At 11 A.M. on Saturday, December 27th 1913, three dozen jockeys lined up under the starting banner of the F.A.M.’s 300-Mile American Classic Championship, the first competition of its kind in historic Savannah, Georgia. The course itself was one of the first European style Grand Prix road courses to be constructed in the beginning of America’s motoring age. Savannah’s new thoroughfares were originally built in 1908 in hopes of attracting the internationally prestigious Vanderbilt Cup, which the city finally hosted in 1911. Savannah’s Grand Prize Circuit evolved several times since it was completed, hosting some of the world’s greatest automobile drivers, motorcycling pioneer’s, legendary machines, and esteemed events. The course inspired an atmosphere of competition in the area, one which would endure well into the 1930’s when it became a nursery for an emerging new genre, A.M.A. Class-C competition, giving birth to a new era in the sport. By 1913 however, the course had instilled in many of the area’s young motorcyclist a drive for competition, a fact which actually may have prevented any officially sanctioned events as the local motorcycle club often clashed with the F.A.M. over outlaw races, that is until the final days of 1913.
The 1913 race, which was originally scheduled for Christmas Day, had been postponed due to rain, leaving a handful of riders, including national stars Arthur G. Chapple and Lee Taylor unable to compete. Of the 43 entrants, 36 lined up, from first-timers, to seasoned vets, including factory riders from Indian, Excelsior, and Flying Merkel, and regional dealer/racers from Thor, Yale, and Pope. The big names of the day, John U. Constant, Maldwyn Jones, Cleo Pineau, Carl Goudy, Bob Perry, Frank Hart, and Paul “Speck” Warner all showed up to compete. Motorcycling celebrity Erwin “Cannonball” Baker had just completed one of his coast to coast record runs in Savannah and entered into the race onboard the same machine. Joining the national stars were a slew of the local hot-shots, including Indian’s southern star Harry Glenn from Atlanta and Savannah’s motorcycling godfather George “Pop” Cleary, along with several founding members of the Savannah Motorcycle Club. Future racing icon Jim Davis even recalls watching the race as a teenager, having been in Savannah with his father who was in town on business. Davis credits watching Maldwyn Jones blast around Savannah's gritty roads onboard his lightning-fast Flying Merkel as a major inspiration for his own racing career.
Davis would have been among an estimated 15,000 spectators who showed up despite the postponement to take in the great race. It was reported that the majority of the fans lined up along parts of the 11.25 mile course which did not require a ticket purchase, one of the many lessons learned by the promotors in these early days of racing. With average speeds of 60 mph, the men blasted around the sandy roads of Savannah, a great number of which losing their traction on the numerous 90 degree turns. The college-boy-wonder Bob Perry, Excelsior’s newest young gun took a hard spill on the 8th lap, bending his rear wheel and snapping off one of his handlebar cap nuts. After 22 minutes in the pits though he was back in the mix. The hard turn onto Dale Avenue in front of the grandstands, modern day Victory Drive, took out many riders as they came in too hot, slid out on the loose soil, and flew headlong over the berm. Miraculously though there were no major injuries reported other than cuts and bruises, the worst of the day was a broken leg. The local Savannah entrants proved to be the early pacemakers given their understanding of the course, however their inexperience in the combination of high-speed and long-distance proved to be the downfall of many as the locals continued to drop out with fueling and mechanical issues. Of the 36 starters 10 crashed out or withdrew with mechanical failure and another 4 were disqualified.
American motorcycle racing pioneer Arthur Mitchel, who had also helped align the occasionally rebellious Savannah Motorcycle Club with the F.A.M. prior to the event acted as the F.A.M.’s referee. After nearly 5 and a half hours, 304 miles in 27 laps, it was Excelsior’s Bob Perry who crossed the finish line first. Perry had claimed the most fastest laps of the competition and had completed the final 5 laps with loose handlebars after shearing off two of his Excelsior 7’s cap nuts. Flying Merkel’s Maldwyn Jones was considered to be the most consistent and measured racer of the day and came in second place after snapping his chain on the final lap, followed minutes later by Jacksonville’s Bert Camplejohn onboard a Thor. Perry took home the lion share of the glowing press, as well as the $500 prize and silver cup, Jones received $200 and Camplejohn $100 for their efforts. Once Atlanta’s Harry Glenn crossed the line in 5th place referee Mitchel called the event complete and the remainder of the riders retired. However, after the day was over a representative from the Merkel camp filed a protest with the F.A.M. citing a miscalculated score which should have left Maldwyn Jones at the top of the podium.
According to their official protest letter to the F.A.M. Chairman, the event had a only single scorer who was the cause of the error. On Jones’ 7th lap he came into the pits for fuel and oil, at which point his lap should have been recorded. At the same time a pack of riders came around the corner which the Merkel camp suspected must have distracted the scorer, who didn’t see Jones in the pit. After a 52 second stop Jones was back on course but without his lap being recorded until he past on his 8th go around, an obviously lengthier time than any of his other laps which wasn’t caught until after the race. The miscount actually caused Jones to run an extra lap, on which he broke his chain, had the count been correct Jones would have beat Perry to the finish by just over a minute. F.A.M. Chairman Donovan eventually acknowledged the error, citing that Jones was the rightful winner of the competition, however given the delay in Merkel camp’s protest the official ruling stood as the rules stated protests must be made promptly following the event’s conclusion. Despite the controversy the Savannah race was deemed success, shinning a light on Savannah as capital of American motorsport. Similar long distance road races began popping up all over the country, including the creation of the road race in Dodge City, Kansas. Savannah would once again host the 300-mile American Classic Championship at Thanksgiving of 1914, the event which introduced the Harley-Davidson Motor Company’s first factory sponsored racing team. The course remained a cornerstone of motorsport in the region, hosting events well into the 1930’s when it became the birthplace of AMA Class C competition.
From the pages of Georgia Motorcycle History, this photo captures a true American pioneer, Maldwyn Jones enjoying a Coke with his Flying Merkel after having just come in second place behind Excelsior’s Bob Perry in Savannah’s hard fought 300-Mile American Classic Championship, December 27, 1913. Frank T. Laird, the sole Yale contestant stands behind Jones, the only Yale entrant and one of only two of the local Savannah riders to still be in the race when Mitchel declared it over following Harry Glenn’s 5th place finish. Laird, who timed out on the 22nd lap, was the local Yale agent and wound up supplying the Chatham County Police Department with a couple of fully equipped machines shortly after the race.