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‘The Speed Kings’ by Don Emde

 

Publisher, author, motorcycle historian and 1972 Daytona 200 winner Don Emde’s most recent book The Speed Kings is a history of boardtrack racing that’s long overdue. It’s perhaps the most complete history of the sport to date, one that includes hundreds of period photos supported by commentary, facts, quotes and newspaper clippings to tell the story about motorcycling racing’s early pioneers who rode their brakeless motorcycles to speeds in excess of 100mph through the high-banked turns of motordromes constructed of wood.

Perhaps the book is summed up best in its foreword penned by legendary racer Kenny Roberts. KR’s opening sentence pretty much says it all: “After reading The Speed Kings I’d like to say that those guys racing around the wooden tracks were really nuts.” This from the man who won the 1975 Indianapolis Mile riding a pieced-together, spindly frame flattracker powered by Yamaha’s vaunted TZ750 road race engine, a combination that should have put Roberts squarely into Indy’s Turn 1 wall, not into Victory Circle.

But, in truth, King Kenny (a moniker earned after winning his first of three consecutive 500cc World Championships) is right on track about The Speed Kings — those boardtrack racers were nuts. It even says so, not necessarily in The Speed Kings’ text, but in its context, delivered with clear and concise prose (“I used the Ken Burns style of story telling,” cites Emde, referencing the famed television producer known for his award-winning documentaries) accompanied by what, in many cases, appear to be larger-than-life photos Emde accumulated during the past 40 or so years. That includes photographs from noted motorcycle historians and racers such as the late Steve Wright, A.F. Van Order, Paul Derkum and one of my personal heroes, Ralph Hepburn.

Emde, along with art director Nancy Wegrowski, did a masterful job of placing text and photos in proper sequence, too. Brief, easy-to-read sidebars are also found throughout, offering colorful and pertinent vignettes that free the main text and story line from clutter.

Copies of period posters, newspaper clippings, brochures and flyers, even correspondence from the actual players, lend authenticity to the narrative that’s displayed in sepia-tone spreads to further underscore events that took place more than a century ago. We learn, too, that the term “Speed Kings” was coined by the mainstream media of the time. Remember, boardtrack racing’s heyday took place about the time Henry Ford gave America the Model T.

Indeed, The Speed Kings is perhaps the most complete history of boardtrack racing yet. So complete that Emde’s yarn begins during the late 1800s when bicycle racing was king, and he walks us through the evolution of motor-pacers (early motorcycles that paced the bicycles on the velodromes) that eventually crowded the bicycles off the boardtracks, making way for the heady 100mph motorcycles themselves to take over.

Above all, though, this is a history book citing facts and figures gleaned from dusty dog-eared documents and records. Each chapter segues to the next, such that by Page 372 you’ll feel like a boardtrack racing authority. You’ll also understand why The Speed Kings earned one of Motor Press Guild’s coveted Dean Batchelor Excellence in Automotive Journalism awards, taking home the 2019 Best of the Year Book category, the only motorcycle book to ever gain that honor. — Dain Gingerelli


The Speed Kings

  • 372 pages, 12-inch x 10-inch coffee-table format
  • $75 ($90 personally signed, plus fold-out poster package)
  • Available from Emde Books
Published on Mar 26, 2020

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