It is a remarkable event when a photograph captures the very spirit of an individual, forever making that person a friendly acquaintance to anyone fortunate enough to come across his likeness. Meet Morty Graves, one of America’s fastest sons; a legendary pioneer in the sport of motorcycle racing.

Morton James Graves, sometimes referred to as “Millionaire Morty,” was born in Chicago on December 10th, 1890. Morty spent his early years in Chicago, but by 1900 his family had relocated to the Pasadena area just outside of Los Angeles, the womb American motorcycle racing. Like many teenagers of the time, Morty became fascinated with the rapidly developing motorcycle culture in the United States. Living in LA that interest was greatly amplified and it was only a matter of time before a young man’s enthusiasm led him to test his skills on the track. It is said that Morty acquired his first machine, an Indian in 1906 at the age of 16, and within a year he was already on the track and honing his skills in the saddle. 

Throughout 1908 Graves raced his Indian on the horse tracks, velodromes, and dirt ovals of California, he also began making appearances outside of the state reaching as far out as Boston. Young Morty lined up against the fathers of American motorcycle racing, competing against Paul Derkum, Charlie Balke, Ray Seymour, Arthur Mitchell, and America's first star Jake DeRosier. His reputation caught the attention of the manufacturers, who were quickly becoming aware of how valuable track presence was becoming and Morty began testing new machines for various companies. In March of 1909 he began a relationship with the German manufacturer NSU, debuting his new ride at the newly constructed Los Angeles Coliseum, America’s first motorcycle board track.

It was at that time that a wonderstruck America witnessed the birth of the Motordrome. Famed bicycle track builder Jack Prince had recently observed the success of his latest experiment, the Clifton Velodrome in Paterson, NJ, a slightly larger version of his typical wooden velodrome design. Onboard a prototype loop-framed Indian, Jake DeRosier smashed nearly every available record of the day on the boards at Clifton and Prince quickly took note. Jack Prince then traveled to LA to build a larger version of the board track, this time the design was tailored specifically for motorcycle racing. It was there that Graves debuted the powerful, belt-driven NSU in March, but by May Morty was back onboard an Indian. In an ironic twist of fate, Morty rocketed into the national spotlight on the boards in LA when, in a brief protest to compete by DeRosier, Graves took the prototype “Bent Tank” Indian that DeRosier had established his own legendary reputation on at Clifton the year before and smashed DeRosier’s 100 mile record by an astonishing 10 minutes. 

The dapper teenager, seemingly always with a devilish smile on his face continued to be one of the favored racers, and as the motordrome craze swept through American cities, Graves was a contracted competitor at nearly every opening. In July of 1910 at the Wandamere Motordrome in Salt Lake City, Graves thrilled the crowd when he hoped onboard F.E. Whittler’s Flying Merkel to set a 2-mile record. The brass at Merkel must have liked what they saw, the next month Graves won his first FAM National in Philadelphia onboard a Flying Merkel.

As new motordromes opened their gates throughout the teens, Graves was sure to be there giving veteran racers, local heroes, and eager amateurs a true run for their money. NSU, Flying Merkel, Excelsior, and Indian; no matter the mount Morty was the fastest on the boards in Atlanta, LA, Chicago, Oakland, and Salt Lake City amongst others. In what was reported by Motorcycle Illustrated as “one of the most thrilling track duels that ever happened,” Graves beat out Indian teammate Ray Creviston and rival Dave Kinnie on the mighty yellow Cyclone to win the 100-mile national in Detroit of 1915.

Not to be outpaced on any surface, Graves was just as good in the dirt as he was on the boards, it is where he cut his teeth after all. In fact, at the 1915 Dodge City 300, what many consider to be the debut of Harley-Davidson’s domination on the track, it was Morty Graves who was leading the race until running out of fuel on the last lap due to a crack in his Indian’s tank. Morty continued to compete throughout 1915 and into 1916, though he was burdened with a slew of mechanical difficulties. In a followup performance at the 1916 Dodge City 300 he placed 6th, after being one of the fastest men in the world for nearly a decade he was now being outpaced by a new, hungry, and damn fast generation. Reports from the 1916 Dodge City race are the last to include the legendary “Millionaire" Morty Graves, though in June of 1917 he listed “Motorcycle Racer” as his occupation on his draft card.

Like so many motorcycle racers in the teens, Morty enlisted for service after the interruption of professional racing due to WWI. In July of 1918 he became Private in the US Army through the S.A.T.C. program and was honorably discharged in December. Also in 1918 the 27 year old Graves and his wife Madge welcomed a daughter, Betty Erma that August. When professional motorcycle racing resumed in 1919, Graves, one of the founders of American motorcycle racing had officially retired. After putting away his jersey and helmet Morty went on to open an Indian dealership on Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood where he worked until his death on December 31st, 1944. Eighty-two years after Morty’s last blast around a track he was honored as one of the first inductees into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1998.

Seen here with his signature smile, Morty stands with a brawney Big-Base, 8-Valve Indian in front of the 56 degree board track of the Atlanta Motordrome in 1914.