The Speed Kings: The Rise And Fall Of Motordrome Racing

“There is never a script for the outcome of events in motor racing.”

I think it could be said that the 1912 F.A.M. national meet in Columbus, Ohio, was the best of times in the world of motordrome racing. Even though the “patriarch” of the sport, Jake DeRosier, lay in bed crippled from an earlier crash, his protégés Eddie Hasha, Ray Seymour, and Morty Graves were carrying on and the speeds achieved at Columbus would turn out to be the highest ever achieved in competition on the circular motordromes less than 1 mile around. Only Lee Humiston’s solo record run later around the 1-mile circular Playa del Rey on DeRosier’s Excelsior was faster. The worst of times was still ahead at Newark, Ludlow, and other tracks. —Don Emde

Columbus Motordrome
With Morty Graves alongside on a virtually identical 8-valve Big Base Indian, Eddie Hasha takes the low line around the bottom of the track at Columbus. Motordrome riders learned that sticking as close as they could to the white line meant traveling the shortest way around the track. The pair were cutting laps of 19 seconds around the 1/2-mile circular motordrome, an average speed of 94-plus mph.Don Emde collection

The 1912 F.A.M. national meet brought the motorcycle industry and sport together like it had never been done before. When it was announced in mid-May that the long-running East Coast event was moving to Columbus, Ohio, F.A.M. officials confirmed that the races at the national meet would be held for the first time ever on a boardtrack; an all-new Jack Prince-built, 40-degree banked, 1/2-mile circular motordrome. Also, in addition to the usual schedule of amateur national championship races, there would be first-ever 5-, 10-, and 25-mile national championship races for professional riders.

The F.A.M. national meet was not just about racing. For nine years, manufacturers of the motorcycles and representatives of the “allied trades” (tires, headlights, apparel, etc.) had annually attended the F.A.M. convention, previously held in Brooklyn, Philadelphia, New York City, and Buffalo. The 1912 invitations went out for members to arrive in downtown Columbus by July 18th for a four-day event that would include speeches, elections, and other industry business. When the meetings were over each night or day, the attendees could go enjoy the races at the motordrome that was built 2 miles north at the Olentangy Amusement Park in North Arlington.

Ray Seymour
The first-ever F.A.M. national championship races for professional riders were held at the 1912 national meet. Indian factory rider Ray Seymour made history at the event when he won the first F.A.M. “national,” beating Graves in a 5-mile event. Seymour also won three non-championship races during the four-day meet aboard an Indian 8-valve Big Base racer.Don Emde collection

F.A.M. business sessions began the morning of July 18 at the Virginia Hotel in downtown Columbus. Up at Olentangy Park, the new motordrome was all decked out and ready for the big championship weekend. A gala barbeque was held out in the park area that afternoon to welcome the industry attendees, followed by the first night of motordrome racing. To add to the spectator’s enjoyment, Goodyear Tires brought in a hot-air balloon to be used during the races to float around the infield with an announcer holding a megaphone to shout out the results of each race.

Poor trolley service was about the only thing that did not work well for the event, but it was enough to put a big damper on the attendance. Since all the races except for Sunday were night events, many race fans who rode to the track had no headlights on their motorcycles, or even if they did, were hesitant to ride them at night and preferred to ride the trolley to and from the racetrack. The local rail company that owned the tracks, however, had some ongoing conflict with the Olentangy Amusement Park and refused to add additional cars for big events. Thousands did not attend the national meet after they were left stranded at the park at the 4th of July race and forced to walk the 2 miles back to town.

John U. Constant
As a result of his success at the F.A.M. national meet, John U. Constant from Brooklyn, New York, was named the 1912 national amateur champion. Constant never raced as a professional, so this award was the highlight of his motorcycle racing career. He rode this older-style Indian inlet-over-exhaust (“F-Head”) twin at Columbus, set up by the Hendee mechanics like the factory racebikes ridden a year earlier by Jake DeRosier and Charles “Fearless” Balke.Ed Eiler collection

Despite many empty seats, the quality of the racing that week was as entertaining as had ever been seen. On tap the first day were the 5-mile novice and 10-mile amateur belt-drive finals, followed by qualifying heats for the F.A.M. amateur championships and one professional race. Contenders for the 1912 amateur national championship honors included Lon Claflin from Salt Lake City; John U. Constant from Brooklyn, New York; Don Klark from Detroit; Shorty Matthews from Chicago, and E.G. Baker (later known as Cannon Ball Baker) from Indianapolis.

The highlight for Thursday was the first professional matchup of the Columbus meet between Ray Seymour and Eddie Hasha. After their great showing there on the 4th of July, everyone wanted to see them resume their high-speed battle in a 10-mile race between the two riders. It went just as everyone hoped for 6 miles until Hasha’s Indian shed its rear tire and he was out, fortunately without crashing. Seymour sped away to victory.

Indian co-founder Oscar Hedstrom rarely attended races any more, but made a rare appearance at the Columbus meet. On Friday, he added to the Seymour-Hasha rivalry by rolling out more of his special Big Base 8-valve racebikes. One was for longtime rival Morty Graves, who had been added to the Indian factory team. Graves began his racing career on Indians, but until Columbus had been racing Merkel and Excelsior machines.

