The Infinite Straightway
By the mid-1920s American racing technology was so advanced that our automobiles were establishing speed records that would stand for decades, with engines that set the pattern for those in today’s fastest sports cars. Yet automobile racing on public roads had been illegal in almost every state since the early 1910s. American auto racing grew up not on roads but on big, oval loop tracks made of wood. The tracks have all been gone for more than sixty years and are hardly remembered today. But it was “on the boards” that the Duesenbergs and Millers were perfected and tuned for racing at breathtakingly high speeds, and this path of development pushed the technology very early toward the extreme, even grotesque mechanical specialization that still characterizes American motor sports.
A hint of the new American prowess in auto racing surfaced in 1920 when a double-engined Duesenberg driven by Tommy Milton topped 156 miles per hour on the packed beach at Daytona. It was a monster of a car; a steady spray of oil mist was vented into the cockpit, nearly blinding the driver. Yet it was the fastest car in the world, and it was American. Auto racing had been dominated by Europeans from its inception in the 1890s, and especially in the years immediately before World War I. That an American racing car had boosted the land-speed record to more than 150 mph surprised many people.
The next year another Duesenberg racer won the French Grand Prix over its European counterparts on their own ground. Even the French press would eventually acknowledge that Americans were building the best racing engines anyone had ever seen. “They are far in advance of us,” reported Paris-Match dolefully in 1929. As the 1920s continued, American automotive achievement progressed. In 1927 Frank Lockhart drove an American open-wheeled racer across the dry lake bed at Muroc in the Mojave Desert at 174 mph. Lockhart’s car was propelled by a small, supremely sophisticated supercharged engine, designed in California by Harry A. Miller. This engine produced more than three horsepower per cubic inch of piston displacement, a phenomenal feat of engineering then or now.
Although these speed records were recorded over straightaways on beaches and dry lakes, the cars that set them used technology developed on board tracks. The fastest of these tracks were quite exotic. They were steeply banked closed circuits—huge handcrafted wooden bowls as much as two miles around, sculpted and surfaced with two-by-fours laid on edge. The tracks were hammered together by gangs of unskilled and semiskilled laborers—as many as six hundred men working at once. They were not as slickly finished as, say, a bowling alley—you could look up from beneath one and see sunlight between the boards, and the surfaces tended to splinter and even split beneath the speeding cars—but these tracks provided the smoothest, fastest racing surfaces in the world. There were twenty-four wooden speedways scattered across the country on the outskirts of major and medium-sized cities, and the closed-course speed records set on them in the 1920s would not be broken on modern paved tracks until the 1960s.
All twenty-four board tracks are long gone, but Indianapolis, built in the same era, is still operating. The brick paving of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was regarded as slow at the time. A Miller 91 front-drive race car driven by Bob McDonogh lapped the board track near Miami at 142.9 mph in 1926. For an identical car at Indy, in the same year, the fastest lap was only 111.7 mph on the bricks. But brick was certainly more durable. Wooden surfaces rarely lasted more than two or three years.
No board tracks survived the Depression, but they left us with a racing tradition and technology that still reflect their sharp separation from the engineering realities of everyday roadgoing automobiles. American motor sports, unlike those of Europe, grew up everywhere and anywhere but on the road. In addition to board tracks the venues have included dirt tracks, frozen lakes, asphalt strips, mud pits, the sheer faces of hillsides, salt flats, airports, packed beaches, desert sand dunes, and the crunched hulks of junked vehicles. In fact, the image of the “off-road” vehicle is emblematic in contemporary automobile advertising, where it connotes high speed, machismo, and knockabout adventures. This off-road concept has deep roots in American history.
American car enthusiasts have devised many kinds of racing vehicles, each type specialized for some single purpose: pure straight-line speed, pure straight-line acceleration, fast cornering, near-vertical climbing, ramp jumping, wallowing in and blasting through mud, turning abruptly on sheet ice, weight pulling, and various forms of competitive junker jumping. Each type of vehicle does one thing supremely well, and almost nothing else. Some can only turn left, for example; some should not go farther than a quarter-mile, and some tend to sputter at speeds below 200 mph.
