Strong Backs and Weak Minds: The Saga of the Coney Island Velodrome
April 8 – June 27, 2010
Old Stone House of Brooklyn
April 8 – June 27, 2010
Old Stone House of Brooklyn
|Designer: Rebecca Seltzer|
‘Building Plans Promise Active Spring in Many Sections’ read the headline of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on March 9,1930; curiously optimistic in the year after the stock market crash of 1929. In hindsight, the Great Depression was just beginning to set in and dark days lay ahead, but the Eagle gave voice to an air of recovery.
Other articles hinted that credit to developers had loosened up since the Crash and investors were eager to service a waiting pool of mortgages. They also announced that the Brooklyn Velodrome Corporation had secured a twenty-one year lease on a large property owned by the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation. Plans were being made to open a bicycle racing track at Neptune Avenue and West 12th Street—just across the street from Coney Island’s famed Luna Park.
|Two racers at the Coney Island Velodrome. The star is Tom Duffin Jr (CRCA).|
Bicycle racing was wildly popular in America. Many of the great (and wealthy) sport promoters staged races at major arenas such as Madison Square Garden. True, the sport had declined since its peak in the twenties, but the draw of a sport that routinely pushed tough men to tears, promised incredible feats of daring and delivered carnage from time to time was undeniable.
By 1929, Coney Island benefited from a huge increase in subway connections. Larger and larger crowds were flocking there and in April 1929, during a warm snap, record-breaking crowds of 350,000 mobbed the boardwalk and beaches.
However, the Coney Island amusement parks, including Luna Park, were not faring as well as they had in previous years. Despite increasing amenities for visitors, the financial crisis made reality much leaner for average people than it had been in the fat times that defined the mid-twenties.
Undaunted or perhaps unaware, Vincent Mazella formed the Brooklyn Velodrome Corporation, headquartered at 125 President Street, an address since replaced by the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. To manage the Velodrome, he hired Charles Turville of Providence, Rhode Island. Turville had been a figure in the cycling game since 1899, during the height of the sport’s popularity. The Coney Island track, built at a cost of approximately six million dollars in today’s economy, must have seemed like a very safe investment in bicycle racing’s bright future.
The Coney Island Velodrome opened on July 19, 1930. It was a massive venue seating 10,000 spectators with a wooden track that ran one-sixth of a mile around – nearly the length of two and a half football fields.
In the early days of competitive cycling in the late 1890s, bicycle track riders earned huge amounts of money to race all over the world. Major Taylor, an African-American rider who was one of America’s first international athletic stars, overcame the widespread racism of the time to double his father’s yearly income in a day, earning $850 for a race in 1897.
By the turn of the century cycling hysteria gripped the country. Bike racing, particularly Six Day bicycle racing events—tournaments where two-man teams would switch off circling the track for six days straight-- were the rage. Occasionally enlivened by ‘primes’, cash awards for sprints within the greater race, these became glamorous affairs in the twenties attended by some of the day’s biggest celebrities. Douglas Fairbanks and Al Jolson sat in the infield and waved cash at the riders, while Will Rogers started some races by firing off his six shooters.
|The start of an indoor six day race (CRCA)|
Tracks were generally purpose-built for the wintertime Six Day races and typically broken up and sold for scrap at the end of the race. Outdoor tracks sprang up around the country, concentrating on evening-long programs of shorter races. The Newark Velodrome, the leading outdoor track of the day, typically was standing room only.
|Newark Velodrome 1920s (CRCA)|
At the turn of the century Charles Turville competed all over the country in Six Days -- from the famed Salt Palace track in Salt Lake City, Utah, to Madison Square Garden in New York City -- and distinguished himself as a top middle- distance competitor, riding fifteen-mile races behind a motorcycle.
In the mid 1910s, Turville stayed in the game as a motor pacer, this time steering the pace-setting motorbike rather than riding behind it. Even as a non-rider, Turville was much in demand as a top-shelf pacer, earning $2,055 (about $40,000 today) for the 1914 summer outdoor season, with the more lucrative indoor arena season ahead of him.
Little did he know that this heyday would soon end. The public would lose interest in cycling, and the realities of the economic depression and a looming war would crush bicycle racing as a popular American sport.
|This may be Coney Island. Note the small crowd. (CRCA)|
The original plans called for the Coney Island Velodrome track to be removable “for hockey games and other sports,” perhaps a sign that the investors knew that bicycle racing could not be their only source of income.
