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.
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.