Time of the Motordromes: When America Fell in Love with Speed

Time of the Motordromes: When America Fell in Love with Speed

Motordrome. The name conjures visions of a futuristic arena for motorized death games in a Road Warrior sequel. In fact, it’s a relic from a bygone era. Motordromes sprang up across America at the dawn of the 20th century to accommodate the public’s insatiable fascination with a byproduct of the piston-driven revolution—speed. Within the imposing walls of the motordromes were oval tracks where motorcycles raced in close proximity, held up on the steeply banked corners by centrifugal force. This dynamic racing spectacle took its name from the narrow wooden planks that made up the racing surface—Boardtrack.

Of all the motorcycle racing disciplines that have ever existed, Boardtrack holds a kind of reverent mysticism. Perhaps it’s because the motordromes are no more—victims of circumstance that long ago relegated them to the dusty annals of racing—that the sport, regardless of the appalling danger, holds a kind of romantic legend 100 years on. The men who raced the boards were the first incarnation of the two-wheeled gladiators we have today, incubating the essential racing DNA that would be passed down through generations.

The very first motordrome was erected in 1910 in the Southern California beach enclave of Playa del Rey. Inspired by the European Velodromes, it was adapted to accommodate automobiles and motorcycles. Christened the Los Angeles Motordrome, it held a one-mile, 75 feet wide circular track constructed from two million square feet of 2x4 pine planks and 30 tons of nails. The entire course was banked at roughly 30 degrees, allowing for incredible speeds on a closed circuit. Speeds for motorcycles at the Pie Pan, as it was dubbed, routinely hovered around 100mph and produced lap times in the neighborhood of 36 seconds. Playa del Rey was immediately catapulted to fame as the speed capital of the world.

Time of the Motordromes: When America Fell in Love with Speed

An Instant Sensation

The Los Angeles Motordrome was an instant sensation, attracting thousands of curious spectators eager to get their first glimpse of what the modern era promised in terms of motor-driven velocity. The 12,000-seat grandstands were regularly filled to capacity. For most, who had yet to witness anything faster than a galloping horse, the experience of seeing a pack of motorcycles thundering around the banking in excess of 100mph was certainly awe-inspiring.

The motorcycles that raced through the track were highly specialized machines, built by manufacturers such as Indian, Harley-Davidson, Excelsior, Cyclone, and Reading Standard. With the exception of a few primitive leaf spring front ends, the bikes were, for the most part, all totally rigid.

The brakeless contraptions were saddled with V-twin engines that produced around 45 horsepower. Like the airplanes of the day, many of the bikes had no working throttle. The engines were tuned to run wide open, with riders using kill switches to control speed. Anyone who has heard one of these vintage straight-piped V-twin race bikes fired up can only imagine what a pack of 20—racing in anger on the wood plank banking—must have sounded, looked, and felt like.

Time of the Motordromes: When America Fell in Love with Speed

Spreading Popularity

In response to the immense success of the Playa del Rey venue, motordromes sprang up seemingly overnight across the country. Relatively inexpensive to build, the facilities could be erected in a matter of weeks. Within a handful of years, 24 motordromes were operating around the U.S., from Chicago to Des Moines, Tacoma to Beverly Hills. They varied in lengths from a third of a mile to two miles, with the average being 1-1.3 miles. As speeds increased, so did the banking, progressing to 45, then 50, and eventually 60 degrees. To put that in perspective, the famous high banks at Daytona Motor Speedway are slanted at 31 degrees. Arc lighting for night racing merely added yet another layer to the spectacle.

Promoters were quick to cash in on America’s new drug of speed and daring, organizing officially sanctioned championship races. During this period, it could be argued that Boardtrack racing was the most popular sport in the country, with races regularly drawing 10,000 paying customers. In 1915, the Chicago Motordrome drew a crowd of 80,000 for a single Boardtrack race. Adding to the atmosphere was the refinement of the time period, with men attending races wearing straw hats, jackets, and ties, and the women wore dresses and shaded themselves under dainty parasols. Going to the motordromes was a family affair.

Time of the Motordromes: When America Fell in Love with Speed

Racing with the Reaper

Boardtrack racing made stars of many fearless young men who looked past the obvious dangers to enjoy adulation as one of the motorized daredevils, chasing fame, however fleeting. And, of course, there was the money. With purses routinely hitting $25,000, it was possible for good riders to pull down $20,000 a year (about half a million dollars in today’s currency).

However, there were some serious drawbacks. Thin leather pants, flimsy lace-up boots, a cotton jersey, and leather skullcap was all that was between a rider and the boards. In addition to the injuries sustained in a typical high-speed get-off, there was the horrifying prospect of collecting dozens, if not hundreds, of wood splinters. It was just one of the consequences of racing the boards.

Another aspect of Boardtrack racing that boggles the mind was the “total loss” lubrication systems found in this era’s motorcycles. The valves and springs of these early engines were fully exposed, meaning that the oil that lubricated their workings was constantly being flung off into open air. The racers’ faces and hands were routinely drenched with hot oil. One reason many riders didn’t bother wearing goggles despite flying splinters was the fact that the lens would be covered with oil in a matter of seconds once the race was underway, reducing visibility to nearly zero. The misting engine oil collecting on the wood planks was a recipe for disaster. Needless to say, crashes were commonplace.

In this modern era of safety-consciousness, the basic design flaw of the motordromes is sorely obvious. The grandstands extended up from the banking, granting spectators a thrilling, bird’s eye view of the racers as they swept past directly below—often with nothing more than a single run of 2x4 railing for protection. Herein lies the fatal legacy of the motordromes—packed grandstands directly in the impact zone of crashing and cart-wheeling motorcycles and riders. Boardtrack racing wasn’t only dangerous for the racers, but for the audience as well, with serious injuries to both being a shockingly regular occurrence. At the height of the motordromes popularity, rarely a week went by where a rider or spectator (or both) wasn’t killed.

Time of the Motordromes: When America Fell in Love with Speed

The End of an Era

Newspapers, which had helped fuel the excitement of Boardtrack racing among the public, were also the first to condemn it. Front pages fed simmering public outcry with sensational headlines of appalling carnage. The negativity reached a fever pitch in September 1912, when two riders died at a Newark, NJ, track. Their bikes careened into the grandstands, killing four spectators and injuring another 19. The newspapers didn’t run a headline, choosing instead to use the universal symbol of danger—a skull and crossbones. The motordromes earned a new nickname, “murderdromes.” Public interest quickly waned.

Boardtrack racing continued, but not with the kind of fervor it had once garnered. Eventually, America was burdened with the staggering death toll of World War I and the Great Depression went into full swing. There was scarce little enthusiasm for something as frivolous as racing. By 1931, 20 of the 24 championship-level motordromes had been abandoned, shut down, or had burned to the ground. In 1932, sanctioned championship races ceased. The reign of the Boardtracks was over.

Perhaps the biggest contributor to the demise of the motordromes, however, was that speed became commonplace. The popularity of Boardtrack races had been directly influenced by the novelty of witnessing the speed of modern, piston-driven machines. Automobiles, airplanes, and motorcycles, having been integrated into society, were everywhere now. America’s lusty affair with speed had turned into a routine everyday acquaintance.

Today, nothing exists of the glory days of Boardtrack, save some of the motorcycles rescued from the junk heap together with some racing paraphernalia. However, the time of the motordromes remains one of the most spectacular and lauded eras in motorcycle racing.