Motorcycles: February 2018

The dystopian movie Rollerball, an orgy of over-corporatised, violent sport, was set in 2018. Obviously, it could never happen for real…

The year 2018 is a cultural milestone in motorcycle sport, because it is the year in which Hollywood movie Rollerball is set. Rollerball is a dystopian vision of a 21st century in which American sportsmen spill their blood to entertain the crowds. This ultra-violent ballgame takes place around a sci-fi velodrome, the competitors wearing roller-skates, studded leather gloves and American football helmets and body-armour, some of them riding motorcycles, with which they tow their skating team-mates.

The motorcycles are humble Honda CB125s – single-cylinder four-stroke commuter bikes – dressed up to look bad in shiny sheet aluminium. These machines career around the banked boards, trying to get the rollerball into the goal and spread carnage among rival players.

The more vicious the game, the more the crowd loves it. “They’ll change the rules until we skate on a slick of blood, we all know that,” says one player.

Rollerball, sound-tracked throughout by portentous Bach organ music, was based on a short story, The Rollerball Murders, written by William Harrison. “When I look at the film now, I feel like a prophet,” says Harrison. “In Roman times they had death sports in the Coliseum and the Circus Maximus. They’ve been toned down now into NFL and other sports but they’re still there. When I wrote Rollerball, sports were becoming dark and violent. There was a general nastiness, which I picked up on.”

Perhaps Harrison didn’t only look darkly into the future, perhaps he also looked to the past, to the USA’s first bike-racing craze, board-track.

Board-track was born in the early days of the last century, when motorcyclists (and some car drivers) started racing around velodromes, that had been built in the 1890s for bicycle racing. The new sport was an instant sensation. Dozens of so-called motordromes were constructed from east to west. The tracks got bigger and more steeply banked until they became half-mile walls of death, with riders rattling around the boards on 1000cc Indian or Harley v-twins in bicycle frames, with no brakes, no gears and no clutch. No throttle either, just a magneto cut-out button: full power or nothing.

You didn’t need to be a genius to work out what was going to happen next as gangs of riders fought vicious duels – fisticuffs were all part of the fun – at 90 miles per hour. And once the deaths started happening, they kept on coming. At first, this was anything but a problem for the promoters. “Neck and neck with death!” proclaimed an advertisement nailed to the outside of Detroit’s Michigan Motordrome.

Board-track’s greatest superstar was Jake De Rosier, who became very rich, albeit at the price of a fractured skull, a severed artery, numerous broken limbs and multiple splinter wounds. “De Rosier has probably gouged enough splinters out of board-racing tracks to build a small-sized cottage, with a chicken house and a backyard fence stringing out behind,” reported the Los Angeles Herald.

But the laws of physics made sure it wasn’t only the racers who suffered. Spectators sat in grandstands immediately above the board-tracks, in real danger whenever a rider lost control, which was often.

The beginning of the end for board-track came in September 1912, when Eddie ‘The Texas Cyclone’ Hasha and Ray Seymour were disputing the lead at the New Jersey Motordrome. Hasha crashed heavily, killing himself, one other rider and six spectators. Ten months later another rider and nine spectators lost their lives when a bike veered into the stands at Lagoon Raceway in Kentucky. Deaths became commonplace and the motordromes were renamed murder-dromes. Within a few years the sport itself was dead, replaced by dirt-track racing.

Rollerball doesn’t only concern itself with bread-and-circuses entertainment. The movie looks beyond the velodromes, into the decadent mansions of the star players and executives of the Houston team, which is bankrolled by the Energy Corporation, the global energy monopoly. The grey-haired chairman of Energy sits in his luxuriously appointed office, brooding malevolently while dreaming up crowd-pleasing rules and off-piste scenarios. Remind you of anyone?

The greater premise of Rollerball is that all nations are bankrupt and the world is run by giant corporations. Sport is now just another business, run by obscenely rich megalomaniacs, addicted to the vicarious glamour and pleasured by beautiful androids. You can’t help but think that Harrison very nearly got it all right.

The idea behind the sport itself is that it serves a double social purpose of keeping the proletariat amused and demonstrating the futility of individual effort. It’s all about the team, all about doing what you’re told and working together. “No man is bigger than the sport,” growls the Energy chairman.

However, he’s wrong. The star of the movie is Jonathan E, played by James Caan, who sets himself against his controllers, who plot to destroy him via a new game format: play to the death. But Caan is the game’s only survivor. The crowd chant his name as the chairman of Energy shuffles away, aware that he has lost control of the sport. People will always love heroes.

Rollerball is worth a watch, but make sure you see the 1975 original, not the 2002 remake, described thus, “A checklist shaped by a 15-year-old mallrat: thrashing metal track, skateboards, motorbikes, cracked heads and Rebecca Romijn with her top off.”

Mat Oxley has covered premier-class motorcycle racing for many years – and also has the distinction of being an Isle of Man TT winner