American Motorcycle Racing Through the Ages
Motorcycles in the United States have always been a physical manifestation of the freedom and rebelliousness of the American spirit. Motorcycle history is nothing but a long line of revolutionaries working to make their bikes go faster, jump higher or work harder than any other bike on the road. Our love of speed, power, and modification has been prevalent since the early days of motorcycle production, and nothing shows this merging of man and machine better than on the American racetrack.
Through the ages, motorcycle races have always been major events that draw media coverage and throngs of spectators wanting a piece of the action. Nowadays, you would have a hard time selling out any major stadium to watch professional motorcycle racing in the United States. Why? What changed the collective mind of American citizens to pull them away from motorcycle racing for such a drastic decline? There are a lot of reasons motorcycle lovers have given as to why American’s seem to be losing interest in motorcycles and motorcycle racing. But before we get into the modern racing scene let’s take a look at the dangerous beginnings of what started a nation’s obsession with speed.
1900’s-1920’s: Deadly Speeds and Rickety Tracks
The first Indian motorcycle hit the market in 1901 with Harley-Davidson close on its heels in 1903. Racers began modifying these bikes almost immediately to get faster speeds by cutting them down to the bare essentials. When we say bare essentials, we mean as bare as it gets. These bikes had no suspension, tiny wheels, no throttle, and absolutely no brakes. They had to be towed to start and went full throttle the entire race until the end where they either had an emergency kill switch or the racer had to create a controlled skid to slow down enough to stop.
The first races were done on horse tracks that were already set up for spectators, but because of the thicker clay mixed with the thin motorcycle wheels, it wasn’t a great racing environment. That’s when motorcycle racing began to get their own tracks and stadiums optimized for speed and performance. There were two types of tracks being built at the time, dirt track racing with harder dirt instead of clay and board track racing.
Board track racing saw motorcycles going over 100 mph on rickety wooden tracks made from 2×2 boards that were usually uneven and covered in splinters because of high maintenance costs to keep them smooth. The whole track was curved into an angled dome so racers were not riding on flat tracks but on angled walls.
Board track racing was so dangerous they were nicknamed ‘murder domes.’ If a racer crashed, the high speeds and splintered track meant nearly certain death. Even spectating was dangerous because to watch you had to peer over the side of the curved track which put you directly into the line of fire. The danger for fans became all too real when in 1912 a racer lost control and killed multiple spectators, another racer and himself. In fact, the majority of well-known board track racers during that era would lose their life on the track.
In 1925 the American Motorcycle Association was founded at about the same time that this dangerous form of racing was beginning to decline in popularity. The AMA began setting official championships and rules to cover what kind of modifications, if any, were allowed. This was the beginning of the divide between sanctioned professional races and the outlaw racers known as ‘cutdowns’ who wanted to continue racing with modified machines.
1930’s-1940’s: An Uphill Battle
Once board track racing closed and flatter, safer dirt track racing gained in popularity, racers and motorcycle brands alike began looking for new ways to challenge their machines.
Hill-climbers became the new test of motorcycles, placing power and durability above outright speed. These competitions became the arena where Harley-Davidson, Indian and Excelsior would show off their newest machines for the top spot.
Unfortunately, a wrench was thrown into the motorcycle industry when the Great Depression began. This caused sales to fall and Excelsior closed its door permanently. Leaving only Harley-Davidson and Indian to fight for the top spot.
Motorcycle racing during this time to the end of WWII is slow in general, but a few hot spots persisted across the nation as well as the awakening of an amateur run racing style called Hooligan racing that returning soldiers would participate in after coming home from the war using their favorite street legal bikes.
One of the most notable additions to the professional racing scene was the start of the Daytona 200 in 1937.
Daytona’s sprawling beaches used to be the place racers would try and set new speed records. When the Bonneville Salt Flats became the new record-breaking location, Daytona needed a new way to bring competition back. The Daytona racing scene may have changed since the ’30s, but it is still considered a mecca for power sports today.
1950’s-1960’s: The Death of Indian Motorcycles
In the 1950s professional racing became extremely popular across the nation. Indian was beginning to dominate the racing world with a group of riders called The Indian Motorcycle Wrecking Crew that won 3 AMA National Championships in a row from 1951-1953.
