This photo of an antique motorcycle offered for sale on Kiwi Bike’s blog caught our eye because of its Coney Island provenance. “1924 Indian Scout; 30.50 cu in, original Coney Island Motodrome bike! Same owner last 30 years. Runs excellent! Gone thru by George Yarocki, noted Indian Scout expert. Own a piece of classic American History 22,999.00”
If the bike could speak, what would it say? ATZ talked with the bike’s owner, Jim Babchak, who happens to be the Classics Editor at American Iron Magazine and a longtime member of the Antique Motorcycle Club of America. Turns out he acquired this rare souvenir of the Coney Island Motordrome in the early ’80s. “I was bartending downtown when I saw an ad in the newspaper for an Indian motorcycle,” says Babchak. In order to beat out the competition, he made an appointment to meet the owner at 3 a.m. As soon as the bar closed, he rushed to Avenue U in Brooklyn. Babchak says the seller was an old guy, though not a motordrome rider. He remained mysterious about how he came by the two Indian Scouts he’d kept in his basement for more than 25 years! “I bought one,” recalls Babchak. “He allowed me to buy the second one a few years later.”
Babchak brought the bike to master mechanic George Yarocki who got it running for the first time in decades. Condition report: “The frame is reinforced. It had crashed many times. The handlebars have been broken and repaired. Tires are skinned on one side. And the Indian gas tanks are squared.” Babchak says he owns a half-dozen bikes and usually rides a 1941 Harley Davidson three-wheeler, but occasionally takes the Indian for a spin in his neighborhood. He isn’t especially eager to sell it either. He just wanted to put it out there for people to see.
“Indian Scouts were New York City police bikes,” explains Babchak. The story goes that the reason Indians have a left-hand throttle was so that the motor cop could draw a pistol with his right hand. Harleys have a right-hand throttle, says Babchak, who thinks the Indian probably had a first life as a New York City police bike and was later acquired by the motordrome.
Where was the Coney Island Motordrome? ATZ did a little research on the web about motordromes in Coney Island. Not surprisingly, there have been a number of them over the years. Perhaps the bike came from the motordrome built in 1937 in Luna Park by Curly Lee Cody and his brother Cyclone Jack. The two men had a Wall of Death show with touring carnivals and had motor dromes built to their specifications. A reminiscence by one of their crew is posted on Sam Morgan’s marvelous Thrillarena site…
My job was to gun the engine of a display machine without a muffler and rear wheel to bring people in from all over Luna Park to see the show. I still remember stretching to reach the grips while gunning the engine. Cyclone Jake married a gal with brilliant red hair. Red actually got into the show. The 3 of them would ride the wall together criss-crossing and do amazing stunts. The one that I remember very vividly is when another uncle would hold me inside the motordrome and Lou would come up and eventually slap my hand every time he went around for a few minutes. The show, as all of Luna Park, became more and more deserted as people went to war or worked long hours after Pearl Harbor and the show became a victim of WW II. It was a good life, lots of broken bones when bikes didn’t have enough centrifigal force and came down sometimes on top of the rider(s) but it was a great life. I recently saw a few 1923 and 1929 Indians in the NHRA museum in Pomona, California and was hit hard by the old time memories.
An earlier Coney drome, on the Boardwalk at 23rd Street, made headlines in July 1932 when its oil-soaked wall and gas tanks burst into flames after some boys started a bonfire under the Boardwalk. The blaze spread quickly, destroying blocks of wooden bathhouses and bungalows. The fire caused an estimated $2 to $3 million dollars worth of property damage. The next year, another Coney Island fire destroyed yet another motordrome.
But we were surprised to learn that the popular Wall of Death attraction of our carnival childhood can trace its origins back to a drome which debuted in Coney Island in 1911. The New York Times described it as “the biggest single sensation at Luna Park.” The smaller, portable carnival dromes were inspired by the huge wooden board racetracks for professional motorcycle and auto racing which were popular in the early 1900s. Among the board racetracks were Brooklyn’s Brighton Motordrome (1912) and the Sheepshead Bay Speedway (1919).
According to the Times, the saucer-shaped drome in Coney Island’s Luna PArk was 85 feet across the top and half that at the bottom and banked at 65 degrees. It featured two racing automobiles attempting to pass each other. “It usually takes about 50 laps for one to do this, and when it is done, the race is over–for twenty minutes–when it begins again.” By the next season, a competing motordrome with racing motorcycles had opened across Surf Avenue on the site of Dreamland Park, which had burned down in 1911. We found a clip about a rider in the Dreamland drome who was mortally wounded after crashing through the top of the track. R.I.P. William Mullen aka Dare Devil Bill, Age 22.
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September 9, 2010: Thor’s Coney Island: Faber’s Fascination Goes Dark After 50 Years
February 26, 2010: Made in Brooklyn: The World’s Only Jet-Powered Merry-Go-Round
February 25, 2010: Happy Belated Birthday to Coney Island’s William F Mangels
November 16 2009: Rare & Vintage: Coney Island Sideshow Banner by Dan Casola