In contrast, the Europeans have almost a century-long tradition of racing on their public roads and on twisting roadlike racecourses. European roadracing cars are general-purpose vehicles. They accelerate from a standing start, go fast or slow, turn, brake—in short, they do everything you would expect of a car that has to drive on a public thoroughfare. The Europeans have many different sizes of racing cars, graded according to their engines’ piston displacement, but there is only a single major type: the road racer. Why are we so different?
Around 1900, when Europeans were discovering road racing and establishing their major venues, American racers could not easily do the same. To begin road racing you need roads to race on, and most American roads were barely passable at the turn of the century. A few races were conducted in prosperous locales with reasonably good roads, such as Elgin, Illinois; Santa Monica, California; and Long Island, New York. These races depended on wealthy sponsors to pay for prizes and expenses, but when the supply of money dried up, the sport began to fade. Road racing could not sustain itself as a business because there was no way to control or restrict spectators’ access to the events. It was a promoter’s nightmare: admission-free and dangerous.
Although American road racing probably would have faltered anyway from these inherent problems, its demise was accelerated by public pressure. After a series of increasingly lethal matches, laws came to forbid road racing in nearly every state. This didn’t bother racing drivers very much, because the public roads they were being denied were often impassable anyway. America had no need for good roads; it had trains. Since the start of the railway age, trains had taken care of almost all long-distance point-to-point travel and freight transport over land. For any distance longer than about fifteen miles, economics favored the railway over the wagon. Roads came to be regarded essentially as local conduits to railway stations.
Given this state of affairs, it might seem surprising that high-speed automobile racing reached its first technological pinnacle in the United States. But while our roads were far worse than those in Europe, our board tracks were better than any road anywhere, and American racing cars and engines evolved at an astonishing pace on them. Curiously, although board tracks were a key ingredient in the development of racing automobiles, they were originally conceived for bicycle racers.
Most of them were planned and organized by one man, John Shillington Prince, an Englishman from Birmingham. Before the turn of the century Jack Prince was a bicycle racer of considerable international reputation. Like many others, he called himself the champion bicycle racer of the world, and while his claim to such a title is debatable, there is little question that he was one of the champion promoters of the world.
Prince’s first board track was a velodrome built in 1894 for three New York City businessmen who were planning a six-day bicycle race. Prince built the track and then won the race himself. After that, he recalled, “I started to build these little board tracks all over the country.” He was a superb showman, a short, formal, slightly porky Englishman moving energetically through the world of American business. Trouble followed Jack Prince, usually no more than a couple of paces behind, but for the most part he managed to stay out of its clutches.
He clearly regarded his track-construction enterprise as part theater. He always dressed to the nines, and with his black derby and bow tie he cut quite a figure at muddy racetrack construction sites around the country. He was equally at home in boardrooms and clubrooms. That was important, because the basis of his business was common stock, issued locally and subscribed in the communities where he built his tracks. He knew how to create this paper, how to sell it, how to generate a fee for his services—and when to move on briskly to another town.
His early tracks were perfectly circular banked dishes—rather shallow ones for bicycle racing. For motorcycles, however, he built his velodromes much steeper and installed sheer vertical walls at the perimeter. The physics of the tracks explains why motorcycles—and eventually race cars—could be driven so fast and with such apparent abandon. Given sufficient speed around a curve, centrifugal force will pin a speeding motorcycle to an embankment. Centrifugal force balances gravity; the motorcycle can lean so far over that it becomes virtually horizontal. Although the vehicle goes around and around, the rider looks and steers straight ahead. The track is, in effect, an infinite straightaway.
It was inevitable that someone would extend the banked-track principle from bicycles and motorcycles to race cars. A Swiss-educated automotive engineer with an enthusiasm for bike racing, Frederick E. Moscovics, first capitalized on the idea. Moscovics put together financing, purchased a site, and hired Jack Prince to build the world’s first automotive board-track speedway near the beach at Playa Del Rey, not far from Venice, California.
Prince scaled up his velodrome design to produce a circular dished track one mile around, banked at an angle of twenty degrees, and solidly braced to support the heavier stresses expected from automobile racing. Construction began in February 1910. Racing was to commence April 8, with the opening week’s chief attraction being a match race between Barney Oldfield in his Blitzen Benz and Ralph De Palma in Mephistopheles , a 200-horsepower Fiat. But on the appointed day Mephistopheles would not go; Oldfield, alone, his characteristic cigar firmly clamped between his teeth, clocked a lap in the big Benz at 99.39 mph. Witnesses described his performance as one continuous, heroic, mile-long power slide all the way around the track.
