History of Motorcycle Racing

Posted by Robin Albright on November 2, 2013

A Brief Look Into the History of Motorcycle Racing


Today, bikers tend to participate in rallies rather than motorcycle racing events. The first races were held at a time when the 20th century was only a few years old. One of the first motorcycles produced was the Hendee Manufacturing Company’s Indian. The Indian went into production in 1901. Harley-Davidson followed in 1903. Given the fact that there now were competing manufacturers, and given the fact that Americans were beginning to develop a taste for speeds that horses couldn’t match, the sport of racing motorcycles was bound to follow.

One of the early problems facing those who decided to go into motorcycle racing had to do with the ignition, or a lack thereof. A racer could not simply turn a key and step on a starter. Each motorcycle had to be towed until it reached a speed where the engine would kick in.

The Earliest Racing Facilities


At first there were no race tracks that were specifically designed for motorcycles. Horse racing ovals and bicycle velodromes had to do. The same was true with the automobile of course, but the early motorcycles were faster than automobiles, so naturally were the machines of choice when it came to watching and participating in racing. Horse racing ovals could accommodate motorcycles to a certain extent. The turns weren’t banked of course, so a number of motorcycles going around a turn could generate a great deal of dust and dirt, Motorcycle racing was becoming a dusty, dirty business.


The Races Become Dangerous


It was also becoming a dangerous one. Velodromes could only be reasonably safe up to certain speeds, and after more than a few accidents, some of them deadly, it became necessary to construct race tracks that were designed to accommodate motorcycles. These new facilities were an improvement of course, but only up to a point. The running surfaces consisted of rough-surfaced boards, which meant a fall could result in later on having to remove a great many splinters from anywhere on a biker that wasn’t adequately protected.


It wasn’t splinters that caused these board races to eventually fall into disfavor however. There were simply too many accidents. There were too many fatal accidents as well, and too many fatal accidents that involved both drivers and spectators. The majority of races that were held on these tracks took place from the 1910s into the 1920s. There were so many horrific crashes that the tracks, called motordromes, became known as murderdromes, and local governments eventually began closing them down.


Motorcycle Racing Comes to an End – For Awhile


Even though the 1920s, the ‘Roaring Twenties’ were exciting times, especially in the sports world, interest in motorcycle racing began to taper off. At the same time, interest in automobile racing, which by most comparisons was a good deal safer and every bit as exciting, begin to grow. It was only a few years into the 1930’s that the last of the board tracks closed down. Those who still held races had to hold them on horse racing ovals, but the majority of those facilities would not allow motor vehicles on their tracks.


A Brief Rejuvenation


One of the sites of the some of the earliest races was at the horse racing oval located in the Cowley County Fairgrounds in Winfield, Kansas. Races where held there from around 1910 to 1915, and later in 1933. There were no additional races on record until the sport was briefly rejuvenated in 1962 and were held at the fairgrounds for the next ten years.


One can only imagine the differences in the events as they were conducted in the 1960s as compared to those in the 1910. The early motorcycles had little more in the way of horsepower that some of today’s lawn mowing machines. The early bikes could attain fair speeds, but the ability to quickly accelerate was another matter.


The only similarity between the races of the 60s and those of 1910 might be that Harley-Davidson bikes took part in both. Other makes that participated in the 60s races were Triumph, BSA, and Yamaha. Crowds typically numbered from 2,000 to 3,000 but the final race, held in 1972, drew 18,000 spectators.

Today It’s Bluegrass Music


Winfield is not a large town, and as such had difficulty accommodating larger crowds. The locals enjoyed the races as much as anyone, but were usually glad to see their town return to its normally peaceful existence. Had the races remained in Winfield and not moved elsewhere, the town very likely would have had to put up with what the people living in Sturgis, South Dakota have to deal with today, when thousands of bikers descend on the town for a few days of festivities each summer.


In 1988 a flood took out a part of the oval that was the Cowley County Fairgrounds race track. The grandstand was enlarged and now covers a good part of what remained of the oval, so races will likely never be held there again, whether they involve horses or motorcycles. Instead of watching motorcycles race around the track, spectators at the fairgrounds now enjoy the annual bluegrass festival as well as a number of other musical events.