitors neck and neck, but at one point, Balke lost control of his motorcycle. He managed to escape relatively unscathed, but DeRosier’s bike was hit by Balke’s, and he suffered through a horrific crash and ended up unconscious. He endured a number of surgeries over the following months, but eventually he died within a year of the accident.

Another high-profile crash occurred with Eddie Hasha, a star rider who started breaking records and annihilating his competition at every event. While racing in New Jersey, Hasha lost control of his machine, which launched up the track and into the railing. He rode the railing for about 100 feet, killing four boys who had their heads stuck over it. Then he hit a post which effectively catapulted him to his own death. The bike continued into the stands where it injured numerous spectators.

Eddie Hasha at the Newark, New Jersey Motordrome

Unfortunately, these accidents were not unusual. It wasn’t long before the press began referring to motordromes as murderdromes. Grand Rapids Press went so far as to use “Thrills and Funerals” as the headline for an article about them.

The Decline of Board Track Racing

As might be imagined, the horrific accidents involved with motordromes slowly began to sour the public’s perception of them. The AMA eventually stopped sanctioning board track races, and one by one, the manufacturers also withdrew their support. Motorcycle racing continued to capture the imaginations of its fans, but it did so in a safer arena.

The inherent dangers of board track racing and the consequential bad publicity were just one part of the decline of motordromes, however. There was not an effective way to preserve the wooden planks, and this led to their deterioration after only a few years. (This also helped produce the dangerous splinters flying around the track during events.) So while motordromes were relatively inexpensive to build, they were simply too expensive to maintain. There are even reports that repairs had to be done so frequently that it wasn’t unusual for carpenters to be working on the underside of the motordromes at the same time that competitors raced on top.

Constructing the Uniontown Pennsylvania Motordrome

But there was more. Even if a motordrome managed to stay in good condition, its wooden nature left it quite susceptible to fire. The Los Angeles Motordrome, for example, was partially destroyed in a fire in 1913 – only a few years after it was originally constructed. It was not rebuilt.

The heyday of motorcycle board track racing was in the 1910s, but by the late 1920s, it had all but fizzled out.

The Legacy of Board Track Racing

The unquenchable thirst for speed was first sought in board track racing beginning over 100 years ago, but it continues in the intense racing series of today. The unrelenting courage of those early motorcycle racers continues to inspire riders and enthusiasts, and many board track competitors have been inducted in the Motorcycle Hall of Fame.

If you’d like to learn more about the early years of motorcycle racing and motordromes, check out these resources:

  • Beverly Hills Board Track Racing Video – This film, shot in 1921 on a hand-cranked camera, offers a glimpse into the glamour of board track racing. It features Indian-sponsored Albert “Shrimp” Burns, another popular racer of the day (and one who also perished as the result of the dangers of his sport – only four months after the film was shot).
  • Pioneers of American Motorcycle Racing – This internet publication was written by motorcycle enthusiast Daniel K. Statnekov and goes into detail about the rise and fall of board track racing, the motorcycle manufacturers who kept building ever-faster machines, and the riders who inspired the nation.

What are your thoughts about this early chapter of motorcycle history? Let us know in the comments. And don’t forget to share this article with your friends and family over social media.