- Chris Price
William Ottaway oversees his team, at least one of which being in desperate need of new shoes, diligently swapping out a fouled plug on Otto Walker’s Harley-Davidson 11K factory special. It was the 85th lap of 150 around the massive new 2-mile board track at Chicago’s Speedway Park when Walker had to come back in to the pit. He was one of six entered by the Motor Co. into the 300-Mile grind in Chicago on September 12th, 1915, it was one of the hottest days on record in the Windy City that year. Milwaukee’s “Wrecking Crew,” led by Ottaway, were joined in Chicago by Bill Harley and a host of factory management, as well as a reported 100 or so of Milwaukee’s most die-hard enthusiasts who rode their machines down for the event.
It is a rare and invaluable occasion when we get to look back through the eyes of a true American pioneer, to hear their own personal account of how a particular history occurred, and witness first hand the birth of a culture. This week at The Archive we experience a bit of what racing motorcycles in America was like in those first years at the turn of the 20th Century, just after the machines themselves were introduced. In this wonderful interview, originally published in Motorcyclist Magazine in July of 1935, Morton James Graves recalls his own glory days, racing motorcycles as a teenager and helping create a new sport as one of the first professionals in America. At the time the interview was made, Graves, also known as “Millionaire Morty” was 44 years old, an Indian dealer in Hollywood, veteran of the culture, and a founding father of the sport.
Oscar Reneau Lancaster, affectionately known as Nemo, is one amongst the countless local racing stars that pioneered the culture, but given the limited scale of their racing careers remain at risk of fading into history, relegated to the caption of “unknown rider.” Nemo was born in rural Georgia in 1896, one of a set of twins, Oscar and Rosco, just two of a family which counted a dizzying total of ten children. Nemo’s father was a trolly car mechanic and conductor in Atlanta at the turn of the century, the grease from his hands obviously rubbing off onto his children as at least 5 of the boys were involved in the transportation industry by the time they came into a working age themselves. Like many young boys in the early 1900’s Nemo began working in his early teens, becoming a machinist at a furniture factory by the time he was 15. It was at that time that he also developed an interest in motorcycles, picking up a Flanders single cylinder and joining the ranks of the newly formed Atlanta Motorcycle Club.
Imagine a massive timber oval, 2 miles long and 60 feet wide with banked corners of nearly 20 degrees degrees, all made with over 14 million board-feet of smooth poplar strips and held together with 500 tons of nails. Now imagine the thrill of walking into such a venue, a sprawling 230-acre mecca at the center of which a pack of wild and noisy devils tear around the planks at speeds no where near average. Electric lights, concessions, and seating for tens-of-thousands, a sea of modern cosmopolitan humanity, the embodiment of the 20th century. It was a production worthy of the contemporary motorsport, but to those lucky droves who took in the events at Chicago’s new Speedway Park in 1915, the only venue of its type in the world at the time, the experience must have been overwhelmingly exciting.
Let’s start this new year off by taking a deeper look into one of the more well known images from the golden age of American motorcycle racing. Perhaps better recognized from the iconic photograph taken of him and his piglet at the Marion International Road Race in 1920, Lawrence Ray Weishaar was one of the best among the top class of professional racers in the teens and twenties. Born in Oklahoma in the fall of 1890, Weishaar was raised in Wichita, Kansas, a state which produced several notable Class-A motorcycle racers including Wells Bennett and Paul “Speck” Warner. By the time he was 17, Weishaar had begun riding motorcycles, and as was so often the case in those days, the spry young Weishaar was keen to test his abilities in the saddle. He began entering into long distance club rides, endurance events, and road races around Wichita around 1908, joining the ranks of the very active Kansas Short Grass Motorcycle Club and having his first incident colliding with a Buick on a race to Wellington in the summer of 1909.
An elite amongst the pioneer racers, that first curious and daring generation of American motorcyclists was California’s Paul J. C. Derkum, internationally known as “Daredevil Derkum.” Derkum was yet another one of motorcycling’s first class, born in 1881, just before the sweet spot of American bicycle racing. As a teen in Bakersfield he jumped into the thrilling sport of cycle racing and competed as a professional on a national level beginning at the age of 17. Through cycling he was introduced to the emerging motor-pacing machines and first motorcycles, befriending early operators and distributors like Los Angeles’ Will Risden, who opened up one of the first shops in the country in 1902.
As the wires were still warm with the news that the Great War had ended, telegrams poured into factory offices at Harley-Davidson, Excelsior, Indian, and the other American motorcycle manufacturers from dealers anxious to get as many machines as they could. The war effort had meant diverting all efforts available in both manufacturing and public conservation, but now the companies, the dealers, and the American people were eager to get back to business as usual. In a series of national two-page advertisements run just days after the official ceasefire on November 11, 1918, the Harley-Davidson Motor Company proclaimed their own victory…
Thanksgiving 1918; the world was taking its first steps into a new era, into a new, modern civilization built of from the wreckage of mankind’s madness. The gruesome tragedy of it all was unavoidable, but so too was the immense relief and the immeasurable hope. Thousands of American soldiers would remain along the putrid battlefronts and fractured villages of France and Belgium for months to come, while tables across the country sat places at empty seats, waiting for their young heroes to return. For the soldiers abroad though, the U.S. Army spared no expense providing them with a hearty Thanksgiving feast, a reminder of home and the good days to come.
Jack Bernvitzke and his good pal Daniel Klapproth, two members of the Racine Motorcycle Club onboard their new machines in front of the Harley-Davidson factory just before setting off on their epic journey to San Francisco in August, 1914. Racine is a shoreline community along the banks of the mighty Lake Michigan, about 45 minutes south of Milwaukee. Being in such close proximity to the state-of-the-art Harley-Davidson plant, it is no surprise that the Racine MC’s ranks were filled with local businessmen, aspiring racers, and two-wheeled adventures, each with a certain affinity for the Milwaukee grey. Bernvitzke and Klapproth were no exception, and when the pair resolved to set out on a cross-country tour to San Francisco for the big Panama-Pacific International Exposition, they made sure their Harley-Davidson model 10F’s were in top form for the journey, including a customized “Racine to Panama-Pacific” script across the tank.
You can imagine my delight when, as an Indian rider, a Savannah resident, and a history enthusiast I came across the story of Indian’s co-founder Oscar Hedstrom, ripping around a track in Savannah way back in 1902. What was revealed during my research was yet another significant moment in American motorcycle history, really of our motorsports culture overall, which took place right here in Georgia, in our oldest city, Savannah, my new home.
Both Oscar Hedstrom and George Hendee were in Savannah as part of their initial publicity tour, an extensive period of travel to demonstrate their machine and setup the distribution foundations of what would become the preeminent motorcycle manufacture in America for decades to come.