Indy Cars Racing at 140 mph...on Wooden Boards!

Tony CastaneiraAnalyst IJuly 18, 2008

We watch an Indycar race with more than a bit of awe.  Brutal, yet sleek looking missiles diving into turns at incomprehensible speed, then blasting out of the turns of a concrete canyon at speeds that are close to defying physics.

The driver slumped down low with their head exposed of the open cockpit machine, their eyes at the level of the wide rubber that glues them to the smooth asphalt.

We look at these drivers as modern day gladiators.  Even with the latest in helmet design, crash tested chassis, six-point harnesses, Flame retardant suits and Hans devices, we admire the risks they take.

It is this belief that makes me wonder if those guys who raced at the Fulford-Miami speedway were brave, practically suicidal or just plan nuts.

I am sure most of you have never heard of the Fulford-Miami Speedway.  I’ll be honest and admit that this Miami native had never heard of it until just a few years ago.  The fact that most don’t know about it is as almost amazing as the fact that it actually existed.

I first heard of it while watching the Champ Cars race at the state-of-the art Homestead Miami Speedway.  Little did I know that it would be the last Champ Car race there, but that is another story. 

A dear friend who worked for Ralph Sanchez, whose dream brought us the Homestead-Miami Speedway, must have saw the wonder in my eyes when she told me she had some photos to show me. 

I saw a 1920s-era Champ Car on a ridiculous high bank corner.  I must have looked like a kid walking into a candy store for the first time when she told me that it was taken at the Fulford-Miami Speedway.  I had to learn more, and I did.

Transport yourself back to 1925.  Miami is in the height of its real estate boom, which caused its population to jump from 30,000 in 1920 to 200,000 in five short years.  Leading that boom was Carl Fisher, who had built the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway. 

Ever the entrepreneur, Carl Fisher decided to make Miami the home of winter auto racing. But he didn’t want to build just any track.  He wanted to build the World’s Fastest Track and do it quickly and cheap.

In 1925, there was only one way to build a track quickly and cheaply while making it a fast track. It was to be a board track.

Board tracks are just that: tracks made of wooden boards.  The first board track in the U.S. was constructed in California and used the same technology as was used in France for their bicycle tracks.  Soon, board tracks were popping up all over the U.S. and were used for both auto and motorcycle racing.

Wood was cheap and plentiful, as was labor.  The downside of board tracks was the upkeep.  As one can imagine the track took a beating during a race with the hard rubber tires of the times.

During some Board track races, they had workers working under the track during the actual races, repairing loose planks after the cars roared overhead.

Carl Fisher selected an area in Fulford-by-the Sea (later renamed North Miami Beach) for his location. He hired Ray Harroun, the winner of the first Indy 500, to design the track, and quickly the nails were being pounded into wood.

To make sure the track was fast, they built the 1.25-mile speedway with 50 degree banking in the turns.  For reference's sake, the highest bank track today is the Talladega Motor Speedway with 33-degree banking.

Even the famous “High Banks” of the Daytona Speedway are but a meager 31 degrees.  At 50 degrees, a car had to maintain a speed of over 110 mph to keep from sliding off.

Well, the track was built and on Feb. 22, 1926, 20,000 fans, some of whom paid up to $15 for a box seat, poured in to watch the Champ Cars roar. 

Tommy Milton set the fastest time in qualifying with a speed of 142.93 MPH.  This in a car in which the driver sat totally exposed from the waist up, and the only safety gear was a pair of aviator goggles. 

They had no seatbelts, as some actually believed they were safer if they were thrown clear of the car during an accident.  No helmets were used.

Remember this was the time of gentleman sport.  Some of the drivers even competed wearing neckties. The cars they drove were front-engine roadsters with what looked like bicycle tires at the four corners.  Suspension was a back bruising leaf-spring all around.

Now you are beginning to understand my Suicide or Nuts question.

Auto racing legend Barney Oldfield was the official starter for the race, which was called the Carl G. Fisher Trophy.  Modesty wasn’t Carl’s strong suit, I assume.  After 300 miles, Peter DePaolo (the 1925 Indy 500 winner) was the victor with Harry Hartz less than a minute behind in second.  Nineteen cars started the race with six finishing; that must have been a grueling 240 laps.

Unfortunately, this was to be the only race at the Fulford-Miami Speedway.  On Sept. 17, a hurricane roared over the Miami area, not only causing major damage to the city but totally destroying the Speedway. 

This happened when the great Miami Real Estate Boom was starting to go bust, so the wood from the speedway was thought to be of better use to rebuild damaged buildings on Miami Beach.

Today’s Indycars are marvels of technology and physics, and the drivers in the series are good; but never forget those brave men who raced one time, under the bright Florida s, long before most involved in Indycars were even born.