The Forgotten Gladiators of the Motorcycle Arena
No one will argue that it takes guts to race any motorcycle. Modern-day bike racing continues to excite and thrill in a way that no other sport can match. Even the most hardened Formula 1 or NASCAR fan will concede that those who risk their limbs on-board two-wheeled rocket ships are of a different breed.
But, at the turn of the century, two-wheeled racing looked very different indeed. The kind of death-defying feats performed on tracks across the US makes the Rossi’s and Lorenzo’s of the present day look as if they have a cushy gig.
Early motorcycle racing is documented to have started in the UK, with the first official race in 1897 at Sheen House. It wasn’t long before the phenomenon took hold across the pond. But whereas British racing took part on repurposed horseracing tracks and closed roads, the US interpretation evolved into “board tracks.”
The idea was simple: use the same design of circuits that had existed for pedal-powered competition, otherwise known as velodromes. These wooden tracks featured oval layouts with steep banks. Competitive motorcycles of the time resembled bicycles with engines strapped to them, so the development almost seemed natural.
The larger and more sturdy circuits that were created were called motordromes and could even incorporate automobile races. Not before long, there was a US calendar of racing, with around 24 tracks around the country. The public loved it. The speeds achieved by these daredevils on two wheels was something that had never been witnessed in history. With some banks as steep as 50 degrees, the racing became faster and more dangerous.
But popularity was booming. All major motorcycle manufacturers saw participation. Companies such as NSU and Indian led the way, with the riders becoming the gladiators of their era.
After shying away from the concept initially, Harley Davidson made their own successful entry in the 1910s. Their team, owing to continual success, was dubbed “The Wrecking Crew.” Harley’s team members soon became the first superstars of motorcycle racing. At the same time, winning Harley-rider Ray Weishaar popularised the term “HOG,” thanks to his pet pig, which he used to carry around on his frequent victory laps.
But the board tracks were set to be a short-lived feature in US motorsport. With speeds getting higher and many bikes getting faster—some riders reaching speeds of 100 mph—the dangers continued to mount. The threat that had initially served as a crowd-drawing novelty soon turned into negative PR.
The board track layouts themselves were dangerous, not only for riders but for spectators too. With punters sitting on top of the tracks, peering down the banks, the risk was immense. In one particularly horrific incident at the 1912 Nutley, New Jersey velodrome, “Texas Cyclone” Eddie Hasha wiped out at over 90 mph. His bike went into the stands, reportedly decapitated a boy who had peered through the railings, then killed several other spectators, before falling back onto the track and into the path of another rider: Johnny Albright. Albright would also lose his life owing to the crash, while Eddie was killed on impact.
Many point to this grizzly low-point as the beginning of the end for board track racing. The incident made front-page news, while outlets across the country began to label motordromes as “murderdromes.” In addition to the dangers, the tracks themselves were borderline unsuitable racing. Not only did they not last long—on average five years before complete refurbishment was required—the splintered surfaces were deadly for spectators, mechanics, and any rider who fell facedown. All of this, coupled with the depression, meant that by the 1930s, board track racing was practically non-existent.
While the board track races themselves may be confined to the history books, the preservation and reincarnation of the bikes that made up this legendary era of racing mean such gladiatorial machines can still be experienced up close and personal today.
Bikes such as the recreation of 1913’s Gladiator Racer, and an original 1931 Harley Davidson Peashooter, can all be experienced courtesy of the Throttlestop Museum. Also on display is the 1000cc 1914 Indian Twin Board Track Racer, a bike that could reach near 100 mph—but with no brakes. Also on display is a replica of a 1925 Harley Davidson Track Racer, it too with a 1000cc engine, rigid frame, and external oil pump.
If you ever want to gaze upon reminders of an era of literal racing rock stars, head down to the Throttlestop Museum, located near the Road America Speedway, in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin.