“Farmer” Joe Wolters debuting the powerful new Excelsior “7” on the boards of Chicago’s Riverview Motordrome in early August, 1911. Wolters had just arrived in the Windy City from racing at the two board track motordromes in Denver, Tuileries and Lakeside that June. Joe had first acquired an Excelsior mount the season prior from the local Denver dealer, and when he discovered that the belt on his ported Excelsior single would slip once it became oily he set about converting it to a chain drive, as such introducing the first chain-driven Excelsior, squeezing 10 mph more out of the machine. This latest machine was Excelsior’s purebred, an all out 7HP factory works racer that in the hands of Wolters would alter the course of American motorcycle racing history. The 61ci competition special with its lightened and ported v twin was combined with a short-coupled racing frame, an extended and braced steering head, dropped handlebars, rigid fork, and Hertz magneto. It was the combination of this machine, this man, and this track in Chicago that would finally deliver a significant blow to dominating Indian factory team. By consistently holding a lead over the boys from Springfield, Wolters demonstrated the superiority of the new Excelsior, creating a scramble to keep up that would unravel the Indian camp.
Debuting the new machine on August 5, 1911, Wolters quickly established that he would be the man to beat at the newly constructed 1/3 mile motordrome at Riverview, Jack Prince’s 8th such track. By the end of the month Wolters had set new records from 1 to 10 miles, hitting speeds of 87 mph onboard his new “7” and knocking iconic names like Balke, Chapplle, Mitchel, and Graves off of the record sheets. On August 26th, Wotlers trimmed 1/5 of a second off of the mighty Jake DeRosier’s 1 mile record which he had just set at the Brooklands track in England while in the UK for the Isle of Mann a few months prior. DeRosier, having only recently returned was in Chicago to witness the carnage, looking on as the slight man they called “Farmer Joe” blast past his hard fought records at 90 mph, all while on a machine without his beloved Indian script across the tank. The story goes that with genuine concern, DeRosier wrote to Springfield as his No. 21 machine and Balke’s 23 machine were simply not up to the task of keeping pace with Wolter’s new 7 horsepower beast and that they would need the latest out purebreds, the new Indian 8-valves which had debuted 4 months prior on the dirt tracks of New England with riders Frank Hart and Fred Mercer. For reasons that still remain the source of bewildered speculation, DeRosier received notice back from Springfield that if he and an unknowingly involved Charlie Balke couldn’t handle Wolters and the Excelsior with their current machines then they should find rides elsewhere, effectively terminating their contracts with Indian.
The move came as a shock to DeRosier as he had begun his relationship with Indian almost as soon as the company had been formed back in 1901, and as such had become America’s first racing star with the brand. Possibly even more shocked was Charlie Balke, who it has been reported had no knowledge of his inclusion in DeRosier’s letter to Springfield and now was without a mount as a result. Never the less, Excelsior, now under new ownership, was poised to expand their racing program given the runaway success of Wolters and the new “7.” Immediately the company offered a contract to both men, providing them with their own competition special 7’s to finish out the 1911 season with. On September 7, 1911 in front of a capacity crowd of 20,000 at the Riverview Motordrome, Jake DeRosier, the country’s celebrity speed demon made his grand return to American motorcycle racing after his return from the UK, but now he was onboard an Excelsior. DeRosier initially got off to a rough start with his new machine, but after getting collecting himself he soon found his way back to the top of the sport. Tragically though, it was just 6 months later on March 12, 1912 while duking it out with fellow Excelsior teammate Charlie Balke at the LA Stadium Motordrome that DeRosier crashed and severely mangled his left leg. It would be complications while during his third surgery for that injury that would end the life of Jacob DeRosier, America’s first racing icon within a year’s time.
Wolters too would have a close call shortly after the Excelsior team left the Riverview track in the winter of 1911, nearly dying in a bazaar collision with a biplane at the Elmhurst Motordrome in Oakland, California, that December. Wolters would recover and continue racing and winning for Excelsior until joining an emerging Harley-Davidson factory camp for the 1915 season. However, it was with the guidance, foresight, and skills of Joe Wolters which helped establish Excelsior as a major competitor in the sport of professional motorcycle racing in America, and as such helped secure the company’s place as one of the top manufacturers for decades to come. Excelsior, along with Indian and eventually Harley-Davidson would hold their dominant positions in an atrophying industry throughout the teens, remaining the big three motorcycle manufacturers in America through the 1920’s. Excelsior continued to innovate both on and off of the track finding further success in competition with their Big Valve machines, establishing an early position of dominance in a new form of hill climb racing, and pioneering the 45 ci side valve platform with the introduction of their Super X series in 1925. The great decline of both the sport, the industry, and eventually the overall global economy in the late 1920’s proved to be Excelsior’s curtain call however, and in September of 1931 the last of the mighty Excelsiors rolled off of the factory line. It was this photo though, captured in the first moments of their rise that you can see the confidence that a young Joseph Wolters has in his elegant, and immensely powerful new machine, the Excelsior 7.