The son of a seamstress and a cigar maker, Irving Edward Janke was born on January 5, 1896 in bustling town of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which at the time was home to the world’s tallest building. A city of German immigrants and American industrialism, Milwaukee soon became home to forerunners in America’s transportation revolution, including pioneers Joseph Merkel, William Harley, and the Davidson brothers, the latter gents being responsible for a brand now synonymous with the town, if not the American motorcycle itself.
By the time he was just 13 years old young Irving was already infatuated with motorcycles, apparently more so than he was with his schooling as he left the academic life just before entering high school. He began racing at local amateur events around Milwaukee, and it is no stretch to think that the young racer would have been found milling around the site of Harley-Davidson’s massive new factory on Juneau Avenue around 1913. His natural abilities in the saddle had garnered him a reputation throughout Milwaukee as a crack rider, a reputation potentially responsible for landing him a job as a Harley-Davidson factory test rider when he was 17 years old. Historically speaking, Janke was in the right place at the right time, as in the fall of 1913 Harley had just recruited William Ottaway, a talented engineer and tuner from the Thor motorcycle company to begin work developing a factory racing machine and first ever factory racing program.
In the summer of 1914 Ottaway unveiled his 11K racing platform and began honing its design, fielding a number of riders at local, regional, and national events throughout the country. Janke, now 18 years old entered professional competition, bringing Harley-Davidson their first sponsored regional event victory, and in November when the brand was ready to outfit its first ever official team at the 300-Mile American Classic Championship Road Race in Savannah, Janke headed south. Racing for the “new guys” at the track against a myriad of established factory teams boasting some of the country’s most notable and talented riders, Young Irving stood tall. Streaking around the dusty Savannah road course, Irving Janke made it to the front of the pack, placing third just behind Indian’s Lee Taylor and Excelsior’s Joe Wolters, achieving the first official podium victory for the Motor Co. Harley-Davidson had arrived on the scene of American motorsport, and the teenaged Janke was one of its first champions. He returned to Milwaukee a hero and was celebrated by the local motorcycle club as well as his factory sponsors.
With the successful launch of their factory racing program, Harley-Davidson became a powerhouse team in the sport seemingly in an instant, and with their success came a flood of talented riders to their stables. The kid everyone called "Yank" continued racing but was often times overshadowed by the established stars of the team, icons like Joe Wolters, Red Parkhurst, Otto Walker, and Ray Weishaar. However, in July 1916 Janke once again made his mark when he ran one of Ottaway’s newly developed 8-Valve machines to the top of the podium at the prestigious Dodge City 300-Mile road race. Janke and his 8-Valve covered the distance in a new record time, sustaining an average speed of nearly 80 mph for 300 miles of dusty Kansas backroad, all on a rigid machine no less. His victory at Dodge City would become his crowning achievement as a professional racer, and though he continued to race, ride, and represent for Harley-Davidson through the war years, his role seemed increasingly diminished during the monumental years of the factory’s Wrecking Crew team. In 1921, when Harley-Davidson decided to more-or-less pull the plug on their factory racing program, Janke, like several other veteran stars decided it was time to retire.
Janke, then 25 years old enrolled in the Milwaukee Police academy, and naturally he was immediately put in their motorcycle division. There he remained a rather infamous motorcycle patrolman in Milwaukee, the speed king that no sensible person would try to outrun until he was appointed Deputy Sheriff in 1932. Janke and his wife Marjorie raised their son Irving Jr. in Milwaukee until he retired from the force and moved to St. Petersburg, Florida in 1954, where he passed away in January of 1957. Though Irving Edward Janke has often been overshadowed by the titans that he called teammates, he remains a founding father of American motorcycle racing and helped lay the foundation for America’s most timeless motorcycle brands.