Morty Graves
No clutch, no transmission, no brakes, huge flywheels on the crankshaft designed for wide-open running, direct chain drive to rear wheel, and “ported” cylinder heads that released half the engine’s hot oil onto the track as it ran. Former Excelsior rider Morty Graves joined the Indian team for the 1912 F.A.M. national meet and got his first ride on one of the new Big Base 8-valve racebikes.Don Emde collection

In his first race on the mighty Indian Big Base, Graves finished second to Seymour after Eddie Hasha dropped out with mechanical trouble. Hasha came back to win the second race, with Seymour second and Graves in third. Then, in the last race of the night, Graves made Hedstrom smile when he scored his first victory for Indian, beating teammate Seymour and Thor rider Dave Kinnie in a 5-mile open event.

On Saturday, the F.A.M. held its annual election of officers with Dr. J.B. Patterson of Pratt, Kansas, being elected as the new president of the F.A.M. The business sessions at the hotel concluded and everyone headed to the races at the motordrome. More finals were on the program for that night, including the 5-mile novice; 5-mile F.A.M. amateur championship; 10-mile F.A.M. amateur championship; a 10-mile professional race; 10-mile trade riders final, and the premier event of the night, the prestigious 1-mile F.A.M. amateur championship final.

Indian trade rider John U. Constant won the 10-mile trade amateur race for 30.50 singles, the 10-mile amateur 61-inch national championship, and 1-mile F.A.M. amateur national championship final. Eddie Hasha beat Morty Graves in the only professional race.

Texan Hasha
Texan Hasha might well have swept the professional classes at the F.A.M. national meet if not for some mechanical troubles with his Indian Big Base 8-valve racebike. A 90-mph blowout of his rear tire put him out of the 10-mile professional race on day one, then a broken grip brought him to the sidelines the next day in the 5-mile national. He did, however, win the 10-mile national race, a 15-mile professional race, and ended the meet with the fastest run in the 1-mile time trial. He posted a time of 37-3/5 seconds, an average speed of 95.79 mph.Don Emde collection

Sunday was the final day of the meet with a huge crowd on hand. Seymour won both the 3-mile professional race and 5-mile F.A.M. professional championship races with Graves second in both. Hasha and his machine were not performing up to the level of his two teammates.

The planned 25-mile F.A.M. professional championship race had to be canceled when it was discovered that the motorcycles did not have large enough gas tanks to run that distance. A 1-mile professional time trial was added in its place to see if the meet could conclude with a new speed record, and Hedstrom had one more card to play. He had kept one of the Big Base 8-valves available in his pit area all week in case it was needed by one of his three team riders. Now for the final event, there was no need not to run it. Standing anxiously by was none other than Charles “Fearless” Balke, the same rider Hedstrom had fired the year before.

While they never publicly announced it, Excelsior had lived up to its threat back in March to not compete in races where California referee Charles Fuller Gates was officiating. This was the case at Columbus and, sure enough, none of the factory-sponsored Excelsior racebikes were there. But Balke was there and anxious to ditch his Excelsior ride and get back in the good graces of his former boss, Hedstrom.

Hedstrom toyed with Balke, keeping him in suspense throughout the meet whether he would get to ride the Big Base or not. When the time trial came up, Hedstrom gave him last-minute approval to ride it. Without any practice laps, Balke impressed everyone when he recorded a time of 38-1/5 seconds (94.24 mph), very close to Seymour and Graves and only 3/5th of a second behind Hasha, who took the top spot at 95.74 mph.

Columbus crew
Ray Seymour (third from left) relaxes in the pit area with some of the Indian crowd at Columbus. From left: Charles Spencer and Charles Gustafson Jr. from Hendee Manufacturing Co., Seymour, (man in white hat unknown), Mrs. Eddie Hasha (Gertrude), Mrs. John U. Constant (Ella), and Indian co-founder Oscar Hedstrom, who was making a rare appearance at the races.Lyman & Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History, Springfield, Massachusetts

At the end of the day, Indian rider Constant was named the 1912 national amateur champion, having scored the most overall points by an amateur at the four-day meet. Hasha and Seymour split the top honors in the professional class. Hasha won the 10-mile professional national championship race, plus a 15-mile professional open race, and the 1-mile time trial. Seymour won the 5-mile professional national championship race, plus the 3-mile, 5-mile, and 10-mile open final.

Racing would continue at the Columbus motordrome in the weeks to come, though the rail service problem mentioned previously would continue to hold attendance down, resulting in a less-than-satisfactory financial situation.

Meanwhile, Hasha and Seymour left Columbus with two additional teammates: Graves and Balke. Hasha had upcoming appearance commitments at Luna Park and the tracks in the new “Tri-State” circuit (Brighton Beach, Newark, and Point Breeze), while Graves and Balke went west with Seymour to begin racing Indians at Riverview and Denver.

There is never a script for the outcome of events in motor racing. However, it appeared—at this point—that the remainder of the 1912 season was going to be the most competitive and entertaining in the sport’s history.

According to author Don Emde, The Speed Kings: The Rise and Fall of Motordrome Racing ($75, emdebooks.com) provides more details about motordrome racing than any other previous publication. In the foreword, three-time 500cc world champion Kenny Roberts writes, “After reading The Speed Kings I’d like to say those guys racing around the wooden tracks were really nuts. But looking back at my years of racing, people were saying the same thing about me.”