The major race tracks used to be Brooklands in Britain, Montlhéry in France, Monza in Italy, and Indianapolis in America, thinking in terms of pure speedways, not road-orientated circuits. A lesser track was the Avus in Germany, while for a time Spain had Sitges. Now Brooklands is derelict, Montlhéry little used, the Monza banked track likewise, but in the USA the Indianapolis Speedway, that slightly-banked oval dating back to 1911. is still the scene of the great annual 500 Mile Race, won last year by a Cosworth DFX-powered March 83C at over 164 mph. And other speedways, such as that at Daytona, Teledaga, Michigan, etc, flourish in the USA.
This makes it intriguing to look back at the older tracks that once prospered in America. In the vintage years the AAA Championships, decided on points scored during the season, were much in evidence, run incidentally with very tight control over who was permitted to compete. According to the late Roland King-Farlow, some of whose writings I have been consulting, a “rookie” driver was required to prove that he could lap safely within seven seconds of the existing lap-record for any half-mile track, or within 12 seconds of the lap-record for a one-mile track, he was proposing to race at. Apparently, even after thus proving his skill, the new driver was required to submit to a test observed by older drivers. If no objection was registered a limited Race Permit would be issued by the AAA but even then it was some time before a Full Race Permit would be granted, subject to how the “rookie” made out — a system faintly akin to the labelling of beginner-competitors with an “X” in our Club races. This, alas, did not prevent some pretty horrific prangs occurring with some frequency on these American tracks, the reason ascribed by King-Farlow being the very small tracks on which many starters were all running at approximately the same, very high, speed.
So what were these tracks? In the period 1931 to 1933 there were AAA National Championship races at Indianapolis, Roby, Syracuse, Oakland, Detroit, Buckingham and Cleveland. Races counting towards the Pacific South-West Championship were, in the nineteen-thirties, contested by single-seaters only, at tracks such Legion-Ascot, San Jose, Oakland, Bakersfield, Culver City, El Centro other smaller tracks. These latter tracks had a lap-distance of five-eighths of-a-mile or half-a-mile, except for that at Oakland which boasted a full mile. At Legion-Ascot where 1932 National Champion Bob Casey who had finished fourth in the Indy 500 in a Miller at over 101 mph, was killed in 1933, they had introduced racing at night, under floodlights, as has come to football and cricket in our time.
The AAA enforced stringent rules at these speedways, the like of which came late in Europe, so that visitors from there were invariably impressed. For example, drivers and pit-staff had to wear clean overalls, the competing cars had to be presented at the start line in like order and perhaps rather earlier than was insisted on in Europe, there had to be a “firewall” between engine and cockpit. No doubt this was why such experienced people as Clive Gallop, Sammy Davis and so on used to come back from Indianapolis full of the spotless condition in which they found the workshops, “Gasolene Alley”, and the rest of the Speedway set-up. King-Farlow used to tell an amusing tale of another strict AAA rule, to the effect that any driver found to have been drinking would be instantly excluded, amusing only because Prohibition was then rife throughout the United States. . . The fact remains that pictures of these early American race tracks show the spectators seated in stands on the outside of the bends, where, although protected from the cars by what looks like an early form of Armco-type guard-rail, they appear to be in no little danger when one of the inevitable accidents happened. Not that I have any record of a paying spectator being injured at these speedways.
The first American tracks of note, hoping one supposes to prosper after seeing the impact of Indianapolis, were the steeply-banked board tracks. They were built mostly from about 1915 onwards. The best-known of these was Altoona, which was said to pull in 50,000 spectators as its average race-day attendance, whereas I reckon 30,000 was a near-record gate at Brooklands, achieved only on its “big” days. According to King-Farlow there were altogether at least 23 of these American board tracks, at Twin-City, Sheepshead Bay, Chicago, Tacoma, Atlantic City, Cincinatti, Cotati, etc, where crowds would be drawn to fast races between single-seater Millers and Duesenbergs. These crowds were said to be 30,000 or more strong, for each meeting, and the racing was extremely fast, Frank Lockhart having apparently lapped the Atlantic City boards at 147 mph as early as 1926, if we accept American tinting. Of course, big prize money was an incentive in the USA, where in those vintage years at least 25,000 dollars could be taken by winning at Indy, with not less than 50 dollars per mile guaranteed in the AAA Championship contests.
