Splinter Road - Style, Not Substance


I came across this video on YouTube a while back and based on its mix of heartfelt music, a professional voice over, compelling photos and some really, really terrible research I wanted to comment. The overall tone of the piece carries a lot of truth about motorcycle board track racing in America in the first quarter of the 20th century but the specifics are astoundingly inaccurate. I authored an historical feature for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's 2009 MotoGP program on this topic and came away with a profound appreciation for the bravery and passion these men must have carried within them to pursue such a deadly profession. There simply were no safety precautions. When I see today's MotoGP riders taking a spill off their 200 mph bikes and then hop right back up again, it is astonishing to see how much progress has been made with safety gear.


But back to the video. I don't know where these guys are going with this thing. The video is about a year old, so maybe they gave up. It appears to be an attempt at viral marketing, so maybe they are looking to fund a documentary or even a feature film. If so, they desperately need an historical consultant and I would be perfect.


Regardless, let's correct the record by highlighting the egregious errors contained in the video:


  • "The sport was born in the decade after World War I." Well, they are about a decade off. The first was designed by former velodrome bicycle champion Jack Prince, who oversaw the construction of the quarter-mile Coliseum Motordrome in Los Angeles, which was completed in March 1909.
  • "Started by hobbyists and daredevils." There's no doubt these men were daredevils, but hobbyists? The reality is that factories like Indian, Harley-Davidson, Excelsior, Merkel, Thor and others hired riders. They were divided into three categories in the early days: professionals, amateurs and trade riders. We could argue if these riders were paid fairly (to my estimation you couldn't print enough money for me to attempt what they did), but they were serious riders and for the most part very skilled.
  • "Most popular spectator sport." Excuse me, but what orifice are we speaking from? The only stretch I can make to come close to trying to argue for this position is if you qualify the claim by applying it to geographic markets, such as rural areas. Otherwise this is just silly as baseball was the nation's pass-time and attendance at big auto races easily surpassed the typical 5,000 or so people that would show for these races. But the stands around these little ovals were packed, to be sure.
  • "When a car's top speed was 35 mph, they raced at over 100 mph." Again, ridiculous. If you qualify the statement to say that the average street car's speed was 35 mph, then the statement has more voracity. But certainly race cars were rocketing a long well over 100 mph by 1909. Barney Oldfield set the world land speed record in 1910 at 131.7 mph. I will say this, though, the top speed for motorcycles rivaled that of race cars which is pretty amazing stuff when you consider the narrow tires, typically rough running surfaces and the complete disregard for the safety of the human beings attached to the things.
  • Finally, when you get to the point in the video where you see the diagram of a truly terrible accident, this is where the most outrageous statements are made. If you pause the video at that diagram, you will see an inset photo of a rider whose name is Eddie Hasha. Also note that the name "Hasha" is written in the diagram sketch to show where he left the course. The video asserts that this very tragic (and it was) accident occurred in 1928 and killed eight riders. Well, that's only off by 16 years and six riders. Hasha's accident occurred on September 9, 1912 at the quarter-mile Vailsburg, New Jersey board track and only involved him and one other rider - but there was a tremendous spectator death toll as well. At least six spectators were killed - most of them teenage boys hanging over the wood saucer - and upwards of 20 others were injured. To understand the situation, you need to understand the setting, and the video does a great job of painting that picture. See those wood plank bowls? The banking could be up to 60 degrees. It was breathtaking and outrageously dangerous theater. The spectators sat in stands positioned atop the bowl with no protection from out-of-control motorcycles launching off the banking to land right in their laps. We're not talking about catching fly balls here, we're talking 200 pound bikes with red hot engines spewing boiling fluids and disintegrating into schrapnel.

I'm not just picking on the producers of this video for fun. Actually, I like the video except that the poor research drives me crazy. This would be a great topic for a documentary and the video could be easily fixed with a re-write of the script, and, obviously, another run at the voice over. Regardless, this is still a fun thing to watch. The images are wonderful and the editing is good by me - except for the one news clip about the guy losing his clothes. I know the story, but it would require too much explanation to make it work in a trailer. This is just another example of how people need to beware when consuming information from the Internet. Much of the stuff with a nice sense of style lacks substance.