Heroes of the St. Louis Pie Tin

An amazing set of images shot in 1914 by photographer J.R. Eike of the St. Louis Motordrome board track and publicity shots of some of the racers. These scans are pulled from the original glass plate negatives, which languished for years in the garage of a relative of the photographer and were very nearly discarded before being rescued by collector Tom Kempland.

The photographer’s notes describe the St. Louis boardtrack as a portable Motordrome, but it sure looks like it has some permanence in these shots. I don’t find any record of the track being moved. Usually ‘Motordrome’ refers to a smaller track that was something between the larger boardtracks and the sideshow “walls of death”; although I have seen early reports of mile-long boardtracks referred to as Motordromes as well.

Even without the ‘wall of death’ moniker, this boardtrack had a bit of notoriety amongst racers of the era as well. Boardtracks were known for their steep bankings—some as much as 68°—but unlike the more gently transitioning tracks, St. Louis’s track was referred to as a “pie tin” because of it’s abrupt transition from a gentle 15° banking to the steeper edges.

I can only imagine the terrifying prospect of making that transition up to the wall of the track. Just performing the feat on it’s own seems like a courageous act. Now imagine doing it in the thick of battle with a dozen other racers operating without brakes in a furious clamor to the front of the pack. There was a fine line indeed between motorsport and bloodsport.

The structure itself was remarkable. Just look at the photo of the steep bowl waiting to be surrounded by eager fans. The lamp posts are interesting as well, not only as an obvious hazard to avoid on the infield, but the number of lights make me wonder if the track hosted night racing. I’ve never read of nighttime board track races, but it seems somehow even more perilous. What a thrill!

More photos at the Thomas Kempland Glass Plates Archive. You can see a short video about Kempland and his discovery of these photos here.

You can really see the abrupt transition here.

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