- Chris Price
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.
We will kick things off with this gritty clipping from November 26, 1914, along the dusty roads of Savannah’s famed Grand Prize road course. These gents, each factory boys from Indian were slinging sand through the heart of Savannah at speeds of 75mph for just over a total of 300 miles. The Savannah 300 was one of the first of a new breed of long-distance, high-speed, grand prix style events in America and as such it brought out the countries top riders and most competitive companies. Lee Taylor, former captain of the Merkel squad and the newest member of the legendary Indian Wigwam took the cup that day, besting his old yellow jacket teammates as well as the new boys in grey, the first members of Harley-Davidson’s original factory racing program which had made its official debut that day here in Savannah.
At 11 A.M. on Saturday, December 27th 1913, three dozen jockeys lined up under the starting banner of the F.A.M.’s 300-Mile American Classic Championship, the first competition of its kind in historic Savannah, Georgia. The course itself was one of the first European style Grand Prix road courses to be constructed in the beginning of America’s motoring age. Savannah’s new thoroughfares were originally built in 1908 in hopes of attracting the internationally prestigious Vanderbilt Cup, which the city finally hosted in 1911. Savannah’s Grand Prize Circuit evolved several times since it was completed, hosting some of the world’s greatest automobile drivers, motorcycling pioneer’s, legendary machines, and esteemed events. The course inspired an atmosphere of competition in the area, one which would endure well into the 1930’s when it became a nursery for an emerging new genre, A.M.A. Class-C competition
Possibly one of the most shared archival films from America’s Golden Age of motorcycle racing, however the footage is woefully, if not comically misidentified, citing errors from the locations to the individual names of the racers, errors which have created a considerable amount of confusion among modern day enthusiasts. Revisit this priceless footage from New York's Sheepshead Bay board track speedway, now with an accurate understanding of the history involved, and enjoy a rare glimpse into the excitement of the American board track speedway.
The son of a seamstress and a cigar maker, Irving Edward Janke was born on January 5, 1896 in bustling town of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which at the time was home to the world’s tallest building. A city of German immigrants and American industrialism, Milwaukee soon became home to forerunners in America’s transportation revolution, including pioneers Joseph Merkel, William Harley, and the Davidson brothers, the latter gents being responsible for a brand now synonymous with the town, if not the American motorcycle itself. By the time he was just 13 years old young Irving was already infatuated with motorcycles, apparently more so than he was with his schooling as he left the academic life just before entering high school.
Arthur G. Chapple and Walter Goerke, two of America’s finest motorcycle racers are seen here posing just before a hill climb competition in December 1909. True pioneers of both the sport and the culture, Chapple and Goerke can be counted amongst the most influential of American motorcycling’s founding fathers. The two friends from Brooklyn began their love affair with motorcycles as soon as the new machines first appeared in stateside.