Motorsport today is as much about safety as it is about speed. In the early 1900s however things were a bit different. Due to emergence of motorcycle brands like Harley-Davidson and Indian, more and more motorcycles were made available in the US. Soon motorcycle racing made its way to US. Earlier these puny engines were raced on bicycle velodromes with very little safety equipment. Later however as machines advanced and managed top speeds of around 100mph (160kmph), the need for a purpose built track was felt which saw birth of board tracks.
Board tracks or motordromes were severely banked oval tracks made entirely out of wood. Their length was of two-by- two and two-by- four lumber. They had a surface which was unfinished and rough. The first board track was the Los Angeles Coliseum Motordrome opened on April 8, 1910 near Playa del Rey, California which was banked at 20 degrees. These tracks were meant for motorcycle racing but soon were adapted to various car races too. So what’s insane about board racing? Let’s start with the bikes.
Racers turned their machines to adapt to the specific challenges of racing on a board track. These motorcycles were skinny and were devoid of brakes and even a transmission! The only way of stopping them or slowing them down was cutting off the engine by means of a kill switch located on the handlebar.
And yes they weren’t too reliable either. The engines were of a “total loss” design and as a result the oil that lubricated the exposed valves and springs was freely let out in the air. This in turn caused the boards to get oil-soaked and slippery.
Image: Age of Diesel
Riders would often skimp on protection too, a simple half-face leather helmet with minimal and lighter clothing was everything that they wore while racing. This somehow was an ultimate test of one’s cojones. The racing that happened was unique but at the account of lives of the racers and in some cases of spectators as well.
In case of a crash, there were two possibilities, either the rider was thrown onto the track that resulted in major abrasion and wooden splinters from the unfinished surface or the rider and the motorcycle were projected off the track into the crowd which often turned out to be lethal.
These tracks and their dangerous potential was the reason for their “murderdromes” nickname. As their popularity increased, the races attracted a crowd of up to 50,000 people. Board racing at that time was one of the most popular spectator sports in America.
Via American Motorcyclist Association on YouTube
Many riders were willing to participate in these crazy races, even after knowing its lethal impacts. One of the main reasons was its payoffs. Top racers could make nearly $20,000 per year racing on these board tracks.
Car races too had their own set of obstacles. On one account a driver recalls that once the sharp wood fragments pierced into the faces of the drivers and mechanics. There were frequent tire failures resulting in crashes. Although inexpensive to construct, board tracks weren’t durable and required heavy maintenance. The tracks had very little lifetime and would survive only up to three years if left abandoned.
Two major accidents caused outrage within people to stop board racing. The first one saw the death of two racers, Eddie Hasha and Johnny Albright, when they crashed into the outside rail. Four spectators were killed and 19 others were severely injured. The other was even more serious as Odin Johnson’s motorcycle hit a light pole and it’s fuel tank exploded which ultimately set the crowd afire, causing the death of eight people. Surprisingly Odin was unscathed. Finally the Great Depression of 1920’s proved to be a catalyst in the end of board racing.
Via American-X from a book of the same name