The American Oval Board Track: Murderdrome
June 18, 2012 12:34 PM   Subscribe

Nearly unrecognizable to today's MotoGP contests, with top speeds upwards of 215mph (346kph), early days of modern-day American motorcycle racing still reached speeds of 95mph (152kph) on dangerous wooden 45° banked tracks that earned the nickname Murderdromes by the end of the 1920's. Riders often raced with no brakes and leather helmets. But mostly, just a sweater and a smile.

At a time when the American motorcycle industry was dominated by bicycle builders, races took place on 1.5 mile (2.4 km) 20-25° banked velodromes constructed out of planks of wooden 2-inch (51 mm) x 4-inch (100 mm) boards, laid out lengthwise. The first board track motordrome, the Los Angeles Coliseum Motordome, was completed in 1909 followed by half a dozen across the country.

By the 1920's builders started constructing newer Motordromes with steeper banks, like the New Jersey Motordrome in Nutley, had a slope of 45° the sport not only grew more dangerous for the riders, but for the spectators as well. During a race at the New Jersey Motodrome, rider Eddie "The Texas Cyclone" Hasha was killed, along with several spectators, making the front page of the New York Times.
posted by furnace.heart (11 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
This guy's youtube channel is kind of fascinating, watching motor cycles built in the 1920s or even 1910s start-up like that.
posted by delmoi at 12:52 PM on June 18, 2012

Those guys were crazy! No helmets, no protection of any kind, riding machines of tremendous power crammed into those short little tracks that were all curves. Total daredevils.
posted by Kevin Street at 1:07 PM on June 18, 2012

Board track racing is an incredibly fascinating period in motorsports. For the life of me, I can't imagine how anyone ever thought high-banked speedways made of wood was a great idea.
posted by Thorzdad at 1:13 PM on June 18, 2012

Well, they were originally velodromes, so wood was just what they were made of.

And now, if you don't mind, I'll spend the rest of the day hiding in the corner trying not to think of the Azizulhasni Awang incident (previously).
posted by scruss at 1:23 PM on June 18, 2012

Well, they were originally velodromes,

From one of the links..
The first banked wooden racing tracks (Velodromes) were used for bicycle racing in Europe and America over 110 years ago, and in fact, such tracks still exist for bicycle sport. Motorcycles were initially used as pacing machines to get the bicycles up to speed (see pic).

[...] it soon became apparent that they were much more exciting than bicycles!
Ya, and fuck you too, motorcycle website guy :)
posted by Chuckles at 1:49 PM on June 18, 2012

For what it's worth, Chuckles, I think you can assume "exciting" means "likely to result in fatalities" in this context.
posted by tommasz at 2:04 PM on June 18, 2012

I've read about board-track racers (mostly Harley-Davidson and Indian). Not only did they not have brakes, but they also didn't have throttle controls. They ran at full speed, all the time. To slow down for turns, they would kill the engine, then restart as needed.

People say that it looked needlessly dangerous, considering the lack of protection (sweaters, no helmets), but I suspect that riding the same bikes today in full leathers, gloves and state of the art helmets would still be a death wish.

There was one guy who crashed and lived. His nickname became 'Splinters' for reasons that are too horrifying to repeat.

Why were the tracks made of wood? Because they were out of Asbestos, radon and kitten paws.
posted by dfm500 at 4:13 PM on June 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'd rather get pulled up to speed in a keirin than ride a motorcycle on a track at those speeds, any day.

I've seen bicyclists sprint past 45mph behind a moto, and I'm pretty sure those speeds scared the moto driver far more than the cyclist.
posted by entropone at 8:23 PM on June 18, 2012

That's because cyclists are certifiably insane (the ones who do that shit, that is).
posted by basicchannel at 9:16 PM on June 18, 2012

Awesome video of the old board-track racers, (and not far from where I'm sitting) thanks!
posted by From Bklyn at 12:00 AM on June 19, 2012

Yeah, and those wood 'Splinters' were probably loaded with creosote.

The Jayyar4 dude that ddelmoi linked to is incredible! I'm flabbergasted that so many old bikes have been reconditioned to still be running. It's absolutely incredible to me - maybe all those speculative alternative fiction types where internal combustion engines can be maintained in anachronistic technological environs might not be so far fetched.

iirc from shop classes in highschool, the technological limitations for creating an internal combustion engine are materials to make the block strong enough without being too heavy for the (lossy) energy to move, and the tightness of the gaps between the piston and it's sleeve - which today is dealt with by high-precision engineering and very difficult to manufacture hard spring steel gaskets. (?)

Also, 346 Kilometers per hour?! On a motorcycle. I wonder what happens when a motorbike hits and breaks Mach 1, to both the motorbike and the rider.
posted by porpoise at 8:11 PM on June 19, 2012

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