Jump to content


Photo

America Goes in Circles - Need Some Detail


  • Please log in to reply
32 replies to this topic

#1 Seat18E

Seat18E
  • Member

  • 1,133 posts
  • Joined: January 04

Posted 17 February 2004 - 14:39

I recently read that after the first world war Americans decided to go racing on ovals. Now while I understand the connection of the time between horse racing/gambling and so forth, what I do not have is a detailed perspective of the how and why of the matter.

I was wondering if any of you here could help sort of fill in the blanks for me by detailing exactly what happened at the tail end of WWI and just after which caused our format to become so different from not only the rest of the world but from the way it was in America just prior to the War.

BTW: I have been contemplating posting. I attempted to do a search first but it appears that the option is not currently working due to re-indexing of the servers.

Thanks in advance.

Advertisement

#2 Joe Fan

Joe Fan
  • Member

  • 5,591 posts
  • Joined: December 98

Posted 17 February 2004 - 15:01

I don't know if you will ever find a well-documented answer because the U.S. does have a road racing history in the first part of the 20th Century. However, note horse racing became a successful public spectacle on oval tracks and many early races in the U.S. were contested on the same tracks. It would be interesting to know, for comparison purposes, the extent, if any, of horse racing on oval tracks in Europe in the first half of the 20th Century. Perhaps this might provide some insight as to why oval racing never flourished in Europe as it has in the U.S.

#3 Seat18E

Seat18E
  • Member

  • 1,133 posts
  • Joined: January 04

Posted 17 February 2004 - 15:20

There is very little on the web at all regarding this. I am hoping that some people here will be able to help.

#4 Joe Fan

Joe Fan
  • Member

  • 5,591 posts
  • Joined: December 98

Posted 17 February 2004 - 18:46

Overall, I think any serious motorsport historian, particularly an American motorsport historian, needs to pay closer attention to the history and sport of horse racing for the real roots of auto racing. Auto racing, whether we want to admit or not, is really the bastard sport of horse racing and there are many parallels between the two sports. Before there were cars to race, there were horses and carriages. Jockeys died at an alarming rate in the first half of the century much like racedrivers did. Horse racing became a great spectacle on oval dirt tracks in the U.S. due to the ability of the spectator to see the whole race unfold in front of them without any obstructed views.

Our motorsport grew by leaps and bounds from sprint car racing on dirt ovals, and if you have ever viewed a good sprint car race on dirt, you would see why sprint car racing became so popular. The Indianapolis 500 on the yard of bricks eventually became "Grand Prix" for American motorsport. NASCAR stock car racing, easily the most popular motorsport in the U.S. today, was born on the beaches of Daytona--road racing--not oval racing. However, NASCAR, too, became a primarily oval racing phenomenon, following the success that horse racing and sprint car racing had on oval tracks.

#5 Seat18E

Seat18E
  • Member

  • 1,133 posts
  • Joined: January 04

Posted 17 February 2004 - 18:58

I am wondering if horse racing was as popular throughout Europe during this period as well?

#6 ehagar

ehagar
  • Member

  • 6,231 posts
  • Joined: April 01

Posted 17 February 2004 - 20:03

I sometimes wonder about the origins of motorcycle board track racing. Motorcycles of that time period (early 1900s? When was the first race track built? 1909?) were little more than powered bicycles. Looking at the few photos that exist, the thought of racing on these tracks looked absolutely insane.

I wonder though, if the idea for these tracks came from bicycle veladromes.

#7 Seat18E

Seat18E
  • Member

  • 1,133 posts
  • Joined: January 04

Posted 17 February 2004 - 20:13

There is a fella on our street that has 3 of those old machines and they certainly do not look safe. Although he sorta looks ridiculous riding them sometimes.;)

#8 dretceterini

dretceterini
  • Member

  • 2,991 posts
  • Joined: May 02

Posted 17 February 2004 - 20:14

I think part of the reason for oval racing is that a lot more of the track can be seen than in true road race. It is also easier to charge the spectators in some sort of stadium.

#9 Vitesse2

Vitesse2
  • Nostalgia Forum Moderator

  • 24,041 posts
  • Joined: April 01

Posted 17 February 2004 - 21:43

Originally posted by Seat18E
I am wondering if horse racing was as popular throughout Europe during this period as well?

