Cheap to build, hard to maintain and risky to drive, USA board tracks had a brief but glorious existence
Words: Gary Doyle
The rapid development of the world-wide automobile industry in the first three decades of the Twentieth Century brought with it a new and enormously popular spectator sport – motor racing. Auto manufacturers seeking competitive advantage through promotion of their products found a public enthralled with the spectacle, speed, noise, and human drama associated with motorsport.
Both in Europe and America, early racing was confined to public roads and the odd beach and, in the United States, county fair horse racing ovals. American racers and promoters quickly realised the challenges of racing on narrow, dusty surfaces. The roads were inadequate, and closing down major cities for a week to 10 days became untenable. The businessmen who funded racing quickly realised most road events could not be sustained economically. They were promotional nightmares attended by hordes of uncontrolled, enthusiastic spectators who were there free of charge, creating danger for themselves and the drivers. The only alternatives were the brick-surfaced Indianapolis Speedway and the dirt tracks which had their own set of problems and dangers.
Then the perfect solution presented itself: board ovals. These huge structures made of wood, steel and concrete dominated American championship racing from 1915 to 1930. From 1916 to the end of the period the American Automobile Association (AAA) driving title gradually focused on the ‘wooden wonders’. The growth of this type of automobile racing was unique to the United States.
John ‘Jack’ Prince was almost single-handedly responsible for their creation. He was a professional bicycle racer from Great Britain who came to America to compete, and never left. His company built all three forms of board track; bicycle, motorcycle and automobile. Prince’s race-car ovals were usually a mile and a quarter long, and were a logical outgrowth of the hugely popular spectator sports of bicycle and motorcycle racing. The motorbike demons thrilled crowds with speeds of 90mph on short 60-degree banked ovals, mostly built by Prince between 1909 and 1914 as he moved from place to place satisfying the demand for speed and thrills. He would repeat the process with automobiles.
Other contributory factors included huge pine forests which provided relatively cheap raw materials, and a highly developed rail system to transport the lumber, race cars and people to the site of the track. This allowed any reasonably sized community to consider building one if it was close to major population centres and accessible by car or train. The board tracks quickly became viable alternatives to the road and horse venues, fostering high speed, dust-free competition in a controlled environment and generating welcome income.
The majority of the tracks were built in 45 to 120 days by an army of skilled and semi-skilled workers, something that would take the better part of a year to build today.
The era began with the opening of Maywood Speedway in Chicago on June 26, 1915 with a crowd estimated at 80,000 people, 20,000 more than Indianapolis held just a few weeks before. At two miles in length, the size of the facility, and 500-mile distance of the first race, were intended to offer direct competition to Indianapolis. The race, won by Dario Resta in a 1914 grand prix-type Peugeot, was the only 500-mile race ever run on any board track: the distance proved monotonous for spectators and was replaced with races ranging from 10 to 300 miles which made for tighter competition. Probably the single most exciting board track race was in June 1916 at Chicago where Resta and Ralph De Palma were within a few seconds of each other for almost the entire contest exchanging the lead on almost every lap. Both were in European cars, Peugeot and Mercedes, originally designed for the 1914 French Grand Prix, but equally fast on the slick wood surface.
The early period, from 1915 to the end of 1919, was characterised by the two-mile template on which drivers used a diversity of European and American machines. Besides Peugeot and Mercedes, Stutz, Packard, Hudson, Frontenac, Delage, Mercer, Maxwell and Duesenberg all won races on board tracks. The European cars campaigned by wealthy sportsmen and professional drivers were in the States because of the war, and their sophistication and speed stimulated US manufacturers to develop competitive equipment.
Sheepshead Bay near Coney Island in New York opened on October 9, 1915. The ‘Colossus of Brooklyn’, as it was known, was, along with Los Angeles, the best of the board tracks. It was two miles in length, banked at a modest 17 degrees in turns and built on concrete piers with structural steel, the same as Chicago. In its heyday the venue attracted crowds of more than 100,000 people because of its proximity to Manhattan, the tradition of automobile racing on Long Island and the quality of the competition. Initially the developers were thinking very big. As well as car racing, press reports talked of football contests, World Series baseball games and all manner of sporting events on the huge 400-acre grounds. There was even an airport on site.
