Film footage from America’s Golden Age of motorcycle racing is exceedingly rare and too often of poor quality, but the small handful of films which have survived offer an unrivaled glimpse into our cultural beginnings. This remarkable piece of film from the infamous days of the board track speedway has been available online for quite a few years now, but unfortunately the information which accompanies it is woefully, if not comically incorrect.
Credited to Mr. Frantisek Marik, Indian Motorcycle’s man in Czechoslovakia throughout the postwar reconstruction of Europe in the 1920’s, the film captures scenes from a more jovial and triumphant America immediately after the Great War. For motorsport, this period was a tremendously exciting time in which professional American motorcycle racing was experiencing a grand rebirth. The factory teams were being rebooted, sanctioning had just been reinstated, and America’s racing heroes were returning from the war, many of which captured in this film had only just returned from Europe a month or two prior. Originally labeled as film #9, it is the only known piece of what must have been a series of films from the events Mr. Marik attended. Given the scale and variety of events taking place at this time the other lost films from Mr. Marik’s trip could prove to be a monumental resource if they ever turn up.
This original footage plainly states that it came from an event at the board track in Daytona Beach, Florida, in 1920, but this is where the information begins to break down as no such track ever existed. It is speculated that Mr. Marik, or possibly someone who edited the footage at a later date had their wires crossed, perhaps the result of language barriers or mislabeling based on the other footage Mr. Marik collected while in the States. Indian was quite active immediately following the war. It was the height of fevered competition between Indian and Harley-Davidson, producing in the Springfield company a determined effort in both competition and the marketplace. Indian initiated their own own competitive renaissance with their Power Plus platform and had successful showings across America on dirt, wood, and sand. One of the more notable moments from the time was Gene Walker’s world record speed runs on the beach in Daytona in April 1920, which seems to be the record the original film was referencing and may be the reason why the original captioned info is jumbled and incorrect.
Regrettably, this film has become the source of endless confusion among today’s enthusiasts in that, though the Daytona area has a rich and long standing history of motorcycle racing, there was never a board track, neither motordrome nor speedway, constructed in that area. The original captions from the film go on to mention Gene Walker’s record, which wasn’t made on a track but on the beach several months later in 1920, and credits him with hitting over 130 mph when his actual speed was just over 115 mph. Perhaps the most humorous of the original errors is the renaming of Indian’s factory team anchor Teddy Carroll, who is called Jeddy Castrol in the original captions, no doubt the result of some odd Czech interpretation. Nevertheless, the footage itself is still quite remarkable, so the incorrect captions have been removed or replaced in this version and the film quality enhanced as best possible from the original files.
Mr. Marik’s film actually comes from the M&ATA National Championship races held at the board track speedway at Sheepshead Bay, near the southern shoreline of Brooklyn, New York on October 11, 1919. The massive 2 mile-long board track speedway at Sheepshead Bay had been one of the first of the larger speedway type tracks built back in September of 1915. At 2 miles long it was one of the largest of its type ever created, the design of which being the precursor of the modern super speedway, with steeply banked corners, flat straights, and massive grandstands at a safe distance off to the side of the track. These large board track speedways hosted countless prestigious automobile races over the years, but the immense size of tracks like Sheepshead Bay also provided America’s motorcycle manufacturers with the perfect venue to raise the ever-increasing speed ceiling.
The October 11th event, postponed one week due to rain brought out the country’s top racing stars, now veterans of both the sport of racing as well as international combat, and the major manufacturers stacked their deck with new machines and the most talented riders. For Harley-Davidson Bill Ottaway unleashed his latest lineup of overhead 8-valve racers which he had continued to develop throughout the war years resulting in it’s latest iteration, the “banjo’ two cam. The Indian camp arrived with their time-tested 8-valve platform as well as their relatively new Power Plus racing machines, a side valve design which was proving to be a legitimate contender on any track surface. Staged by America’s new sanctioning body, the Motorcycle & Allied Trades Association (M&ATA), the event was also the first to have nationally sanctioned sidecar championships, a new form of competition which became a staple of the sport throughout the 1920’s. And so it was, that on that clear Fall afternoon, October 11th, 1919, that the country regrouped and the stars of American motorcycle racing once again stepped out to the delight of tens-of thousands to exhibit their thrilling command of speed.
