With many of these posts I will bounce ideas off of my brother or roommate to get a feel for how I should go about presenting a few of the topics. I have always known board track racing as “Murderdromes” and upon asking my brother if he had ever heard of this particular vestige of racing he replied: “Yea, 1.5 mile ovals… Right?” That simple answer rings more true than I think he realized. I am a firm believer that having a working knowledge of championship car racing history makes the insanity that we must live through, courtesy of the current series and media, a bit easier to stomach at times.
The more historical articles I read from bloggers, forum writers and even professional journalists; the more and more apparent it becomes that pre WWII history is often forgotten. Everyone is an expert in USAC and CART history, but few can draw parallels from current trends to AAA sanctioned racing outside of Indianapolis. Board tracks were going to be a quick hit on an indycar lore post, but the more I thought about it; history is nearly repeating itself word for word.
The board track era started Los Angeles in 1910; a location I know as Playa del Rey. A velodrome designer was commissioned to create the first autrodrome; a steeply banked ovals track whose racing surface was created with millions of 2X4’s laid on end. 100 mile per hour laps were predicted at a time when Indy was still in the 80s. The track was short lived; catching fire in 1913, but the groundwork for the next big think in motor racing had been created. John Prince, the initial designer of the track, would create the Prince Speedway Company and go on to build some 15 more tracks of various configurations. ISC…SMI anyone?!?
Many tracks entwined in ancient history were board tracks for their whole life, or at some point in the locations history. Uniontown, Brooklyn, Altoona and many more were all known for their breathtaking races. New Jersey, a short 1/8 mile oval with 45 degree banking and eight second laps, was one of the most fearsome examples. During the non championship year of 1915, the first “championship level” board track race was held at Tacoma Speedway. A five turn track with every other board removed and gravel place into the voids to save some cash. Track historian Wayne Herstad said “There was a saying that all board tracks were awful, and then there was Tacoma.”
Arguably the most famous example was the Beverly Hills Speedway. The 1.25 mile rectangle has 35 degree banking in the corners; tame considering Culver City claimed 60 degrees at their track. During the season ending race in 1920, that years 500 winner Gaston Chevrolet was killed along with two others. Gaston would posthumously win the 1920 championship but would not be the only 500 winner to perish at a board track the same year as their victory. Howdy Wilcox in 1923, and Ray Keech in 1929, both at Altoona Speedway.
These tracks were dubbed Murderdromes in the media of the time. There were no safety provisions at these tracks. Similarly to today on the high banked 1.5 milers, any wreck or equipment failure would send the stricken machine to the outside of the track and collect any other competitors in its way. Unlike today, all that stood in the way of the spectators leaning directly over the edges of the track was a wooden guard rail. Many spectators lost their lives along with the competitors. The stigma stuck, and rightfully so.
The depression, along with the negative stigma, are often cited as the reasons for the extinction of board track racing. There were a few more extenuating factors; the tracks were hard on machinery. Often the fasted, but most reliable, car would win the race as passing at the high speeds seen on these facilities was nearly impossible. As the racing became stale and predictable, the fans moved on. Upkeep was admittedly expensive, but also dangerous. Workers would change broken boards from underneath the track as racing was taking place above. All of these factors led to dirt being the answer. The last championship race on timber was held at the infamous Altoona Speedway in 1931 and was completely dead by the 40’s.
Thankfully, even given the stark similarities to board track racing, 1.5 mile tracks are not destined for the same future. The main difference between then and now is quite simply, technology and knowledge. We have the power to make positive changes in a highly controlled semi-spec series. In the 1930’s, there was more to be learned from the cars, not the tracks. We do not have to make the same mistakes that the trail blazers of motorsports made nearly a century ago. Many people affiliated with the series are currently insuring that 1.5 milers don’t go the way of board tracks.
The stigma of muderdromes, however, has been playing out in the media ever since October 16th. We don’t have the option to go back to dirt in 2013. The series must make big ovals work as there is not quite the large number of safe short oval options there once was. I have a very romantic view on board track racing. The popular, when would you go back to if you could, question immediately sends me in a dream state about racing from the early 1900’s; that is my choice. The danger, the newness; a “wild west” time that we are not in anymore and precisely why we don’t have to forsake the NASCAR D’s. I hope to never only have memories of open wheel 1.5 mile racing.