Sunday, March 2, 2014

Piedmont Park, Atlanta's Early Racetracks - Episode #23

By: David L. Morrill
@ Mototique

Piedmont Park Race Track - 1903
Atlanta History Center Collection
As one strolls the manicured fields in Atlanta's Piedmont Park today, you would find few traces of the old Piedmont Park Racetrack, which once occupied the site. Local history buffs, will tell you that in the early 1900s, this was the site of the first Auburn vs Georgia football games, and the first Atlanta Crackers baseball games. However, no one knows the early Georgia motorcycle history that took place at the site. It's now time to share that significant piece of Atlanta racing history.

The story of the Piedmont Park Race Track begins in1887, when the Gentleman's Driving Club purchased land about a mile and a half northeast of downtown Atlanta from a local farmer. The Driving Club built a half mile oval dirt track for horse racing named Piedmont Park. The track was built at the base of a hill on the property forming a natural amphitheater.

Atlanta Constitution - August 28, 1887

Gentleman's Driving Club Racetrack - 1892
Atlanta Daughters of the American Revolution Collection
In 1895, the property surrounding the racetrack was developed for the Cotton States Exhibition & International Exhibition. Several permanent building including a Coliseum, were added to the site for the exhibition.

Piedmont Park Plan - 1895
Piedmont Park Conservancy Collection

The first Motorcycle events held in Piedmont Park were not actually motorcycle races. Bicycle racing had become the rage in the late 1800s. In 1897, a retired English bicycle racer named Jack Prince built a banked wooden velodrome bicycle track inside the Piedmont Park Coliseum, and began holding bicycle races.

Jack Prince
Daniel J. Statnekov Collection

Atlanta Constitution - April 13, 1897

Bicycle racing became hugely popular in Atlanta, and a former Atlanta bicycle messenger named Bobby Walthour, was making a name for himself throughout the south.  By 1899, early motorcycles were being used to pacer top bicycle racers, who would closely follow the pacing motorcycle.

Orient Tandem Pacer
Daniel J. Statnekov Collection

This early example of slip streaming, allowed the bicycle racers of the day to reach higher speeds. In October 1899, Swedish rider John Lawson arrived in Atlanta, with his tandem pacing motorcycle, for a series of races with Walthour, and the other top riders. Walthour had already arranged with Gus Castle to have an Orient Tandem Pacer delivered to Atlanta, and was training with it. This was the first appearance of a motorcycle in the state of Georgia.

Bobby Walthour, Sr. paced by motorcycle - 1908
United States Bicycling Hall of Fame Collection

Atlanta Constitution - October 14, 1899

Atlanta Constitution - October 21, 1899
On October 22, 1899, motorcycles made their first appearance on the half mile horse track. A crowd of spectators, estimated at between five and six thousand forced the promoters to move the event from the Velodrome on the inside of the coliseum to the outside horse track.

Atlanta Constitution - October 23, 1899
By 1902, Bobby Walthour had returned to Atlanta from Europe as one of the top riders in the world. He was training, and competing in motorcycle paced bicycle events at the Coliseum track.  October 11, 1902,  was declared Bobby Walthour Day at the Interstate Fair taking place in Piedmont Park. A series of competitions featuring Walthour, were scheduled at the Piedmont Park.

Atlanta Constitution - October 10, 1902
Among the competitions was a ten mile race between Walthour, with his pacing motorcycle, against five fast trotting horses. Once again, Atlanta's unpredictable weather made a mess of the horse track, and the race was delayed until October 17th.  Walthour won the race, which was run as as a relay with each of the five trotters doing two laps. The race took place in front of a crowd of some fifteen thousand enthusiastic fans. Part of the enthusiasm, may have been based on the fact that wagers were taken on the outcome of races at the coliseum, and horse track.

Atlanta Constitution - October 18, 1902
Walthour continued to race at the Piedmont Park track until he had a nasty fall in mid November, and broke his collarbone.

Atlanta Constitution - November 6, 1911
Atlanta Constitution - November 12, 1902
Piedmont Park was used as a fairgrounds until 1904, but the property had fallen into disrepair. The City of Atlanta agreed to purchase the property for a city park. In 1909, the city hired brothers Carey and Frederick Olmsted Jr. to create a master plan for Piedmont Park. They were the sons of  Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed New York's Central Park. Improvements were made to the park, but an economic slow down delayed the completion of the project until 1912.

