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