Three years ago I began a project involving one of the most historically significant collections of photographs from the Golden Age of American motorcycle racing. It has been an incredible journey full of discovery and I am excited to finally be sharing this remarkable collection, as well as the story of the man behind their preservation, Mr. Ashely Franklin Van Order.
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John Charles Seymour talking shop with Indian veteran Charles Gustafson Jr. on the beach at Daytona in early January 1926. Johnny was the fearless champion, a young racer recited to the team during the sport’s spectacular revival following WWI and one of the few men left at the top of the professional racing game by the mid-to-late '20s. Gustafson was Indian royalty, having been as good as born into the company through his father’s early relationship with Indian and Hedstrom during the companies birth and later engineering contributions such as the side-valve platform itself. Gustafson Jr. went to work alongside his father early on at the company and raced alongside the pioneer’s of the sport, and when a fellow founding father at Indian, Charles Spencer, left the experimental department in 1924 it was Gustafson who picked up the reigns during a frenzied point in engine development in Springfield. On January 11th and 12th, 1926 the men were back on the sand in Florida for the same reason that so many speed-obsessed had traveled to those hallowed shores since the turn of the century; to crack a throttle so wide open as to see just how close they could get to the edge without going over.
It was his distinctive posture, the way his long back arched high above his shoulders when he tucked in tight on top of his Harley-Davidson that earned him the nickname “Camelback.” Harry Otto Walker was and will always be one of America’s most popular and recognizable pioneer motorcycle racers, and photographs like this one perfectly illustrate why. Walker was one of the first racers to be handpicked by Harley-Davidson’s Bill Ottaway in 1914 when he began forming the Motor Co.’s first factory racing program. It was Walker who won the first official factory victory at the International Grand Prize 300-Mile Road Race in Venice on April 11, 1915, and it would be Walker who was most consistently marking up podium finishes and broken records for the company over the following months and years. Between 1915 and 1918 the California native racked up over a dozen first place finishes and even more speed records across the country, including a huge first place at the Dodge City 300-Mile race in July, 1915.
Scale. When we look back and try to imagine what it must have been like sit atop one of America’s infamous board track motordromes it is often the scale of the venue which eludes us. We have little to nothing like them today, and at the height of their popularity in the early teens, there were little else like them in the world. Another aspect of the motordrome which tends to trip up our daydreams is the variety in board track design, which produced a general congealing of all wooden racing tracks under the single name of motordrome over time. From the the first circular motordromes to the massive oval speedways, and even the small portable wall rider thrill shows have all, overtime, been referred to as motordromes. The truth is, that when most folks imagine board track racing we tend to clump together a version of all three types of venues.
New York photographer and photography supply dealer Thomas K. Hastings, and his lovely bride determined to take a bit of an adventure in January of 1906. An avid automobile enthusiast since the turn of the 20th century, Hastings had about enough of the large and finicky European touring cars by the time Oscar Hedstrom and George Hendee released their Indian Tri-Car three-wheeler in 1906. The design was relatively simple, a throwback to the earliest days of wheeled personal transportation experimentation, reintroduced to America in 1906 with the refinement that only Indian could produce. The machine was made up of a standard production model with a 3 1/2 HP engine, rigged up to a forward-facing two-wheeled, comfortably upholstered chair assembly.
A crowd gathers to meet America’s brightest star motorcycle racer Charlie “Fearless” Balke in front of the Sacramento Excelsior dealership in late October, 1911. Mr. William A. Langley, who stands next to his wife Elma in the grand hat had operated his umbrella repair and bicycle shop at 1025 10th Street since 1907 and was one of the first agents selected to represent the Excelsior Auto-Cycle. Langley was an avid motorcyclist and traveler, his spitfire wife Elma joining him in the saddle on most every adventure. He was an active member of the local motorcycle club and upon acquiring his Excelsior franchise he wasted no time organizing and promoting races at nearby Agriculture Park, not to be confused with the old track of the same name in Los Angeles.
During my career as a motorcyclist I have been through many interesting experiences, some of them amusing, some rather startling—owing to a rather daring streak in my makeup. But all of them fade into comparative insignificance when I think of one trip I made through a sparsely settled district in Montana early in 1912. That journey stands out as the great adventure of my life. Even now when I think of it my hair has a habit of standing up straight, and cool little chills turkey-trot up and down my spine. To begin at the beginning and make a long story as short as possible, it is probably sufficient to say that my home is in New Jersey, which is a pretty definite location when one is speaking of the United States. During the summer of 1911, my friend and companion on many a motorcycle trip, Charlie Morton, removed to a lumbering camp about fifty or sixty miles from Livingston, Montana, being somewhere in the general neighborhood of Gulch City. Before leaving he made me promise that I would visit him as soon as it could conveniently be arranged and that I should make the trip on a motorcycle.
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.