On Railbirds, Fences and Poles


I was watching the IndyCar qualifying for Texas this morning (DVR recording from last night) and something Robbie Buhl said reminded me of an observation I have held for years. Buhl talked about "putting a car in the fence." The reference to the SAFER barrier being a fence may sound witty, but it is a hand-me-down phrase dating back to the earliest days of auto racing. the horse track became the venue of choice in America where public roads were deplorable and rare. Far from ideal, the tracks were designed for horse racing, not ill-handling nearly brakeless 2,000 pound contraptions that in no way were contained by wood rails. As in the case with Barney Oldfield's deadly accidents in 1903 and 1904 (spectators were killed at Grosse Pointe, Michigan and St. Louis), too frequently the cars crashed through these barriers to end the lives of foolish spectators way too close to the action.
Indeed, the foolish spectators became known as "railbirds." These were people who would perch on the fences, known as "rails" in horse racing parlance. This term (railbirds) was used for decades although I hear it far less frequently now. And, of course, there is the term, "pole." Another horse racing term that was embraced by auto racers when they competed on horse tracks; it referred to the poles at the insides of the corners.