Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Atlanta Motordrome, Atlanta's Early Racetracks - Episode #17

By: David L. Morrill
@ Mototique

Updated: December 26, 2015

Atlanta Motordrome Program - 1913

This is the second story in a three part series on Atlanta, Georgia's early race tracks. It has long been known that Atlanta had an early motorcycle board track, but much of the story of this track had been lost to time. I have, along  with Georgia racing historian Mike Bell, been chasing this story for a while now. We were able to find much of the information, articles, photos, etc. in the Atlanta Constitution newspaper. Mike recently shared his research with me, so I could complete this story.

The Atlanta Motordrome

In 1913, famed board track builder Jack Prince, announced he was building a  ¼ mile circular wooden track strictly for motorcycle racing at the old Jackson Street Fairgrounds north of downtown Atlanta. 

Jack Prince
Atlanta Constitution April 14, 1913
In April 1913, a permit was pulled for construction of the Motordrome, at an estimated cost of $5000.

Atlanta Constitution - April 20, 1913

The steeply banked racing surface was constructed entirely of rough sawn lumber laid on edge. Racing motorcycles of the time could hit 90 miles per hour on these tracks, and crashes often resulted in death or serious injury

Atlanta Constitution - May 19, 1913


Prince planned to build five motordromes, which would be located in Atlanta, Birmingham, Chattanooga, Nashville, and New Orleans. Upon completion of the five tracks, Prince planned to run a Southern Championship Motordrome Racing Series. The series would feature his contracted riders racing at each of the tracks.
June 1, 1913
 June 6, 1913
The Atlanta Motordrome was nearing completion in early May 1913, and Jack Prince began to gather riders to compete at the track.

June 3, 1913

Top riders from throughout the country, like 24 Hour Champion George Lockner, along with Scottish Champion Jock Mc'Neil were contracted to ride at the new track. They began arriving in Atlanta in May 1913.
June 2, 1913
Scottish Champion Jock McNeil, along with American riders, Marty Graves, George Lockner, Freddie Luther, and Tex Richards, would compete against Atlanta racers Harry Glenn and Nemo Lancaster.  Several of the racers, including Atlanta's Harry Glenn, were photographed in front of the Motordrome's  the steep banking .

Harry Glenn - Atlanta Motordrome - 1913
 Harley-Davidson had not entered racing yet, and the races were dominated by riders of Indian, Excelsior, Thor, and other early American motorcycle companies, along with McNeil's English JAP engine special. On May 22, 1913, the riders got their first taste of riding the steep banks of the Motordrome. Jock McNeal was able to push his JAP Special to a mile a minute top speed.
May 23, 1913
 Sadly, Atlanta's unpredictable weather struck, and the practice sessions were cut short by rain. This would be a continuous problem for the next month, as races were scheduled only to be postponed several times due to rain. The scrappy Scotsman became a favorite of the Atlanta fans, setting speed records, and running match races with the like of Tex Richards, Harry Glenn, and Marty Graves.
June 6, 1913
The first race at the newly completed Atlanta Motordrome was scheduled for June 6, 1913. But again, Atlanta's unpredictable weather struck, and the races scheduled for that night were rained out. The races were rescheduled for the following Tuesday, but were again rained out.

June 7, 1913
This would be a continuous problem for the next month, as races were scheduled only to be postponed several times due to rain. It was not until June 14 that the first races were run at the Motordrome.
June 15, 1913

The first race at the Motordrome drew a crowd of seven thousand race fans, which was respectable in light of the cancellation of the previous races due to rain. Tex Richards was the star of the first event, winning several races.

Infield Crowd at the Atlanta Motordrome - ca.1913
Chris Price@Archive Moto

Wilmer "Tex" Richards was born in Waco, Texas in 1892. Richards was considered one of the most daring riders competing in Atlanta.

June 18, 1913

He entered his first dirt track motorcycle race at Waco, Texas in 1907.  When he was asked by an Atlanta reporter how did you get into the racing game? Richards response was:

"Just happened to, a fellow asked me to ride in a dirt track race. So I went in. I haven't been out since."

He would make Atlanta his home, and Atlanta race fans would come to see him as one of their own. He would win Atlanta races at the Motordrome, and later at Atlanta's Lakewood Speedway, for years to come. After his racing career, Richards became a patrolman with the Atlanta Police Department.

The local press began to report a rivalry between Tex Richards, and the little Scotsman, James "Jock" McNeil. A match race was between Richards and McNeil was scheduled for June 28, 1913.

