“Thrills to the Marrow”: Cowtown’s Motordrome

The 1900s were the first motorized century, and America quickly was smitten with the speed that the gasoline engine allowed: speed in the air in airplanes and speed on the ground in automobiles . . .

and on motorcycles.

John Shillington (“Jack”) Prince (1857-1927) had been a bicycle racer in his native England since the days of the high-wheelers. In the 1890s he retired from the track and moved to Los Angeles, where he began a second career: building velodromes—circular tracks for racing bicycles. (Photo from Wikipedia.)

Then, early in the new century, sensing the rising popularity of motorcycles, Prince used the concept of the velodrome to create the motordrome: a circular track for racing motorcycles. His motordrome in Los Angeles opened in 1909.

Fast-forward to 1917. Prince had spent the last eight years traveling around the country trying to persuade local investors to build a motordrome in their city. Before he was done he would build seventeen tracks ranging in length from a quarter-mile to a mile and a half.

The track of motordromes, like velodrome, was banked to allow greater speed, especially in turns. In a banked turn riders did not have to slow down and lean as they would in a flat curve. At high speed centrifugal force held motorcycles against the track.

Short tracks often were banked their entire circumference. Longer tracks often had two straightaways and were banked at the two curved ends.

Tracks were wooden, built with two-by-fours laid with the two-inch side facing up. The two photos show the wooden construction and slope of a motordrome track.

In June 1917 Jack Prince was in Fort Worth, where he announced that Fort Worth Motor Stadium Racing Company, which consisted of Prince and local investors including Fort Worth Panthers business manager Paul LaGrave, auto dealer Hubb Diggs, and local motorcycle racer Henry Lewis, would build a motordrome on McGarr’s Park next to Panther Park.

Motorcycling was popular in Fort Worth. Henry Lewis and other motorcyclists had been competing at the driving park on the West Side since at least 1914. By 1918 the city had four motorcycle dealers, including a Harley-Davidson dealer. Each autumn Fort Worth residents went to the state fair in Dallas to watch motorcycle races featuring some of the early stars of the sport—stars who would soon be racing in Fort Worth, Prince promised.

Jack Prince’s Fort Worth motordrome would be a quarter-mile in circumference. He said its track would be banked at fifty-two degrees, allowing racers to reach one hundred miles per hour. The motordrome would be lighted for night races. Even Panther Park was not lighted for night games.

In June 1917 Jack Prince predicted that the motordrome would be completed by August.

But work on the motordrome did not even begin until May 31, 1919. As we will see, that delay of almost two years may have cost Jack Prince.

Prince predicted that Fort Worth’s motordrome would make the city “the mecca for motorists of the United States.” He indeed lured some of the best racers in the sport for the opening of the track, including world champion Ray Creviston. This photo shows the Creviston on the banked board track of the Fort Worth motordrome.

Creviston would defend his world’s title in Fort Worth.

Note that on hand for opening night would be two physicians and an ambulance provided by North Fort Worth Undertaking Company.

Prince lit up the night sky for the opening: Forty Army signal bombs (flares) were fired one thousand feet into the air from a mortar. A band played.

Mayor William Davis fired the starting pistol for the first race. Races were from one to ten miles in length.

Four thousand spectators “enjoyed thrills to the marrow,” the Star-Telegram reported.

James Cox of Dallas (“Demon on Wheels”) was the big winner.

Where was world champion Ray Creviston?

Creviston did not compete on opening night because he had been injured in an accident on the track while practicing.

A few days later Creviston was able to compete against a challenger: He and Fort Worth racer Henry Lewis (an investor in the motordrome) began a best-of-five contest for the world championship. They were tied 1-1 when Creviston suddenly declined to race again.

He was barred from the track for refusing to defend his title.

That was not a good omen.