After the demise of the board-tracks American races were often run over dirt tracks with a loose cinder surface, on which drivers could slide their cars in spectacular fashion round the bends. Such tracks were built at Cleveland, Detroit, Roby, Syracuse and Rockingham and were of around five-eighths-of-a-mile to a lap. It was at tracks of this kind that Ernie Triplett took the S-W Championship in 1931 and 1932 and looked like doing the hat-trick when he crashed at Ascot in 1933, in races dominated by accelerative four-cylinder rear-drive Millers.
Drivers trying to graduate to the Big Time would race over very small “pirate” dirt-tracks not sanctioned by the AAA, often badly constructed with surfaces in poor condition and at which boring, bumping in stock-car racing style, and even sabotage are said to have been resorted to, with the result that competing there was almost always very dangerous and sometimes fatal. (Car dirt-track racing did not arrive here until the Greenford and Crystal Palace tracks were opened in 1934, and it was then fortunately contested by comparatively slow cars; by the time British dirt-tracking was better organised it was the preserve of midget racers, the low power of which made it reasonably tame.)
A later but still “vintage” development in America was for dirt-tracks with hard-packed surfaces, slightly banked on the curves, measuring one-mile per lap. It seems that the first of these was constructed at Oakland Speedway and others followed at Trenton and Sacramento. The cars cornered with far less skidding on these more realistic tracks.
The board tracks were the fastest, and they were used for long races, such as a 300-mile contest at Atlantic City, which Harry Hartz won at some 130 mph in a 2-litre Miller. At the same smooth course Bob McDonogh had averaged 142 mph for the first ten miles of such a race when an advertising leaflet dropped from an aeroplane settled on his radiator and he was put out when the engine over-heated. It isn’t surprising that crowds were drawn to races at these fast board tracks, where thrills were plentiful. As, for instance, when a board came loose at Altoona when Billy Arnold was lapping at 115 mph, hitting him in the face; his mechanic steered the car safely to rest. Then when Ray Keech, who had avoided death from the triple-Liberty-engined Triplex LSR car, crashed fatally in a Miller, at the same track, after he had come up on his other entry, a Duesenberg, spinning in his path, Cliff Bergere actually passed beneath his car as it somersaulted in the air. As it landed his car uprooted a length of guard rail. This caused the next driver, Woodbury, to keep low, resulting in him hitting the wreckage head on, this car ending up on its nose with the driver seriously hurt. Evans avoided the wrecked Miller but smote the guard rail, which launched his car into the air and caused it to hit the rail again as it landed, spinning it into the bottom of the banking. After which Triplett, Lou Meyer and Gardner in a front-drive Miller were also involved.
I can understand that these spectacular board tracks, although comparatively inexpensive to build, were not very durable, the sun warping the boards and oil and petrol droppings rotting the wood, so that they had all gone, many years before America condescended to help us win WW2. What I am so curious to know is whether any traces at all remain of any of these American speedways? The uprights that supported the curving boards of a once-proud track, for instance, or maybe an ex-dirt track now used perhaps as a trotting or running track. Roads once adjacent to such tracks named, perhaps, as we have roads named after great racing drivers at Weybridge, so that, if Brooklands Motor Course is allowed to vanish completely, we will at least be reminded of its one-time glories. Is there anything like this in the USA?
Motor Sport has a substantial American readership, with subscribers’ copies flown out by Air-Mail to arrive on publication day, so I am wondering if one of these readers may be able to answer my query. . . . — WB