June 28, 1913

McNeil won the first Motordrome race. Soon, a third rider entered the rivalry.

Morty Graves had been toiling away at the Motordrome with an older Excelsior racer. Graves had competed in dirt and board track races in Los Angeles, before coming to Atlanta. He was called "Millionaire Morty" by his fellow racers.  They believed Graves was "well funded," due to a trust fund. In Late June 1913, he received a new Excelsior racer. The new racer enabled Graves to seriously compete with Richards and McNeil.

With the approach of the July 4th Motordrome races, McNeil raised the stakes, disclosing he was receiving a new JAP engine racer from England. He further announced he would use the new racer to break the Motordrome track record on July 4th.

July 8, 1913

Rain again postponed the July 4th races, but the rivalry in the press continued.

July 7, 1913

The July 4th race was finally run on Tuesday July 8, 1913. Both McNeil and Graves encountered engine trouble, and Tex Richards took the night's events.

July 9, 1913

With another rain postponement of the Friday's races, an article appeared in the Atlanta Constitution Sports Page, which voiced race fans displeasure with the constant postponements.

July 12, 1913

This situation concerned the track management, as they saw their gate receipts dwindling, due to the constant postponements. Racing continued, weather permitting, but on August 12th, the three way rivalry between McNeil, Richards, and Graves came to an end. While working on his racer for the night's races, the pedal struck Graves, causing serious injury to his right eye.  

August 13, 1913

Fortunately, Graves eye injury was not as serious as first thought, and he returned to the track later in the year.

The following Saturday, popular Atlanta racer Harry Glenn had a close call during the Five Mile Race. Glenn was warming up on the banked track at about 45mph, when his rear tire blew out.

August 17, 1913

Through his skill full control of his racer, he avoided being thrown off, and was able to safely pull down to the tracks apron. Had Glenn been running the top speed of around 90 miles per hour, it would have certainly ended badly.

This was not Glenn's first serious incident at the track. He and several other riders had crashed during the initial practice sessions back in June. Each had narrowly escaped serious injury, but the Atlanta riders were becoming increasingly concerned about the safety of the Motordrome.  The rider's worst fears were confirmed just days later.

Jock McNeil had made known his intention to use his new JAP racer to break the track record during a practice session for the August 19th race.

James "Jock" McNeil - 1912
Mike Bell Collection

In an attempt to gain some additional speed, McNeil had ventured up to the white painted section of the track at the top of the banking. McNeil, and several other riders felt there was a slight speed advantage to running the white boards at the top of the track. The trouble was, this section was never intended to be part of the racing surface. It did not have the same support structure as the actual racing surface. While running at top speed on the white painted section, the boards suddenly gave way. McNeil was thrown from his bike, sustaining serious injuries.

August 20, 1913
McNeil died of his injuries the following day. The death of the popular Scottish rider in full view of the spectators, and his fellow riders, cast a pall over the Atlanta racing community. The races at the Motordrome were postponed indefinitely.

August 21, 1913

Racing resumed on August 26, 1913. The death of McNeil apparently caused the Atlanta riders to re-evaluate their own mortality, and ride more conservatively.  The Constitution reported the race under the headline:

August 27, 1913

The Constitution article went on to speculate, that if significant changes were not made, Motordrome racing would not survive in Atlanta. It was clear from the tone of the article, that the local reporters, who were once fans of Motordrome racing, were having doubts about future of the sport in Atlanta.

Racing continued at the Motordrome for the next few months. With the death of McNeil, Tex Richards lost his main competitor. He dominated several races, but many races continued to be postponed due to rain. On September 10th, Morty Graves returned to the track, taking a victory in a special match race with Richards. The Chattanooga Motordrome was now finished, and the Atlanta racers, began doing double duty. They raced two days a week at Atlanta, and two other days at Chattanooga. 

World Champion rider Arthur Chappelle, also came to Atlanta to compete. He was mentioned in several pre-race articles, but does not appear in any of the race results.

September 29, 1913

The benefit race for Jock McNeil, which had first been scheduled back in August, was postponed several times due to weather. The race finally took place on October 8, 1913. The event was well attended, and the proceeds were sent Jock's mother in Scotland.

