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On the boards

A look back at motor sports in the 1920s and before...on wood.


Today, bicyclists are the only people to race on wooden tracks, as the classic velodrome is wood. Track racers have been doing so for over 100 years, and at the juncture of the 19th and 20th centuries, bicycle racing was immensely popular.

At the same time, internal combustion was new. Automobiles and motorcycles were in their infancy, and of course, they were raced. Early races over open public roads proved dangerous, even lethal, to participants and spectators, and so closed courses were made. Dirt horse-racing ovals were used for motor sport, on two and four wheels. transfer, of a sort. A larger velodrome could be used for cars and motorcycles. The first, in 1910, was a mile-long circular track in Playa Del Rey, CA, near what is now Los Angeles International Airport. Shortly thereafter, a similar half-mile circle was built near the present location of the Oakland Coliseum in Oakland, CA. Then came ovals, similar to present-day speedways and ranging from one to two miles in length, around the country. There was even a 1.25-mile track in Beverly Hills. Yes, that Beverly Hills.

Both cars and motorcycles were raced on the boards. The best printed reference, Board Track: Guts, Gold & Glory by Dick Wallen (pub: Dick Wallen, 1990), is out of print but is a fascinating history book. There is much less on the Web, but someone has posted a version of silent movie footage taken by Frantisek Marik, the Czech importer of Indian motorcycles, to YouTube. The film says "1920 at Daytona." Early racing at Daytona was on the beach, and there was never a board track there. The closest was Fulford, near Miami. It opened in 1926, and was destroyed by a hurricane later in that year.

Whatever the provenance, the film is spectacular.