Motorcycles took off with the invention of internal combustion gasoline engines. Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach built the first motorcycle. It was 1885 in Germany. The engine had 0.5 horsepower. Crude by today’s standards, early motorcycles were bicycle frames powered by jerrybuilt gas engines linked to their rear wheels. Motorcycle racing has tremendous appeal to humanity’s thirst for velocity. Anything with wheels is fair game. Speeding is in our DNA.
Pioneers in motorcycle racing came up with a variety of models. The first motorcycle race went down in England. The year was 1897. This was an era when race spectators were familiar with horsepower from real horses. The exciting pony-power of motorcycles must have been staggering. A production bike created by Wolfmuller and Hildebrand around the year 1900 upped the ante. Their motorcycle reared up and neighed with an impressive 2.5 horsepower engine.
It wasn’t long before motorcycle racing crossed the pond, and Americans eagerly embraced the new sport. Competitors in both countries saw the need for racing standards. In 1904, racing enthusiasts established the Federation Internationale de Motocyclisme. The sport was now official.
The Evolution of Racing
Motorcycle races clustered into two zones. One group favored competitions by race types, such as hill climbing or dirt track races. The other group found more excitement in races based on engine size, using customization or engine displacement to increase their advantage.
The first races were simple events held on open roads. In 1907, one of the first famous motorcycle races in the history of the sport—The Isle of Man Tourist Trophy event—took place in Great Britain.
Dangers Faced by Early Motorcycle Racers
We understand the risks associated with motorcycle racing. Danger in the sport extends back to the beginning of racing history. Their challenges were different from today’s hazards. Poor track conditions and high speeds caused many problems for early racers. These rudimentary races utilized an elongated circular configuration in the U.S. The new oval tracks, originally called motordromes, sponsored “board track racing” by early competitors from 1910 through the 1920s. Famous motorcycle races, such as the American National Championships, took place on board tracks.
Wooden planks were cheap and easy to install to form the track. Steeply banked turns on the oval allowed riders to reach speeds of 100 mph. With frequent high-speed accidents, the injuries were severe.
Riders who went down had little chance to survive. They slid along the rough wooden surface, tearing up large splinters that impaled them, often resulting in death. The boards were flimsy, and surface defects resulted in catastrophic accidents. Maintenance was a constant problem; the tracks only lasted 2-3 years from the wear. Spectators were also in danger as they stood along the edges of the track to watch the race. In a tragic 1912 incident, a slide took the lives of several bystanders along with those of two track bikers.
Board track racing lost much of its glamour in the 1920’s—newspapers began calling the venues “murderdromes” due to the gore and fatalities. Some city governments shut the tracks down. Board track races ended permanently in the early 1930s at the beginning of the Great Depression.
Expansion in Styles and Race Challenges
As technology advanced over the years, blazing power and design sophistication opened multiple avenues for competitors. Motorcycle races went off-road as motocross rode a wave of popularity. The motorcycles built for these racing events required heavy suspensions to absorb the shock of challenging terrain. Indoor motocross also attracted riders; track surfaces contained built-in jumps and challenging terrain. Drag racing, using “hot rod” motorcycles, took place on straight roads where riders hit speeds of over 150 mph. Any surface adaptable to wheels attracts interest from engineers of the rapidly developing sport of motorcycle racing.
A New Era in Motorcycle Racing
In 1949, motorcycle racing’s governing organization, the Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme, established the Grand Prix Road-Racing World Championship. It is now the oldest motorsport World Championship. Team motorcycle racing is a big part of the many Grand Prix events.
The motorcycle racing team event became three award categories: MotoGP was the first, established in 2002. Moto2 and Moto3 arrived in 2018. The Team World Championship accrues FIM points over the racing season earned by each rider with team association. Total points at season end determine the winner. Individual riders are also eligible to participate in the rider’s world championship; however, while the points of the individual world championship winner apply to his team, an individual event win does not guarantee the winner’s team will be victorious in the team category. These events are separate honors.
Extreme Races: Hall of Fame
Even famous motorcycle racers find The Isle of Man Tourist Trophy daunting. The TT is one of the most extreme motorcycle races in the world. A punishing series of races take place through two weeks of non-stop danger. The track consists of looping roads that wind around the island. There are over 400 turns in the course and, at speeds up to 200 mph, racers need split-second timing and laser-sharp focus. It is possibly the most difficult time-trial race on the planet. Even finishing the race earns hall-of-fame status.
Since the race began in 1907, the brutal course has claimed hundreds of racers. Even a fair number of professional racers won’t tackle this event. Spectators are also at risk. As the “Mount Everest” of motorcycle racing, the annual event draws crowds.
In the early days of the TT, motorcycles could only reach speeds of under 40 mph. Today’s Japanese motorcycle racers can exceed 200 mph on superbikes made in their country. A course lined with hazardous stone walls or barbed-wire fences next to narrow, hairpin turns didn’t worry early riders. As motorcycle technology has increased, however, a leisurely ride down a straightaway and plenty of time to ease past the corner has turned into a nightmare. The speeds motorcycles can reach now require blasting down a straightaway in seconds, then nerve-racking, continual body shifts where the rider’s weight precisely balances and adjusts through a gauntlet of staggered turns. The knee appears to skim across the pavement as the bike angles over almost on its side to negotiate a curve. There are only millimeters between making the turn and becoming a statistic.
The sport of motorcycle racing has progressed far beyond the imagination of racing pioneers. Few, if any, could believe the power, speed and agility of today’s racing bikes. They would undoubtedly marvel at all the options riders have to enjoy their preferred flavor of motorcycle racing.