Harry Hartz won the first race held at the Atlantic City, New Jersey, board track, averagi
I've always been fascinated by the concept of racetracks made of wood. Unfortunately, I came along too late to watch big cars run on the board tracks that sprang up from coast to coast.
About the closest I came was listening to a sportswriter who came from Tipton, Indiana, to take my place for a couple of years during the Vietnam War.
Ham Rigg grew up in Pennsylvania, and he told me his first exposure to motorsports was a race at the board track in Altoona, Pennsylvania, in 1927. It was in the waning days of that track, and he told me of the children who climbed up through the support structure to stick their heads up through openings created by missing boards to watch the action "up close and personal."
"It had to scare the hell out of a driver to look down the track and see a head looking at him," Rigg recalled.
That image has stuck with me for 30 years or more, and it helped me realize why the board track era didn't survive nearly long enough for me to get in on it.
Workers assemble Uniontown (Pennsylvania) Speedway in 1916.
Wood didn't weather well back then, especially in locations where the tracks were subjected to the rigors of winter. Despite that, the track 12 miles north of Altoona lasted longer (1923-31) than any of the two dozen built between 1910 and 1928. It burned in 1936. Helping hasten the demise of racing at Altoona was the track's fatality rate. Among those who died on the Altoona boards were Indianapolis 500 winners Howdy Wilcox, Joe Boyer, and Ray Keech.
Another Pennsylvania track, at Uniontown, ran for seven seasons (1916-22) and is now a golf driving range.
The shortest life of any of the board tracks was the one built by Carl Fisher, who built the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Fisher's board track was built at Biscayne Bay, Florida, near Miami in 1926. Peter DePaolo won the first and only race before a hurricane demolished the place.
Given the manner in which the board track era was ushered in, those racing fans of 90-plus years ago knew it was going to be an exciting one. It was a popular form of racing, one that appealed to a public curious to see just how fast a race car could run.
In 1916 a reported 85,000 fans turned out in the Chicago suburb of Maywood to watch Dario Resta win the first race at that track. That same year, 65,000 fans turned out at Sharonville, Ohio, near Cleveland, for the inaugural race.
The first race at San Carlos, near San Francisco, drew 40,000 fans in 1921. Four years later, a throng of 72,000 jammed the track at Rockingham, New Hampshire, to witness one of the several board track victories by DePaolo.
The first of the board tracks was a round, high-banked one-mile track at Playa del Rey, in the Los Angeles area just a short hop from the beach. The inaugural event for this novel new racing venue was to have been a match race between Ralph DePalma and Barney Oldfield, two rivals from the dawn of motorsports. However, DePalma wasn't able to get his 200hp creation, dubbed "Mephistopheles," to the race to take on Oldfield and his "Blitzen Benz."
Caleb Bragg not only agreed to step in to replace DePalma with his own Fiat 90, but the 22-year-old son of a wealthy Cincinnati, Ohio, publisher also posted the prize money.
The two agreed to race in three, two-lap sprints on the mile circle, with the entire $2,000 going to the driver who won two of the three dashes. To the surprise of the cigar chewing Oldfield, as much a motorsports veteran as anyone in the nation, Bragg won the first two sprints and put his prize money back in his pocket.
Although he moved on to road racing and three relatively unsuccessful starts in the then-new Indianapolis 500, Bragg returned to Playa del Rey in 1912 to prove his victory over Oldfield was no fluke. He won a five-mile match race and, along the way, set U.S. closed-course records for every mile distance except the first.
Drivers line up before the final race at the Uniontown board track, on June 17, 1922
While Bragg turned to other venues, Oldfield stayed with the board track phenomenon. In 1915 he told the Des Moines Register that "speedways may come and speedways may go, but the board speedway will go on forever."
Oldfield said the board tracks would "always be the big thrill provider. There is no blinding dust to hamper drivers and obscure them from the spectators. Every second the battle between nerve, wits, mechanical genius, is in plain view."
Fastest of the board tracks was the 1.5-mile, 45-degree banked track at Atlantic City, New Jersey. Harry Hartz won the first race there, a 100-mile event, at an average of 134.091 mph in 1926. A year later, Frank Lockhart qualified at 147.727. Ironically, that fast track is now the site of Troop A of the New Jersey State Police.
Raw speed wasn't just a coincidental by-product of the board track era. Left in the wake of the demise of board track racing were a number of innovations that improved the sport. The cars that raced on boards were among the first purpose-built racers, not just production cars modified for competition.
The cars ran on balloon tires instead of the normal hard rubber ones; some utilized four-wheel brakes, four-wheel drive, and superchargers. For better performance, drivers added tetraethyl lead to their gasoline, and streamlined the cars for better aerodynamics.
The open wheel cars we see racing today evolved from the board track creations of four generations past. The cars proved more durable than the tracks, however.
Oldfield went so far as to sing the praises of the wooden tracks' durability, pointing out that years of exposure to the elements and the salt spray from the Pacific Ocean had rendered the Playa del Rey track "better than the day it opened."
Playa del Rey was destined to meet an early demise, however. It burned down in 1913.
A track in Des Moines, built for $90,000, included three million board feet of lumber, 45 tons of nails and a workforce of 210. The racing surface was built of 2x4s stood on edge, and it lasted all of two years. Ralph Mulford won the opener in 1915 and DePalma won the feature race the following year.
After a failed attempt to run IMCA events in 1917, the track was sold to satisfy a lawsuit. The lumber was sold throughout central Iowa to satisfy outstanding debts.
Some of the early board tracks were built for less than $100,000, but a few, including those in Beverly Hills, California, and Kansas City, Missouri, went up for about $500,000.
The Beverly Hills track was active for five seasons (1920-24), eventually giving way to the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, which now occupies the site. Kansas City lasted only three years (1922-24). During World War II, the track site was occupied by a Pratt-Whitney aircraft engine plant.
Like the Des Moines track, the half-mile track in the Akron-Cleveland area also was put to other use. Shut down in the Depression era, the track disappeared in piecemeal fashion, either for housing or as firewood.
The board track era effectively ended in Pennsylvania in 1931 when Bert Karnatz won the last major board event at Woodbridge. The racing surface at Woodbridge is gone, but the grandstand is part of the Woodbridge High School football stadium.
Gone, perhaps, but not forgotten.