Race teams grid-up for the start of a race at Baltimore-Washington Speedway in 1925.

Board track racing was a type of motorsport popular in the United States during the 1910s and 1920s. Competition was conducted on circular or oval race courses with surfaces composed of wooden planks. This type of track was first used for motorcycle competition, wherein they were called motordromes, before being adapted for use by various different types of racing cars. The majority of the American national championship races were contested at such venues during the 1920s.

Board tracks proliferated in part because they were inexpensive to construct, but they lacked durability and required a great deal of maintenance to remain usable. Many of the tracks survived for as little as three years before being abandoned.

With the onset of the Great Depression in the early 1930s, board track racing disappeared rapidly. However, several of its most notable aspects have continued to influence American motorsports up to the present day, including: A technical emphasis on raw speed produced by the steep banking; ample track width to allow steady overtaking between competitors; and the development of extensive grandstands or stadium-style spectator seating surrounding many of the courses.


Construction of a board track at Uniontown, Pennsylvania in 1916
1912 Indian Board Track Racer, on display at the California Automobile Museum
Motorcycles racing on a board track in 1911
Some early board tracks were circular. This is a view of the Los Angeles Motordrome, the first of its kind.
Barney Oldfield (left) racing a car on a board track in 1915
Qualifying speeds at two-mile Tacoma Speedway were sometimes higher than those at Indianapolis.

The first board track for motor racing was the circular Los Angeles Motordrome, built in 1910 in the area that would later become the city's Playa del Rey district.[1] Based on the same technology as European velodromes used for bicycle racing, this track and others like it were constructed with 2-inch (51 mm) x 4-inch (100 mm) boards, often with turns banked at up to 45 degrees. In some cases, such as the track at Culver City, banking was 50 degrees or more.[2] Longer tracks were later built – some up to 2 miles (3.2 km) long by 1915 - and lap speeds exceeding 100 miles per hour became commonplace.[3][4][5]

Interest in motorsport was exploding during this period and by 1929, at least 24 board tracks had been built around the country, although by 1931, 20 of the 24 had been shut down or abandoned, and from 1932 on there were no more championship-level races run on boards.[6][7] The tracks were relatively inexpensive to construct compared to more permanent facilities – the total facility cost of the 2-mile (3.2 km) Tacoma Speedway was just $100,000 in 1915, compared to the $700,000 spent in 1909 just to pave the 2.5-mile (4.0 km) Indianapolis Motor Speedway.[8][9]

Name Location Track length Years active
Los Angeles Motordrome Playa del Rey, California 1.0 mile (1.6 km) 1910–1913
Oakland Motordrome Elmhurst, California 0.5 miles (0.80 km) 1911–1912
Speedway Park Chicago, Illinois 2.0 miles (3.2 km) 1915–1918
Des Moines Speedway Valley Junction, Iowa 1.0 mile (1.6 km) 1915–1917
Omaha Speedway Omaha, Nebraska 1.25 miles (2.01 km) 1915–1917
Sheepshead Bay Speedway Brooklyn, New York 2.0 miles (3.2 km) 1915–1919
Tacoma Speedway Tacoma, Washington 2.0 miles (3.2 km) 1915–1922
Uniontown Speedway Hopwood, Pennsylvania 1.125 miles (1.811 km) 1916–1922
Cincinnati Motor Speedway Sharonville, Ohio 2.0 miles (3.2 km) 1916–1919
Beverly Hills Speedway Beverly Hills, California 1.25 miles (2.01 km) 1920–1924
Fresno Speedway Fresno, California 1.0 mile (1.6 km) 1920–1927
San Francisco Speedway San Carlos, California 1.25 miles (2.01 km) 1921–1922
Cotati Speedway Santa Rosa, California 1.25 miles (2.01 km) 1921–1922
Kansas City Speedway Kansas City, Missouri 1.25 miles (2.01 km) 1922–1924
Altoona Speedway Tipton, Pennsylvania 1.25 miles (2.01 km) 1923–1931
Charlotte Speedway Pineville, North Carolina 1.25 miles (2.01 km) 1924–1927
Culver City Speedway Culver City, California 1.25 miles (2.01 km) 1924–1927
Rockingham Park Salem, New Hampshire 1.25 miles (2.01 km) 1925–1928
Baltimore-Washington Speedway Laurel, Maryland 1.125 miles (1.811 km) 1925–1926
Fulford–Miami Speedway Fulford, Florida 1.25 miles (2.01 km) 1926–1927
Atlantic City Speedway Hammonton, New Jersey 1.5 miles (2.4 km) 1926–1928
Akron-Cleveland Speedway Northampton Township, Ohio 0.5 miles (0.80 km) 1926–1930[10]
Pittsburgh-Bridgeville Speedway Bridgeville, Pennsylvania 0.5 miles (0.80 km) 1927–1930[10]
Woodbridge Speedway Woodbridge, New Jersey 0.5 miles (0.80 km) 1929–1931

