‘Speed fans felt the blood creeping up to the roots of their hair’

Motorcycle board-track racing took America by storm in the early years of the 20th century. But it wasn’t long before the motordromes became known as murderdromes

Jake De Rosier’s 998cc Indian is fully on its side, just about parallel to the ground and 30 feet above it, as he sweeps around the speedbowl’s west banking, closing in on the race leader.

Wood splinters thrown up from the pinewood boards by Paul ‘Daredevil’ Derkum’s Reading-Standard motorcycle stab De Rosier’s knuckles. Hot oil from its engine smears his goggles and stings his cheeks. Now he lets his machine run loose, allowing centrifugal force to take him high up the wooden banking at around 90 miles an hour, then he lets gravity take over, plunging down the boards to swoop past Derkum, into the lead.

Leaving the angry noise of Derkum’s steed behind, he aims at the east banking for the final time: last lap, pay day. The g-force sucks him deep into the planking, the Goodyear Blue Streak tyres squirming ominously as his right hand works the oil pump to feed fresh lubricant into the straining engine. He can almost smell the fat wad of dirty dollar bills that will be his, for cheating death and beating the rest once again.

Swinging off the banking, De Rosier’s Indian is charging hard on full throttle, its engine chattering like a Gatling gun, gobs of blue and yellow flame bolting from its stubby exhausts. Out of nowhere, he is jolted from his reverie by an almighty thump. It’s that mad young idiot from Texas, sneaking underneath him. How the hell did he get there? Charles “Fearless” Balke and his Thor v-twin have the momentum. As Balke swings past into the lead he kicks Rosier’s left leg, throwing the Indian off course, right up towards the high line, so close to the barrier that De Rosier can smell the perfume of the bonneted ladies sitting in the grandstand, shrieking in delight at the sight of a man risking life and limb for their entertainment. He has to back off for a moment and the young upstart has beaten him. Curse it, the stinking dollars won’t be his; not today anyway.

WHAT WAS HAPPENING at Brooklands during the early years of the twentieth century was merely a game of jolly hockey sticks compared to what was going on in the United States. Board-track racing around motordromes was the mad thrill of riders whirling around steeply banked tracks built from acres of pinewood, “like flies clinging to a ceiling”. Board-track racing was less like Brooklands and more like a horrific collision between Ben HurRollerball and a bar-room brawl. It was like a fairground wall of death, only much deadlier.

Riders raced around the boards at speeds exceeding one hundred miles an hour, indulging in all kinds of dirty, rotten tricks to get the glory, the gold and the girls. Fistfights – before, during and after the racing – were all part of the show.

The USA’s board-tracks were velodromes on steroids: quarter-miles at first, then half-miles and miles, constructed by armies of carpenters with thousands of feet of two-by-four timber and tons of nails. The timber was rough-cut, to help tyres get traction, although they didn’t have much chance against oil sprayed onto the boards by total-loss lubrication systems and open valves. Some promoters coated their tracks with crushed seashells to improve grip. Others sprayed the boards with lye, a corrosive that causes nasty chemical burns to the skin and can be fatal if swallowed.

As speeds increased, the banking got steeper and higher, rising from the 20 degrees used in velodromes to more than 60 degrees, and 50 feet high. Maintenance workers needed ladders to maintain the upper reaches of these wooden speedbowls and riders had to reach 50 miles an hour before they could even climb the banking, so all races were started with rolling starts, triggered by a pistol shot.

The hideous dangers of this new form of racing weren’t a problem; in fact the danger was loudly celebrated and promoted, because this was what the punters wanted: the scary thrill of watching fellow human beings racing past, just inches away, within a whisker of heaven or hell. “Neck and neck with death!” shouted one sign nailed to the outside of Detroit’s Michigan Motordrome.

The press was in on the deal, whipping up the crowd’s lust for blood between the riders. “There’s no valid reason why every race on the programme should not be a hair-raising fight for blood and supremacy between riders,” wrote a Los Angeles Herald reporter, previewing an early LA board track meet.

The American public, many of whom had never seen anything faster than a horse, were knocked sideways by the speed, noise and thrill of board-track racing. Dozens of so-called saucer tracks were erected across the USA, from LA to New York and from Washington State to Daytona. The biggest crammed in forty thousand fans on bleachers and grandstands built above the banking; 25 cents general admission, an extra 75 cents for a grandstand seat.

The races were staged amidst a carnival atmosphere; “the pistol cracked, the band played,” with “something happening every second the spiteful hiss of gas explosions are heard”. The invariably vicious racing provided the “nerve pulsations that the public looks for”, so much so that the “speed fans felt the blood creeping up to the roots of their hair.”

