January 30: The Need for Speed
2016/01/30 § 1 Comment
On this day in 1910 work began on the first board-track automobile speedway.
Of course this monument to car culture was built in America, very appropriately in California. But its predecessors were located in surprising places. Auto racing was invented approximately 37 seconds after the first gasoline-powered car was invented, and you’d expect the first race happened in Detroit, or in Indianapolis, right? Penser encore, mon ami! The first recorded automobile race took place in Paris and was staged in 1887. (To get an idea of the event, observe an excellent French car from 1895 here.) The first race on American roads was hosted by the Chicago Tribune in 1895; the first race on a circular road built specifically for that function happened in 1903 on a repurposed Milwaukee horse racing track.
The construction of purpose-built structures followed these swift developments, beginning with board track motordromes: oval race courses built of wooden planks, based on the steep-banked design of bike racing velodromes (again with the French!). Designed by Jack Prince and built in Playa del Rey, the motordrome shown above was the first in the world. A one-mile elevated wooden autoracing track, it took only sixteen days to build and cost just $12,000 (which would be maybe $250,000 today). Beginning 8 April 1910, its opening weekend witnessed three days in which racing records were wiped from the slate “as chaff before a gale.” The April 14, 1910 edition of the weekly–weekly, mind you–publication The Motor World, truly a paragon of gearhead gazettes, included a lengthy report of the new board track that was immediately deemed “a Hummer” (read the full report here). Crowds of 10,000 on the first day grew to 12,000 as news about the cars’ great speeds and the general thrill of the races spread. One of the superstars responsible for the “general slaughter of records” was Barney Oldfield’s car, “Lightning Benz,” which orbited the track in a mere 36.22 seconds. (Clio admits to a crush on Barney Oldfield, described here as “the first automotive delinquent;” muses are not immune to the alluring danger of a bad boy.)
Officially known as the Los Angeles Motordome, the track was sometimes referred to as a Coliseum, referring not only to its shape but also the potential violence of its contests, which was evident from the start. Already on its third day of operation, race fans witnessed the track’s first accident, when a mechanical failure caused a car to fly into the strip of sand that circled the inside of the track and roll over four times before stopping. Had it instead spun away from the center of the track, it would have easily mowed into the viewing stands, which had no effective safety barrier. The thrills and spills of that April weekend inaugurated a spate of board track construction across the US. Through the next twenty years, two dozen similar tracks sprang up across the country and delighted thousands while probably maiming hundreds. Cheap to build and wildly entertaining, motordromes were also expensive to maintain and seriously deadly. Newspapers nicknamed them “murderdromes.” The LA track had a short but glorious life: it burned on 11 August 1913, just forty months after opening. The other velodromes it inspired either burned or were torn apart to make way for a new track technology instituted in the 1930s after the glorious innovation of asphalt, which paved the way (ahem) for the American treasure which is NASCAR.
See a 1921 race of motorcycles on a really steep track in Beverley Hills here.
See more cool vintage races courtesqy Youtube here.
See the first Indy 500 (May 30, 1911) here.
image: postcard of the Los Angeles Motordrome (from this source)