Pioneer American racing star Stanley Kellogg acted as starter and flag man, kicking off the events with the 10-Mile National Championship in front of a crowd of over 15,000. Among the iconic list of names competing were, for Indian Floyd Dreyer, Gene Walker, Fred Nixon, Baxter Potter, and of course Teddy Carroll. For Harley-Davidson these first events of 1919 were the true birth of the legendary Wrecking Crew, Milwaukee’s stars Ray Weishaar, Otto Walker, Leslie Parkhurst, Shrimp Burns, Maldwyn Jones, and Ralph Hepburn were all in the mix that day. Along with veteran racer Kellogg other pioneers of American motorcycle sport were on hand to witness the new era unfold. Former stars of the furious motordrome age Dave Kinnie and Brownie Carslake can be seen by those with a keen eye in the pit scenes, Kinnie attending as a Goodyear rep and Carslake then with the Firestone company. With top speeds exceeding 100 mph, and the day’s average speeds in the upper 90 mph range, the event calcified the new standard for high-speed competition for the decades to come. Early on Harley’s star Otto Walker, running fast on a prototype “Banjo” two cam with his newly acquired crested German pilot’s helmet blew both tires on the back stretch at over 95mph. With a quick walk-it-off moment and a tow back to the pits for a tire change he was back in the action, giving the crowd a fright but providing the event with the only real mishap of the day.
At an average speed of 97mph, Otto then won the 2-Mile National Championship, which came along with a beautiful, and quite large trophy presented by the Firestone Company. Indian’s Gene Walker took the 10-mile event, and Shrimp Burns was able to lock down the win for Harley in the 20-Mile Stock Championship. The Eastern Motorcycle Racing Association, the group which organized the affair sponsored two Metropolitan Championship races, a 10-Mile solo won by D.H. Farrell onboard a Harley-Davidson, and a 10-Mile sidecar won by S.J. Riddle onboard an Indian FLXI rig. Harley’s Ray Weishaar smashed through the standing 50-mile record held by Excelsior’s Lee Hummiston from way back in 1913 by nearly a full minute, covering the distance at an average speed of just over 91 mph and winning the 50-Mile National Championship gold medal. Shrimp Burns again stood on the top of the podium in the big 100-Mile National Championship which came with the other large silver cup, that one presented by U.S. Tire. Indian’s Teddy Carroll brought the first ever National Sidecar Championship title home to Springfield, making the distance in a shade over 20 minutes, and average speed of 73 mph. Over all though, it was 19 year old Albert “Shrimp” Burns, plate #9 who came out the biggest winner of the day, walking away with $400 cash, gold, silver, and bronze National Championship medals, and the big U.S. Tire cup. #33 Ray Weishaar, #7 Otto Walker, #4 Gene Walker, Maldwyn Jones, Fred Nixon, and #14 Teddy Carroll were the other gents walking away from the track that day with heavier pockets and shiny medals.
Sadly though, despite this wonderful day full of spirited racing, historic firsts, new world records, and legendary racers, it would be the curtain call for the track at Sheepshead Bay. Despite the popularity and versatility of such large tracks, the expenses were too often an effort in breaking even. According to articles published a few weeks after this event, the owner Harry Harkness had personally swallowed a $100,000 loss each year to keep the track open simply for his own love of the sport, but with his passing early in 1919 the fate of the track was sealed, by late November 1919 the boards were already being torn up. Both Indian and Harley-Davidson were keen on snatching up any new records that they could with their newest machines, but with the closing of the larger tracks like Sheepshead Bay they were left to find other venues, a catalyst which would see the return of the speed kings to the sands of Daytona Beach over the coming months by both manufacturers. Sheepshead Bay was the last of the massive 2 mile-long board track super speedways though over the next few years over a dozen, slightly smaller scale board track speedways would be built across America before the board track era ultimately petered out in the late 1920’s. However, film’s like this from that fantastic autumn day of racing in New York keep us connected to our remarkable history and give us a truly exception look into what it meant to be a real board track racer.
Edited, researched, and scored by Chris Price.
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