We all know about the Brickyard, but who remembers the Lumberyard? In the prewar and interwar periods, many will be surprised to learn that automobile racing in America was dominated by massive board tracks. These were steeply banked speedways reaching up to 2 miles in length and built entirely of wood. Open-wheel cars would speed around them at up to 135 mph, fueling a fervor that made speedway racing the most popular American spectator sport between 1910 and 1930.
Unfortunately, this era is little known today, even among dedicated racing enthusiasts. The tracks were lost to time, even though two dozen of them once dotted the Continental U.S. This was an exhilarating era that cemented America's fascination with speedway racing that lives on to this day in Indy Car and NASCAR racing.
Board tracks were modeled after the velodromes of the day. Since the 1880s, bicycle track racing had been a huge spectacle, often garnering large crowds across Europe and North America. Once gas engines became commonplace, those same tracks were used for early motorcycle races. Since the motos of the era were little more than pedal bikes with a single-cylinder engine, it was a logical evolution.
One famous bike racer of the latter 19th Century was British World Champion, Jack Prince. He journeyed to the U.S. to promote British bicycles in America. He raced on velodromes and, when his racing days were over, he set out to build wooden velodromes that were typically 1/8th of a mile in length.
In 1909, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was opened as a test and race track. It was originally an oil-dirt track, but the surface broke up during the inaugural race. Carl Fisher, the track’s founder, began paving the track in late 1909. When complete, he had utilized 3.2 million 10-lb bricks. The Brickyard, as it was instantly known, created quite a stir.
A Hungarian engineer who resided in the U.S. took note. Frederick Moscovics had worked for Maybach and Daimler, and was also an amateur bicycle racer on -- you guessed it -- velodromes. He thought speedways would be the next big thing, and envisioned California as a great place to build one. Moscovics reached out to his old friend Jack Prince for his velodrome designs. Prince, who was a savvy businessman, partnered with Moscovics to build the Los Angeles Motordrome in Playa Del Ray.
The Motordrome was a 1-mile circle that was an ample 45-feet wide, steeply banked at 20 degrees. The track was constructed of pine 2x4s, with the edges making up the track surface and it was encircled with guardrails to protect the 40,000-strong crowd.
Opening races took place in April 1911 and featured notable drivers such as Barney Oldfield, Ralph DePalma, and Ray Harroun. Oldfield set a new one-mile speed record of just over 36 seconds, with 5-mile and 10-mile records also set on the boards. A little more than two years after the venue opened, the Los Angeles Autodrome was consumed by a fire and never rebuilt.
The partnership of Jack Prince and Fred Moscovics flourished. The pair promoted the ideas of board tracks across the United States with great success. Following is a list of the tracks they developed between 1910 and 1916:
The scene at the wooden speedways was a spectacle, and people came in droves to watch big-time automobile races. In 1915, a race in Chicago drew 80,000 fans, whereas only 60,000 were at the Indianapolis 500 three weeks prior.
World War I stopped many endeavors, including automobile racing and track building. Many of the sport’s stars went off to fight the war, and resources were directed to the war effort. Once hostilities ended, life returned to normal, except with the newfound freedoms and consumerism of the Roaring Twenties.
A group wanted to build a speedway in Beverly Hills to attract the same large crowds that went to the Los Angeles Motordrome. The project’s civil engineer was Art Pillsbury who contacted Jack Prince for help with his design. With the goal of building the fastest racetrack in the nation, Prince took his construction expertise and incorporated a clever innovation from Pillsbury.
The early tracks had dangerous transitions from the straights to the banked curves. This was hard on drivers and frequently caused accidents. Pillsbury borrowed an idea from the design of railways called the Searle Spiral Easement Curve. Without going into the complex mathematics underlying it, this new transition meant a car could drive into a banked corner and not even have to turn the steering wheel or brake. It was fast, really fast -- and this design became the standard for every speedway since.
The 1-¼ mile Beverly Hills Speedway opened in February 1920 and attracted the Hollywood elite to watch brave drivers compete and speed records tumble. Fifty thousand spectators flocked to the track's opening to see Jimmy Murphy average 103 mph for a 250-mile race.
The collaboration of Jack Prince and Art Pillsbury was even more successful than the previous one with Moscovics. Over the next few years, they built fifteen more tracks:
The wooden tracks featured a latticed support structure with a look familiar to those who have spent time around a wooden rollercoaster. Jack Prince turned the process into an organized system that could have tracks built in only a matter of weeks. He would select sites that had a railroad spur, ample unskilled labor and timber, and a local government that would pay for the track.
Board track racing was dangerous for both racers and spectators. The wooden surface was soft, and the cars would turn splinters into projectiles. One account said the splinters were “as large as bayonets, and as common as hares.” The wooden daggers would penetrate flesh, with racers having to de-splinter their faces and necks after a race.
Crashes were common and frequently fatal. There were innumerable accounts of race cars flipping, largely due to a lack of any real safety equipment to speak of. Drivers often ended up under the car with the mechanic, or worse, or thrown into a trackside structure. The speedways did have some safety engineered into them with guardrails to protect cars from catapulting into the spectator areas.
By creating a readily available audience and ample prize money, the speedways made it feasible to compete and develop cars. The purse was often $25,000 or more, which was quite a sum in those days. It attracted cars from domestic manufacturers like Duesenberg, Packard, Hudson, Stutz, Mercer, Frontenac, and MiIler, as well as from foreign makes like Peugeot, Sunbeam, Mercedes, and FIAT.
Engineers were hard at work to make the cars more powerful and handle better. Duesenberg was the first to use centrifugal superchargers, a.k.a. “Sidewinders” in 1924. The following year saw balloon tires mounted to wire-spoked wheels as well as Miller's innovative front-drive racers.
It is still a bit shocking how little is remembered of this era. Perhaps the very nature of the building material contributed to this. The tracks were impermanent by default, as no suitable preservatives existed at that time. The high maintenance costs meant that the economic model was always going to be an uphill battle. The speedways started to fade in the late 20s, and the Great Depression put them to the sword.
Their legacy lives on in the uniquely American racing culture that emphasizes speedways. After the war, asphalt and concrete became the preferred surfaces. In the U.S., Indy Cars continue the open-wheel tradition, while NASCAR stock cars also joined in the fun.
The attraction is that spectators can view all of the race action at once. As compared with road racing, the venues are more space-efficient and can be located in or near urban areas. This concentration of fans, and the carnival atmosphere that was introduced in the board-track era, is a wonderful formula to encourage popularity and a successful business model.
We owe a great debt to Jack Prince and his partners Fred Moscovics and Art Pillsbury for popularizing this wonderful form of racing. It drove our car culture as well as U.S. car manufacturers forward in ways that we still experience today.