Photographed here is Harry “Otto” Walker onboard a new factory works Harley-Davidson 11K series machine on the poplar boards at Speedway Park. The image comes from the F.A.M. American Championship 300 Mile race held September 12, 1915.  The scale and refinement of the Maywood track is evident in the background, it truly was a venue unlike any other before. Walker, who had recently won the big race in Venice as well as the 2nd annual Dodge City 300 set a new record for 100 miles with an average speed of just a hair under 90 mph, but his machine chewed up a valve on the 188th lap and was unable to finish. Out of the 27 riders entered Carl Goudy, onboard a big-valve Excelsior took home the $1,000 first prize, Indian’s Teddy Carrol came in second, and Walker’s Harley-Davidson teammates Ray Weishaar and Bill Brier placed fourth and fifth.

The Spring of 1915 marked the beginning of a new era in American motorcycle racing. The sport of professional competition was now a fully formed industry complete with high-dollar factory racing programs, lightning-fast purebred machines, lucrative endorsement deals and sponsorships, a nationwide circuit with a near year-round calendar, and self-made superstars with household names. Local half-mile trotting tracks had given way to large manicured dirt ovals. Country road endurance and reliability runs were falling out of favor and long-distance, top-speed Grand Prix style road races were taking their place. Perhaps most significantly though, the infamous American motordrome, the treacherous quarter-mile saucers that had thrilled thousands were beginning to fall into the shadows of a new board track design, the massive board track speedway.

The first of its kind, Chicago’s 2-mile long wooden superspeedway would set a new precedent for closed course venues around the world. The construction of Speedway Park, or Maywood as it was sometimes referred to began in late 1914 and occupied 230 acres of farmland just west of downtown. The design took the building techniques of the early, circular board track motordromes and increased them in scale several times over. Instead of a constant, circular banking with grandstands perch precariously along the upper rim, the track at Speedway Park elongated the course back into the familiar oval, banking only the corners while leaving the straights flat, and placing the grandstands safely removed from the action along the straight-aways. Upon completion, America’s first board track super speedway used 14 million board feet of expensive, yet smooth and fast poplar wood 2x4’s, 500 tons of nails, 50,000 cubic yards of cement, 15,000 concrete piers, 1,000 tons of steels, and over 6 miles of new roads leading to the venue. The extremely fast poplar boards were laid 60 feet wide on the straights, with an extra 10 feet of width in the corners which were banked at 19 degrees.

Speedway park officially opened to a packed house of nearly 80,000 spectators according to reports on June 26, 1915, with the fanfare of a publicity lap by Barney Oldfield, a hot lap in which he hit a blistering 111.5 mph. With the increased capability of both automobiles and motorcycles, the new track design laid out at Chicago would become a new standard for speed across America. Chicago defined a new style of racing, one of wide open throttles and reliably smooth lines. Gone were the unpredictable bumps and loss of traction found on the dusty road courses. The banking brought the centrifugal advantages found at the motordrome, but the length and width allowed for much safer stretches of high speed within a crowd. A field of two dozen riders could comfortably maneuver around the massive new track at speeds so great that 90 mph was considered a low average. Soon, new board track speedways would emerge in Tacoma, Sheepshead Bay, Uniontown, Beverly Hills, Altoona, and Charlotte. 

As the sun set on the infamous American motordrome it was the blue-chip racing of the board track speedway that would carry the sport well into the 1920’s. With the shift towards factory Class A racing and the high-speed super speedway too came the turning of the tide of competitive dominance. Indian, whose name had become synonymous with motordrome suddenly found themselves having to deal with the might of a new contender as the traditionally reluctant Harley-Davidson factory had officially thrown their hat into the ring, and the boys from Milwaukee found themselves right at home on these new speedway tracks. It would seem as though America’s involvement in WWI and the subsequent suspension of professional racing would be the final nail in the motordrome’s coffin, but in actuality the machines had simply outgrown the smaller venues, as had the patience of the public, the riders, and the factories with the tumultuous nature of the saucer track. Speedway Park marked the beginning of a new era in American motorcycle racing, but for all of its grandeur and significance, the massive wooden venue would only remain open for a few short years, ultimately shutting its gates in the summer of 1918, later being donated to the U.S. Government and its timbers used to build a veterans hospital.

 

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