The Early, Deadly Days of Motorcycle Racing
The Hendee Manufacturing Company introduced the 1.75-horsepower, single-cylinder Indian in 1901. Harley-Davidson followed in 1903. Inevitably, racing ensued. Early contests were held on horse-racing ovals and bicycle velodromes, but around 1909 wooden tracks built specifically for cars and motorcycles began to appear in Los Angeles and then elsewhere.
It was in 1911 that a livery worker named Ashley Franklin Van Order moved from Illinois to Southern California so he could ride his motorcycle year-round. Van Order took a job selling Harley-Davidsons and began riding competitively, but his racing career was cut short soon afterward by an accident, followed by an ultimatum. “His wife, Lilly, told him that if he ever rode again, she was out of there,” says Van Order’s grandson, Jim Bolingmo Sr., a retired professor of science and math. Van Order turned to photography, and the images he amassed from the mid-1910s through the 1920s—his own and possibly others’—constitute the most complete and compelling visual record of early motorcycle racing.
The races must have been spectacular for people who were accustomed to thinking of horsepower in terms of actual horses. The bikes were designed to run fast, and that was about it: they had to be towed behind other motorcycles to get them started, and they had no brakes. The tracks, called motordromes, came in various sizes—a circuit of a mile and a quarter occupied the current site of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills—and were made of lengths of 2-by-2 and 2-by-4 lumber with rough-cut surfaces. The turns were severely banked, allowing riders to reach speeds of more than 100 miles an hour. Crashes were frequent and horrific—riders who went down faced being impaled by splinters—and often fatal. Spectators shared in the risk: at many motordromes, they peered down from the lip of the track, in harm’s way. On one particularly lethal day in 1912, several observers—from four to six, accounts vary—were killed along with Eddie Hasha and another rider at a motordrome in Newark, New Jersey, when Hasha lost control of his bike and slammed into the crowd.great photography is better than just snapshots. And Van Order was much better than just a snapshot photographer,” says Charles Falco, a professor of optical sciences and physics at the University of Arizona and the co-curator of “The Art of the Motorcycle,” an exhibition that broke attendance records at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City in 1998. Falco says he included a Van Order image in the exhibition to give audiences a sense of the thrill of board-track racing. The action photos are remarkable, given that they were shot on relatively slow-speed glass negatives, and the portraits endure as graceful studies of youthful ardor. In his work, the sport’s stars—such as Albert “Shrimp” Burns (who died in a 1921 crash in Toledo, Ohio), Eddie Brinck (who was killed in a race in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1927), Ray Weishaar (a 1924 casualty in a race in Los Angeles) and Ralph Hepburn (who survived the motordromes but died trying to qualify a car for the 1948 Indianapolis 500)—remain lords of the boards.