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8/11/2012 - John Sanderson
The Detroit Motordrome 1913-1916 Board racetracks came into existence in 1910, when the earliest of ovals were deemed unsuitable for the earliest motorcycles. Averaging speeds as high as 80 mph, these machines, not far removed from bicycles, had instability problems even on flat straightaways. The earliest ovals had no smooth transition from turn to turn. The famed Detroit Driving Club, where Henry Ford beat Alexander Winton only a few short years before, had a 1/6 mile board track built by Scottish bicycle racer and Eastern race promoter, Jack Prince in 1913, on the western side of the grounds, facing Jefferson Avenue. Virtually forgotten until the recent rediscovery of the actual location of Driving Club, this track proved to be extremely popular to spectators and motorsports enthusiasts. Prince had made a career out of building bicycle and later motorcycle and car board tracks across the U. S. from 1910 to 1925. The only safety feature was a wooden guardrail that could cause as much harm as preventing it. The tracks consisted of wooden banking, all in 2x4s or 1x2s, laid on their side, ranging from only 15 degrees up to a 62-degree wall. Detroit’s new Motordrome suffered its first fatality on May 24, 1913- just two weeks after it opened. The Detroit News editorial page immediately responded with an anti-motordrome cartoon entitled “A Pagan Holiday”, and an indictment of all motorcycle racing. “Motorcycle racing has nothing practical to recommend it. ” The editorial said, “It serves no useful purpose either with reference to the development of the rider or the machine. It is speed madness, pure and simple. Its purpose is to cater to the lust of risk on the part of those safely seated in the grandstand. The exploiters of motorcycle racing have everywhere shown that their sole aim is to provide thrills (at the cost of others’ lives) and their sole object the collection of money from such thrills. ” The motorcycles designed for board-track racing had no brakes. Brakes were, perhaps ironically, considered more dangerous than not having them. The only way to stop the bikes was to flip a switch on the handlebar that grounded out the charging system, and then coast home. The result was that some of the worst accidents at board tracks occurred when the riders couldn’t stop, and flew off into a crowd of spectators, with predictable results. Accidents and fatalities were so numerous, newspapers of the day would often run anti –racing editorial cartoons on their front pages. This wasn’t helped by things like the board track in Detroit that had a sign that boasted, in letters about 8 feet high, that spectators would see racers “Neck and Neck with Death. ” The newspapers complaint was that little or no design benefit was the result of racing, so that the only justification was spectator blood lust and promoter greed. The tracks were very high maintenance and even in good condition, were extremely hazardous to the riders as splinters thrown up by the bikes were a constant threat. Ultimately, the editorials and the weathering of the tracks shut them down despite the popularity of the sport. Even the American Motorcycle Association had no use for the bull rings and their greedy promoters. The Detroit Motordrome closed down by 1916, as the entire property was going to be sold and heading toward subdivision for homes. PHOTOS: 1. Detroit News editorial cartoon- A Pagan Holiday 2. American Race Tracks- Detroit Motordrome 3. Clements Library, Univ. of MI- Detroit Motordrome Entrance.

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