The date, May 30th, 1922, opening night at the quarter-million-dollar bike track built to hold 16,000 fans. Tonight the crowd has likely exceeded capacity.
Competitive cycling first gained popularity in the 1880′s and 90′s and by the 1920′s the Velodrome was the hottest ticket in town.
Essentially a huge wooden saucer, the Velodrome had steep banks designed to send racers flying past one another in a dizzy blur of spokes, sweat and pain. Gaining speed, riders would clash in violent collisions often slicking the track with their own blood.
Notorious six-day races, free for all amateur events, sprints and motor-paced racing were the rage at similar arenas around the globe, but tonight, opening night, the Velodrome had a special surprise for everyone.
After several races, including a devastating upset for veteran favorite Percy Lawrence at the hands of Italian rider Georges Columbatto, the Bambino took to the track.
Starter pistol in hand, crowd going wild, Babe Ruth himself fired the shot that sent legs pumping in the sprint race featuring rivals Ray Eaton, Alf Goullet and Orlando Piani.
While a jazz band played in the background, Eaton, of East Orange, New Jersey captured best time in two out of three heats.
Designed primarily for cycling, the Velodrome was a true multi-purpose facility. Used for a variety of sporting events, the Velodrome was also host to a World Welterweight title bout shrouded in controversy.
Then in round thirteen, Leonard, a Jewish boxer dubbed “The Ghetto Wizard” for his Lower East Side neighborhood, threw a blow to Britton’s midsection. Britton doubled over and fell to his knees.
While rising to one knee, Leonard swooped in and stuck Britton with a light blow to the face. As famed sports writer Daymon Runyon looked on in disbelief, referee Pat Haley disqualified comeback kid Benny Leonard. For years it was rumored Leonard had bet heavily against himself and intentionally fouled his opponent in a last ditch effort to throw the fight.
For eight glorious years the Velodrome was the scene of awe and excitement, before a suspicious fire burned the fabled venue to the ground.
In the early morning hours of August 4th, 1930 garage workers reported seeing smoke rising from the wooden structure. By the time fire units were dispatched, the smoldering fire had become a three-alarm inferno. Firemen helplessly pulled back and focused their attention on keeping the fire from spreading to the surrounding neighborhood.
By 4:00 am, flames could be seen as far away as Washington Heights. By dawn, the Velodrome was a smoldering ash heap, never to be rebuilt.
Despite the late hour, police would later learn that Velodrome supervisor Jack Neville and two other employees were in the facility when the fire broke out.
While an arson investigation never materialized, those close to the case couldn’t help but note the fire occurred just weeks after a competing Velodrome opened on nearby Coney Island.