It was (and is). But European horse racing tended to be on grass courses in open country - not really suitable for cars. For whatever reason, short all-weather tracks were not developed here, except for trotting, an equestrian sport which has never AFAIK had a great following.

Of course, the first purpose-built permanent oval track was Brooklands ...

#10 lustigson

lustigson
  • Member

  • 4,767 posts
  • Joined: March 01

Posted 17 February 2004 - 21:54

Might it -- the Americans racing on purpose built oval tracks -- have something to do with the fact that most roads in populated area's in the States are straight and Europe, on the other hand, had roads-of-old with twists and turns, etc. so there was less of a need to build tracks?

#11 David Beard

David Beard
  • Member

  • 4,886 posts
  • Joined: July 02

Posted 17 February 2004 - 21:54

Originally posted by Vitesse2


Of course, the first purpose-built permanent oval track was Brooklands ...


But of course the nags kept falling off the banking, so cars took over...

#12 Don Capps

Don Capps
  • Member

  • 5,933 posts
  • Joined: May 99

Posted 18 February 2004 - 00:26

Originally posted by Seat18E
I recently read that after the first world war Americans decided to go racing on ovals. Now while I understand the connection of the time between horse racing/gambling and so forth, what I do not have is a detailed perspective of the how and why of the matter.


I think we've discussed this a time or two before, but I will try to see what I can do.

Road racing was a very common form of automobile racing in America during the years up to the early 1920's. The first motor racing event held on a closed track in the USA was at Narragansett Park at the Rhode Island State Fair on 7 September 1896. The track was an oval and usually given to hosting horse races. It was a less than stellar performance due to rains soaking the track, but photos of the grandstands should a very, very large crowd in attendance. Oh, an electric vehicle won, the Riker Electric with A.L. Riker and C.H. Whiting aboard.

In the early part of the 20th Century, a common part of many county and state fairs were horse races. Naturally, there was some crossover by those promoting horse races into the business of promoting automobile racing. However, road courses and oval tracks exited side-by-side for many years, competitors and promoters going from one to the other and back again. Not all horse racing promoters were enthralled with using their tracks for motor racing. The cars did considerable damage to the track surface -- as well as the fencing lining the track. Also, the stables were scarcely adequate for the job as garages and not many competitors were keen on the facilities.

Both road racing and track racing generally drew very good crowds. For road courses, the usual mantra that promoters couldn't make any money due to the layout is not quite accurate. What many of the clever promoters did was erect grandstands at all the best vantage points or simply control access to those points. Promoters also soon realized that shortening the road courses helped as well. The major problem that was difficult to find an easy solution for when road courses were used was policing the course. The problem was not necessarily people -- although that was a problem, it was the animals which wandered onto the course and into the path of the cars.

Several forces began to interesct changed the way races were conducted. First, in the early years of the century a reform movement which had been gaining steam during the 1890's, really got momentum during the 1905 thru 1920 period. Although alcohol is the best known target of this movement, one of the other targets was gambling, particularly waging on horse races. Many states outlawed betting on horse races or simply banned horse racing altogether. California passed several laws which essentially reduced horse racing to zero. This left many former horse racing tracks, such as the track at Ascot Park open for other uses.

Then, there was the velodrone phenomenon of which Major Taylor was the Leading Light. Velodrones sprang up all over the USA. As the velodrone fad began to die down, these tracks were recycled for motorcycles and then led to the planked board speedways. Initially, these planked board tracks were not that successful, but in 1915 they "suddenly" burst on the scene and would be a staple for over a decade.

Speedways were built of planked board, concrete (one being at Minneapolis-St. Paul -- on the site where MSP airport is today), bricks, and dirt. In 1915 and 1916, the AAA National CHampionship Trail had all these sorts of tracks, plus road courses and a point-to-point event on its calendar.

The promoters saw the advantges of speed tracks and began to lean in that direction. However, the lack of racing on road courses was also as much a factor of liability issues as the availability of track venues.

Stir in the development of ultra-specialized racing machines for track races, the effectiveness of the public relations machine at the Indianpolis Motor Speedway, and any number of other factors and you end up with why it turned out as it did.

