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Speed Demons: A Brief History Of Motorcycle Racing Since 1897

Chaparral Motorsports
|
October 12, 2015

Many riders today enjoy the wind in their hair, the smell of early-morning bike exhaust and tinkering with the toys that make people go fast. However, few riders today know the story of how their favorite motorsports came to be. The following is a summary of motorcycle racing history, with its rich and colorful origins around the world:

Motorcycle Racing Origins


A brief history of motorbike racing across the globe.

Since the days of black-and-white film, motorsports have existed. Once people first discovered how to build proper combustion engines, they began attaching wheels and trying to extract as much raw power as possible. Both defying gravity, and going really fast seem to be undying sources of entertainment , and since 1897, people have been racing what is known today as sport-class motorcycles.

The first popular prototype was the de Dion tricycle, which sprung out from small town automobile road racing in France. The Dion came out of the classic Paris-Vienna race, but was quickly overshadowed by the two-wheeled Werner models, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. It wasn't until after the turn of the century that the Europeans formed the Fédération Internationale du Motocyclisme, today called the Fédération Internationtale Motocycliste. After World War II, FIM's membership expanded to include Germany, Austria, Britain, France and Denmark.

Americans began racing bikes in the late 1800s as well, but it wasn't until Harley-Davidson debuted in 1903 - just two years after an introduction of the single-cylinder, 1.75-horsepower Indian in 1901 by the Hendee Manufacturing Company - that a formal enthusiast's organization was formed. The premier motorsports interest organization at the time, the New York Motorcycle Club, met to discuss interest in the rapidly forming international sport. The club quickly realized that traction was being made with the American public, and on Sept. 7, 1903, the Federation of American Motorcycling was formed consisting of only 93 original enthusiasts membership pledges, according to American Motorcyclist Association.

Federation of American Motorcycling


By the 1920s, motorcycle racing had successfully stretched coast to coast in the United States. After a brief pause during World War II (which made rationing of both gasoline and heavy metals necessary for the war effort) full-scale motorcycle racing had launched itself into a golden age of motorsports still going on today.

"[FAM's] objects shall be to encourage the use of motorcycles and to promote the general interests of motorcycling; to ascertain, defend and protect the rights of motorcyclists; to facilitate touring; to assist in the good roads movement; and to advise and assist in the regulation of motorcycle racing and other competition in which motorcycles engage," according to the FAM's original constitution, circa 1903.

While FAM existed for only 16 years, the organization was soon reborn under a new name, the American Motorcyclists Association and thrived through the 1920s. Despite popularity on the East Coast however, the very first wooden board track was built not in New York, but in Los Angeles. By the 1920s, motorcycle racing had successfully stretched coast to coast in the United States. After a brief pause during World War II (which made rationing of both gasoline and heavy metals necessary for the war effort) full-scale motorcycle racing had launched itself into a golden age of motorsports still going on today.

Modern Racing


The early days of track racing sprung many variants along the way. Today, you can find various types of motorbike racing, including:


  • Motocross - A physically demanding type of motorbike racing that takes place across rough, natural terrain. The Europeans invented it, and the FIM has organized annual Motocross World Championships since the 1950s.
  • Speedway - Speedway racing evolved from originally European Grand Prix races that involved light speed runs over (typically circular) dirt track. Austria brought the event to motorcycling, but it didn't become popular until the 1920s.
  • Drag - Drag racing became popular initially with automobiles in America. The sport was brought to motorcycling around the 1950s, and still involves a long, flat track as it did then. Drag races are typically no more than a few seconds long, and involve riders maxing out engine acceleration to compete their vehicle's raw power.
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