We've come a long way.
It’s impossible not to ooh and ahh over painstakingly restored board track racers of yesteryear whenever they come across our paths. We write about them on a pretty regular basis here at RideApart, mainly because restorers are constantly doing unbelievable work at setting all our clocks back a century. Still, while we may see restored board track racers from Harley-Davidson and Indian cross modern auction blocks in a fairly steady stream, it’s not every day you get to see them in action.
Seeing videos like this one, shot in October 1919—which, by the way, is just over 100 years ago as I write this—makes these bikes seem all the more vibrant and real. It’s one thing to read static figures about the speeds these machines could manage, but it’s completely another to see them actually being raced around a board track.
If you have family members who are no longer with you, and who also rode motorcycles back in the day, you’re probably very familiar with leather helmets. It’s quaint and slightly terrifying to think about the faith that riders historically placed in those helmets now, but nothing brings it home quite like thinking about your grandfather riding that way.
Regardless of whether you have that type of personal connection to it or not, watching this video might also hammer that point deeply into your skull. Some racers have leather helmets and goggles, but some were also simply wearing woolen caps. How those stayed on their heads as they blazed past at 70-plus miles per hour, I have no idea. Did they have some kind of pins or clips affixing them to their heads? It’s those kinds of minutiae that I find myself drawn to contemplating in order to prevent myself from thinking about what’ll happen if they crash.
Also present in this video: 1919 board track sidecar racing. If you thought that regular board track racers were bonkers enough, you haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen this. According to the video’s claims, the average speed achieved during this particular sidecar race was 74 mph. Cue internal screaming … NOW.
Contemplating that kind of speed with 1919 machinery may just have shorted out my brain entirely. Speed is exhilarating, and we all clearly love it or we probably wouldn’t ride—but that’s also completely terrifying. I can only contemplate it from my modern perch, and I’m certain it would be a different matter if those were the only bikes I ever knew.
Some things have changed drastically in the past 100 years, but our love of speed has stayed much the same. Here’s to a brilliant 2020, folks.