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A Taste of the Motordrome Era

And the Magnificent Motorcycles

by Bandit and Sam Burns
11/14/2020


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Editor's Note: Recently one of our esteemed Bikernet™ contributors sent me a batch of historic Motordrome shots, then a pile of great shots of classic racing bikes from that era. I recently wrote a screenplay, called Splintered Road, about this era around WWI and it’s being looked at in Hollywood. This year one of the racing heavyweights, and a man who has been involved in the industry all his life, Don Emde, published a magnificent book on the sport of board track racing.

1908 Indian single.
1908 Indian single.



I won’t try to compete with Don’s account of the history, but we will share a few stories about the sport with the terrific number of shots Sam sent, so enjoy the ride.--Bandit

1911, four horsepower Indian single.
1911, four horsepower Indian single.





The Board Track Era ran from 1908 to approximately 1929. There were dozens of tracks across America that touted high banks and were up to two and one-half miles around. The term "Board Track Racer" also referred to the similar version that was raced on dirt tracks.



1912 Indian twin.
1912 Indian twin.




Motordromes allowed motorcycles to go increasingly faster than they ever had before because banking around corners reduced the need to slow down around turns. In fact, these bikes didn’t even have brakes.





Originally, turns were banked at about 15°. But while this curvature may have been well-suited to the slower speeds of bicycling, it soon became obvious that banks could be steeper for motorcycles. Motordrome designers kept pushing the envelope, eventually reaching banks as steep as 60°. Speeds kept getting faster, reaching and then surpassing 100 mph.
 
--Wikipedia 
 

Englishman ‘Jack’ Prince developed the lion’s share of board tracks in the USA, sketching out their designs for contractors to build, although he had no engineering experience! [Vintagent Archive]
Englishman ‘Jack’ Prince developed the lion’s share of board tracks in the USA, sketching out their designs for contractors to build, although he had no engineering experience! [Vintagent Archive]



1912 Indian Racer.
1912 Indian Racer.



Original 1912 Indian twin engine.
Original 1912 Indian twin engine.






“The 1.25-mile-long Los Angeles Motor Speedway, also referred to as the Beverly Hills Speedway, was 1 of the 22 board-track speedways built between 1915 and 1928. These massive wooden ovals, America’s timber circuses became popular during the roaring ‘20s, though like their shorter circular relatives, the motordromes, the speedways too fell out of fashion within a short time after their introduction.




Over-restored jewel 1913 Indian twin.
Over-restored jewel 1913 Indian twin.



Also a 1913 Indian Twin Racer.
Also a 1913 Indian Twin Racer.




“However, compared to the frenzied and often times violent motordromes, the larger, safer speedways gave the sport a proper venue for achieving breathtaking new speeds.”



1914 Model F Indian single racer.
1914 Model F Indian single racer.



“This was the grand age of factory competition, overhead-valve machines, lionized competitors, and lightning fast races. As seen in the film, former Harley-Davidson Wrecking Crew member Shrimp Burns, who was now the star of the Indian camp, covered 13 and 3/4 miles in the miss and out race in just under 6 minutes, an average speed of 103.78 mph, charging past Harley’s Otto Walker at the finish line and beating him by only inches.



1915 Original Indian twin racer.
1915 Original Indian twin racer.



“Shrimp then crashed out in the 25-Mile race on the 11th lap at 106 mph, which Otto Walker later beat out Jim Davis, Gene Walker, and Joe Wolters to win. Otto Walker also set a new M&ATA record for the distance with an average speed of 104.43 mph.





“While Shrimp was carried off to the hospital, his teammate, Indian’s Curly Fredericks on a factory stock Power Plus, was leading the 50-mile event, but he too crashed on the 9th lap. Fredericks complained his spill was due to dirty racing, but the officials could find no evidence of the fact, Harley-Davidson’s new kid Jim Davis won the 50-Mile followed by Ray Weishaar, Joe Wolters and Fred Ludlow.



1916 Indian twin racer.
1916 Indian twin racer.



“By the final race of the day, the 15-Mile, Shrimp was back from the hospital, splinter free and ready to run, though heavily bandaged. He piloted Frederick’s Power Plus as his 8-Valve was down for the count and immediately jumped to the front of the pack.



1919 Indian twin racer.
1919 Indian twin racer.



Shrimp hit 102.55 mph on the stock pocket-valve motor, setting a record as the first stock engine to do over 100 mph in competition, and winning the race in front of Ludlow and Hepburn.



1926 Indian racing engine.
1926 Indian racing engine.



“Indian’s most tenacious young star Shrimp Burns gave one of the most sensational performances of his career that day in front of 12,000 spectators at the Beverly Hills Speedway.”

--Quote found by Sam Burns
 

On September 8, 1912, Eddie Hasha, a.k.a. “the Texas Cyclone,” was competing in the final event of the day at a motordome in Newark, New Jersey—a five-mile race against five other riders—when disaster struck. Hasha began the race in the lead, but in the third lap the engine on his bike developed a misfire. Another rider sped by him.

Ralph Hepburn on his Indian.
Ralph Hepburn on his Indian.



Hasha dropped one hand from the handlebar, adjusted the engine, and quickly picked up speed. In the next instant he shot up the banked track and struck a rail at the top, along with a number of spectators looking down into the bowl from above. The number of dead varies from four to six, depending on the account. Hasha ended up hitting a post and being thrown to his death among the spectators. The press began referring to motordromes as “murderdromes.”



With the onset of the Great Depression in the early 1930s, board track racing disappeared rapidly. However, several of its most notable aspects have continued to influence American motorsports up to the present day, including: A technical emphasis on raw speed produced by the steep banking; ample track width to allow steady overtaking between competitors; and the development of extensive grandstands or stadium-style spectator seating surrounding many of the courses.



This is where Billy presents his races during Bike Week and Biketoberfest.
This is where Billy presents his races during Bike Week and Biketoberfest.



One guy stepped up recently to revive the world of board track racing, Billy Lane. Sons of Speed racing also enhanced his business of building and restoring the most valuable antique motorcycles is the industry today. Billy, with all his SOS riders and competitors including Berry Wardlaw and Jody Perewitz are bringing back these magnificent machines and making them available to young enthusiasts who can’t get enough of these wild machines.



Editor’s additional note: If you want to step into the early world of motorcycles and motordromes, check out Don Emde’s magnificent book called “The Speed Kings.” Below is a short description from a Charles Fleming review:



In his expansive new book ‘The Speed Kings’, motorcycle historian and Daytona 200 race winner Don Emde has chronicled the meteoric rise and tragic fall of American board track racing, which at its peak in the early 1900s rivaled baseball as America’s number one spectator sport and made its champions into the country’s first national sports heroes.



Emde spent four decades collecting images and information on “motordrome” racing, which flourished in the U.S. between roughly 1909 and 1914, ultimately compiling 6,000 pages of data. From this he has created a dense, oversized coffee table book, massive in scope and weight, packed with the ephemera of a bygone era. Included are more than 600 photos.

--Charles Fleming
The Vintagent
A Motorcycle Arts Foundation Production
 
 
Just reprinted my first book again. It's about a bro getting his motorcycle stolen and going after it. Based on a true story. I'll sign every copy.
Just reprinted my first book again. It's about a bro getting his motorcycle stolen and going after it. Based on a true story. I'll sign every copy.


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