Motorcycle History: Board Track Racing
By John Gunnell
The high-banked wooden tracks of bicycle velodromes allowed racers to attain speeds they could never dream of touching in a race on a flat road.
Recognizing the potential of such “saucer tracks” to draw racing fans, event promoters across the country built larger, steeply-banked board tracks for motorcycle racing. Automobiles were also raced on board tracks in some cities.
Motorcyclists racing in the new motordromes achieved previously unheard of speeds, but the banked tracks took their toll in horrendous—and often fatal—crashes. Board tracks—especially short ones—had built-in dangers. Fans sat on the top looking down at the racers. If a rider lost control, G-forces could whip his bike into the crowd. In 1913, the championship motorcycle races moved onto dirt. Motorcycle racing on board tracks less than a miile was banned in 1919.
Motordromes were made of 2 x 4-inch wooden planks. They lasted 30 years or so in America. In that time, board-track racing made major motorsports contributions that continue today. The Motordromes proved that banking increased G-forces, allowing higher speeds. They showed that wide track surfaces increased racing excitement by permitting one bike to slowly overtake another. The construction influenced the design of grandstands at all racetracks.
Motordromes caught on because they were easy to build with then-cheap lumber. The tracks had up to 45-60 degrees of banking. By 1931 there were 24 operating board tracks in places such as Playa del Ray, Calif., Culver City, Calif., Beverly Hills, Calif., Brooklyn, N.Y., Atlantic City, N.J. and Tipton (Altoona), Pa.
Fans turned out by the tens of thousands to watch the spectacles and wait for the accidents to happen. Board track racing was arguably one of the most popular spectator sports in America during the Teens and early 1920s. Brooklyn’s Sheephead Bay board track could seat as many as 200,000 people. That was more than five times the capacity of the Polo Grounds, New York City’s premier baseball stadium of that era.
Board track racing declined in the 1930s. In addition to the dangers, the wooden racing surfaces were expensive to maintain. New boards were needed about every five years. Repairs also had to be done while racing was going on.
British artist-photographer Dave Saunders’ (firstname.lastname@example.org) photo of a motorcycle parked near the “Demon Dome” in England
Historical photos of motordromes and board tracks as displayed in the Harley-Davidson Museum, (www.h-dmuseum.com) Milwaukee, Wis.
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