Ralph Rudolphus Hepburn, a man who could easily be considered one of the greatest ever to tuck in behind the bars of an iron rocket was not only one of the most prolific pioneer American motorcycle racers, but unequivocally one of the kindest. “Hep,” as he was known amongst friends and fans alike, was apart of the second wave of early American motorcycle racers having grown up fascinated with lightning fast dare devils of the American motordrome in the late 1910’s. Born in Sommerville, MA, on April 11, 1896, Hep’s family moved to Los Angeles in 1906, fortuitous timing to be a 10 year old boy in America’s nursery for motorcycle racing. The horse track at Agriculture Park was already a hotbed for some of the first motorcycle competition at that time and it was there, in LA where Jack Prince constructed America’s first board track motordrome, the LA Coliseum in March of 1909, igniting a frenzy for new sport almost over night. In hopes of purchasing his own motorcycle the teenaged Hepburn took up a job as a bicycle delivery boy around 1912. Heavy packages on a bicycle in the dog days of summer didn’t carry much appeal, so whenever he could Hep would borrow a motorcycle to help ease the days routes, all the while honing his skill in the saddle. Eventually he saved up enough money to buy his first machine, a used 1910 30ci Harley-Davidson belt-drive single with 26” wheels. By that point, LA was home to three different board track motordromes along with a smaller velodrome style track at Fiesta Park, all of which the teenaged Hepburn was a frequent visitor. He began befriending other aspirational racers in the area and on occasion would give the throttle a go to see who amongst them was the fastest. The racing bug had bit yet another young man infatuated with motorcycles, the main symptom of which being the compulsion for speed, so Hep traded in his reliable Harley single for a slightly more powerful new 5HP Thor in late 1912 and began entering amateur competitions in 1913.
His kindness and friendliness at the track helped Hepburn make friends quickly in those days, friends that would in turn help him develop his skills as a racer. One such story of kindness comes from an early amateur race where novices were only ever compensated by a hat passed around the crowd during the event. The tale goes that after collecting his winnings for the day, a rumored 30 cents, Hep spent his paltry purse on a snack for a fellow racer who had crashed in one of the earlier heats. Little gestures like that illustrated Hep’s character to his peers and to this day Ralph Hepburn is remembered as one of America’s true gentleman racers. On New Years Day of 1914 in Lordsburg, CA, Hep claimed his first professional podium coming in third place at the La Verne M.C. 3-mile professional open race onboard a Reading-Standard single. He was beat out by two of his closest racing buddies and mentors, Excelsior’s Don John’s and K.H. “Crazy Horse” Verrill. The trio traveled around California to events, and it was at a race in Bakersfield later that Spring where Johns’ let 18 year old Hep climb onboard his ported Excelsior factory racer, the sound of which alone “nearly scared me to death” recalled Hepburn. It was with the endorsement and encouragement from racers like Johns that Hep then left California for a shot at the majors, loading up and heading east to Detroit in hopes of riding as a professional at the Detroit Motordrome. However, as his train arrived at a stop in Kansas City news that that the Detroit saucer had closed its gates left Hepburn stranded in the middle of the country and in need of a job.
Luckily, there was a traveling carnival just up the road from Kansas City in the town of St. Joseph, MO, that just so happened to be in need of a capable rider for their portable Wall of Death thrill show. He auditioned having never ridden a tight barrel style track, or silodrome before, and after a few tries he landed the job. For the remainder of 1914 and 1915 Hep traveled the country with the carnival, riding the walls onboard a modified Merkel, and picking up extra cash in outlaw races held on the local half-mile tracks of the towns that they visited along the way. He returned home in the winter of 1915 and began working at the Excelsior dealership in Los Angeles, where he also acquired his old buddy Don Johns’ ported factory Excelsior which he began to rebuild. For the 1916 racing season Hepburn recommitted to sanctioned races and headed towards Kansas to compete alongside legends like Wells Bennett, Paul “Speck” Warner, Ray Weishaar, and Al Crocker. Hep began making a lot of podiums in Kansas, as well as a few new influential friends. After Speck Warner broke his leg at a race in McPhearson, the event which marked the factory-team withdrawal of big twins from short half-mile flat track racing as pushed for by Harley-Davidson, Warner allowed Hep to begin competing on his factory Indian 4-valve single. Interestingly, at the same time his other new friend from Kansas, Ray Weishaar, would let hep run his Harley-Davidson factory single, which eventually lead to the brass in Milwaukee arranging for Hepburn to visit the Motor Co. for a chat about his future as a professional racer. Ultimately, Harley’s roster was full for the time being and Hepburn closed out the ’16 season onboard the machines of their biggest rivals from Springfield. According to reports from the time, following a race in Concordia, KS that October, in which a fellow competitor Ed Fillmore and fellow Californian racer died, the F.A.M. temporarily suspended Hepburn from professional competition. However, according to the record books Hep set a 2-mile speed record in Ellsworth, KS, just days after his suspension was announced.