But you don’t get something for nothing. Unlike Brooklands and its wide-open spaces, board-track events frequently ended in bloody tragedy. Dozens of racers and spectators died, so the motordromes were rechristened ‘murderdromes’.

BOARD RACING HAD many stars but the sport’s first superstar was Jake De Rosier, a Canadian whom the Americans always assumed was French. Born in Quebec, De Rosier was four years old when his family moved to the USA, where he became one of New England’s top racing cyclists. At the turn of the century De Rosier became obsessed with motor bicycles and met Oscar Hedstrom, the founder of America’s first major motorcycle brand: Indian.

De Rosier and Indian became motorcycle racing’s first great rider/factory partnership. They became ‘Lords of the Boards’, dominating board-track racing for half a decade, an eon in a sport that had a habit of snuffing out its greatest exponents.

In Los Angeles newspapers, De Rosier was variously referred to as the doughty Frenchman mounted on his redoubtable Indian, the hard-headed Frenchman, the terrible Frenchman, even Napoleon. And he didn’t like it. “There are a lot of people in this town who have made fun of me and called me a foreigner,” he told the Los Angeles Herald.

De Rosier was a slight, slender figure who earned a lot of money and knew how to spend it. His riches came from generous factory salaries, cash purses from promoters and all kinds of dodgy dollars earned from the gambling industry that flourished around the speedbowls.

De Rosier never had a problem spending what he earned. “It may be fine business to wear big diamonds, get out of bed when you are tired of sleeping, and eat nothing but half-fries and terrapin, whether you are hungry or not,” wrote The Indianapolis Star. “But if you have to break your legs, arms, head and ribs and pass all your spare time in some hospital in order to get such luxuries, the ordinary man would probably rather take a chance at the corn beef and cabbage of life than at the joy stuff that makes one’s stomach think it’s a ballet dancer.

“There are those who do not think that way, however, and one of these is Jake De Rosier. He has had all kinds of accidents, from cracking his head to having his feet burned, and he 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.”

The fact that death was a real risk for De Rosier and his rivals was no surprise considering the protective gear they wore, or rather, the protective gear they didn’t wear. De Rosier’s preferred racing attire was wind-cheating theatrical tights, canvas running shoes and a woolly jumper. Only later did riders protect themselves with cowhide suits, gauntlets and flying hats.

De Rosier made his best money at the Los Angeles Coliseum, America’s first motordrome, constructed in 1909 at Hooper Avenue and 35th Street. The venue was wildly popular. Especially when it came to the evening’s main event: the long-awaited showdown between Indian team-mates De Rosier and Derkum.

“Cheers from 10 thousand throats hailed Derkum as the new leader. And again the desperate battle renewed. This time De Rosier strived for the lead, calling on his machine as it had never been called on before. Slowly, but surely, he repeated the thrilling, hair-raising trick turned by Derkum and De Rosier resumed his place at the front.

“And still once again did Derkum creep steadily towards De Rosier, inch by inch, but still creeping, turning corners with a swish and a rush of speed so terrific as to be demoniacal and tearing onto the straights with not a perceptible change in their mad work. And as grimly and desperately as Derkum laid down to his work, as equally grim and desperate was the fight made by De Rosier in maintaining his lead.

“It was a battle royal and there was not a man, woman or child present who didn’t feel a thrill of admiration for two men with such steady heads and such nerveless bodies, who held their machines true to the lines of the track as they followed its changing contour from high banks into the more level straightaway and into the high banks again. Try as he would, Derkum could not again gain an equal footing with De Rosier and at the finishing pistol he was but two short wheel lengths behind.”

Indian was one of the first manufacturers to run what would now be called a factory team, with great care lavished upon its racing stable.

“The machine De Rosier rides is of the most sensitive construction, delicate in every part; and the care it receives, if devoted to many a child of the poor, would be a mercy.”

De Rosier’s Indian 998cc v-twin, with pushrod-operated overhead valves, was good for 130 miles an hour, which must have felt more like 250 miles an hour. De Rosier sat on a leather bicycle saddle, his backside an inch or two above the two-inch rear tyre. There were no brakes, no suspension, no gearbox and no clutch. No throttle, either, just a magneto cut-out button, which the rider used like a trigger: press and go. The engine either ran at full throttle, or not at all.

DE ROSIER BECAME an LA superstar, the Barry Sheene or Valentino Rossi of his age, even though this so-called immigrant was never popular with the LA papers.

