Book Review by Charles Fleming

In his expansive new book ‘The Speed Kings’, motorcycle historian and Daytona 200 race winner Don Emde has chronicled the meteoric rise and tragic fall of American board track racing, which at its peak in the early 1900s rivaled baseball as America’s number one spectator sport and made its champions into the country’s first national sports heroes. Emde spent four decades collecting images and information on “motordrome” racing, which flourished in the U.S. between roughly 1909 and 1914, ultimately compiling 6,000 pages of data. From this he has created a dense, oversized coffee table book, massive in scope and weight, packed with the ephemera of a bygone era. Included are more than 600 photos.

Daytona winner and motorcycle historian Don Emde’s lastest masterpiece, ‘The Speed Kings’, with a foreward by Kenny Roberts. [Emde]
Emde begins his story in the late 1800s, as America catches the bicycling craze from Europe and Great Britain. On the heels of imports of the penny-farthing, “Ordinary” and “Bone Shaker” machines came competition. With competition came the need for speed. With that need came the discovery of “drafting,” which necessitated someone riding ahead of the cyclist to create a draft and a slipstream. After experimenting with tandem cycles (and even cycles ridden by up to ten riders at a time) a gentleman named Sylvester Roper came to the velodrome with a single-cylinder, steam-powered bicycle that could move fast enough to make way for the fastest cyclist. Gottlieb Daimler, Jules-Albert De Dion, Francis and Freelan Stanley, and, critically, Oscar Hedstrom and Charles Henshaw followed.

Englishman ‘Jack’ Prince developed the lion’s share of board tracks in the USA, sketching out their designs for contractors to build, although he had no engineering experience! [Vintagent Archive]
By 1903, the first motorcycle (or in the parlance of the day, “motocycle”) hill climb competitions were being held, followed shortly by races on the sand at Daytona. By 1908, entrepreneur Jack Prince had seen the spectator value in the sport, and constructed a circular wooden track with banked sides to host a competition. Upstart bike builders Hedstrom and Henshaw hired former cycling champ Jacob DeRosier to ride their new Indian – and board track racing was on. The sport grew quickly and massively. Tracks went up in Los Angeles, Playa Del Rey, Chicago, Columbus, Cleveland, Dallas, Newark, Denver and Brighton Beach, with “speed bugs” traveling great distances to watch weekend meets at the top tracks.

A young Morty Graves with an Indian ‘torpedo tank’ racer in 1908, one of the first racing motorcycles made (nominally) available to the public for track work. [Steven Wright]
In 1912, Chicago’s Riverview board track was hosting 20,000 spectators per race, more than were attending White Sox or Cubs baseball games. Atop machines made by Indian, Thor, Merkel, Excelsior, N.S.U., Reading-Standard and more, wearing high-button shoes or boots and cloth or leather helmets, but little other safety gear, men tore around the steeply banked “saucer tracks” at speeds that soon approached 90 miles per hour. Colorful characters with colorful names emerged – racers like Walter “Mile-a-Minute” Collins, Paul “Daredevil” Derkum and Glen “Slivers” Boyd, so named because of the amount of wooden track his body absorbed from his many falls.

Jake DeRosier was a French-Canadian racer who found success in England as well as the USA, much of it racing Indians, including at the Isle of Man TT and Brooklands. Read his hair-raising tales of racing on the board tracks here. [Vintagent Archive]
No one was more successful than Jake DeRosier (read more here), though his close rivals Don Johns and Eddie Hasha kept him on his toes. Through the 1910s the combustible DeRosier raced and won, crashed and burned, and recovered and raced again. Injuries were a given, and fatalities were common – usually the result of a blow-out at high speed that sent rider and machine crashing down the banked walls, often into other riders as they fell. (Emde doesn’t go into the science of the falls, but riders estimated the G-force of traveling at high speed on a banked track at many multiples above normal, and the force of being thrown onto the track as barely survivable).

The Newark Evening Star covered Eddie Hasha’s accident as big news of the ‘Murderdromes’.  The New York Times made it front page news as well – the only time in the 20th Century a motorcycle story was so featured. [Newark Evening Star]
Riders, builders, track owners and spectators accepted danger as part of the racing recipe. But not for long. On September 8, 1912, a day that became known as “Black Sunday,” golden boy Eddie Hasha flew over the high side of the track at Newark New Jersey’s Vailsburg board track, killing himself and six spectators – five of them young boys visiting the track on a school trip. Hasha’s friend and rival Johnnie Albright died of his injuries from the crash. The stadium was shuttered, its boards sold for scrap, and newspaper editorials declaimed against the sport.  Racing resumed. But a year later champion DeRosier, who had never quite recovered from a series of 1911 injuries, died of blood poisoning brought on by a botched operation. On the day of DeRosier’s funeral, engineer Oscar Hedstrom resigned from Indian. Track owners rallied, installing “safety railings” designed to prevent motorcycles from leaving the track and crashing into the grandstands. Promotors, losing riders to other sports, formed the American League of Professional Motorcycling Clubs, whose aim was to function like a baseball league, with eight cities hosting ten-man teams of salaried riders who would travel the circuit and put on exhibition races. But top riders balked at the low salaries and limited prize money, and the safety railings themselves proved fatal to the riders, killing several in the first year they were employed.

Legends of speed at the LA Stadium in 1912: Joe Wolters, Jake DeRosier, and Charles Balke. [Emde]
Worse followed. On July 30, 1913, at Lagoon Motordrome in Ludlow, Kentucky – the home stadium for nearby Cincinnati — racer Odin Johnson blew a tire and lost control of his motorcycle. Rider and machine flew off the banked track, into a crowd of spectators, exploding Johnson’s gas tank along the way. Odin was killed instantly and nine others, including a five-year-old boy, were burned to death in the ensuing conflagration. The newspapers weighed in, assailing the operators of the “Murderdromes.”  With increasingly bad publicity, several manufacturers, including Indian, began to ease away from the sport. Entrepreneurs stopped opening new tracks – in all, by Emde’s count, 28 banked ovals and circles were built – and the fan base diminished. Some racers took up dirt track racing, or switched to automobile racing. Some promoters started building car racing tracks. And when war broke out in Europe in 1914, some of the top stars either enlisted in the U.S. Army or joined Canadian or English forces fighting overseas.

Racer Ray Creviston in 1914 with his Excelsior Super X board track special: with no suspension, no brakes, and a very short wheelbase, these track cycles were extremely light and treacherous to ride on the greasy boards, with rock-hard tires. [Paul Derkum collection]
Emde has done a masterful job of telling the story – four years in the making — using more than a thousand photographs, newspaper clippings, newspaper and magazine cartoons, personal letters and journals, posters, postcards and advertising materials to illustrate what he calls “the rise and fall of motordrome racing.” It’s a thrilling and heartbreaking story, well told.  It also won the Motor Press Guild Best Book of 2019 award, presented at the Petersen Museum: this is the first time a motorcycle book has won the award! The book is available through the author’s imprint, for $75 plus shipping, at this link: Emde Books.



Charles Fleming is a Vintagent Contributor and a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. He is also author of “High Concept: Don Simpson and the Hollywood Culture of Excess,” “My Lobotomy,” “Secret Stairs, A Walking Guide to the Historic Staircases of Los Angeles” and its sequel, “Secret Walks: A Walking Guide to the Hidden Trails of Los Angeles.”  Follow him on Instagram and Facebook.
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