To put Oldfield’s lap speed in the context of the time, consider that Henry Ford, testing his 999-type racer in 1904, had achieved 91.37 mph in straight-line runs on the glassy surface of a frozen lake. (Using a road was out of the question—too bumpy.) Other speed-record seekers tried the packed beach at Daytona, like the Stanley brothers, who, using streamlined steam cars, raised the land-speed record on this splendid straightaway to 127.6 mph in 1906.
The board track at Playa Del Rey was the first practical solution to the problem of finding a long, smooth place to run cars in a compact space. Oldfield’s 99.39-mph run hinted at how excellent this solution would prove to be. The great wooden circle was as smooth as a floor and effectively infinite in length. No longer would it be necessary to mount seasonal field expeditions to some remote roadlike surface created as a temporary phenomenon of nature, as at Daytona or on a frozen lake. The board tracks made possible routine and methodical experimentation with high speed.
Before they could move auto racing into a new era, however, the Playa Del Rey entrepreneurs had to deal with more mundane considerations. In today’s auto-filled world any great public spectacle—rock concert, football game, automobile race—requires acres of parking lots, with extensive roadways to handle all the traffic. Price and Moscovics had a different sort of traffic problem to contend with at Playa Del Rey: there wasn’t any. The crowds they sought for their racing spectacle would have to be carried by rail to the grandstands, which were twenty miles from downtown Los Angeles.
Also, with no trucks available, the material needed to build the grandstands and the track—several million board feet of wood and several tons of nails—would have to be delivered by train to the construction site. The Los Angeles Pacific Railway Company obliged the promoters by running a spur from its Redondo Beach trackage directly to the site. It was good business for the railroad.
The railroad spur was a lifeline for board tracks. This essential feature was repeated at every one of them. Rail access was so important that a rail strike in Chicago in June 1915 caused the first race at the nearby Maywood Speedway Park to be postponed for a week: the 60,000 ticket holders had no way to get to the racetrack. The timing was fortunate, because the track had not quite been finished yet.
This dependence of the highest automotive technology then in existence, these amazing American speedsters, on nineteenth-century railroad machinery emphasizes the point that board-track racecourses were essentially hothouses—controlled environments for the cultivation of highspeed race cars, completely isolated from the mud-bound realities of American roads.
The first board track had the effect of turning on the lights in the laboratory. Others followed quickly. In the teens the original circle design evolved into an oval. Lap speeds hovered around 100 mph, and accidents were frequent. When Prince’s first track perished in a fire in 1913, Damon Runyon wrote, “Playa Del Rey burned down last night, with a great saving of lives.”
A civil engineer named Arthur Pillsbury created the first scientifically designed board track in 1919. He was a complex man, regarded by some as a compulsive gambler, ultimately a millionaire, a graduate of MIT transplanted to California by way of the Alaskan goldfields. He was asked to build a board track in Beverly Hills, California, to be financed in part by Hollywood money from, among others, Cecil B. DeMille. Pillsbury’s assignment quickly led him to Jack Prince. As Pillsbury recalled in the mid-1960s to the automotive historian Griffith Borgeson: “We began to get down to business and it became clear there were no figures, no designs, and that Prince was quite innocent of any engineering knowledge. He was very helpful of course but that first track I designed and built in 1919 was the first one with any serious attention to engineering principles.”
Pillsbury formalized board-track design, borrowing from railroads the equations for high-speed embankments. “One of the notorious defects of the earlier banked ovals had been the difficulty of getting on and off the curves,” he said. “The transitions were abrupt, tricky, and dangerous. So I used a Searles Spiral Easement Curve. This is a formula widely used in railroad engineering whereby a train is led into a central curve through a series of small curves of ever decreasing radius.”
The success of Pillsbury’s equations was dramatic. “There was no limit to the speed for which those tracks could be designed. If you want one to handle 160 or 180 mph, it’s just a question of how steep you throw [the embankment] up in the air. There was no steering. You could just take you hands off the wheel. You could drive flat out blindfolded. That’s the way those tracks were designed.”
