Imagine riding a motorcycle, full tilt, inside a wooden barrel the size of a football field. That’s what it was like to ride a motorcycle on a board track called a motordrome in the early part of the 20th century.
One of the first such tracks started the career of Leslie Eaton “Red” Parkhurst, a lanky youth with red hair who started racing at just 13 years of age—yes, 13—at the Tuilleries track in Denver, way back in 1909. By 1914, his skills would earn him the honor of being the first member of a team Harley-Davidson assembled to compete with the likes of Indian and Excelsior.
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.
Arthur Pillsbury, a racing entrepreneur, had studied railroads and learned about the Searles spiral easement curve. It allowed top-heavy steam locomotives to pull several dozen freight cars up or down a hill without toppling over. This was achieved by feathering a series of corners, one into the next, to blend the approach to any curve.
Pillsbury built a mile-and-a-quarter-long board track, using this same technique, in Beverly Hills, California; it was designed exclusively for motorcycle racing. Today, the Beverly Hilton Hotel stands where Pillsbury’s track was.
Other promoters and builders from across the country came to see Pillsbury’s marvel. They left believers in the concept he borrowed from the railroads. East Coast racing promoter Jack Prince, who was also a motorcycle racer, built board tracks all over America between 1910 and 1925 as spectator interest grew.
The tracks consisted of wooden banking, all in 2x4s or 1x2s, laid on end, ranging from only 15 degrees up to a 62-degree wall. Some tracks, such as the one in St. Louis, were referred to as “pie tins” because the banking was so steep and the transition from the flat surfaces to the banking was so abrupt.
In 1913, Parkhurst went to Milwaukee with several riders from the Denver Motordrome; 18,000 people turned out to watch. Opportunity was his, as he was the first rider out on the then new four-lap motordrome. Parkhurst won the final event—5 miles in 3 minutes 32 seconds—and was first in a free-for-all, 6-mile race. He completed the 6-mile race in 4.435 minutes.
When the Milwaukee season ended, Parkhurst and fellow rider Glen Stokes went to St. Louis, Missouri, to finish the season in that state. By the time the 1914 season started, Parkhurst went back to the Milwaukee Motordrome again. History was ready to be made.
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.
A board track in Detroit had a sign that boasted, in letters about 8 feet high, that spectators would see racers “Neck and Neck with Death.”
One board track in Newark, New Jersey, opened on July 4, 1912, only to close for good the following September. A crash there killed not only two racers, but also five spectators including four young boys who had been peering down at the races through steep railings. The cause had been a rear wheel from one of the rider’s motorcycles coming off, then landing on a spectator with such force that he died of injuries a few days later.
Nonetheless, the board-track races were popular and most motordromes held as many as 15,000 spectators so no manufacturer could afford not to field racers. Excelsior, Henderson, Indian and other smaller manufacturers such as Thor, Merkel and Pope used the board tracks as major marketing opportunities. Harley-Davidson had to join in.
At the start of the 1914 season, Bill Harley worked to develop new transmissions. Meanwhile, Bill Ottaway, a racer who had been brought into Harley-Davidson to use his knowledge to develop better engines, modified a 61-cubic-inch pocket-valve engine, fitted with a special camshaft and modified valve porting. He then installed it within a 51-inch-wheelbase, 300-pound racing motorcycle known as the Model II-K.
After spending more than $25,000 in development costs—a princely sum back then—Ottaway finally convinced Walter Davidson to send for Englishman Harry Ricardo; he was known for having designed efficient cylinder heads. After Ottaway came on board, he and Ricardo cleared up any remaining intake and exhaust problems. The result was a 61-cubic-inch twin-cylinder racing engine with eight overhead valves that put out 55 horsepower.
While riding at the Milwaukee motordrome, Red Parkhurst’s skill caught Ottaway’s attention. The engine was fast enough and Red showed he could handle it. So Harley-Davidson hired him to ride for them.
Ottaway became the head of a team known as The Wrecking Crew; it consisted of Red Parkhurst, Otto Walker, Jim Davis, Ralph Hepburn, Walter Higley, Fred Ludlow and Ray Weishaar.
Many of the East Coast’s banked board tracks closed down after the accident at Newark. Then the first World War came along and racing took a hiatus. However, after the war, The Wrecking Crew became the first team to win races at average speeds of more than 100 mph.
During the 1920 season, Ray Weishaar, who loved animals as much as motorcycling, adopted a baby pig as his personal good-luck charm and team mascot. When Weishaar won the Marion, Indiana, 200-mile race that summer, with a new record time of 2 hours and 48 minutes, he celebrated by taking his little pig, now nicknamed Hog, on a victory lap.
Even after all this there was still some life left for the team on the board tracks. In March of 1921, Otto Walker set a lap record of 108.7 mph on the board track at Fresno, California. Then a month later, he won on a board track in Beverly Hills, averaging 104.4 mph.
But you could say that it was Red Parkhurst who truly extracted the last iota of speed from what he’d learned on board tracks, applying it to the hardened sands of Daytona Beach, Florida. It was there, in February of 1920, that “all the world’s motorcycle speed records were smashed to atoms” by Red and fellow motorcycle rider Fred Ludlow, according to a newspaper account of the day. With Ludlow riding in a sidecar, Red broke not only eight solo riding records but also eight sidecar-equipped motorcycle records. Ludlow set one record by himself.
Red achieved a speed of 111.11 mph with a 68-cubic-inch Harley-Davidson twin, the fastest anyone had ever gone on a motorcycle.
You could perhaps call Red the true chairman of the board.
Terry Parkhurst is no relation to Red Parkhurst. He is, however, a longtime automotive journalist and an advisory board member of the NADA Antique, Classic and Special Interest Motorcycle Appraisal Guide. He is also working on a biography about Red.[This article was originally published in American Rider magazine]