Death Tracks; Beyond Motordrome

The spectre of danger, even death, has done little harm to motorsport’s mass appeal. But the attrition rates of the ‘motordromes’, which predated the Great Depression, were something else.

As a world champion racer of penny farthings, it’s quaintly absurd that engineer Jack Prince’s second stab at fame would be to kick start the most hair-raising form of motor racing in the world.

For Prince, the lucrative motorised possibilities of the French inspired velodromes of the 19th Century were obvious. By 1908, Prince opened his first motordrome in New Jersey. With speed inducing banks as steep as 60 degrees, a full throttle sporting obsession quickly saw ‘board tracks’ materialize across the United States.

Sadly, they killed as much as they thrilled.

The Indian and Excelsior manufacturers used gun riders, and did much to progress motorcycle mechanics. But when the 100mp/h barrier was busted, the wooden boarded tracks (also prone to splintering and breaking) simply became inadequate.

The result? Grand scale carnage with multi-bike pile-ups catapulting riders into crowds with devastating regularity. The most infamous episode, at New Jersey in 1912, killed four racers and four spectators, as well as injuring another ten. A ‘wall of death’ atmosphere worked a treat for promoters – at least until government authorities engineered the American Motordrome League’s swift demise.

Race cars picked up the slack, but the outcomes were no less alarming. The last board track to be shut down, Legion Ascot Speedway, claimed 21 lives by 1931. Nevertheless, the USA’s beloved NASCAR and Indycar institutions owe much to Prince’s philosophy of large grandstands overlooking every competitor, every second of the race.

Unfazed by the American experience, dynamic and controversial Melbourne entrepreneur John Wren sought to recreate the buzz of motordrome racing in Australia. The Melbourne Motordrome opened in December 1924, with a 48 degree concrete bank. Ace promoter Jack Campbell contracted the best American riders to race against the most courageous locals. Crowds pushing 30,000 flocked to weekly meetings that also featured sidecars and automobiles.

At the behest of the visiting stars, brakes were removed to mitigate the fallout from riders who lost control. Inevitably, fatalities ensued – two riders succumbed in a four bike crash just months after opening. Despite engines being downsized from 500cc to 350cc, the venue could not shake its reputation as the ‘Murderdrome’ or the ‘Suicide Track’.

Ironically, the red danger line which acted as a safety guide for overtaking riders was prone to becoming slippery and causing strife, not to mention the track being too narrow. At coronial inquests, unsteady instigators of accidents were labelled ‘wobblers’ – a loathsome accusation to bear.

Hot on the Melbourne Motordrome’s heels, a similar venue in Sydney, known as the Olympia Motor Speedway, was built at Maroubra. A huge opening attendance was no harbinger for this ‘killer track’s’ bottom line – investors in the one mile concrete saucer leaked money as freely as competitors spilled blood.

Melbourne was a profitable venture though, despite spectators finding themselves in the firing line. Flying debris inspired the ominous ‘Danger – don’t lean over’ sign painted on the vertical top of the bank. This wall was supposed to be higher, but unlike Prince, businessman Wren had no background in engineering or racing.  Wren’s caper was of course betting, and in between races the infield would provide other wagering diversions such as wrestling bouts and even one farcical attempt at ostrich racing!

In 1929, a blown tyre caused a motorcycle to fly over the lip. Tragically, two teenage enthusiasts did not heed the warning. On this blackest of nights, 13 riders sought treatment for injuries, and incomprehensibly, a length of barbed wire was spotted on the track just before the final, fatal race. On other occasions, would-be saboteurs’ blood lust extended to double headed tacks!

Perhaps the last straw was the demise of local favourite Jimmy Wassell in 1932. An untenable safety record had the media and the Melbourne Police Department demanding the track’s closure. Depression affected returns and greater interest in the burgeoning dirt-track form of speedway made the decision to demolish the track a fait accompli. Meanwhile, the Maroubra speedway’s decay was more gradual harking back to when public events were stopped several years before, having matched Melbourne’s death toll of seven.

It’s difficult to imagine the site for AAMI Park, Melbourne’s showpiece stadium for League, soccer and rugby, or the seaside housing commission estate built upon Olympia, were once scenes for such high speed drama. It was symptomatic of a more reckless age that such a perilous motorsport lasted as long as it did.

 
Melbourne Motordrome Opening day 13 Dec 1924; a demostration of the steepness of the banked track.

About Jeff Dowsing

Washed up former Inside Sport and Sunday Age Sport freelancer. Now just giving my stuff away to good homes. Not to worry, still have my health and day job. Published & unpublished works fester on my blog Write Line Fever.

Comments

  1. John Butler says:

    Jeff, they were such different times. Imagine any part of this being contemplated now.

    John Wren was a man with a diverse portfolio.

  2. I was lucky enough to come across a lovely old guy who is a wealth of knowledge on the Melbourne Motordrome era and John Wren. Has some fantastic images if you’re interested JB.

    It’s intriguing stuff, especially with the spectre of Wren lurking in the background. It’s a book/TV doco/feature film waiting to happen.

  3. John Butler says:

    Would love to see some of those pics Jeff.

    There’s a lot of our history that we never bothered to document. I suppose that applies to history generally, sadly.

  4. Great story Jeff. An extension of the gladiator age?

  5. Perhaps Gus. These poor guys didn’t know any better, and perhaps it goes to the desperation of the times they risked their lives for a few dollars more. And in the final few years they were often shafted of their due.

  6. Fantastic stuff, Jeff…
    More please ??????

  7. Given that Eddie is John Wren reincarnated, I reckon that EMT could cross to Mary Hardy at the Murderdome for the legs of the quaddie. Quadriplegics would be quite common. Anything for ratings.
    Brilliant stuff Jeff. Keep ’em coming.

  8. Thanks Smokie & Peter.

    If you’re as interested as I was when I first learned about this forgotten piece of Melbourne’s history then the link below elaborates somewhat – also some imbedded links to old Argus newspaper reports of the day. Some are quite amusing, others rather sad.

    http://www.aamipark.com.au/desktopdefault.aspx/tabid-276/70_read-63/

  9. Jeff,

    I am very interested in the history of pace bike racing as it was once a key sport on the motordrome with Sir Hubert Opperman and others breaking speed and distance records on motor paced bicycles their in the 1926-33 era. I am currently restoring a n excelsior motorcycle used to pace the bikes by Bob Finlay, regarded as “the Prince of Pace makers” and instrumental in many of the records made at the motordrome. If you can let me know any details other than above would very much appreciate it.

    Regards

    David

  10. We are involved in historical project on the early days of American Motorcycle racing, especially Motordrome racing 1907-1916. If anyone would like to help, has info or good quality scans please let us know
    thanks scott
    802 591-7383 or cyclespast@vermontel.net

  11. jan johnson says:

    I was really interested in reading your article as my father was Sid Bryant who raced on the track and was involved in the race which killed Jim Wassell. He lost three fingers as a result. have a few cuttings of his races and an article from a Sydney paper about the accident if you are interested

  12. murray power says:

    Great article. Am researching speed racing of many types in Australia, so any information guides would be good. Would like to contact Jan Johnson.

  13. Tom Riker says:

    Hi
    I am working with someone that is trying to put together the history of AU board track and dirt track any information or leeds would be great.
    Thanks Tom

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