Silver Dollar Nationals

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Board with racing; Des Moines, Iowa was the site of unique track

by Kyle Ealy

Cedar Rapids, Iowa – With super speedways such as Indianapolis Motor Speedway still in its infancy, a new craze in racing was sweeping the nation. It was called a board track and for a short period, Des Moines, Iowa was the site of one of these unique spectacles.

In the early days of oval tracks, horses and cars shared the same tracks. It was obvious right away cars stirred up the dust and dirt and more than any thoroughbred could. The dust was so thick that crowds complained that it was hard to see the action and the driver’s were sometimes blinded. In the days where fans literally lined up next to the track, it was a dangerous situation for all involved. Not to mention that the huge potholes and ruts left by the cars could severely injure horses.

Road builders tried to pave tracks but the liquid asphalt available at the time was so poor that it would disintegrate quickly after a few races. Asphalt was so bad, in fact, that when Carl Fisher was building Indy, he decided to cover his 2.5 mile track with 3 million 10-pound bricks to save on future repair costs. It was a very time consuming and an expensive process. To this day, Indy is the only track ever to be constructed that way. Twin City Motor Speedway in Minneapolis paved their two-mile track with concrete but that too was very expensive.

An engineer by the name of Fred Moscovics had seen a bicycle board track in California that gave him an idea. Why not build an oversized board track for automobiles? A wooden track would be dust free, produce high speeds and it would be quick to build with a lot less cost than other conventional methods.

Moscovics and race track designer Jack Prince built the first board track at Los Angeles in 1909 and it was a smashing success. The banking on the first track was 20 degrees and as one writer described it, “looked like a giant cereal bowl”. The circular shape allowed the drivers to produce high speeds and because of its shape, didn’t require much turning of the steering wheel. Better yet, race fans didn’t go home after the races covered in dust and dirt. The total expense to build the track was $75,000.

To give you an idea of the speeds produced, many years later in 1927, Frank Lockhart was clocked at over 147 mph on the Atlantic City, N.J., pine. He would later win the pole at the Indianapolis 500 that same year with an average speed of 120 mph.

The one drawback to the tracks was the races weren’t very exciting and cars would get spread out rather quickly (much like what NASCAR is today). Prince went back to the drawing board (literally) to think on how he could improve his idea. A couple of years later Prince decided that the tracks needed longer straight-aways and with that, he built a huge two-mile track in Chicago in 1915. The track was an instant success with drivers and fans alike. To show you how popular it was the 1915 Indianapolis 500 drew 60,000 spectators. Three weeks later, the Chicago race drew an estimated 85,000 race fans.

Chicago Speedway’s success prompted Prince to build two more tracks, one in Omaha and the other in Des Moines. The track in Des Moines required 96 railroad boxcars of wood and an estimated 50 tons of nails. As many as 250 workers were involved in the construction of the one-mile oval at the bargain basement price of $100,000.

The legendary Barney Oldfield was one of the first drivers to test out the new track. On July 25, 1915, Oldfield averaged 103 mph at Valley Junction Board Speedway. What made the average speed so remarkable was the fact that the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway didn’t show those speeds until four years later in 1919.

After Oldfield came off the track that afternoon, he was arrested and fined $7.85 for violating the Sunday closing laws. Other race car drivers who were there that day were ticketed for not having mufflers on their cars until it was decided by local police that race cars weren’t suppose to have mufflers in the first place.

The first big race was a scheduled 300-mile event that took place a couple of weeks later on August 7th. Approximately 10,000 race fans showed up that afternoon to watch Ralph Mulford, piloting a Dusenberg, win the race in the time of three hours, 27 minutes. Ralph DePalma, who had won the Indianapolis 500 several months earlier, grabbed second driving a Stutz.

Unfortunately the race was marred by two deaths, one a driver (Joe Cooper) and the other a mechanic (Morris Keeler). A loose plank on the northeast portion of the track caused Cooper’s tire to blow and sent him and the car hurdling into the infield grandstand area, killing him instantly.

Only one more race would be held at the track, a 150 miler on June 23, 1916. Ralph DePalma, this time piloting a Mercedes, would win the event in one hour, 37 minutes. The third-place finisher that afternoon was a young up and coming driver by the name of Eddie Rickenbacker. He would not only excel as a race car driver but also as a World War I flying ace.

One of the perils of board tracks was the lack of technology to preserve them. The track floors would become brittle and literally start breaking into pieces during races. During those races, large holes would develop in the track floor. Many drivers must have been scared out of their wits trying to dodge holes while driving at break-neck speeds.

It was said that workers would lay underneath the track with flags sticking out of the holes to warn drivers as they tried to patch holes as the race took place. Imagine trying to fix a hole while cars are going full bore right over the top of you!

The whole board track experiment lasted until around 1928. Experts say the reason for their ultimate failure in was that it took absolutely little or no skill to drive cars on them, just a huge amount of guts. Tracks could hold a car on the same line at full speed without any steering required by the driver.

A few shorter distant racing events took place on the Des Moines oval but fan interest in the track slowed, most of the name drivers were overseas doing their part for the war effort and Valley Junction Board Speedway closed for good in 1917. Because of all of the Midwestern elements we experience every year, the rain, snow and extreme heat, the track rapidly deteriorated, was eventually dismantled and the lumber sold off.

It is said that many of the barns and other wooden buildings constructed in and around the Des Moines area from 1917 to 1918 still stand with timber from the old board raceway.

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