This is an extremely abbreviated version of things, so it was not a single factor or even two or three factors, but a large number of factors which led to the primary mode of automobile racing in the USA being on ovals by the early-1920s.

I hope this helps.

#13 lustigson

lustigson
  • Member

  • 4,767 posts
  • Joined: March 01

Posted 18 February 2004 - 08:24

Interesting insight, Don. Thanks! My view was ofcourse laid on thick, a bit. ;)

#14 Joe Fan

Joe Fan
  • Member

  • 5,591 posts
  • Joined: December 98

Posted 18 February 2004 - 09:31

It might be worth mentioning that there is a fairly new book out by Don Radbruch, titled Dirt Track Auto Racing, 1919-1941: A pictorial history. This might provide some more information to those researching the history of auto racing in the U.S. A friend showed me his copy last week and it has some great pictures. Not sure how informative the text portion is.

#15 Henk

Henk
  • Member

  • 223 posts
  • Joined: July 03

Posted 18 February 2004 - 09:36

Originally posted by David Beard
But of course the nags kept falling off the banking, so cars took over...

Yet, in 1907, ….everything on Brooklands was ‘conducted on horse-racing lines’. Bookmakers shouted the odds. Tipsters nobbled punters. Officials warned against welshers. Drivers wore coloured smocks like jockeys. The ex-starter of the Jockey Club himself gave the signal to go and the wire across the starting line failed to rise in time, ‘nearly decapitating several drivers’.

[from: Piers Brendon, 1997, The Motoring Century – The Story of The Royal Automobile Club]

#16 BRG

BRG
  • Member

  • 11,502 posts
  • Joined: September 99

Posted 18 February 2004 - 11:50

Originally posted by Vitesse2
For whatever reason, short all-weather tracks were not developed here

Interestingly, whilst this was true for the horse-car interface, there is in the UK a parallel to what happened in the US.

We raced greyhounds on short (quarter-mile) ovals in stadiums. These were usually grass, but some were shale. The speedway motorbike boys took to racing on the shale tracks between the wars, and this led to car racing (what we in the UK call stock-car and hot-rod racing) starting on them as well in the 1950s. This in turn led to tarmac short ovals.

This is almost a separate branch of motorsport often running evening meetings under floodlights - a sort of mini-Nascar which tends to draw its support from the urban working classes (damn, that sounds snobby! It's not intended to be!) which does not have very much to do with the "proper" circuit racing world. It has however given us one F1 driver - Derek Warwick, who started on the short ovals, probably to promote the family firm, Warwick Trailers.

#17 Vitesse2

Vitesse2
  • Nostalgia Forum Moderator

  • 24,041 posts
  • Joined: April 01

Posted 18 February 2004 - 11:56

Thanks BRG - I had a feeling there might be some connection between dog tracks and speedway, but my knowledge of the former begins and ends with Mick the Miller and of the latter with Ivan Mauger and Peter Collins (the other Peter Collins :) )

#18 biercemountain

biercemountain
  • Member

  • 964 posts
  • Joined: June 01

Posted 18 February 2004 - 12:09

What I find interesting is that Europeans don't really like auto racing on ovals but yet they do seem to love motorcycle racing on ovals.

Go figure :confused:

#19 lustigson

lustigson
  • Member

  • 4,767 posts
  • Joined: March 01

Posted 18 February 2004 - 12:35

I quite like oval racing... it's just a wholy different ballgame than road racing. :)

And bike races on ovals? :|

Advertisement

#20 Seat18E

Seat18E
  • Member

  • 1,133 posts
  • Joined: January 04

Posted 18 February 2004 - 13:14

Thanks all!

#21 ensign14

ensign14
  • Member

  • 37,162 posts
  • Joined: December 01

Posted 18 February 2004 - 14:24

Remember that terms such as 'clerk of the course' and 'paddock' were taken from horse racing and in the early days of Brooklands the drivers wore silks for identification.

Brooklands itself is shaped like a British horse racing track - sort of a kidney bean with a long straight to run different length races over. Of course a car race for 2 miles 4 furlongs would not be very long.

I wonder whether the American oval thing isn't really a myth - in that people did not race on ovals, they raced on what was easily available (which happened to be ovals). Subtle difference, maybe pointless, but when dirt ovals were elbowed aside by tarmac ones (which in turn had replaced board tracks) were there complaints about moving away from heritage?