Olmsted Piedmont Park Plan
Piedmont Park Conservancy Collection
In May 1912, the Atlanta Motorcycle Club met at the Transportation Club. The purpose of the meeting was to promote motorcycling, and motorcycle competitions in Atlanta. The club was aligned with the Federation of American Motorcyclists (F.A.M.) which was the sanctioning body for professional motorcycle competitions throughout the country.

Atlanta Constitution - May 3, 1912
By October, the Atlanta Motorcycle Club, which had previously sanctioned motorcycle races at Asa Candler's Atlanta Speedway, decided to sanction their first motorcycle race at the Piedmont Park horse track. An announcement for the October 19 race, appeared in the Atlanta Constitution.

Atlanta Constitution - October 7, 1912
The competition, would have classes for both amateur and professional racers. A detailed article on the seven scheduled races appeared in the Constitution the following day.

Atlanta Constitution - October 18, 1912.

Heavy rains the night before, forced the cancellation of the race. The unpredictable nature of weather in Atlanta was a constant problem for race promoters.

Atlanta Constitution - October 20, 1912

The race took place on Saturday, October 26, 1912, and drew a crowd of three thousand spectators. The results were published in the Constitution.

Atlanta Constitution - October 27, 1912
Shortly before the 6 horsepower race, Harry Glenn's twin cylinder Excelsior motorcycle caught fire on the track, and was heavily damaged. Glenn, who was also the Manager of Atlanta Indian dealer, switched to his Indian racer for the remaining races. The professional class races were both won by seventeen year old Atlanta racer ,Ollie Roberts, riding a Thor motorcycle. This was Roberts third motorcycle race, and the first time he beat the much more experienced Glenn, who finished second. Glenn did manage to set the track record lapping the half mile track in 38 seconds at 47.3 miles per hour.

Harry Glenn - Stewart Avenue Hill Climb - Atlanta 1914
Atlanta Constitution - May 12, 1914
With their first event a rousing success, the Atlanta Motorcycle Club scheduled another event at the Park.

Atlanta Constitution - November 23, 1912
It is unclear, if this race took place. The Constitution did not report the results, and there was not cancellation notice in the paper. The Constitution did report that Atlanta's earliest known snowfall blanketed the City just a couple days later.

In early 1913, Jack Prince returned to Atlanta. Prince announced he would be building a steeply banked circular board track less than a mile from Piedmont Park. The track was designed specifically for motorcycle racing, and was named the Atlanta Motordrome. The Atlanta Motorcycle Club announced they were supporting the construction of the Motordrome, and several club members participated in the test of the newly completed Motordrome.  It appears no further races were scheduled for at Piedmont Park, for the next couple of years.

Atlanta Constitution - May 19, 1913

In late January 1915, Atlanta motorcyclists met at the Southern Motorcycle Company to organize a race at Piedmont Park.

Atlanta Constitution - October 26, 1915
There is no further mention of the race in the Atlanta Constitution. As America entered World War l, Atlanta Motorcyclists met at Piedmont Park in 1917 to form a volunteer military motorcycle unit known as the Atlanta Motorcycle Minute Men.

Atlanta Constitution - April 24, 1917

Atlanta Constitution - April 25, 1917
Eventually, several Atlanta motorcyclists, were drafted into the Army serving as dispatch riders, or motorcycle mechanics. The next chapter of Motorcycle racing in Atlanta, would begin with the opening of the Atlanta Motordrome.

Piedmont Park has become one of Atlanta's most popular City Parks. The site of the Piedmont Park Race Track has been redeveloped into ball fields.

Racetrack Site - Piedmont Park, Atlanta, GA.
Piedmont Park Active Oval Sports Fields
Piedmont Park Conservancy Collection
This article is part of a four part series on Atlanta's early racetracks. It started with the Atlanta Speedway, and continues with Piedmont Park,  the Atlanta Motordrome, and the Lakewood Speedway. Click on the links below to read those stories:

Atlanta Speedway - Atlanta's Early Racetracks - Part 1

Atlanta Motordrome - Atlanta's Early Racetracks Part 3

Lakewood Speedway - Atlanta's Early Racetrack Part 4


Atlanta Constitution

Daughters of the American Revolution - Atlanta Chapter

Andrew M. Homan - Life in the Slipstream: The Legend of Bobby Walthour Sr.

Daniel K. Statnekov Collection

Piedmont Park Conservancy

United States Bicycling Hall of Fame: Bobby Walthour Sr. Piedmont Park

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