An intimate glimpse inside the St. Louis Motordrome during the national Ballon Race, launched from the infield of the massive 1/4 mile motorcycle board track on Jully 11, 1914.

An intimate glimpse inside the St. Louis Motordrome during the national Ballon Race, launched from the infield of the massive 1/4 mile motorcycle board track on Jully 11, 1914.

Scale. When we look back and try to imagine what it must have been like sit atop one of America’s infamous board track motordromes it is often the scale of the venue which eludes us. We have little to nothing like them today, and at the height of their popularity in the early teens, there were little else like them in the world. Another aspect of the motordrome which tends to trip up our daydreams is the variety in board track design, which produced a general congealing of all wooden racing tracks under the single name of motordrome over time. From the the first circular motordromes to the massive oval speedways, and even the small portable wall rider thrill shows have all, overtime, been referred to as motordromes. 

The truth is, that when most folks imagine board track racing we tend to clump together a version of all three types of venues. Thanks to the tireless effort to preserve the culture of motorcycle thrill shows like the many wall of death shows currently touring both in the sates and abroad, we get a concentrated dose of the visceral nature that is produced being so close to powerful old iron on wooden planks beneath us. But those shows didn’t as much spring out of the motordrome era as much as they evolved out of the much earlier cycling culture and traveling vaudeville circuit of the lates 1800’s, maturing alongside the emerging motorcycle culture. The racing venues, the grand American motordromes of the early 1910’s were something in and of themselves, with no comparable equal either before or sense.

Motordromes were a natural evolution stemming from of the well-established sport of bicycle racing at the turn of the century. The major forces behind these thrilling new stadiums and the sport which they developed, the builder and promoter Jack Prince, Indian’s competition driven engineer Oscar Hedstrom, and many of the motordrome stars themselves all came from the cycling world of the decades before. In the simplest view, Prince essentially just scaled the wooden velodromes with which he had found much success once both the motorcycle’s capability and public interest in seeing such machines compete directly naturally came together by 1908. At first, his design was simply a beefed up velodrome, oval in shape, wide enough for maybe two machines at most to run at a time, and banked more in the corners than on the straights. Prince’s stadium at Clifton in 1908 was still more bicycle venue than motorcycle, but it became the catalyst. 

Shortly thereafter Prince set off for Los Angeles in early 1909 determined to build the world’s first motorcycle racing stadium, but again the design followed the lines and construction techniques of his earlier efforts in the velodrome business. It was on a plot of land in Springfield, MA., provided by Indian co-founder George Hendee where the oval shaped, banked-corner design issues in LA were ironed out later that same year when Prince built the first circular, continuously banked drome. That design would be repeated on a larger scale back in Los Angeles at playa Del Rey in 1910, and again in Salt Lake City later that same year, by which time the sport matured and exploded in popularity. In 1911 four more tracks were built, in Oakland, Denver, and Chicago, each more technically refined with new features like safety fencing atop the track, arc lighting for night races, and sections of covered grandstand seating along the top rim, and each one featured an experiment in increasing the banking angles.

1912 marked the grand explosion of the Motordrome Era in America with a boom of track construction that would produce the majority of American motordromes over the next 2 years. Each of these new tracks followed the formula refined by Prince in the years since 1908, a 1/3 or 1/4 mile circular track, banked over 45 degrees with all of the modern touches of a top level sporting venue for the time. The St. Louis Motordrome, as seen in this photo, was constructed by Jack Prince in Priester’s Park at the intersection of Grand Ave. and Meramec St. in September of 1912. A part of the F.A.M’s American League Circuit, it was the 7th he had built that year, and the 14th that he had built since his first in Los Angeles 3 years prior. The St. Louis saucer measured 1/4 mile around with a 24 foot tall track surface banked at 62 degrees, making it the steepest to have ever been built in the history of the sport. It featured several rows of grandstands along the top rim, which was capped by double layer chainlink safety fencing and lined with electric arc lights every twenty feet or so.

Eleven more motordromes would be built after the track in St. Louis, one in Dallas just a month later, eight more in 1913, and the final two in 1914, the twilight of the motordrome age. A multitude of factors led to the eventual decline of the venues; maintenance issues and expenses, weather interference, mounting safety concerns, decreasing factory interest, increased preference for dirt track and long distance racing, and the highly emphasized public distaste for what was often times a brutal and violent sport. In 1915 Jack Prince would return to Chicago to build his newest vision in track design, a massive concept nearly 10 times larger than his motordrome and 3 times as wide, built of steel, concrete, and as always timber planks. A massive oval super speedway, Prince’s immense track at Maywood would mark a new era in the sport and drive the final nail into the coffin of America’s sensational motordromes, the few that still remained. 

But back to scale. This photograph was taken inside the St. Louis Motordrome on July 11th, 1914 during the Aero Club’s National Hot Air Ballon Race, which was held on the large infield of the stadium. The St. Louis track represents the height of motordrome construction in America, and was often touted as the country’s safest. This photograph gives us a wonderful sense of just how big these tracks actually were. From this angle you can see the full depth of the grandstand, the security provided by the wooden guardrail and two lines of chainlink fencing. You can see the electric arc lights which would have lit up the entire area surrounding the stadium and the park each night that they staged a race, ballgame, exhibition, or boxing match. You can see lack of an “ad-line” along the top like other tracks featured, which forced track management to paint ads directly along the top of the track itself. You can imagine 4, 5, or maybe even 6 racers in a pack pulling laps around the intimidating 24 foot tall, 62 degree banking at speeds over 80 mph. At the bottom you can see the flat runout section for the brakeless racers to stage and end their runs as well as a bit of the tracks substructure.  Also visible is the dusty, unmanicured infield where people and machines would pile in for the races. Take note of the drawled Model A parked in the infield, a space in which you could squeeze 3 professional football fields or easily fit even America’s largest baseball fields in with plenty of room to spare.

In all it’s estimated that in this photo we can see only about 200 feet of track, about 1/20th of the total circumference of the drome in St. Louis. Though at the time this photo was taken the sport of motordrome racing had already begun its sharp decline, the St. Louis track would continue to operate as a race track into the fall of 1914, hosting some of last races on the America’s steeply banked saucers and providing a livelihood to legends like George Lochner, Harry Swartz, Curley Fredericks, and Wells Bennett who raced there just weeks after the ballon event. What’s more, the stands are filled, a moment full of straw boater hats, cigar smokers, gloved ladies, umbrellas, and even a photographer and a film maker, each giving us a glimpse at a more personal experience at the drome.