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.
Though it is true that many a Harley-Davidson could be found on the starting line at regional endurance runs, hill climbs, and horse track races going back to as early as the fall of 1904, the men competing in these events were more often privateer racers using their own machines. In the earliest days of the Motor Co., Walter Davidson and William Harley, as well as the first factory workers could be found in the mix, but officially Harley-Davidson had been reluctant to support a full-fledged factory racing program as they focused on growing their young company instead through a sturdy sales network.
Between 1905 and 1913 the accomplishments of privateers sporting Harley-Davidson’s certainly had made their way into promotional ads, but despite a highly competitive marketplace and a thriving ecosystem of racing the increasingly visible Milwaukee brand remained on the sidelines. This was the age of the mighty motordrome, the 1/4-mile, circular, steeply-banked wooden tracks had captivated the American public for the last five years or so. The sport was massively popular and equally controversial, but in years of research only twice has there been mention of a Harley-Davidson on the perilous boards of America’s motordromes.
Co-founder and head of the company’s wildly successful sales department Arthur Davidson, when responding to the fact that the Motor Co. had not participated in the racing game for so long famously proclaimed in 1913 that “we do not believe in it.” He also stated the frivolity of high-level racing technology as it related to civilian machine development and sales, further stating that Harley-Davidson was “for the safe, sane rider, who uses his machine both for business and pleasure and enjoys his motorcycle as it was designed to be used.” Oddly though, his statements proclaiming their aversion to “freak machines,” “gladiator fights and chariot races,” and the “human sacrifices of the speed craze” seemed to have come at the same time that the company was beginning to entertain the idea of a factory racing program.
Interestingly, it may have very well been on one of these fabled board tracks that two of the men most responsible for the eventual rise and domination of the Harley-Davidson factory racing program first met one another at the same moment that Arthur was bragging about the company’s professional abstinence. Though there are a small few examples of one-off, race spec’d Harley’s that made their way out of the factory doors in the years leading up to 1914, it wasn’t until the final days of 1913 that William Harley took the first step in building a Harley-Davidson factory program. That December, Bill Harley recruited an accomplished engine tuner and engineer from rival company Thor named William Ottaway with the intent of developing a a pure-bred racing Harley-Davidson.
At the same time, in the late summer of 1913 a new board track was opened in Milwaukee, right in Harley’s back yard. A group of racers from the Tuileries Motordrome in Denver were contracted to come compete on the new 1/4 mile motordrome in Milwaukee, amongst them a lanky 18 year old man named Leslie Eaton Parkhurst. A tall and skinny ginger stood out quite well in those days, especially those as fast as Parkhurst, and his friends simply called him “Red.” Having raced and worked for Excelsior back in Denver, and now racing an Indian, Red was the first to run during the successful the opening season the Milwaukee Stadium, but as the weather turned the riders headed south to the new dromes in Texas just as Bill Ottaway was first joining the team at Harley.
By the spring of 1914 Red Parkhurst and the boys from Denver returned to Milwaukee to open the motordrome season there again, and according to Parkhurst’s recollection this is when he and Ottaway, the new racing engineer from Harley-Davidson first crossed paths. Ironically, the creation of one of the most legndary factory racing programs, one which spawned some of the most iconic pioneer racers and coveted machines may very well have taken place on the boards of the Milwaukee Motordrome in the spring of 1914, despite a public opposition by some of the company’s own founders. Their initial meeting must have been a successful one, and according to Parkhurst he was the first to test one of Ottaway’s new factory racing Harley’s, on the boards no less, but it would be a few more months before the machine was ready for its debut.
By July 1914 Ottaway was ready to unveil his new Harley-Davidson factory racing machine, and Parkhurst was brought onboard as their first official tester/racer. On Independence Day 1914 the first iteration of a factory works Harley-Davidson racer appeared, a model eventually dubbed the 11K series during the first annual Dodge City 300, and Parkhurst championed the small team. Though the Dodge City race proved to be a rough debut for Parkhurst and Harley, refinements were made and Parkhurst continued racing the evolving prototype over the next few months. William Harley, Bill Ottaway, Red Parkhurst, and a handful of selected riders put the new 11K through its paces across America, Parkhurst earning the Motor Co.’s first victory, though still unofficially in Birmingham that October, but it was not until November, 1914, that the company unveiled its first official factory racing team at the Savannah 300 Mile Road Race.
Oddly enough Parkhurst was not apart of that debut team, and despite tragically losing two team members in accidents Irving Janke made history by winning 3rd place overall in that race, Harley-Davidson’s first official competition podium. From that point the Harley racing program exploded, Ottaway’s design had been perfected, a stable of new talented riders were hired, Parkhurst continued to lead the increasingly dominant team, and with the construction of America’s massive board track super speedways, the first being the 2-mile long Speedway Park in Chicago in September 1915, the fast boys from Milwaukee found a new venue to lay claim to their command of the sport. Many of Harley-Davidson’s greatest accomplishments in competition would come on the timbers of the these large, oval speedways throughout the late teens and early 20’s, the photographs from which have possibly been the fuel for the the misconception that Harley-Davidson dominated the earlier, circular board track motordromes. However, despite their lack of participation or support throughout the motordrome era, and in the face of strong opposition from company co-founder’s like Arthur Davidson, it stands as an interesting tale that the very origins of the mighty Harley-Davidson factory racing program may have very well come within the walls of one of these famed old motordromes.