Racing on these tracks often drew large crowds of paying spectators. In 1915, a crowd of 80,000 was reported in Chicago, three weeks after only 60,000 had attended the Indianapolis 500.[6] Relatively small and isolated Tacoma (population 83,000 in 1910) had turned out 35,000 to see a race the year before.[11][12] To attract both competitors and fans, race promoters offered what were then considered sensational amounts of prize money - a total purse of $25,000 was not unusual around the time of World War I.[13][14]

After World War I, the Automobile Association of America's Contest Board resumed and re-organized the National Championship system.[15] From the beginning of the 1920 season to the end of 1931, the AAA sanctioned a total of 123 championship racing events on 24 different race tracks, and 82 of those races were run on wooden surfaces. (Of the remainder, 12 were on the bricks of Indianapolis, and the other 29 were on dirt tracks or road courses.)[16]


Car raced at several board tracks

The first track in Playa del Rey was banked at a 3:1 pitch (about 20 degrees), but later tracks were built with higher banking and some motorcycle tracks were banked up to 60 degrees.[17][18] Even though the physics of such track designs were intuitively obvious, it was not until construction of the Beverly Hills track in 1919 that builders began to incorporate engineering knowledge that had been known to railroads for decades. At Beverly Hills, designer Art Pillsbury, who eventually worked on more than half of the championship-caliber board tracks nationwide, first employed the Searle Spiral Easement Curve, and the effect on car handling was pronounced.[19][20] According to Pillsbury, a correctly engineered track could be driven without steering input from the driver – the car would steer itself, simply due to the track geometry.[19]

The effects of these changes were higher cornering speeds and higher G-forces on drivers, but not necessarily greater safety. Driver fatalities continued to mount on board tracks into the 1920s, and included four Indianapolis 500 winners, three of which occurred at the Altoona track (another Pillsbury design) in Tipton, Pennsylvania, and three in the same years in which the driver won at Indianapolis. Winner of the 1919 Indianapolis 500 Howdy Wilcox died in an Altoona race on September 4, 1923, while co-1924 winner Joe Boyer and 1929 winner Ray Keech both suffered fatal accidents at the facility in the same years as their Indianapolis 500 wins – Keech's occurring only seventeen days after, on June 15, 1929. Gaston Chevrolet, winner of the 1920 Indianapolis 500, perished that same autumn, on November 25, 1920, in a Thanksgiving Day race at Beverly Hills.[21]

Even when the cars did not crash, racing on a board track was exceedingly dangerous due to flying wood splinters and debris, and due to the primitive tire technology and head protection of the era.[22][23] In one oral history taken from a driver, he told a tale of wooden shards driven into the faces of drivers and riding mechanics, and sudden catastrophic tire failures caused by track conditions.[24] Cars were fitted with anti-splinter devices to protect their radiators.[25] Other safety devices also hadn't been invented yet (seat belts, roll bars, or fire protection).[26] Drivers often were ejected from their cars and would fall tens of feet (several meters).[26] Drivers and riding mechanics often were driven over by their own or another car.[26] Pete DePaolo wrote in his book Wall Smacker that racing on boards was "a great sensation, tearing around a board speedway dodging holes and flying timber."[26]