August 28, 1913
By October, 1913, constant race postponements,  and dwindling attendance at the races, was putting a serious stain on the Motordrome finances. Seeking a new audience, they scheduled a race for black rider's in late October 1913. While the race was sure to draw large crowds from Atlanta's black population, it was not a popular a popular decision in Jim Crow Atlanta, and followed a similar race held at Asa Candler's Atlanta Speedway, just two months earlier.
October 23, 1913

The motordrome race drew black racers from across the south. It featured Atlanta racers "Hard Luck" Bill Jones, and Loyd Brown. Also in the race were the Wilson Brothers from  New Orleans, and Ben Griggs and Willie McCabe from Chattanooga. After several date changes due to rain, the race appears to have taken place at the Motordrome on October 28, 1913.
Despite four pre-race articles in the Atlanta Constitution, no article on the race appeared in the newspaper, and the race results have been lost to time. The race caused a back lash at with the Federation of American Motorcyclists F.A.M., who sanctioned the track's professional races for white riders. The F.A.M. did not allow black riders to compete in their races, and they withdrew the Motordrome's F.A.M. sanction for motorcycle races. This resulted in the track' owners filing for bankruptcy.

Motorcycling and Bicycling
November 1913
The Motordrome reopened under new management for the 1914 season in mid May. It would be a short season.

Atlanta Constitution - March 22, 1914
May 9, 1914
Harry Glenn won two heat races that day, but when it came to the final race, Marty Graves was the winner. O.R. "Nemo" Lancaster won the single cylinder race. He also set a new track record on a twin cylinder Pope Motorcycle. G.W. Nix won the twin and single cylinder amateur races on Pope motorcycles. 
Atlanta Constitution May 10, 1914

On May 15th, a notice appeared in the Constitution that races at the Motordrome had been cancelled for a week, due to the national Shriners Convention, which was taking place in Atlanta. When racing resumed, Marty Graves continued his domination.
On May 19, 1914, an article encouraging patronage of the Motordrome appeared in the Constitution, but the Constitution's attitude toward the local track would quickly change.
On May 22, 1914, an article appeared in the Constitution touting a special "Marathon" race to take place at the Motordrome that night. Besides the Marathon Race, the article stated Morty Graves would attempt to break the track record on an 8 Valve Indian. W.O. Edgor would also be lapping the track in his Marmon race car. A Constitution reporter was to ride as a "mechanic" with Edgor. 
For unknown reasons, the management of the Motordrome changed the card at the last minute, running only a series of short sprint motorcycle races. This drew the wrath of fans, and the Constitution. The following day a blistering article appeared in the Constitution.
May 23, 1914

This article was the final blow for the Atlanta Motordrome, which closed it's gates.
On May 31, 1913, and article appeared in the Constitution. The article stated a rider at the Chicago Motordrome had recently been killed, and several other riders seriously injured. This led the local police to close the Chicago track. Several other cities followed suit closing their local Motordromes.
Jack Prince was quoted in the article:
" I am through with motorcycle racing, and from now on, would never be connected with them."
The Constitution article went on to speculate:
"Perhaps Prince was haunted by the faces of the number of riders, who have been killed on tracks he built, that has caused him to make this decision."
 During the next few years, track was used for fairs, and occasional automobile or motorcycle thrill shows. With the closing of the Atlanta Motordrome, motorcycle racing in Atlanta would be in limbo for several years.
The contract riders, most of whom were not from Atlanta, left for other opportunities.  Harry Glenn and Tex Richards remained in Atlanta, but began traveling to distant races to compete. Track racing would not return to Atlanta until the Lakewood Speedway opened in 1917.

On Monday May 20, 1917, fire broke out in the neighborhood adjacent to the Motordrome. The fire blazed for ten hours, and burned a large part of the neighborhood. 

1917 Atlanta Fire
Ebenezer Baptist Church Collection

 The fire was brought under control by the Atlanta Fire Department, which dynamited building in the fire's path, to establish a fire break. This map shows the fire damage from the 1917 fire. The Motordrome was located in the top half of section 157.

 Map of 1917 Fire Damage
Ebenezer Baptist Church Collection

While the Motordrome escaped serious damage in the fire, it was in serious disrepair, and was later torn down.  The former site of the Atlanta Motordrome is now part of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Historic site in downtown Atlanta.
The failure of the Atlanta Motordrome, was the result of a series of compounding problems, from the constant rain outs and low attendance, to the many poor decisions made by the track's management. In the end, the fans lost interest, and the track closed. After a three year hiatus, motorcycle racing would return to Atlanta, draw ing the greatest riders of the day.

Stay tuned for Part 3 in this series on Atlanta's early race tracks coming soon!

The Lakewood Speedway!

Atlanta Constitution

Chris Price@Archive Moto

Ebenezer Baptist Church Collection

Mike Bell Collection

Motorcycling and Bicycling


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