The Wall of Death Experience (short documentary)

The Wall of Death or motordrome is a carnival sideshow featuring a drum- or barrel-shaped wooden cylinder, ranging from 20 to 36-feet in diameter, in which stunt motorcyclists (or automobile drivers) ride and carry out tricks.

It’s derived directly from US motorcycle boardtrack (motordrome) racing in the early 1900s, the very first carnival motordrome appeared at Coney Island amusement park (New York) in 1911. The following year portable tracks began to appear on traveling carnivals and in 1915, the first “silodromes” with perpendicular walls were seen. These motordromes with perfectly straight walls were soon dubbed the “Wall of Death.” This carnival attraction became a staple in the US outdoor entertainment industry with the phenomenon reaching its zenith in the 1930s with more than 100 motordromes on traveling shows and in amusement parks. In 2004, six or seven of these motorcycle shows were still touring the US. The first known Wall of Death in the UK appeared in 1929 at Southend-on-Sea and was operated by the Messham family.

The audience views from the top of the drum, looking down. The riders start at the bottom of the drum, in the center, and ascend an initial ramped section until they gain enough speed to drive horizontally to the floor, usually in a counter-clockwise direction (the physical explanation behind this act is found at Banked turn and The turning car.) This act is famous in the United Kingdom, and often is seen at fairs. In the 2000s, there remain only a few tours of the wall of death; “The Wall of Death World Tour”, created and run by the Fox family. This touring group uses the original American Indian Motorcycles, which have been used since around the 1920s. For the most of the year, this group is based at Wilburton but ride every year in the Great Dorset Steam Fair. “Messhams Wall Of Death” is a Family run wall, with the fourth generation of the family now riding the wall. This group have several walls, and tour around the UK, Ireland and Europe with Carter’s Steam Fair. The Messhams have also ridden go-karts on their wall.

A similar act called the “Globe of Death” has the riders looping inside a wire mesh sphere rather than a drum. This form of motorcycle entertainment had a separate and distinct evolution from carnival motordromes and derived from bicycle acts or “cycle whirls” in the early 1900s.