Today, speed comes of age on wooden tracks. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
"Boy, she was goin' like
60!" That's what we used to say to each other about
speed in the 1930s. Sixty miles an hour -- a mile a
minute. We called the nonstop train ran from St.
Paul to Chicago "The 400" -- 400 miles in 400
minutes. That was speed.
Yet we'd seen greater speeds by then. A train
passed 100 mph in 1893. An automobile passed it in
1906. Airplanes didn't get there until until WW-I.
Automobiles promised speed for everyone, but roads
weren't ready for them. I'll never forget the
thrill of terror the first time my father, a former
WW-I pilot, pushed our old Plymouth over 60. It was
on the best road around -- a two-lane tarred
Henry Ford used a frozen lake to reach 91 mph in
1904. The Stanley Brothers drove their steamer 128
mph on the packed sand of Daytona Beach in 1906.
Soon after, most states enacted laws against road
racing. Speed had become the great American hunger.
Writer Michael Gianturco tells about a lost
technology that spoke to that new hunger. It was
the wooden race track.
In 1910, a Barnum-like man named Jack Prince sold
an investor on the idea of building a wooden
speedway at Playa del Rey in California. The famous
race-car driver Barney Oldfield immediately did a
lap at the amazing speed of 99 miles an hour.
The track was made from thousands of boards, held
together by tons of nails. Prince's first design
was a one-mile circular bowl with steep sloped
The public cheered as fatalities mounted. Finally,
in 1913, a fire destroyed the track. And Damon
Runyan wrote, "Playa del Rey burned last night with
a great saving of lives."
But the mania had only begun. Wooden race tracks
grew like weeds. By the 1920s, curves were banked
until they were unsafe at anything under 100 mph.
Then the brick Indianapolis Speedway went into use.
It helps put the wooden track in perspective. In
1926, a car lapped a Miami wooden track at 143 mph.
The fastest lap that same car could do at Indy was
By the time I was a child, those fast old wooden
tracks had worked their magic. They'd seen us
through a phase. We still race at Indy, but now
that's only an annual rite of Spring.
Wooden tracks came to an abrupt end with the
Depression. Some were burned for firewood. Cars
had, at last, become a commonplace part of American
life. During the Depression we sobered up and
reached childhood's end. Car driving had, at last,
come down to the hard clay -- and become grownup
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds