Death Tracks; Beyond Motordrome

As published by the The Footy Almanac, 23 March 2012

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 seems 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 theUnited 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 Jerseyin 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 ensured 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 acting 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.  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 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 demonstration of the steepness of the banked track.

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. Diane Thompson nee Harris says:

    I am interested to see more picture. from the 1930s. My father went there as a spectator. writing family history book
    Regards diane

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    1. jeffdowsing says:

      Hi Diane, I have other pics. I’ll email you some.

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  2. Peter Black says:

    My late Father told us that he held an unbreakable track record for the motordrome.
    He raced an Austin Seven racing in Class H. The speed was 75mph. He said that the track was “rated ” (?) as having a 5mph drag.
    His name was Arthur Black. Born in ,1910. He also raced against Lord Nuffield’s son in law at Philip Island also in an Austin Seven. Captain Waite or White I am never sure.
    His speed days were curtailed in a losing encounter with a Foden, not on a racetrack, that left him unconscious for 10 days.

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  3. JD says:

    Thanks for sharing your story Peter – it would be great if there was a book about the Motordrome to immortalise the brave racers like your father. There was so much intrigue with John Wren’s involvement and so much death defying danger it would also make for a pretty unique movie or TV series.

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