No matter the case the sanctioning organizations for all forms of motorsport collectively halted professional competition for the looming inevitability of war in 1917. Hepburn continued to race in local, unsanctioned events mostly in Colorado through the summer of 1917, but as was the case for so many of America’s pioneer motorcycle racers Hep soon answered the call of duty, enlisting in the US Army in September 1917. Hepburn volunteered for service in the budding US Air Service during the dangerous and experimental birth of American air combat, it was an aspect of the military which attracted a great deal of thegrittiest motorcycle and automobile racers of the day. After a few weeks of basic training in Texas Hep shipped out to Berklee, CA, to completed his ground school. The bright young Hepburn made quick work of the academic side of flying, but with just a couple weeks remaining in his flight and combat training the armistice was signed bringing and end to the war in Europe. Hepburn was discharged from the Army in December of 1918 and immediately jumped back in the saddle, readying himself for the return of professional racing.
The Harley-Davidson Motor Company had only officially entered into the sport of professional motorcycle racing around the same time that Hep had begun racing himself. With the war the industry had shifted gears to supporting the war effort from 1916-1918 with Harley-Davidson being one of the main suppliers of motorcycles to US and allied forces. However, unlike their competition the Motor Co. had chosen not to neglect its newborn factory racing program during the war years. They couldn’t race, but they could continue development of new racing technologies like their overhead valve platform. While Indian was stretching themselves thin devoting all of their supplies, machines, parts, and production to the military, Harley-Davidson’s racing guru Bill Ottaway was developing a plan, encompassing machines and strategy, which would position Harley-Davidson and the team for domination once the sport returned after the war. One aspect of Ottaway’s plans was to immediately recruit the top riders, the best of the best as soon as they became available after the war, so beginning in the Spring of 1919 he did just that. Possibly remembering the young racer from their encounter back in 1916, Hepburn was one of the first chosen by Ottaway for a factory team, a legendary group which would become known as the Wrecking Crew.
From the start, Hep established himself as one of the top riders in the Harley-Davidson camp, a stable full of icons like Shrimp Burns, Otto Walker, Red Parkhurst, Ray Weishaar, and Fred Ludlow. In June 1919 he won the 200-mile National Championship race at LA’s Ascot Park, setting a new speed record of 72.32 mph, and coming in at the top of a Harley-Davidson close out of the top 5 finishers. He continued to be a standout of the new Wrecking Crew, and at the big Marion 200 road race on September 1st, he came in second behind Harley’s veteran Red Parkhurst. He finished 1919, his first year back in professional competition with a number of well earned victories and podiums finishes, making it his most successful year to date, but 1920 and 1921 would prove to be breakout years for both Hep and Harley-Davidson. Hep kicked off 1920 with a strong performance at the season opener at Ascot Park, finishing second behind teammate Otto Walker in the 100-mile championship. Steadily, he and his brothers of the Wrecking Crew criss-crossed the country battling the fierce competition from Indian, racking up victories on nearly every occasion. By the end of the 1920 season Hepburn alone had accumulated over a dozen national victories and scores of podium finishes, including the title of National 10-Mile Champion. Hep continued his momentum into 1921, and in what may have been the greatest performance of his career, Hep leveled a field of legendary pioneer motorcycle racers at the 1921 Dodge City 300. It would prove to be the final iteration of the famous Dodge City race in its traditional form, and Hepburn demolished the competition, setting record lap times, and beating Indian’s Johnny Seymour who came in 2nd place by 12 minutes. It was also after the Dodge City race in ’21 that Hep was photographed with a rabbit, providing yet another potential mascot for the Motor Co. as his teammates Bill Minnick did with the raccoon, Maldwyn Jones with the coyote, and Ray Weishaar with his famous baby pig. Hepburn closed out 1921, his pinnacle season with a total of 33 national M&ATA victories on both dirt and timber.