On the motorcycling motordromes, the situation was also very dangerous and the danger was aggravated by the riders' lack of proper safety equipment.[27] Fans sat above the top of the track, looking down at the racers. When a rider lost control, he could slip up off the track and into the crowd. Many fatalities occurred, often involving spectators. The velodrome at Nutley, New Jersey, a 18 mi (200 m) oval banked at 45 degrees (generating lap times of 8 seconds or less) and built from 1 in × 12 in (25 mm × 300 mm) lumber on edge, was "unquestionably the deadliest".[28] On September 8, 1912, "Texas Cyclone" Eddie Hasha was killed at a motordrome in Newark, New Jersey in an accident which also killed another racer and four spectators, and injured ten more. The deaths made the front page of The New York Times,[29] and the press started calling the short 1/4 and 1/3 mile circuits "murderdromes".[18] The 1913 motorcycle championship races were moved to a dirt track because dirt was safer.[30] The national organization overseeing motorcycle racing banned all competitions on board tracks shorter than 1-mile (1.6 km) in 1919.[31] One by one, the manufacturers withdrew their support due to the negative publicity.[27]

The end of board tracks

A major contributor to the demise of board tracks was the high cost of maintenance. There was no suitable wood preservative available, and depending on climate, tracks needed new boards every five years on average.[20] Resurfacing required as much as a million board feet of new lumber per 1.25 miles (2.01 km) of track, which would have cost around $125,000 at the prices prevalent at the time.[20] Thus, during the last decade of the board tracks, carpenters would repair the tracks from below, sometimes even during a race, while the cars raced overhead at 120 mph (190 km/h) or faster.[24]

An additional factor was that as speeds increased, overtaking became more difficult - the fastest car would almost always win the race, as long as it held together long enough to finish. This led to spectators turning their attention to the less-predictable racing that was taking place on dirt tracks.[32]

Though board tracks disappeared from the National Championship scene in 1932, a few smaller tracks did continue to operate for some years afterward. For instance, the Coney Island Velodrome hosted midget racing until at least 1939, and Castle Hill Speedway in the Bronx ran midgets into the 1940s.[33][34]

