In an earlier article, I wrote on the rise of board track racing and motordromes, below are details on the challenges the owners of the tracks faced and details on the decline of board track racing.
Track owners soon found out that after only a few years, the racing and wood exposed to the elements (there weren’t wood protectants back then) took such a toll on the tracks that they needed to be completely rebuilt. Since the expense to rebuild tracks was not budgeted for, this affected the long-term economic viability of these business ventures. Subsequently, many of the first 24 motordromes were not rebuilt.
There were a number of other factors that contributed to the decline of board track racing. With high speeds and short tracks, there had to be banks around the entire track and steep banks around the curves (up to 60 degrees). The design made it necessary for the spectator seating to be located at the top of the tracks. This created some significant risks for spectators. Racers and their motorcycles would occasionally ride over the walls or after a crash on the track, their bodies and motorcycles would be thrown into the spectator seating.
There were two major crashes that significantly slowed the huge popularity of board track racing. The first happened at the Vailsburg Stadium Motordrome on September 8, 1912. Eddie “The Texas Cyclone” Hasha crashed, then flew into the crowd while his bike hit fellow racer John Albright, and one of their motorcycles flew into the spectators seating area. The two racers and six spectators eventually died and over a dozen others were significantly injured.
This accident, as well as others, tempered some of the public’s fervor surrounding the thrilling races. The accounts of the accident in the newspapers were brutal. The track owner faced criminal charges. Although he was found not guilty, the possibility of facing criminal charges was a deterrent for existing track owners to rebuild the motordromes when it was necessary. This also deterred new track builders from trying to enter the business, so the rapid growth of the sport slowed.
The Vailsburg track owner also faced civil damages. Although the amount he paid was negligible, owners saw their potential financial exposure. Without the tracks being insurable, this left owners and racers financially exposed. After the Vailsburg tragedy, many races were banned temporarily or permanently in some locations.
The second accident that impacted the popularity of board track racing occurred on June 29, 1913 at the Lagoon Motordrome. Racer Odin Johnson hit a light pole on the top of the track and some loose wires ignited Johnson’s gas tank. Johnson, his bike, and burning gasoline went into the crowd. Six died and dozens had serious injuries.
The public was understandably horrified, newspaper accounts again were brutal, the owner faced criminal charges and civil suits, and more races were banned. After this accident, the 1913 racing championships were moved to an oval dirt track because they were safer and less expensive to build and maintain.
Additionally, because of the short distance of a lot of the early races, many under five miles, there were not a lot of lead changes. Basically the bike that gained the lead off-the-line often won the race. Even at 100 mph, after a few years of seeing the races, a lot of the initial thrill of board track racing was gone. As the years went on, stock motorcycles were able to run at higher speeds, so 100 mph was not as awe-inspiring.
Board tracks owners tried to continue their venues’ viability by adding some safety improvements. Tracks became longer and along the flat straightaways, spectators could be seated without the same risk of racers and their motorcycles crashing into them. Still the crowds, business owners, and racing associations moved towards dirt tracks.
By 1914, the sport had already lost a lot of its popularity, but with the start of World War I, racing was not all that important. After World War I, the sport started back up, but it never regained the same popularity it had enjoyed in the early 1910’s. The sport finally ended with the beginning of the Great Depression. With all of the challenges board track racing faced, the pictures and videos of this wild and historically important time in motorcycle history and racing are still very cool to see.