Although Arthur Pillsbury, Jack Prince’s engineering partner, said that with proper maintenance Sheepshead Bay could have lasted to the 1950s, board tracks had an average life of three years. They posed a maintenance problem because of the exposed wood and the pounding they took from the fast cars, particularly in the banked sections, and they were very dangerous. The boards were not planed but left natural to provide traction, and were chewed up by the tyres. Many developed holes which drivers had to avoid. They also splintered, throwing up sizeable chunks of wood at significant velocities. Adding to the experience, many contemporary spectators commented on the pungent odours of fresh pine, castor oil and burnt rubber. But there was no way to preserve the wood, and the businessmen-owners lost interest as the costs for maintenance escalated. Sheepshead Bay was also subjected to the economic trials and tribulations of the principal owner and was eventually compromised by organised crime.
Cincinnati and Tacoma were the two other two-mile tracks. Cincinnati lasted from 1916 to 1919; Tacoma started as a dirt track in 1912 and was converted to boards in 1915, with its last race in July of 1922. Cincinnati was a duplicate of Chicago and banked at 17 degrees. Even with the success of the tracks other considerations won out.
In later years The Depression was a factor in the economics of race promotion and car ownership. But most of the ‘wooden wonders’ were consumed by poor management and ultimately the lure of real-estate development. Chicago became a veteran’s hospital to handle the human dislocations of the war, while Sheepshead Bay became a housing project. Others accommodated shopping centres, hotels, schools or various commercial uses.
From 1911 to 1928 there were 24 board tracks built coast to coast, 15 of them after 1920. Perhaps the best model was the Los Angeles Speedway in Beverly Hills, California, which opened on February 28, 1920, the first project of the Prince-Pillsbury partnership. The Los Angeles Speedway Association had the good fortune to be properly funded, and the board of directors included a high-powered mix of business leaders and Hollywood movie executives.
The main entrance to the 100-acre facility was on Wilshire Boulevard at about Rodeo Drive, today one of the most coveted retail locations in the world. The plush infrastructure included a covered grandstand with box enclosures decorated with flowers, and individual grandstand seats with unobstructed views. Even the accent decorations made a statement, being mixtures of orange and blue elements. There was plenty of parking, downtown Los Angeles was 10 miles away on Wilshire, and light rail was nearby. The construction cost was $500,000. The 1.25-mile race track was built in 100 days with Oregon pine 2x4s laid on edge, and banked at 35 degrees in the turns. There were 26 races held between February 1920 and March 1924.
The factor that gave Los Angeles Speedway its lustre was the way Hollywood turned out to support racing. The biggest movie stars were fans; Charlie Chaplin, Tom Mix, Wallace Reed, Mary Pickford and Wallace Beery were some of the more notable. Douglas Fairbanks was a judge at the opening race in February 1920, as were Henry Firestone, Alexander Winton, and Earle C Anthony. During the 1920s Hollywood made 30 feature films based on automobile racing, and some of the drivers became stars.
Jimmy Murphy won the opening race on February 28, 1920, his first board-track victory. A gauge of the popularity of this form of racing was that opening day drew 75,000 people, eight per cent of the entire population of Los Angeles County. A similar percentage today would result in an attendance of 762,000. Murphy was the most successful driver at Beverly Hills winning eight times in the 24 contests he was in. Three of them were 250-mile events, and in one of these, in February 1923, Murphy beat Bennett Hill by 0.06 of a second. Most of the drivers at Beverly Hills and the rest of the board tracks were Americans, though Pietro Bordino and Dario Resta both raced in Los Angeles.
Due to the unique requirements of racing on wood the machines, previously capable of running in road as well as track events, were focused and turned into specialised rockets that were inappropriate for the road. The competition led to the Duesenberg brothers and Harry Miller dominating American racing through sophisticated engine development. Their cars were not competitive on European road races, and foreign race cars did not do well in America. Out of this came the application of supercharging, fuel development, and advances in metallurgy that resulted in the thoroughbred small cars of the late 1920s being capable of speeds of 170 miles per hour from 1½-litre engines.
It took courage and skill to drive a race car on the boards. Because of the high speed, the close quarters, and unforgiving surfaces, success required patience and strategy. Due to pit stops the lead was always changing. Many drivers attempted to go the entire distance without a stop, which was possible only if the tyres held up. Draughting was a technique all had to learn, particularly for the slower cars if they were to have a chance. A driver had to know when to sit in and when to take a chance. Jimmy Murphy and Tommy Milton were the most consistent and proficient drivers, winning 18 and 17 contests respectively. Frank Lockhart was supremely skilled, achieving eight victories in 22 starts in a very brief career.