The motorcycles ridden by motordrome racers were no-frills land rockets. They were capable of speeds in excess of ninety miles an hour. They had no brakes, no transmission. Riders used the throttle and engine load to slow a motorcycle. The motorcycles had no starter. They had to be towed by another motorcycle to start their engine.

Popular with racers were two-cylinder Indian, Harley-Davidson, and Excelsior motorcycles with frames harder more substantial than a bicycle’s.

Spectators watched the races from grandstands or the infield. Spectators could lean over the rail along the upper edge of the track as the motorcycles zoomed by just a few feet below.

The boards of the track had a rough finish to increase traction.

But if a rider lost control of his motorcycle at ninety miles per hour, he had more than splinters to worry about.

So did fans.

Case in point: On September 8, 1912 racer Eddie Hasha (the “Texas Cyclone”) of Waco, a second racer, and five spectators were killed at a motordrome in Newark, New Jersey when Hasha, going ninety-two miles an hour, lost control. His motorcycle crashed through the rail at the top of the track and into the crowd. (Photo of Hasha from Wikipedia.)

Ten other spectators were injured, some with broken bones.

The Newark track was a quarter-mile in circumference and banked at fifty degrees—like the Fort Worth track.

And it was built by Jack Prince.

The Newark track had been open only two months. After the accident it was closed and never reopened.

Ten months later on July 30, 1913 in Ludlow, Kentucky, racer Odin Johnson (the “Salt Lake Marvel”) crashed through the railing at the top edge of the track and into the spectators. His gas tank exploded. Dozens of spectators were burned.

The headline of August 1 says eight people (including Johnson) were killed. The toll later would rise to ten. Three track officials were charged with involuntary manslaughter.

The Ludlow track was, like the Fort Worth track, a quarter-mile track but was banked sixty degrees—one of the steepest in the country.

The two accidents rippled through the sport. Motorcycle manufacturers withdrew their support because of the negative publicity. Newspapers began referring to the quarter-mile motordromes as “murderdromes.”

But Jack Prince continued to build them.

I find news reports of only two minor injuries to racers at the Fort Worth motordrome.

But then Fort Worth’s motordrome apparently was in operation only a few months.

The Star-Telegram gave the motordrome a lot of news and ad coverage during the summer of 1919. Then, after October 5, nothing for the rest of the year, nothing in 1920, 1921, 1922, etc. The motordrome appears on a 1920 Rogers map but not the 1925 map.

What happened?

I could find no news report that the track had closed permanently, but it certainly had fallen out of the newspaper.

Then I found a clue. The July 23, 1919 issue of MotorCycling and Bicycling magazine reported that on July 18—just two days after the Fort Worth motordrome had opened—the Motorcycle and Allied Trades Association, which regulated motorcycle racing, had withdrawn its sanctioning of board tracks shorter than one mile. MATA also announced that it would outlaw racers who competed in such nonsanctioned “murderdromes.”

The magazine singled out Jack Prince and the “disastrous financial and physical effects” of the short tracks he had built and continued to build.

The closing of the Fort Worth motordrome was not an isolated event. Other closings would follow in the early 1920s.

And the MATA ruling aside, other factors contributed to the decline of motordromes.

One factor was the high cost of maintenance of board tracks. Tracks needed new boards about every five years. If track owners could not afford to lose revenue by shutting down a track for resurfacing, carpenters sometimes worked under the banked track while races were in progress.

Another factor was the risk of fire (all that wood and gasoline) and the resultant high cost of insurance.

Such factors drove investors to dirt tracks, which were safer and cheaper to build and maintain.

Eleven months after Fort Worth’s motordrome opened, William Cameron won a debt suit against Fort Worth Motor Stadium Racing Company. Cameron owned a lumber company and probably provided at least some of the thousands of feet of boards that built Fort Worth’s shortlived “murderdrome.”

Motorcycle racing at Los Angeles Motor Speedway (built by Jack Prince) in 1921:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ANyxZVWBWlg&t=36s

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