“The solemn Jake has little or nothing to say about what he expects to do this afternoon, it being a characteristic of this son of France to keep largely to himself,” wrote the Los Angeles Herald. “He wanders about, Napoleon-like, wrapped in thoughts wholly his own, but there is the same old determined look on the face of this daring French motorcycle rider which has carried him through many events and brought him home the winner.”

Just like the real Napoleon, there was another side to De Rosier. In April 1909 he was caught up in a great LA scandal, which had the local press in a fever. Even back then, in fact especially back then, the “City of Angels” was anything but.

“Pretty girl elopes with motorcycle rider,” exclaimed the LA Heraldheadline. “Miss Clark under arrest; De Rosier escapes… Mother faints when she is told the truth.”

Twenty-eight-year-old De Rosier had started an affair with 16-year-old Pearl Clark, the daughter of a wealthy local family. The pair’s assignations went along just fine until the pair took the relationship to the next level.

Journalists took the story and ran with it, enjoying every twist and turn. “Pining for the excitement of the outer world, the glare of the electrics, the charm of the café orchestras and the taste of rare wines and rich viands, Pearl Clark escaped the quiet surrounding of her home, Wednesday night, and plunged into the life she thought she wanted.”

The pair eloped to Venice, LA’s fancy new beachside resort. After several days on the run Clark turned herself into the police and made a full confession, while De Rosier was later arrested.

De Rosier’s manager then arrived at the Clark family home, offering them five thousand dollars if they would convince the police to drop charges. Pearl’s father refused and for good measure, “administered a severe beating while escorting the manager from his premises”.

There is no record of what became of Pearl Clark. Meanwhile De Rosier evaded jail and got on with his career. Two years after his entanglement with Clark he fell out with Indian and moved to the Chigaco-based Excelsior brand.

At first, it seemed like fortune was on De Rosier’s side: Excelsior had a new v-twin that had the beating of Indian’s best. There was only one problem: De Rosier and his new team-mate Charles ‘Fearless’ Balke hated each other.

The pair’s needle was gold for the motordrome promoters, who arranged big-money grudge matches between them. In February 1912 they took their rivalry to the brand-new LA motordrome. They hadn’t even started the race before they got into a fist fight.

The race itself was just as brutal, the pair trading blows throughout, neither of them able to make the break because their identical motorcycles were equally fast. They rode neck and neck until 22-year-old Balke caught a pedal on the banking and went down in a heap, taking De Rosier with him. Balke suffered burns and multiple splinter wounds; De Rosier was knocked unconscious and sustained a compound fracture of his left femur. He died several months later as a result of complications following a number of operations.

It wasn’t De Rosier’s death that sounded the death knell of board-track racing. He was still recuperating from his LA crash when the first of several major incidents occurred.

In September 1912 Eddie ‘The Texas Cyclone’ Hasha was duelling for the lead with Ray Seymour at Newark’s newly built New Jersey Motordrome, outside New York, when his Indian developed a misfire. A quick fiddle under the fuel tank brought the engine back on song, but the bike picked up speed so quickly that it launched him into the fence at the top of the track. Hasha and his bike slid along the railings for 30 yards, killing four young boys who had been peering through the fence. Hasha died instantly when he hit a grandstand upright and was thrown into the crowd. Meanwhile his cartwheeling bike tumbled down the banking, killing another racer and two more spectators.

The following year 10 people died at the Lagoon Raceway in Kentucky where a gas lamp ignited fuel from the split fuel tank of a crashed bike. The conflagration triggered a deadly mass stampede.

In the intervening 10 months between these two smashes, at least nine other board racers were killed, making a total of about 30 fatalities. Board-track was barely half a decade old and already it seemed like its time was over. Not surprisingly, the press turned against the sport, some papers likening it to barbaric Roman gladiatorial combat.

Promoters thought they had an answer to this plague of death and injury: build longer, faster tracks. And they were right. The new one-mile and two-mile circuits gave riders a lot more room to play with and kept spectators out of harm’s way on the straightaways between the turns. And extra railings were added at the top of the banking, to stop machines careering into the bleachers.

However, people had already seen enough. By the mid-1920s most of the board-tracks had fallen into disuse as racers moved into the safer sport of dirt track. At the end of the board-track era the one-mile lap record stood at 110.67mph, not bad for a 40-horsepower motorcycle riding on jumped-up parquet flooring.

Taken from Mat Oxley’s new book Speed: The One Genuinely Modern Pleasure. Only available from www.matoxley.bigcartel.com