Even with Indian winning professional races year after year, the everyday motorcyclist had made their decision on what their favorite motorcycle was. Harley Davidson had officially become the dominating force of American motorcycles when it came to overall sales. So even with Indian’s racing accolades, they weren’t selling enough motorcycles to keep the lights on. Indian officially closed its doors in 1955. Luckily, the brand continued selling imported motorcycles under the Indian name through the decades before being bought by Polaris in 2011. Polaris moved all Indian production to Spirit Lake, Iowa where the bikes could be brought back to their all-American roots.
Back to the 1960s, films about motorcycle racing were fueling popularity for the sport and bringing national attention to the American market. This started the process of foreign motorcycle manufacturers like Triumph making a name for themselves in the states for lower costs and flashier looks. Giving America’s favorite, Harley-Davidson, a run for their money.
1970’s-1980’s: The Golden Age
The 1970s became known as the golden age of competition. As other companies like Yamaha followed Triumph into the United States, the marketplace began to flourish.
These new styles of motorcycles lent itself to new types of competition like superbike racing and motocross which began overshadowing traditional flat track racing in the 1980s.
Motocross quickly became dominated by Japanese motorcycles like Yamaha, Suzuki, and Honda. The bike design lent itself to more challenging courses through the use of water-cooling systems and more absorbent shocks. Motocross even broke down into multiple styles from the trick heavy freestyle competitions to SuperMoto obstacle courses. You can even find mini-bike racing where adults buy child-sized 50cc bikes and race those around dirt tracks.
Superbike racing started in 1976 as a platform for motorcycle manufacturers to push every limit they could and create the fastest, sportiest bike possible. This style of racing became extremely popular in the ’80s and ’90s, giving the United States several world-class GP winners before dwindling down to what it is today. Superbike racing and MotoGP are still extremely popular in Europe, but between the possible mismanagement of the events, the lack of media coverage and the cross country travel required to watch live in America the state of superbike racing is only a sliver of what it used to be in the glory days.
1990’s to Now: Endangered or Adapting?
Motorcycle racing continued to grow into the ’90s before beginning to dwindle in the 2000s. The reasoning behind this drop-in popularity are mostly guesses, but they span from logistical barriers to societal views shifting as to why motorcycle racing just isn’t watched much anymore.
With urban areas growing racetracks had to begin worrying about higher land taxes and possible noise complaints from the newly built nearby developments. Causing many to close down or move farther away, making being a spectator more difficult due to distance. They also say that the changing views of motorcycles in tandem with the shift in how to use our leisure time could be why attendance at major events began dwindling as well.
Others have a little more hope for the future of racing. They believe that racing isn’t dying out but shifting to more community-run options instead of the sponsored professional spectacles. The disparity between local races and national competitions continue to grow farther apart, but the small-town races are what is truly keeping the sport alive and accessible for enthusiasts across the nation.
In a turn back to our vintage roots, both flat track racing and vintage motorcycles are back in the limelight. Flat track racing has become a nationwide phenomenon that makes attending races easier and more accessible for those all over the country with limited income. Not only are these races great for spectators but it also allows more casual riders the chance to throw their hat in the ring. Mama Tried’s Flat Out Friday’s are only $15 bucks to watch and about $30 to enter as a racer. There are no big sponsored bikes, so everyone has a fair shot and there are tons of racing options from youth bikes to full sizes vintage motorcycles.
You also have Hooligan racing that has begun gaining in popularity again since it was first on the scene post-WWII. These are “race what you rode in on” competitions with stock, street legal bikes with dirt bike tires and no racing modifications. This great racing option opened the door for enthusiasts and amateur racers alike to simply race whatever bikes they already ride daily without having to shell out the cash for a modified racing bike. They just show up, have fun and ride home.
From what it seems, the rest of the world may be staying in the traditional sports format with lots of regulations and rules, but the United States doesn’t work that way. Our racers and enthusiasts are rebels to the core. Racers aren’t looking for required modifications and requirements and our spectators don’t want to watch sponsored bikes by big companies in stadium seats.
Americans want to feel the energy and the rush. They want no limits racing where anything goes, and anyone can participate. Yes, traditional motorcycle racing may be dying in the United States. But isn’t this new, rebellious style so much more fun?
Want to join in on the action? Here’s a calendar of motorcycle events that range from races to rally’s all across the United States so you can show your support for this American pastime.