Murray Klein was hired to design the Velodrome, and the plans were announced in March 1930. Although Klein told The New York Times there would be seating for 12,000, the track opened three months later, in June, with seating for 10,000.
|Possibly the NY Velodrome in Inwood. Note the Motorpaced rider in the lower left of the frame. (CRCA)|
Breezy ocean air kept the track comfortable, but proved difficult for racers as the season wore on. The refreshing summer draft became a howling gale that rattled the boards of the wooden track.
Races began at 8:15 in the evening as amateurs raced 23 man starts in a six-lap race, followed by the twelve lap professional races that included fewer starters. These were followed by a mixed bag of other races such as the Miss and Out, where the last few riders at the end of every lap were pulled out of the race till two riders remained to duke it out. Also popular were the match sprints, featuring two men in a tactical, sprint capped race, and Motorpacing, where riders were paced by motorcycles.
|Riders possibly at the NY Velodrome in Inwood (CRCA)|
With the completion of the Coney Island Velodrome, there were seven permanent outdoor Velodromes, all on the East Coast: Newark, Manhattan, Detroit, Philadelphia, Providence and Revere Beach, Massachusetts. This marked a significant difference from the Golden Age of the sport in the 1910s, when there were tracks in every major town in the country.
|Bobby Walthour Jr. part of the Walthour dynasty of American Cycling. (CRCA)|
Two weeks after the Coney Island Velodrome opened to the public, the New York Velodrome in Marble Hill, its larger capacity competitor, burned down, just after 15,000 people had filed out after a night of bicycle and motor-paced racing. The fire started outside the arena, but the flames soon consumed the wooden three-story structure, and were fed by oil left on the track earlier that day by the pacing motorcycles. On August 5th, the newspaper The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle wrote:
“Red rain fell for blocks around as the fire consumed the dry wood and much of the efforts of the firemen had to be turned to preventing spread of the flames to nearby buildings and freight cars full of cotton standing on a railroad siding close at hand.”
Fire, caused by careless cigarettes or darkly-alluded-to arson, was the perennial end of many a Velodrome. For Coney Island, Murray Klein claimed that his building had a specially planned exit system that allowed the stands to clear in two minutes.
With the destruction of the bigger New York Velodrome and the disinterest of its partners—John Ringling and Ingles Uppercu—in rebuilding it, the Coney Island Velodrome became the only game in town.
|New York City Cycling legend Lou Maltese at a six day at the New York Colluseum. (CRCA)|
There were all types of bicycle track racing at the Coney Island Velodrome but the king was the motor paced race, where four riders rode at the limits of their strength and will, paced by a motorcycle.
Riders would ‘draft’ behind a motorcycle to reach speeds up to sixty miles per hour which delighted the crowd. Interviewed in the 1980’s, Lou Maltese of the Century Road Club said he raced motor-paced events because he had a ‘weak mind and a strong back. ”
|Article on Motorpacing at the Coney Island Velodrome (CRCA)|
He also had a specially-designed bicycle for the event with an inverted front fork that held a 24-inch front wheel, and a 27 inch back wheel. “It’s all designed to stay close to the motorcycle. Behind the motorcycle’s rear wheel you have a tube that’s on bearings, going straight across the back. It’s usually 24 inches wide. The trick is to stay as close to that roller as you can. You touch the roller, the roller will spin. That roller has to be in front of you; otherwise, you just touch anything and you have an immediate blowout.”
With up to six competitors on the crowded track, the riders jockeyed for position, keeping an eye on each other and on the roller affixed to the back of their pacer’s motorcycle, all the time wary of the pacers who habitually used their motorbikes to intimidate the other riders.
This type of racing was incredibly fast and dangerous, only rivaled in daring by the superhuman endurance of the Six Day teams. At an outdoor summertime track, motor pacing was the greatest thrill promoters could deliver to the public. By hiring Charles Turville with his pacing experience and connections to manage their track, Coney Island insured its role as the flagship motor-pacing track in the United States and, by 1938, was the only American track to offer the event.
In 1920, J.J. Walker, the flamboyant senator from New York City, drove the successful passage of the “Walker Law”, effectively ending a three-year drought of pugilism in New York State. Taking advantage of boxing’s full-fledged comeback, promoters staged fights that brought thousands more customers to the Velodrome. However, with each passing year of the Depression, all sporting events saw a decline in attendance.
By 1934, the Coney Island Velodrome changed ownership. The lease was taken by Harry Mendel, a well-known cycling and boxing promoter who had been at the Nutley, NJ, Velodrome, and had promoted Six Day races at Madison Square Garden.
|At the Velodrome (CRCA)|
Mendel had parted ways with Joe Miele, his former co-owner at the Nutley track, over a soured business deal. Mendel went to Europe to sign stars to race at Nutley but subsequently demanded a ten percent commission for every rider he signed. Rather than paying, Miele told Mendel to ‘go to hell’, so Mendel brought the riders with him to the Coney Island Velodrome.
