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Thread: The Murder Dromes

  1. #1

    The Murder Dromes

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    In 1909, a huge 2.5 mile (4 kilometer) rectangle track was carved into a field in Indiana, and laid with a surface combining crushed stone and tar. Named the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the new venue was a revolution, in that most existing race tracks in America featured a dirt surface. However, exciting as it may have been, the new surface proved distastrous, with the first event at the speedway, a two day affair for motorbikes, had to be shortened to one day due to the surface completely breaking apart under the load. If the surface couldn't cope with bikes, it suely had no chance against cars, but regardless, a three day event was held just two weeks later, again the track quickly tore apart, and again the meeting had to be called early, following five fatalities.

    Racing at the speedway ceased until a solution for the track surface could be found, which came in the form of 3.2 million bricks, earning it the nickname, 'The Brickyard', and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway reopened in 1910. But although the bricks help up well to the rigors of motor racing competition, they made for an impossibly bumpy surface, which itself triggered its own issues, not least of which was the beating impossed on the vehicles racing on it.

    Creating a functional sealed surface on which to race was a challenge that offered limited options, but in 1910, a magnificent new structure was built in California, made entirely out of wood. This incredible feat of engineering was the brainchild of Fred Moscovics, who'd commissioned bycicle racing champion Jack Prince to oversee the venture. Prince had been responsible for the construction of several wooden bycicle racing velodromes throughout the US, and Moscovics approched him about building one for cars, but on a much larger scale.

    The Moscovics-Prince Motordrome was located on the outskirts of the rapidly growing city of Los Angeles, which was riding a popuation explosion. An army of builders constructed the new speedway using a combination of 8x2 timber for the framework, and millions of 4x2 planks for the track surface. With its 45 degree banking, and 1 mile (1.6kms) length, Moscovics claimed this would be the worlds first 100mph race track, fighting talk considering Indy was barely breaking 80mph.

    The 100mph lap never was quite achieved at Moscovics-Prince Motordrome, although Barney Oldfield came very close. The Moscovics-Prince Motordrome lasted just three years, before it caught fire in 1913, and burnt to the ground. However, its success prompted Prince to form a new company, the Prince Speedway Company, offering its services in building other board tracks for customers throughout the US, and would go on to construct another 15 tracks of varying lengths, shapes, and levels of banking.

    Perhaps the most famous of all the board tracks was the Los Angeles Speedway, which opened in 1920. This magnificent and immense creation was located in the new Beverly Hills suburb, which at the time had less than 700 residents. The LA Speedway was a sweeping, charismatic structure measuring 1.25 miles (2.0kms) in length, of rectangle shape, and featuring 35 degree banking in the corners. A huge wooden grandstand towered over the complex, which would be filled to capacity at every event held at the speedway during its brief existence. The LA Speedway claimed only three victims, all in the one incident in November 1920. But history shows this to be one of the most famous racing fatalities of all time, when 28 year old Gaston Chevrolet lost his life, following a tangle with the Duesenberg of Eddie O'Donnell. Chevrolet was driving the same Monroe-Frontenac he and riding mechanic Johnnie Bresnahan powered to victory at the Indianapolis 500 earlier that same year.

    The beautiful LA Speedway and its towering grandstand were torn down in 1924, a result of the rapidly sprawling Beverly Hills population, and spiraling land values.

    The Motordromes were immensely spectacular creations, but also extremely difficult to maintain. The wooden planks would regularly break, often requiring a team of repairmen to remove and replace them as races were taking place immediately above them. The boards required replacement every five years, although many board tracks didn't survive that long. They were also highly dangerous, although this was as much to do with the general ignorance of the times towards safety as a whole as it was to do with the tracks themselves. At some venues, spectators would stand on the outside of the steeply banked turns, leaning over the guard-rails. But when cars spun or crashed on the turns, they'd spear up the track and smash through the outer barriers, skittiling spectators as they did so.

    Racing on the board tracks was hazzardous enough for car drivers and mechanics, racing motorbikes was sheer madness. Riders would end races bloodied and bruised, and often requiring hospital treatment to remove large wooden splinters kicked up from other bikes. These splinters were often more than a foot long. This was truly an era in which the preservation of human life was more a reactive measure than a preventative one.

    Most board tracks claimed at least one human life, many much more so, prompting the media to dub them 'Murderdromes'.

    There are few people alive today who would have witnessed first-hand, racing on the great board tracks. The high maintenance requirements, death tolls, susceptance to fire and other natural elements, along with development in superior alternative track surfaces had wiped most of them out by the late 1920s. The last board track, the half mile Woodbridge Speedway in New Jersey, was torn down in 1931, although the grandstand that accompanied it, remains to this day. They must have been magnificent to behold, giant curvacious structures, with heavily banked corners towering above all that surrounded them. The brave men who entered them to do battle in their loud, smokey, chugging, colourful machines, were modern-day gladiators, but as with any battle, some emerged with their lives, while others were less fortunate.