Not surprisingly, the cars that evolved in the special environment Pillsbury created were a little bit odd. They were all engine. American race-car chassis (that is, suspension, steering, and brakes) would barely advance in the next twenty years from the modified horse buggies that had informed their original design. By eliminating the road and creating virtually an infinite straightaway, Jack Prince and Art Pillsbury had eliminated the problems of road holding and steering associated with bumps and corners. With the exception of the Miller front-drive 91, introduced in 1925, chassis development more or less froze.
The progress in engines, by contrast, was stunning. Races were won by engines—in fact, they were essentially races between engines. Board-track racing developed into a fierce, decade-long, behind-the-scenes competition between two engine builders. Both were German-Americans from the Midwest: Harry A. Miller (born Harry Armenius Mueller) and the Duesenberg brothers, Frederick and August.
The Miller and Duesenberg racing cars of the board-track era look like antiques to us, with their front-mounted engines, vertical grilles, and semielliptical buggy springs. But under the hood is an engine very similar to that of a latter-day Ferrari. Modern racingengine design typically features twin overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder, and smooth, generously sized intake and exhaust passages. All were first perfected on American race cars in the 1920s.
The original idea for this sort of engine is credited to Peugeot in 1912. But the development of the basic design into a reliable high-horsepower, high-speed thoroughbred resulted from Miller’s competition with Duesenberg in the 1920s. When Duesenberg supercharged its engines by pumping a compressed charge of fuel and air into the combustion chambers, the horsepower readings climbed off the scale. Miller quickly copied the idea, and it was through supercharging that Frank Lockhart’s tiny Miller 91 achieved three horsepower per cubic inch in 1927.
These engines were honed for a single application—high speed. They developed all their power at full throttle. Low-speed torque and acceleration were poor. You could not pull stumps with such an engine or use it (without major modifications) in a road-going automobile. The American racing engines of the 1920s were brilliant, but they were the work of monomaniacs.
While Miller and Duesenberg were taking each other’s measure, Pillsbury and Prince became business partners, and board tracks proliferated across the country. Prince appealed to civic pride, boosterism, and self-interest. His first prospecting stops in any new town included visits to the bank president and the local newspaper publisher. It also seems likely that he quickly allied himself with the owner of the local lumber company. Wood-oriented statistics were a central feature of his promotional efforts.
Each track boasted to the press of the enormous amount of lumber used in its construction. For the Cincinnati track it was said that the eight million board feet of long-leaf yellow pine, laid end to end, would have stretched from Cincy to New Orleans. For the Rockingham Motor Speedway in Salem, New Hampshire, 440 miles of two-byfour Maine spruce boards were required, “enough so that laid end to end they would reach from Bangor to New York City.” One can sense from the newspaper clips that Jack Prince, like his partner Arthur Pillsbury, had hit upon a successful formula and knew it.
Prince used his ever-present derby as a promotional prop. In conversations with business leaders in a new town, he would at some point invert the hat and twist up its brim to demonstrate the steepness of the embankment on the new track he proposed to build. Each track was a degree or two steeper than the one before, and as they grew steeper, speeds grew higher. The tracks were divided into lanes by painted white lines, and race fans learned to gauge a car’s speed by the lane it was running in. It was like reading a thermometer. At Fulford, Florida (now North Miami Beach), which had the steepest track, the bank was fifty degrees—so steep that it was said any car moving slower than 110 mph would slide right down it. The steeper the bank, the faster the track record—and the shriller the publicity.
While board tracks and the cars that raced on them were pushing the limits of engineering, a subtler change was in progress on the business side of the operations. Parking began to be important. At Atlantic City in the late 1920s, Prince made a point of advertising parking in the infield for 20,000 vehicles. Races involving passenger cars (known, then as now, as stock cars) had long been featured on the bills as a sort of side show, but they were beginning to produce respectable lap speeds. And finally, most tellingly, a few racing teams began to use transporters—trucks rather than trains—to move their cars. Outside the ever steeper walls of the wooden tracks, America had turned into a country with roads to travel and cars to ride in.
The board tracks all came down in the Depression, some of them even dismantled for firewood. But America’s fascination with off-road racing persists. We have by now created a great variety of absurdly specialized racing machines, each created to do just one thing: dragsters, mud racers, streamliners, bigfeet. The board-track racers, which could only go fast, were the first widely popular class of such highly specialized offroad racers, and they defined this uniquely American approach to motor sports.