#22 Don Capps

Don Capps
  • Member

  • 5,933 posts
  • Joined: May 99

Posted 18 February 2004 - 16:10

Originally posted by ensign14
I wonder whether the American oval thing isn't really a myth - in that people did not race on ovals, they raced on what was easily available (which happened to be ovals). Subtle difference, maybe pointless, but when dirt ovals were elbowed aside by tarmac ones (which in turn had replaced board tracks) were there complaints about moving away from heritage?


The replacement of dirt by tarmac did -- and still does -- evokes snarls and howls of rage at more than a few tracks across America. Smokey Yunick always thought that the tracks should be paved -- with concrete. He was not as fascinated with the dirt -- and getting covered with it, as others of his generation and generally tended to minimize his exposure to it.

Where to race was more of a pragmatic than a philosophical decision in America until the early 1920's. Since history is usually written or created in its initial stages by folks with an incomplete view of things, the box canyon that fascination with the planked board tracks led American racing into morphed into a homestead rather than being seen as a reason to re-consider the mode of racing.

That economics also played a major role in this is not to evoke any Marxist interpretations, but to reflect certain realities. The planked board tracks were, in the long run, a dubious investment for promoters. Many did not see the riches they expected, only maintenace bills instead. When the whole board track fad finally started to play itself out by the late-1920's, the economy was very iffy for such high risk investments as race tracks. However, dreamers still dream and most of the dreams about major race tracks during the 1930's incorporated road courses into their design -- Los Angeles, Dallas, and Long Island as examples. This tells us a great deal about the mindset of those in the business. Pop Myers often referred to the "Indianapolis Grand Prix," for example.

Also, simmering down below the noise level was the Midget or Small Car phenomenon in the East, Mid-West, and Pacific Coast. In the post-WW2 period, add stock car racing in the Mid-Atlantic, South, and Southwest with jalopy and roadster racing -- all of which only required small tracks such as could be found at a high school stadium or a local horse track. The oval fascination was perhaps largely a post-WW2 phenomenon than a post-WW1 phenomenon. Stir into the pot the perception -- often exactly that unfortunately and not necessarily based on reality -- held by many that road racing was a form of racing for the Rich and Others Need Not Apply and you might have something. But, then there are the 1960's when there was a great deal of crossing over by drivers and teams in track and road racing.

In my opinion, one reason for so many "opinions" is that relatively few have had the opportunity to look at the history of American racing as compared to the number here who have a better grasp of European racing. I have been plugging away at this with my very occasional series "An Incompleat History and Record of American Racing" on RVM. Apparently there is much left to do.

#23 Jim Thurman

Jim Thurman
  • Member

  • 4,154 posts
  • Joined: February 01

Posted 18 February 2004 - 23:15

Originally posted by BRG
Interestingly, whilst this was true for the horse-car interface, there is in the UK a parallel to what happened in the US.

We raced greyhounds on short (quarter-mile) ovals in stadiums. These were usually grass, but some were shale. The speedway motorbike boys took to racing on the shale tracks between the wars, and this led to car racing (what we in the UK call stock-car and hot-rod racing) starting on them as well in the 1950s. This in turn led to tarmac short ovals.


The same thing happened in California. Greyhound racing was legal for a short time in the early 1930's, then was banned, leaving newly constructed 1/4 and 1/5 mile ovals idle. Speedway bikes came along and were hugely popular. Midgets came along in a few years, and in addition to racing on high school running tracks, they quickly moved to the greyhound tracks. Originally these events were just "demonstration" races during the Speedway bike shows, but shortly the Midgets became the headliners.

From there, the Midget craze boomed and tracks were purpose built. Even some in that era were asphalt, but purposely built short tracks were predominantly dirt until the 1960's, when a tremendous number were blacktopped.

Don covered all other aspects quite nicely.

#24 lanciaman

lanciaman
  • Member

  • 552 posts
  • Joined: March 03

Posted 19 February 2004 - 13:40

Virtually every county in America has or had a county fair grounds, which nearly always included an oval dirt track for horse racing. This of course predated by decades the automobile. The oval layout provided optimum viewing and seating within limited acreage. 19th century county commissioners could purchase minimal acreage for a fairgrounds, throw up some basic fencing and board bleachers, and have a simple venue for trotter or pacer racing (which predominated in the midwest; only snotty eastern jockeys actually rode on the horse's back). The front straight of the track also served many other purposes, for horse pulling contests, beauty pagents and talent and band contests and the like. Later auto thrill shows would occupy the straightaway during intermission for the dirt racers, which may on any given night have been stockcars, sprint cars, motorcycles or tractor pulls.

