- Chris Price
Despite the common narrative that Harley-Davidson was a top level contender on the boards of America’s infamous motordromes, the truth the matter is quite a different story. In fact, the legendary Milwaukee motorcycle manufacturer didn’t make their official professional racing debut until the short circular wooden coliseums were all but gone.
From the earliest days, the motorcycle industry in America realized the profitable potential between aligning their products with the sporting young gentlemen who slung themselves around the race tracks. No doubt a philosophy carried over from the good ole’ days of bicycle competition, advertisements which initially touted the brand’s superior technology quickly began to backupsuch claims with their successes at speed trails, reliability runs, road races, and hill climbs. Indian Motocycles, one of the first manufacturers to realize the lucrative relationship between competition success and showroom sales was also one of the first to capitalize on their victories, running ads like Indian’s 1904 “Scalps” campaign which trumpeted their titles back to 1902.
On March 26, 1903, as witnessed by an inaugural crowd of 3,000 Gilded Age elites, the first official races were staged in front of the Ormond Hotel, on the north end of Daytona Beach, Florida. In-between the dunes and the Atlantic, where the hard-packed sand seemingly stretched out to the horizon, three automobiles and a lone motorcycle made record runs for the first time, establishing a long lasting American love affair between speed demons and the beach. The single motorcycle entrant, a young Swedish immigrant named Carl Oscar Hedstrom, a former cycle racer and aspiring engineer, had already established his place in American motorcycle history as one of the cofounders of the Hendee Manufacturing Company, makers of the legendary Indian motorcycle.
After having laid waste to numerous motorcycle land speed records on the sands at Daytona beach in February 1920, Harley-Davidson and their star Wrecking Crew racer Red Parkhurst savored the accolades that poured in from every corner of the country. However, though Parkhurst could claim that he was officially the fastest man on two wheels on the planet, his crown would soon be snatched by a wiry southern boy on a crimson rocket.
America first fell in love with motorized speed on the hard-packed sands of Florida’s coastline at the beginning of the 20th century. The annual Carnival of Speed at Ormond Beach, a northern neighborhood of Daytona immediately caught the attention of the world’s most passionate auto and motorcycle enthusiasts, establishing the area as the world’s “Birthplace of Speed.” However, as the industry and infrastructure of racing grew over the years the pursuit of speed records shifted to more managed and manicured venues like the speedway tracks at Indianapolis, the perilous short circular motordromes, and the large wooden super speedways of the late teens. In February 1920, Harley-Davidson, who was at the height of their racing success given their powerhouse stable of “Wrecking Crew” racers and their high-test factory racing machines like the banjo two cam 8 valves, resolved to revisit the sunny shores of Florida’s Eastern seaboard, aiming to set new land speed records once again on those hallowed sands.
Denver, like most metropolitan cities at the turn of the 20th century has a long heritage of motorcycling. However, Denver is unique in that it was the only city in America to construct and support two full sized board track motordromes. Though the Northeast had a number of tracks in close proximity of one another, and Los Angeles technically did have three tracks but with varying shapes and sizes, the two full sized circular motordromes in Denver, Lakeside and Tuileries, became a grand experiment as to how much competition Americans could handle, and made Denver an early capital of the sport.
Seen here a race on the shallow banking of Denver's Tuileries Motordrome ca. 1912, one of the first board track motordromes built in America. The track originally opened in the Spring of 1911 along with a second track at the White City Amusement Park, also known as the Lakeside Motordrome, an unique experiment in multi-track sustainability.
At first glance this photo seems to capture a moment shared between teammates, members of the eminent Harley-Davidson Wrecking Crew lined up either in anticipation of their victory, or perhaps just after, on a dusty dirt oval in the 1920’s. With a bit more investigation it is discovered that the photo comes from a series of M&ATA National Championship races held at Los Angeles’ old Ascot Park in January 1920, just as professional motorcycle racing in America was rebooting after WWI. The riders then begin to come into focus, from left to right, as Freddie Ludlow, Ralph Hepburn, Albert “Shrimp” Burns, and Otto Walker, but if the caption were to end there far too much of the story would remain untold.
If there is one machine which embodies the storied era of the board track motordrome it would no doubt be an Indian, and no configuration to have come out of the Springfield factory was more perfectly tailored for the infamous slanted timbers of America’s fabled dromes than Indian’s Big Base 8-Valve. Perhaps even more synonymous with the treacherous glory of the American motordrome is one of the company’s most notable talents, the young Texan William Edward Hasha.
Arthur George Chapple, the man rocketing up the Fort Lee hill in December, 1909 as covered in this week’s previous post, was one of America’s first and most loved motorcycle racing stars. A pioneer of the sport, Chapple’s racing career dates back to the earliest days of competition, when daring early adopters found themselves duking it out with the very men responsible for the machine’s creation, men like Glenn Curtiss, Oscar Hedstrom, and Joseph Merkel. He became a fixture competitor...