    Today, any physical evidence that the board tracks ever existed is long gone, only scratchy photographs, and a few rare pieces of film are all that remain.

  2. #2
    Weekend Warrior
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    Oct 2011
    No. VA, US of A // 23.8 miles south of the Pentagon
    Referring to the planked board tracks as "Murder Dromes" seems to be a bit over-dramatic, but then again the sporting press was not much different then from the Talking Heads (although "Airheads" often seems more appropriate -- I find that on the rare occasion I tune into a race that watching with the sound off makes it an infinitely less painful experience) who pontificate on racing today.

    What is interesting is that the almost literal "sudden appearance" of a number of these board tracks during the 1915 season truly changed the arc of national racing for a number of years, just as their demise left the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in a position to utterly dominate US automobile racing for several generations. It could be said the the rise of the board track ensured the fall of road racing, but I would suggest that such an obvious relationship would be somewhat more complicated, of course.

    Although much has been written about the board track, once you begin to dig a bit and start asking questions, the more obvious it is that much of the story has been left out. All that I can say at the moment is that this is an area I am currently researching at the moment --specifically the era during which the board tracks operated rather than simply the board tracks themselves -- and, as usual, I am finding that my lack of knowledge is exceeded only by my ignorance, with much of the pain of connecting the dots regarding what went on "behind the scenes" slowly (and painfully slow at that) beginning to take shape and provide a better context than I one once had for this period. However, much remains to be done.
    Pity the poor Historian! Denis Jenkinson
    Research is endlessly seductive; writing is hard work. Barbara Tuchman

  3. #3
    Agreed, "Murder Dromes" was a little over dramatic. But the media at this time were good for their dramatisation and general ignorance. In that respect, little has changed.

    The board tracks must have been a sight to behold. And sadly one I'll never get to see. Much like the great trans-atlantic ocean liners and giant airships that I find so fascinating. Each the result of mans ambition exceeding his grasp of technology. The result often being hugely complicated, laborious, and sometimes flawed creations that can fail in the most catastrophic way.

  4. #4
    Short piece of video here of one of these magnificent constructions:

  5. #5
    World Champion
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    Oct 2013
    Los Olivos, California, 93441
    Here are some photos of the board track at Beverly Hills, Los Angeles at Wilshire and Santa Monica Boulevards.
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    Check the crowd size.
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    Many race cars had paint jobs that read Durant Racing on the sides. Durant was an American race car driver, the son of William C. Durant, a founder of General Motors who was also the co-owner and president of the Beverly Hills Speedway.

    Durant Drive in the City of Beverly HIlls was named after these Durants.^*^*
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    ( Ken Hyndman ) I wonder what happened to number 3 ?
    Last edited by khyndart in CA; 01-07-2016 at 10:30 PM.

  6. #6
    World Champion
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    Oct 2013
    Los Olivos, California, 93441
    More action at the Beverly Hills raceway.
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    The Speedway operated for four years and attracted many historically significant competitors including Ralph DePalma, Jimmy Murphy, and Tommy Milton. It was also the site of a racing accident that killed National Champion and Indianapolis 500 winner Gaston Chevrolet in 1920.*^

    Gaston Chevrolet was the younger brother of Louis Chevrolet, who in 1911 co-founded the Chevrolet Motor Company.^*^*

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    ( Ken Hyndman )

  7. #7
    These are just amazing. Thanks a lot.

  8. #8
    World Champion
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    Los Olivos, California, 93441
    The more I read about this era the more I am amazed at how dangerous it was for the drivers, riders and spectators.
    Motorcycle riders especially had a very high rate of accidents. They were very brave men.
    Read about the Eddie Hasha incident to find out what happened to cause the demise of some of these tracks.

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    (Ken Hyndman )

  9. #9
    World Champion
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    Los Olivos, California, 93441
    The Indian Motorcycle was popular among the riders at the time of the board tracks.

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    This is an ad for Indian Motorcycles in 1920

    Burt Munroe went on to prove this was true 47 years later in 1967 ! "The World's Fastest Indian".
    A truly amazing story very much admired here in the US.

    ( Ken Hyndman )
    Last edited by khyndart in CA; 01-08-2016 at 09:26 PM. Reason: ..

  10. #10
    Couple of pics from the concrete Olympia Speedway in Maroubra, NSW which ran from 1925 to 1927.
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  11. #11
    the last photo is great gd66 shows the fans really getting involved

  12. #12
    Good story about the board tracks on Ray Evernham's Americarna show recently. Preview here:

  13. #13
    Steve have you a link to the full Americarna?

  14. #14
    World Champion
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    You have to pay on YouTube to see this one.

    (Ken H )

  15. #15
    World Champion
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    Los Olivos, California, 93441
    These drivers were crazy and very brave.

    (Ken H )

  16. #16
    Quote Originally Posted by Oldfart View Post
    Steve have you a link to the full Americarna?
    Hi Rhys, I don't sorry. Its a show that plays on Discovery Turbo here, and was on a few nights ago. I searched for it on the web but the only options that came up were, as Ken said, pay views.

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