When today's athletes hear about racing indoors on a board track I wonder if they realize that 35 years ago runners quite literally ran on tracks made of boards - typically 4' x 8' sheets of plywood screwed into the support joists on the oval.
Wearing 1/4" needle spikes (now they are mostly banned) runners tore up the wood as they raced, afterward the surface (especially lane 1) looking like a buzzsaw had passed through.
Indoor tracks were typically 176 yards (10 laps to the mile), 160 yards (11 laps), or occasionally 146.6 yards (12 laps), the 4-lane ovals had straights from 50-55 yards and steeply banked turns of maybe 30-35 yards, the tiny tracks anything but boring.
More like an old-fashioned roller derby on skates.
In the 70's and early 80's we watched meets on ABC's Wide World of Sports - the garish yellow and orange 4-lane board track used at the Sunkist Meet in LA and the Jack-in-the-Box Indoor Games in San Diego, and the 11-lap to a mile board track at Madison Square Garden for the Millrose Games, the intimate settings like we had a ringside seat for the action.
I must be in the front row!
In Don McLean's 1971 hit song "American Pie" he immortalized "the day the music died" referring to the plane crash and death of of early rock-and-roll icons Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and JP Richardson. Others might argue it was the deaths of Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin or Brian Jones - but that's another debate.
While rock-and-roll really didn't die that tragic day in 1959, as a huge track fan, February 1987 signaled the death of indoor track for me - even though I wouldn't realize the fact until years later.
There was no plane crash.
Nineteen eighty-seven was the year Eamonn Coghlan defeated Marcus O'Sullivan, Ray Flynn, and Steve Ovett to win his final Wanamaker Mile in New York, using a burst of speed at the end, producing a 3:55.91 on the board track. Watching the Irishman cross the line with both fists raised is forever etched in my memory.
There have been five others who won more individual titles in one event at the Millrose Games, but no one was more dominant in the mile than the "Chairman of the Boards," his stellar Wanamaker win written up in Sports Illustrated as "Pluck of the Irish." When I look back on that race, that date - February 6, 1987, for this guy, it was the day indoor track died.
Coughlin won it seven times.
After this milestone, crowds of five thousand at the big competitions were more of a rarity, meets like Knights of Columbus, Mason-Dixon Games, the Eastman Kodak Invitational suddenly struggling for sponsorship, the prestigious meets on 160 yd. and 176 yd. board tracks steadily fading into obscurity.
Now the indoor events are almost exclusively on banked 200 meter Mondo tracks (8 laps to the mile) like we see at The Armory in Washington Heights or on over-sized tracks similar to the Notre Dame facility where it is five circuits to the mile - 352 yards each lap. Wow!
As a result athletes have produced astounding performances - but somehow it's just not the same. Doesn't have the thrill. Is accomplished with much less excitement. Fans are more likely to be friends and family rather than track aficionados like myself, many of the events only background noise instead of action that is the center of attention.
Oversized tracks & fast times have come at a cost.
With the bigger ovals we've lost the fan intimacy of those nostalgic times 35 years ago, back when being in attendance or even watching it on TV gave the feeling that you were part of it all. In those days stands were filled with spectators only inches from the competition, just like courtside seats in NBA games, fans engaged because they were right on top of the action.
The Loftus facility at Notre Dame is great venue for athletes but as a spectator its sadly lacking. The view from upstairs is fine, but from one hundred yards away it is hard to see the competitors on the far end - as though we're sitting in the nosebleed section of a large basketball arena. Boring. That's how we lose fans. No intimacy.
As a fan I want to be close enough to see a day's growth of beard, the color of fingernail polish, able to clearly watch competitors pushing and shoving at the cut line, hear the sound of foot strikes pounding the surface as the field rounds the corner, feeling the breeze as runners navigate the oval, so near I can tell the streak of red trickling down a runner's leg is blood.
Might we be smarter focusing on selling 750 tickets rather than 3000, with bleachers pushed right to the edge of the outside lane, accessing seats from the back and not the front, with no spectator more than twenty-five feet from the action, all sightlines less than forty yards?
I think so.
There was nothing more exciting than those days of yore, back when meets on board tracks were on TV every weekend in January and February, each spectator feeling like they were right there. We've lost what made track attractive back in the 70's and early 80's. That's why indoor track died for me in 1987. Sad to acknowledge but true.
Meet directors don't seem to care about the fans anymore. Only fast times.