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 racing disciplines I’ve witnessed, this is one I truly wish I could have experienced. 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 mystical, romantic legend almost one hundred years on. In my opinion 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 1-mile, 75-foot-wide circular track constructed from 2-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 100 mph and produced lap times in the neighborhood of 36 seconds. Playa del Rey was immediately catapulted to “Speed Capital of the World.”
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 100 mph was awe-inspiring.
The motorcycles that ran on the banking were highly specialized machines built by manufacturers such as Indian, Harley-Davidson, Excelsior, Cyclone, and Reading Standard. They were totally rigid (some had primitive leaf-sprung front ends), brakeless contraptions saddled with V-twin engines producing around 45 horsepower. Like airplanes of the day, many of the bikes had no working throttle, the engines tuned to run wide open, riders using kill switches to control speed. For anyone who has heard one of these vintage straight-piped V-twin race bikes fired up, you can only imagine what a pack of twelve, racing in anger at 100 mph on the wood plank banking, must have sounded, looked, and felt like.
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 across the country, from Chicago to Des Moines, Tacoma to Beverly Hills, varying in lengths from one-third to two miles, with the average being one to 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 banking at Daytona is only 31 degrees. Arc lighting for night racing merely added yet another layer to the spectacle.
Boardtrack racing wasn’t only a dangerous endeavor for the racers, but for the audience as well, with serious injuries to both being a shockingly regular occurrence "
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 boardtrack race. Adding to the atmosphere was the refined period, when men attending races wore straw hats, jackets and ties, and the women wore dresses and shaded themselves under dainty parasols. Going to the motordromes was a family affair.
Boardtrack racing made stars of many fearless young men who looked past the obvious dangers to enjoy adulation as one of the motorized daredevils. 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 a half million dollars in today’s currency). There were some serious drawbacks, however. 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 lubricating systems of the 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 faces and hands of racers 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 underway, making visibility nearly impossible. 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 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 cartwheeling motorcycles and riders. Boardtrack racing wasn’t only a dangerous endeavor for the racers, but for the audience as well, with serious injuries to both being a shockingly regular occurrence.
Newspapers, which had helped fuel the excitement of boardtrack racing among the public, were in turn the first to condemn. Front pages fed simmering public outcry with sensational headlines of appalling carnage. The negativity reached a fever pitch in September of 1912 when two racers were killed at a Newark, New Jersey track, their bikes being launched into the grandstands, killing four spectators and injuring another nineteen. The newspapers didn’t run a headline, choosing instead to use the universal symbol of danger — a skull and cross bones. The motordromes earned the 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 staggering death tolls from World War I and the Great Depression went into full swing. There was 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, and the following year championship races ceased. The reign of the boardtracks was over.
Perhaps the biggest contributor to the demise of the motordromes, however, was that speed had become 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 was over. Today nothing exists of the glory days of boardtrack, save some of the motorcycles rescued from the junk heap and some racing paraphernalia. But the time of the motordromes remains one of the most spectacular eras in racing. SR