Even in modern times it is rare to find a professional athlete who’s career lasts for decades, but when looking back to the earliest days of professional American motorcycle racing, finding a career that lasted more than 10 years is quite a challenge. For most who dared to compete in these first, raw years of the sport retirement was reserved for only the most skilled and lucky, and the career of pioneer motorcycle racers was most often recorded in lifespan than tenure. The title of the most durable pioneer American motorcycle racer, and perhaps without question one of the most prolific goes to a lanky ginger who made a name for himself as the sport first emerged on dusty horse tracks and washed out backroads, he was a man simply known as “Red.”
Erle William “Red” Armstrong was born in Morea, Illinois on April 5, 1888 but moved to Colorado just before the turn of the 20th century. At 16 years old, Armstrong had become an avid cyclist and earned the title of Colorado State Champion in 1904. That same year his father passed away, leaving the teenager to provide for his family. As was the case for so many in the cycling world, the attraction to the new and exciting motorcycle was too much to resist. Erle was soon able to borrow an E.R. Thomas machine and started up his own motorcycle delivery service to support the family. He soon acquired his own machine, an Orient single later that year and almost immediately set his eyes on competition, making a clean sweep of the very first race he entered. By 1906 Armstrong had become the man to beat in the Denver area, quite an accomplishment as the Mile High City was home to a number of American racing icons including Joe Wolters and another lanky ginger nicknamed “Red,” Leslie Parkhurst.
There is a legend from Armstrong’s early days as a young hot shot that recalls a young lady so scorned that she showed up at the turn of one of the races with a score to settle. The story goes that as Red made a corner the young woman was waiting on the side of the track with a broom stick, which she then hurled into the front spokes of Red’s machine, sending him for quite a tumble. Whatever the validity of the tale, Armstrong settled down not too long after the hectic affair, marrying a local beauty named Maude Miller in May of 1908. The couple soon started a family, welcoming their first born son Robert E. Armstrong the following year and Red picked up a job as a mechanic at the local Indian dealership to supplement his winnings. He continued his successful racing career on the dirt until in the Spring of 1911 when he became the star of Denver’s two new board track motordromes at Tuileries and White City.
Armstrong became a fixture on the exploding new motordrome circuit in America, traveling from coast to coast as one of the preeminent riders in the Golden Age of the board track and was included amongst the notable Speed Kings of 1912. He often raced Excelsior’s and Merkel’s, though before long his skills landed him a coveted position with Indian’s legendary factory racing team. With Indian, Armstrong would build up a mountain of trophies, medals, and awards and established a relationship with the Springfield manufacturer that would last the rest of its days. Throughout his successful career as a motordrome racer, one of the most treacherous professional sports the world has ever known, Armstrong further risked his life his as a stunt rider and barnstormer. Just as he had been a pioneer racer and motordrome rider, Armstrong too became a pioneer in the world of Wall of Death thrill shows, building his own portable silodrome in the early teens. During the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exhibition in San Francisco he performed on a larger wall set up for the event, even bringing his fearless wife Maude up on the wall with him onboard a specially fitted tandem machine. That same year Red took home what was perhaps his greatest victory, winning the FAM 300 Mile National Championship at the newly constructed Tacoma Board Track Speedway and setting new records at the 100, 200, and 300 mile marks against fellow icons like Otto Walker and Don Johns.
Shortly after Armstrong took a position within the corporate side of the Springfield Company, heading up their newly developed military motorcycle training program in 1916. He settled in with the US Army at Fort Sill, Oklahoma as the country began a nationwide preparedness movement as WWI enveloped Europe. Armstrong’s role was to train soldiers in motorcycle maneuvers, maintenance, and the applications of mounted warfare. One account recalls Armstrong’s innate abilities as a marksman, it seemed that Red was able to handle a rifle or machine gun just as easily as he could a motorcycle and he won a sharpshooting competition as soon as he arrived on base, having never handled a rifle prior. His role took him to a number of military camps across the country, including units in Englewood, NJ, Fort Ethan Allen, as well as a deployment to the southern border during the conflicts with Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa. With the war over, by 1918 the Armstrong’s had settled in Springfield, MA, welcoming three more children, two sons named William and Jack, and a daughter named Ethel. Red continued to compete, though he was beginning to grow a bit long in the tooth, nevertheless Red seemed ever-present at the tracks of New England. Throughout the 1920’s he occupied a number of roles within the Indian Company, acting as the manager of the factory racing program, the chief service engineer, and the head instructor of the factory service school.
By 1927 Red had passed the championship torch to his first born Robert, who had become one of the highest regarded young talents in national amateur competition. Like his father, Bob was a natural in the saddle and began knocking down records as a teenager, winning national championship titles in the increasingly popular sport of hill climbing in 1927, 1928, and 1929. The father/son duo opened up their own Indian dealership in Worcester, MA in 1927, touting their heritage as top level competitors in hopes of driving business. Red was still competing infrequently now well into middle age, but his role in the culture of motorcycling had expanded greatly since his days as a Class A champion. Armstrong had become an ambassador in the Northeast, having formed the Armstrong Roamers MC, acting as President of the New England Motorcycle Dealers Association, organizing and sponsoring countless AMA competitions, and Captaining a local motorcycle polo team. Tragically, in July of 1930, just after his debut as a professional, which he debuted by beating out none other than Smoking Joe Petrali, Red’s 21 year old son Bob died in a boating accident. Red finally hung up his racing jersey in 1931, having been an avid competitor for nearly three decades, and having raised one of the country’s brightest young stars in the sport. Armstrong continued to be a fixture in the culture, recalling the earliest days of American motorcycle racing in talks across the country and continued involvement in the rebirth of the sport in the 1930’s and 40’s.
In 1940 Red closed his Worcester dealership, moving into the role of production manager at the factory where he worked until the company ultimately shut its doors 13 years later. A lifelong enthusiast of not just the motorcycle, but the famed Indian marquee, there are many stories of Armstrong’s passionate effort to sustain the fledgling Springfield manufacturer in their final days of struggle. Red was one of a small few who tried to keep the flame burning at America’s most prestigious motorcycle brand in its final days and resolved to preserve its legacy after they could do no more. Red retired in Springfield, living out the remainder of his days sharing the countless stories of greatness and heartache which spanned the entirety, and occupied nearly ever aspect and expression of motorcycle culture in America. In the Spring of 1978 Erle William Armstrong slipped into a diabetic coma, passing away on April 29 at the wise old age of 90 years old, a rare age for such an iconic pioneer.