~Since 2004~
A site about memories, thoughts, photos, and unrepentant opinions about motorcycles and motorcycling after four decades of twisting the throttle.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Ghost Of Races Past

If you stood in the middle of the the very large meadow outside of Laurel, Maryland, you would only think that it had perhaps been a farm field or cow pasture.  Or maybe the large earthen berm around parts of it's perimeter indicates there had been a large pond there at sometime in the past.

The meadow, flat and green with spiderwebs across the grass reflecting the morning light, gives no indication that the rural site was once home to tens of thousands of cheering people, racing engines wrung out to their limit, and men risking their lives for fame and money.  This was the site of Maryland's old board track, Laurel Speedway.

 Laurel Speedway, 1925. National Photo Company Collection, Library of Congress
I don't believe there has been any area of motorcycling more crazy, more at-the-limit and beyond, than board track racing.  Here's a short clip on YouTube, it's a trailer for the hopes-to-be-made movie "Splinter Road":
 

You can see in the old black and white photo above, that Laurel Speedway (more correctly known as Baltimore - Washington Speedway) was a massive, 48° banked  track, just over a mile in length, and constructed by bolting and nailing together 2x4 lumber and placing it on edge until they'd created the 1920's equivalent of a NASCAR speedway, but from wood.  By modern measures, it's mind boggling to create such an edifice out of lumber.  And then go race cars and motorcycles on it at speeds over 100 mph? That's nuts.

The men who raced on such tracks were young, brave and maybe a little crazy.  The machinery, especially the motorcycles, were rudimentary but absurdly fast for machines fitted with bias ply tires made of weak rubber and cotton cord, powered by finicky, temperamental engines, and with no brakes.  Speeds would average easily over 100 mph. It all makes our modern mile dirt track races look slightly sane.   

Here's a quick clip of what one of the bikes sounds like. Not the pop-pop-pop antique engine you might imagine:



So, what of of Laurel Speedway today?  Like the racers who risked everything for fame and money nearly 85 years ago now, it's gone back to the land.  In it's place a business park is to go up.   But a look at older images in Google Earth shows that even long after the mighty speedway was demolished, it's giant foot print lingered on the topography of Maryland.  
Laurel Speedway, 2007
Late in 2009, Dale Neiburg, after reading about Laurel Speedway on the Shorpy.com photo site and realizing the old race track site was not far away from him, slipped through the fence of the old speedway property to see what might be left of the track.  Dale was kind enough to send me a CD of the photos he made that day.  Those opening photos of the green meadows are his, here are a couple of more.
 Laurel Speedway, 2009. 
 
Sadly, not much to be seen there, some large earthen banks hint at the base of the  board track grandstands and maybe some of the track, but not much else. 
 Laurel Speedway location, 2009.  I wonder what a metal detector would find?

I find it fascinating that there is anything at all left, but the spectacular and dangerous place still marks the modern landscape long after it was dismantled after barely two years of racing.  Motorcycles and racers are like that too.  Long after they are gone, a great bike or a great racer can leave and imprint on a the landscape of the imagination.  That is why so many custom bike builders today are taking styling cues from the old old board track race bikes.  The bravery and the insanity on public display at places like Laurel Speedway have left permanent imprint on the history of motorcycling and are still in the minds of modern riders 100 years later.


For a good overview and photos of what board track racing was wall about, the always excellent Vintagent blog has a nice summary here.

10 comments:

Jac Brown said...

ABSOLUTELY INCREDIBLE!

I feel like I've just been on a trip with Time Team, motorcycle version.

Thanks.

WooleyBugger said...

Wow, this was very interesting.

Canajun said...

Great post. Insane is right. The Roman Coliseum transplanted to the NE US.
Will have to watch for the movie.

occhiolungo said...

Cool stuff! I have some more info on the crash at the NJ Motrodrome that is referenced in that film clip. look here: http://occhiolungo.wordpress.com/2010/07/06/raymond-seymour-1910-reading-standard-racer/

Pete

Doug said...

Jac, when I heard from Dale N. that he was going to visit the site I was so hoping there'd be something more left. I'd love get in there with a shovel and a metal detector and rummage around.

Canajun, I'm not sure that board track racing was much safer than the Coliseum, probably why it all got banned.

Pete, thanks for the link. Your blog entry is excellent as is your whole site.

FLHX_Dave said...

That was tits man!!! You have done it again.

All I can say is thanks for the ghosts and the pointer to that video of the Indian Flat-Tracker.

That was awesome! I watching it a few times...hell yeah I'm easily amused! Think I'll watch it again.

Webster World said...

This is great! Very interesting. We here in Flint lost one of those motorcycle icon's a few years ago. Burt Cummings. He won the Jack Pine and a lot more. Had an HD dealership for more than 50 years and sponsored the likes of Scott Parker Jay Springsteen and many more. This man should be in the Hall of Fame. Humble he was. Sadly missed.

Anonymous said...

The actual site of the Baltimore-Washingon Speedway is the front lot of the CarMax store just off of Route 1 near Savage Mill. There's a web site that lets you compare historical areal photos that is really cool:

http://www.historicaerials.com/

Check it out!

Doug said...

Interesting website, Anon. Thanks for the tip. But the old speedway near the location of the CarMax wasn't the old board track speedway unless you can provide historical information for that specific location. There was a track there and maybe it was called Laurel Speedway but the track by the CarMax appears to have been active to about 1980 or so while the old board track was gone by the 1930s, and the aerial view and overgrowth of the land supports that.

I did quite a lot of research a year or so back because someone else raised the location issue. I even went back to old railroad timetables for location of the Laurel rail station and to comments in news articles of the period. Washington Post, July 1925: "An inspection of the approach to the track yesterday emphasized the traffic problem. While there is plenty of space to park machines both outside and inside the oval there is only a narrow road leading to it from the highway, a distance of about half a mile."

If you look at the aerial images you'll see that the track Dale Neiburg found is about 1/2 mile from the highway and about the same distance from the old Laurel train station. The location found by Dale is the only one that fits the descriptions of the time.

If anyone else has relevant historical information - period topo maps, government records, etc. feel free to comment and provide specifics and links. Please use a real user name, too, no more anonymous IDs. My name is on the blog, you can use yours too if you believe what you write. Warning: If you're rude, as a guy was last year, I won't let your comment post. This is a minor historical matter, not life and death.

Dennis said...

Thanks for a very well done site Doug! I have lived in Laurel for over 40 years and never knew that this track existed until recently. Your research and the video clips are appreciated and informative.

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