Alf Goullet, the great Six Day rider of the late tens and early twenties, observed that “there wasn’t enough talent or money to support two Velodromes. The rivalry between Nutley and Coney Island was bad for both tracks. The sport became watered down.”
With two venues staging races, racers would often finish racing in Brooklyn and then rush to New Jersey- a punishing schedule at best.
|Rider at a Velodrome (CRCA)|
For racers, the little money left was in winter indoor racing at Six Day events. Outdoor tracks such as Coney Island were seen as places to train for the Six Day season. Despite the new European racers, cycling was in a decline and promoters at both Nutley and Coney Island were having difficulty paying out prize money - if they paid at all. Boxing became the order of the day as more and more fights were held in the Velodrome.
Charles Turville faded into obscurity after he lost his job at the Velodrome. Most likely he retired to Newark, NJ, where he lived with his wife, the widow of a fellow motorcyclist who had perished while pacing at the Providence, Rhode Island track.
The December 1939 Six Day races at Madison Square Garden were a pale version of previous events, running for five days, and attracting only enough fans to fill half the house. The nation was in disarray from years of economic depression and rumors of war coming from Europe and the Far East.
Coney Island was still holding races. In 1941, The National Motor-Pace Champion Series drew to a close after a long season of battles between Jimmy Walthour and Mike De Felippo, with De Felippo ultimately winning the series. These were the last professional races held on the track.
The real world began to encroach on the Velodrome. The Kings County Division of the American Labor Party—the principle Socialist party in New York—held a ‘Smash Hitler’ rally at the Velodrome on September 11, 1941 that attracted a crowd of 8,000 people. Told by Representative Vito Marcantonio of Manhattan that the Soviet Union’s fight against Hitler was ‘The United States’ fight,’ the crowd clamored for the U.S. to end its isolationist stance and enter the war.
|Alf LeTourneur (CRCA)|
Despite the thrills and chills of motor-paced racing, attendance had declined dramatically. Cycling promoters tried pushing crowds to attend wrestling matches and midget car racing, a frequently dangerous motorsport that had several overpowered little cars circling the tight track at the same time.
Sporting events in America went on hiatus as the war progressed and athletes enlisted to fight. Cycling was particularly hard hit, as the war effort ate up all the available rubber and steel, halting bicycle production which was already hurt by the Depression. The Nutley Velodrome was torn down and the scrap turned over to the war effort.
When Americans went looking for leisure after the War, the Coney Island Velodrome was there with boxing matches, but sadly, no bicycle races. In September 1950, Sugar Ray Robinson fought Billy Brown there, and won in a ten-round decision.
In 1955, the track was razed to make way for the Luna Park Housing cooperative which remains there to this day.
In the end, the Coney Island Velodrome was a victim of history. The Great Depression, followed by a war of unprecedented magnitude, doomed the track almost as soon as it was built. By the time Americans were back on their feet and ready to invest in rebuilding, the country was a vastly different place: wealthier and in love with the new mobility afforded by cars.
With the establishment of NASCAR in 1949 and its subsequent popularity, Americans—at least outside urban centers—got their thrills from automobiles racing in excess of one hundred miles an hour. Cycling became a curiosity in America, even as it continued to flourish in Europe.
|Unidentified Rider (CRCA)|
Today, cycling is going through a new renaissance. The streets of New York City teem with cyclists, a sight not seen since the 1890s. Sport cycling has become popular again, and amateur track racing is a fixture at Kissena Velodrome in Queens.
In fact, Kissena was built by men who had raced on the boards at Coney Island and who knew firsthand the popularity that cycling had once enjoyed. Lou Maltese and Peter Senia, who had raced at Coney Island, along with Al Toefield, worked tirelessly to replace the Flushing Meadow track that was destroyed to make way for Shea Stadium, assuring New York of a continuing track racing legacy.
Cycling in America from World War II onward has been primarily an amateur sport, and professional bicycle racing is still not hugely popular. However, professional cycling has returned to our shores, with highly attended professional races like the Tour of California. Riders such as Greg Lemond and Lance Armstrong have fired the public imagination and brought professional cycling into an average American’s consciousness.
The Coney Island Velodrome was the last of its kind, and New York may never have a professional racing track again. May the memory of the place continue to burn in our hearts as a reminder of the importance that cycling once enjoyed in the American experience.