See also


  1. ^ Gnerre, Sam (January 12, 2011). "Los Angeles Motordrome". South Bay History. Archived from the original on 9 June 2011. Retrieved 24 July 2012.
  2. ^ Davidson, Donald (2005-05-29). "On the Boards". 2005 Indianapolis 500 Official Program. Indy Publications. p. 169.
  3. ^ "1916 - A 100 M.P.H. Speed Era". Automotive Industries, Volume 35. Chilton Company, Incorporated. 1916. p. 1097.
  4. ^ "Speedway Practice - Feb. 5". Motor West. 32: 46. February 1, 1920.
  5. ^ Christensen, Mark; Thacker, Tony (2005). So-Cal Speed Shop: The Fast Tale of the California Racers Who Made Hot Rod History. MotorBooks International. p. 128. ISBN 9780760322635.
  6. ^ a b Borgeson, Griffith (1998). "Chapter 3". The Golden Age of the American Racing Car. SAE International. p. 20. ISBN 9780768000238.
  7. ^ a b Borgeson, Griffith (1998). "Apendix II". The Golden Age of the American Racing Car. SAE International. p. 323. ISBN 9780768000238.
  8. ^ Hunt, Herbert (1916). "Volume 2". Tacoma: Its History and Its Builders; a Half Century of Activity. New York Public Library: S.J. Clarke Publishing Company. pp. 253.
  9. ^ Borgeson, Griffith (1998). "Chapter 5". The Golden Age of the American Racing Car. SAE International. p. 45. ISBN 9780768000238.
  10. ^ a b Martin, James A.; Saal, Thomas F. (2004). American Auto Racing: The Milestones and Personalities of a Century of Speed. McFarland & Company. ISBN 978-0-786-41235-8.
  11. ^ Moffatt, Riley. Population History of Western U.S. Cities & Towns, 1850-1990. Lanham: Scarecrow, 1996, 333.
  12. ^ "Collection: Marvin D. Boland Collection Series: SPEEDWAY-011 (Unique: 38123)". Tacoma Public Library - Image Archives. Tacoma Public Library. Archived from the original on 3 March 2016. Retrieved 20 July 2012.
  13. ^ "Astor Cup will be 250 miles". Automotive Industries. 35: 461. September 14, 1916.
  14. ^ Borgeson, Griffith (1998). "Chapter 3". The Golden Age of the American Racing Car. SAE International. p. 11. ISBN 9780768000238.
  15. ^ Borgeson, Griffith (1998). "Chapter 3". The Golden Age of the American Racing Car. SAE International. p. 12. ISBN 9780768000238.
  16. ^ Champ Car Stats
  17. ^ Borgeson, Griffith (1998). The Golden Age of the American Racing Car. SAE International. p. 18. ISBN 9780768000238.
  18. ^ a b Statnekov, Daniel K. (June 28, 2003). "Chapter 4 - Pioneers of American Motorcycle Racing". Retrieved July 26, 2007.
  19. ^ a b Borgeson, Griffith (1998). "Chapter 3". The Golden Age of the American Racing Car. SAE International. p. 21. ISBN 9780768000238.
  20. ^ a b c Borgeson, Griffith (1998). "Chapter 3". The Golden Age of the American Racing Car. SAE International. p. 23. ISBN 9780768000238.
  21. ^ Davidson, Donald (2005-05-29). "On the Boards". 2005 Indianapolis 500 Official Program. Indy Publications. p. 171.
  22. ^ Illustrated world, 37. R.T. Miller, Jr. Publisher. 1922.
  23. ^ Dunkelberger, Steve; Neary, Walter (2005). Lakewood. Arcadia Publishing. pp. 73–74. ISBN 9780738530451.
  24. ^ a b Borgeson, Griffith (1998). The Golden Age of the American Racing Car. SAE International. p. 24. ISBN 9780768000238. You used to get hit with some terrific blocks and knots of wood. We all came in with pieces of wood bigger than kitchen matches driven into our face and foreheads. They'd go in, hit the bone and then spread out. Then you had to remove them, of course.
  25. ^ Glick, Shav (October 14, 1987). "BOARD TRACKS : Before Indianapolis, L.A.'s Toothpick Ovals Were King". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved July 31, 2012.
  26. ^ a b c d Berggren, Dick (June 2016). "Wall Smacker". Speedway Illustrated. pp. 62–65.
  27. ^ a b Scott, Missy (2008). Harley-Davidson Motor Company. p. 30. ISBN 9780313348891.
  28. ^ Circle Track Magazine, 9/84, p.77.
  29. ^ "Six killed by motor cyclist jumping track" (PDF). The New York Times. September 12, 1912. Retrieved 2007-12-05.
  30. ^ 1918 Indian 8-Valve Racer, Dave Tharp, Retrieved December 10, 2007
  31. ^ Pioneers of American Motorcycle Racing, Daniel K. Statnekov; Chapter 15; Retrieved December 10, 2007
  32. ^ "The Miller Dynasty", Mark L. Dees
  33. ^ Twomey, Bill (2007). The Bronx: In Bits and Pieces. Rooftop Publishing. p. 63. ISBN 9781600080623.
  34. ^ Gabriele, Michael (2011). The Golden Age of Bicycle Racing in New Jersey. The History Press. p. 106. ISBN 9781596294271.