An elite amongst the pioneer racers, that first curious and daring generation of American motorcyclists was California’s Paul J. C. Derkum, internationally known as “Daredevil Derkum.” Derkum was yet another one of motorcycling’s first class, born in 1881, just before the sweet spot of American bicycle racing. As a teen in Bakersfield he jumped into the thrilling sport of cycle racing and competed as a professional on a national level beginning at the age of 17. Through cycling he was introduced to the emerging motor-pacing machines and first motorcycles, befriending early operators and distributors like Los Angeles’ Will Risden, who opened up one of the first shops in the country in 1902. That same year, as Derkum’s cycling career died down he began working as a fireman on the Owl train from L.A. to San Francisco, tirelessly stoking the engine’s fires on the nightly passage between the two cities and tinkering with the new machines through the day.
As the motorcycle became a valuable utility and more capable transport, southern California quickly established itself as a hotspot for the budding culture, the centerpiece of which was the mile-long dirt oval at Agriculture Park. Derkum immediately became a local favorite at the track, holding his machines wide open through the corners and setting some of the first records on the books. Similar horse tracks began hosting early motorcycle races across the country, but it was at Agriculture Park that the sport began to take on a more organized, professional form. As he kicked up dust day after day on the track, Derkum began to recognize the opportunities that existed in a successful racing career. By the fall of 1907 the 26 year old racer was being featured in exhibition laps and record attempts at nearly every event, his natural ability in the saddle earned him the moniker of Daredevil, which when coupled with his knack for promotion and pleasant, chipper demeanor made Daredevil Derkum one of the sport’s first true stars.
Derkum’s younger brother, John, being only a few years younger, trailed his brother Paul in almost every pursuit. From cycling to becoming a fireman for the Southern-Pacific, John was Paul’s eternal understudy, and in September of 1908 was to make his amateur racing debut in the largest event yet organized at Los Angeles’ Agriculture Park. Emulating a brother, who was one of the biggest stars in this wildly popular new sport proved an impossible temptation to resist. With Daredevil Derkum for a coach and the same daring blood in his veins, the 22 year old John Derkum was thought to have been a natural contender, proving himself competent in smaller regional events in the weeks leading up to the big race at Agriculture Park. It was billed to be the largest motorcycle race ever held in America at that point, Daredevil Derkum’s name anchored the national advertisements, and little brother John was set to make his official debut to a crown of Derkum fans. Shortly after lunch John took off for practice laps, after a few rounds he stopped in the pit to have a word with big brother. Derkum later recalled instructing John to leave it open and power through the corners , the technique that he had found his own success with. As he set off again, rounding the back turn at full clip John lost control and flew headlong through the outside fence, crushing his chest and splitting his skull. Paul witnessed the nightmare of his kid brother’s body tumbling through the air and was one of the first by his side, John’s young fiancee joining them as they rushed to the hospital.
While doctors at attempted emergency surgeries to save young John’s life, Paul reluctantly headed back to the track to perform his headline exhibition runs for the 5,000 person crowd. Having heard the news, the crowd rose to their feet, cheering in admiration for Daredevil’s determination as he stepped back onto the track and applauding his brother’s bravery. Paul Derkum was said to have been slouched and deflated, willing to perform but visibly distraught over his brother’s accident. Nevertheless, he mounted his machine and took off, rounding the first corners and making a blast down the back straightaway at a blistering 70 mph. Then he slowed on the back corner as he passed the hole in the fence made by his brother’s body only a couple of hours before. He was shaken and slowed even more, as he returned down the front straight he was flagged to the side of the course near the grandstands, there was news. John Derkum, his little brother, his shadow, had died on the table where Paul had left him. He was lifted from his machine and walked away white-faced and sobbing from Agriculture Park.
Despite the heartbreaking loss of his brother John, competition was Paul’s motivation in life. He was still operating as a fireman on the Owl at that point, in the face of having become one of the top professional motorcycle racers in the country. Derkum didn’t have to race for the money, and his brother’s death could have easily been the end of his career as well, but a pioneer is made up of something different, something unrelenting, a drive that pushes them farther into their endeavors than most find reasonable, and before long Paul Derkum was back in the saddle running laps at top speed. In the few months after John’s death Derkum participated in several small events, local hill climbs and reliability runs, until he reemerged at Agriculture Park in late November onboard a brand new 7HP, 61ci beast of a Thor. This photograph was taken upon his return to Agriculture Park that weekend in late November 1908, alongside the cutting edge Thor just sent from Aurora.
His signature smile, one which reaches from ear to ear in nearly every photograph taken of the racing star is muted in this shot, Derkum no doubt still processing the loss of his little brother less than three months prior. Paul Derkum went on to win two races and set three new records on the same dirt that John died on that day, hitting a top speed of nearly 70 mph. The Daredevil had returned and within a few months would be among the first professionals to begin racing on the banked board track of America’s first motordrome, the LA Coliseum. Paul Daredevil Derkum would go onto become one of the biggest stars in the history of the sport, a true pioneer, an icon, and an ambassador of American motorcycle culture.