As the decision was made in Milwaukee to pull factory support from professional racing for 1922 Hepburn was quickly signed on to race for the crimson tribe at Springfield. His debut race came at Bakersfield in February of 1922, racking up three wins and two second place finishes. After a spill by Floyd Dreyer in Milwaukee during a sidecar race Hepburn filled in, getting the machine back in order and hopping into the saddle, securing his first national sidecar championship title. The now privatized Dodge City race had been relocated to Wichita, and just as he had done the year before Hep smashed the field, beating all competitors across the line by 18 minutes. As many of his predecessors were entering into retirement, Hep charged the hill, rounding out his trophy cabinet in 1923 with the Pacific Coast Championship. In 1924 he returned to Milwaukee iron to recapture his glory days, running Harley-Davidson’s once again and finished in second place behind his teammate and friend Jim Davis at the National Championships in Syracuse. Hep then married and his new bride Ida, who he loving called “Sparky,” then set off for a honeymoon in Australia. As any true racer would have done, he brought along a machine to put around on and some teammates, Jim Davis, Johnny Seymour, and Paul Anderson, just in case a race broke out down under, which of course it did. While on his honeymoon Hep thrilled crowds in the Spring of 1925 at the Melbourne Motordrome and just couldn’t help himself but set a new speed record of 113 mph at Sellicks Beach in Adelaide. After a few months though it was time to return home and by July he was back for the AMA 100-Mile National at the massive Altoona board track speedway. That day would prove to be a fateful one for both Hepburn, Harley-Davidson, and an ambitious young racer left without a ride. On Independence Day, 1925, Hepburn, the Harley-Davidson veteran went down in an early heat and injured his wrist fairly badly. A young man from California by the name of Joe Petrali who had been racing for a few years at that point and had even competed a few times against Hepburn and the Wrecking Crew back when he was a teenager was entered to run for Indian at Altoona the day. In a bizarre, yet fateful mixup, Indian had sent Petrali’s machine to Pittsburgh, leaving him without a ride for the event. Hepburn approached Petrali, who at the time was working for another one of Hep’s old racing buddies Al Crocker and offered up his machine under the condition that if he won the two would split the winnings. Petrali not only won the big race, but he smashed the 100-mile record onboard Hep’s Harley-Davidson, completing the distance in 59 minutes, 47 1/5 seconds, an average speed of 101 mph. Petrali was soon tracked down by the brass at Harley-Davidson given his remarkable performance on the boards at Altoona and signed to be their man on the track, becoming yet another icon within the Motor Company’s heritage of legendary racers. Hepburn, in a sense, had passed the torch.
Interestingly, those fast days with Ralph Hepburn in the saddle as one of America’s most beloved motorcycle racers only reveal part one of his remarkable life, as it was upon his return from Australia that Hepburn entered into his second great era of competition, decades spent behind the wheel of race cars. He began racing the notoriously fast Harry Miller cars in 1925, and in true Hep fashion he always made himself stiff competition. Hepburn entered into the 1925 Indianapolis 500 and led the race for over a dozen laps after having started in 6th position until ultimately, a fuel leak in his #17 Miller forced him to retire on the 144th lap. Hepburn would become a feature racer at Indianapolis and pressed hard for success on four wheels for the next 20 years of his life, earning four top five finishes over the years including the closest ever second place win in 1937 coming in just 2.16 seconds behind Wilbur Shaw. During that time he also served as the President of the American Society of Professional Automobile Racers, was a regional manager at the Tucker Corporation as well as a test driver for the firm, and even tried his hand at acting, appearing in the major motion picture The Crowd Roars in 1932 alongside James Cagney. Ralph Hepburn had spent his life chasing down victory, pushing on long past any of his teammates and rivals. Ultimately, the risks of professional racing that Hep had outrun over a 35 year period caught up to him in 1948. Still competitive at 52 years old, Hep qualified one of the dangerously fast Novi Specials for the 1948 Indianapolis 500. During practice Hep lost control of his Novi and hit the wall at speed, violently cracking his skull and suffering numerous compound fractures and internal injuries. Ralph Hepburn was 52 years old when he died on the track at Indy that day. A competitor and an icon in every sense, Ralph Hepburn, along with many of his Wrecking Crew pals were among the first class of racers inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1998.