South Side track offered deadly path to racing glory

South Side track offered deadly path to racing glory

DUTCHTOWN – On the last day of August 1912, a local newspaper told of that night’s debut of an exciting new sport in St. Louis that was taking cities including San Francisco, Chicago and New York by storm.

“In those cities, it is a great success, enormous crowds paying coin of the realm to see the speed demons flirt with death on the bowl tracks,” a Post-Dispatch writer scribbled.

The next day, the same paper reported that one of those speed demons’ flirtations had ended in death in the first event of the first board track racing program at the St. Louis Motordrome.

Cleve Oliver died as his motorcycle sped up to 80 mph on the bowl-shaped track. 

The St. Louis Star said that Oliver’s head was almost severed and that his bones were crushed as he plunged in a 30-foot drop from the sharp incline to the ground. Parts of his motorcycle went into the stands, but no spectators were hurt.

He was racing for a $15 prize. 

You could expect that in any motordrome. By making racers ride at a sharp angle, builders of the motordromes guaranteed their sport would be dangerous. But the motordrome in Priester’s Park Amusement Resort at Meramec Street and Grand Boulevard was especially deadly. 

A clip from the St. Louis Globe-Democrat on Monday, Aug. 26, 1912.
The quarter-mile-circumference racetrack was banked at 62½  degrees – more than at any other such course in the country. The 18-foot track featured two-inch wooden strips on heavy supports.

Before the first race, the St. Louis Star and Times said, “[T]he motorcyclists, apparently, have confidence in their ability to cling to the almost very track of the speed course and make 90 miles an hour on the treacherous oval.”

But there were other things that made the courses so deadly, said Dave Larsen, director of the Mungenast Classic Automobiles & Motorcycles Museum,  5625 and 5626 Gravois Ave. It’s open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays.

“They were operating at 100-mph speeds on basically motorcycles that had bicycles tires on them,” Larsen said. “No brakes, and when you fell off of one of them, you had just raw boards there. So it was a very dangerous sport.”

The danger both to drivers and those in the stands led some sports journalists to call the facilities “murderdromes.” There are reminders of that legacy at the Mungenast museum.

A wall full of historic photographs of motorcycles, motorbikes, and racing at the Mungenast Classic Museum. (Photo by Tyrone Z. McCants / for MetroSTL.com)
The museum displays restored motorcycles of the type that were used at the St. Louis Motordrome, along with pictures of that facility and others throughout the country. 

The stands were huge to accommodate the supersize crowds at the Motordrome.  

It was part of an amusement park that also included a stage, a theater, a dance hall, a bar, a bowling alley, a motion picture booth, a shooting gallery, a ladies’ meeting room and an auto shed. It also was a major place for balloon races.

In 1913, the amusement resort and Motordrome got a new neighbor, when Busch’s Gretchen Inn opened at the southeast corner of Meramec and Grand. It’s now the Feasting Fox Historic Restaurant, Pub & Banquet Center owned by Susan and Martin Luepker.

The Luepkers have sponsored events to discuss  motorcycle riding at the Motordrome. 

One topic of discussion might be how quickly the sport fizzled out. 

In 1916, the center of the Motordrome was the site of boxing matches and a fireman’s show. It’s uncertain exactly when workers tore the stadium down. But in a want ad in the Post-Dispatch on Jan. 28, 1917, the Joseph Schaefer Wrecking Co., 4118 Gravois Ave., offered secondhand lumber from the Motordrome for sale.

With the coming of World War I, the park and Motordrome site were used for training for military balloon pilots. Afterwards, it was a place for balloon races.  

Throughout the country, by the 1920s, the motordrome tracks moved on to other things, including stunt performances. They became curiosities of a time when motorcycle racers flirted with death for a $15 prize.

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