Accidents were frequent: 24 drivers and mechanics lost their lives, usually in spectacular fashion. Adding to the peril was the total lack of modern safety restraints, helmets, rollover bars, or fire-retardant clothing. The drivers and riding mechanics were in great danger if one of their cars, with its high centre of gravity, blew a tyre, lost its steering gear or struck another car. The men were the only deformable structure. One of the worst accidents occurred on November 20, 1920 at Los Angeles. Gaston Chevrolet, the recent winner at Indianapolis, Eddie O’Donnell and Lyall Jolls, O’Donnell’s riding mechanic, were all killed in a stunning crash late in the race. Popular Roscoe Sarles sailed through the outside guardrail at Kansas City in 1922, falling 60 feet to the ground and burning to death trapped in his car. Again at Los Angeles, Harry Hartz killed two non-drivers as he barreled through the start-finish area prior to the start of a race in February 1923. Ray Keech, fresh from a win at Indianapolis, was killed in 1929 at Altoona.
There were many other fatalities.
The end of the Beverly Hills Speedway was a conscious decision: it was torn down after February 1924 because of its intrinsic value. The land was sold for commercial and residential developments in what is today one of the most exclusive areas of Los Angeles. The Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel sits at the old entrance to the track. It was the template for all other board tracks developed by Prince and Pillsbury, and none was more successful. It was replaced by one at Culver City, opened in November 1924, and although the same ownership and management group were involved, the track was never as successful. It lacked the amenities of Beverly Hills and did not draw such large crowds.
Most of the others failed for lack of money, support or track deterioration. Laurel in Maryland, Charlotte, Atlantic City, Rockingham in New Hampshire, San Carlos and Fulford in Miami all had their own histories, some so short they only lasted for one race. Fulford’s demise may be the most spectacular. After its initial 300-mile race won by Peter De Paolo in February 1926, a hurricane in September completely destroyed the facility. Known as the ‘Big Blow’, the storm brought sustained winds of 150mph, made a direct hit on Miami and caused more than $159 million in property damage, which equates to around two billion in today’s dollars. Fulford looked like a ‘pick-up-sticks’ game. The track had been built by Jack Prince under the direction and supervision of Ray Harroun for Carl Fisher, owner of the Indianapolis Speedway and developer of Miami Beach.
Laurel was the most difficult to drive because of the banking transitions, and Atlantic City (Amatol) was considered the fastest with Lockhart setting the absolute one-lap speed record of 147.229mph there in May 1927, a speed not surpassed at Indy until 1960.
The era of the board tracks has been called the Golden Age of American racing. If it was, its facilities and drivers are little remembered today, unlike contemporary sports personalities from the same time period. Jack Dempsey, Bobby Jones, George ‘Red’ Grange, Walter Hagen, and, of course, Babe Ruth are all firmly ensconced in the Pantheon of American sports heroes. At the time, this style of racing was one of, if not the, most popular spectator sports in America and the speed-king drivers were national celebrities. Today there is not one historical marker in existence to note where a board track thrilled hundreds of thousands of spectators. Certainly Fred and Augie Duesenberg with Harry Miller are given huge credit and remembered for their beautiful machines. Some of the drivers have been promoted to various sports halls of fame. But by and large the board tracks and the brave men who competed on them have passed from memory. Their reign over American racing was brief, but breathtaking.
The board track pilots were national sports celebrities through their daring exploits on the wood. They were revered by race fans and treated as athletic royalty. Because of the sport’s popularity many of the drivers leveraged their skills to reap fame and fortune. Jimmy Murphy in particular became iconic.
In his brief career of five years he won more board-track races than anyone (18 of 50 starts), starred in a movie called Racing Hearts with Agnes Ayers who played opposite Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik, had a foxtrot named after him in a era crazed with dance, and won a fortune. While the pilots usually had no contracts to drive for particular teams or car manufacturers, they made comparable money to today’s drivers, and much more than the average professional athlete of their day. Murphy’s prize money for the five years just on the board tracks was $123,170, which equates to some $4.9 million today.
Public exposure of the drivers was aided by coverage in national newspapers by sports correspondents who were followed by millions of readers. The racing careers, private lives and news of the drivers that the journalists described captivated fans. They were important sports celebrities and were treated as such. The drivers enhanced their image by wearing fine clothes and allowing direct access to themselves in hotel lobbies while competing, and at pre-race parties hosted by wealthy fans where the drivers were honoured guests. It was an extraordinary era defined by risk, reward, opulence, fame and tragedy.