#25 Seat18E

Seat18E
  • Member

  • 1,133 posts
  • Joined: January 04

Posted 19 February 2004 - 16:37

Also, simmering down below the noise level was the Midget or Small Car phenomenon in the East, Mid-West, and Pacific Coast. In the post-WW2 period, add stock car racing in the Mid-Atlantic, South, and Southwest with jalopy and roadster racing -- all of which only required small tracks such as could be found at a high school stadium or a local horse track. The oval fascination was perhaps largely a post-WW2 phenomenon than a post-WW1 phenomenon



Don:

Are you saying that oval racing really did not pick up until stock cars and jalopy's hit the circles? ANd if so what made road racing so more popular up until WWII. I mean other then Savannah, Long Beach and Roosevelt (and the Elgin Times Race), what other road racing was going on of any significance?

BTW - Thanks!

#26 Don Capps

Don Capps
  • Member

  • 5,933 posts
  • Joined: May 99

Posted 19 February 2004 - 17:35

Originally posted by Seat18E
Are you saying that oval racing really did not pick up until stock cars and jalopy's hit the circles?


Not exactly. It was the combination of midgets, jalopies, stock cars, available venues (Thank you, Jim, for expanding on that), a thirst for entertainment, disposable income, and so forth on so on. A number of factors collided in to become the catalyst for oval racing as the staple format of American racing.

And if so, what made road racing so more popular up until WWII. I mean other then Savannah, Long Beach and Roosevelt (and the Elgin Times Race), what other road racing was going on of any significance?


It was not so much that road racing was "popular," as much as it was Different and complemented the IMS. From somewhere in the early part of the 20th Century, the Major Sports in America were Major League Baseball, college football, and professional boxing. Later on, horse racing, professional football, basketball, and golf got added. The Indianapolis 500 was an Event, not a sport -- an important distinction. Everything else was minor league stuff, with some of it floating up to the top of the second tier for various reasons, usually due to a strong or unique personality.

Road racing took place at various places during the 1920's and 1930's in varying forms and formats. Southern California had Mines Field, for example, as well as an extension to one of the ovals, Ascot I think, for a "road race." There was at least one road race in Savannah during the 1920's that I have been able to find out about. There was a raod race in conjunction with the 1934 Cotton Festival in Memphis.

Prior to about 1920, there were a large number of venues for road races, Corona, San Diego, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia to name but a very few.

To shift gears slightly, here is a link to an interesting article that might be reason to give a moment's pause to read and consider: http://www.atlasf1.c.../id/12556/.html

I have some personal comments on this that I will keep to myself for the moment.....

#27 Joe Fan

Joe Fan
  • Member

  • 5,591 posts
  • Joined: December 98

Posted 19 February 2004 - 17:56

Originally posted by Jim Thurman


Midgets came along in a few years, and in addition to racing on high school running tracks, they quickly moved to the greyhound tracks. Originally these events were just "demonstration" races during the Speedway bike shows, but shortly the Midgets became the headliners.

From there, the Midget craze boomed and tracks were purpose built. Even some in that era were asphalt, but purposely built short tracks were predominantly dirt until the 1960's, when a tremendous number were blacktopped.

Don covered all other aspects quite nicely.


BINGO! I really think midgets are probably most responsible for the growth of racing in the U.S. For example, Masten Gregory's first exposure to racing was watching his brother-in-law race his midget on dirt tracks locally. My first exposure to racing was watching midgets and sprints on dirt track as a kid too. The really neat thing I remember about these races was the figure 8 race. They would run so many heats on the oval, then make the cars run a race on a figure 8 through the infield. It was a blast watching these cars power slide around the track then nearly hitting eachother as they came through the infield area from different directions.

#28 D-Type

D-Type
  • Member

  • 8,046 posts
  • Joined: February 03

Posted 20 February 2004 - 01:47

One aspect that nobody seems to have picked up on is the different cultures on each side of the Atlantic.

Oval racing, of all types, was run by promotors rather than enthusiasts. The objective was to provide a spectacle that would attract the paying public. Close and fast racing was the order of the day. Certainly true of USAC, NASCAR and CART if not of the SCCA.

European road racing was generally supported by manufacturers and the public were encouraged to attend to defray the cost. Races were run by clubs made up of enthusiasts rather than by business men. Often a race would be promoted by a city or province to encourage visitors, e.g. the Monaco Grand Prix which complemented the Monte Carlo rally to promote the principality. Classic races like the Targa Florio could never make a profit for the organisers.

These different attitudes permeated down to all levels of the sport. Mario Andretti made his debut on an oval racing a (highly) modified production car. He probably got paid for appearing. He certainly got a cash prize when he won.

In Britain people raced for the fun of it. 500cc cars around a tarmacked grass track at Brands Hatch or an army camp at Blandford for not much more than a cup. Colin Chapman and Eric Broadley (among others) started by building and racing Austin 7 based sports cars for the 750 formula. Watkins Glen comes into this category to confuse things.

Of course nowadays it's all run to make a profit. Fiona Foulson and Bill France have a lot in common with Bernie.

I know I'm making sweeping generalisations but I think there is a difference.

#29 Seat18E

Seat18E
  • Member

  • 1,133 posts
  • Joined: January 04

Posted 20 February 2004 - 14:33

I would think that the cultural differences - and even the wars which spread historically throughout Europe played a major role in racing there. Too me I see GP and F1 respectively, as a series which is sort of a metaphor for both the aforementioned. I mean wasn't Nuvolari escorted around Germany with armed SS because he was one of the first who beat the German machines/aces.

IMO I think people in Europe picked teams and drivers based on nationality and thus the sport took on more of a meaning then simply running around in circles at some State fairgrounds. Perhaps this is the reason why we see so many national flags at F1 races and not in NASCAR or the IRL.

Just my 2 cents.

#30 Don Capps

Don Capps
  • Member

  • 5,933 posts
  • Joined: May 99

Posted 20 February 2004 - 18:30

D Type and Seat18E,

There is considerable reason to believe that there were "cultural" issues involved in all this, but I am now firmly convinced that there is perhaps NOWHERE on Atlas -- to include even this forum -- that such issues can be discussed without descending into the usual hogwash sessions with the usual cow chip tossing contests that I think any real discussion on this very important point is useless and quite pointless.

Another time and place, perhaps, but not now.

#31 Seat18E

Seat18E
  • Member

  • 1,133 posts
  • Joined: January 04

Posted 20 February 2004 - 20:12

Not sure what you mean. I don't think the context which I was thinking would have led to anything nasty if that is what you are referring to.

All I was inferring was that I could understand the national rivalry in Europe and the lack of one in the States. I mean after all what were we supposed to be waiving Canadian and Mexican flags :). Too add I think that without such cultural rivalries in the States that racing simply took on a more sort of fun atmosphere where fans were not necessarily lured into seriously rooting for a make or driver rather then just good entertainment.

No harm meant.

#32 David Beard

David Beard
  • Member

  • 4,886 posts
  • Joined: July 02

Posted 20 February 2004 - 20:28

Originally posted by Don Capps
D Type and Seat18E,

There is considerable reason to believe that there were "cultural" issues involved in all this, but I am now firmly convinced that there is perhaps NOWHERE on Atlas -- to include even this forum -- that such issues can be discussed without descending into the usual hogwash sessions with the usual cow chip tossing contests that I think any real discussion on this very important point is useless and quite pointless.

Another time and place, perhaps, but not now.


Blimey :confused:

#33 Jim Thurman

Jim Thurman
  • Member

  • 4,154 posts
  • Joined: February 01

Posted 21 February 2004 - 00:40

Originally posted by Seat18E
IMO I think people in Europe picked teams and drivers based on nationality and thus the sport took on more of a meaning then simply running around in circles at some State fairgrounds. Perhaps this is the reason why we see so many national flags at F1 races and not in NASCAR or the IRL.


One used to see a lot of regionally historic flags at some NASCAR venues.

"Simply running around in circles at some State fairgrounds." sigh :rolleyes: