Imagine a massive timber oval, 2 miles long and 60 feet wide with banked corners of nearly 20 degrees degrees, all made with over 14 million board-feet of smooth poplar strips and held together with 500 tons of nails. Now imagine the thrill of walking into such a venue, a sprawling 230-acre mecca at the center of which a pack of wild and noisy devils tear around the planks at speeds no where near average. Electric lights, concessions, and seating for tens-of-thousands, a sea of modern cosmopolitan humanity, the embodiment of the 20th century. It was a production worthy of the contemporary motorsport, but to those lucky droves who took in the events at Chicago’s new Speedway Park in 1915, the only venue of its type in the world at the time, the experience must have been overwhelmingly exciting.
The new board track super speedway, a brand new concept in track scale and construction introduced by Jack Prince in the summer of 1915 marked a grand new height for motorsport in America. The track at Speedway Park was built as the next logical step in the evolution of purpose-built race tracks in America, the larger brother of the steep, circular, and quite perilous board track motordrome, and the speed-crazed descendant of the prevalent bicycle Velodromes of the late 1800’s. The sport had matured, safety was a growing point of focus given the rise of the motordrome era and the corresponding death-toll over the past few years. The once rough and tumble sport of dare devils and audacious cyclists had grown into big business, a new industry had been born, and with it came a higher expectation of professionalism on all fronts. The racers were career-men now, earning their living at 90 miles per hour by snatching the increasingly heavy purses and pulling in lucrative new sponsorship contracts. The manufacturer field had thinned, privateers and amateurs could still be found riding any number of personal machines, but the real competition was from the rapidly advancing factory programs, a trend towards of market share domination by Indian, Excelsior, and the newest contender for 1915, Harley-Davidson, the beginning of the “Big Three.”
For the big Labor Day 300-Mile event at the new Speedway Park track a massive field of nearly 30 riders entered to win their share of $2,500 purse with first place getting a sum of $1,000 for a days ride, around $25,000 today. The field, comparable in size to a modern MotoGP field, was split nearly evenly among the “big three” and included some of the biggest racing stars of the Golden Age of American motorcycle racing. Motordrome veterans such as Ray Seymour, Harry Glenn, Morty Graves, Erle Armstrong, Joe Wolters, George Lockner, and J.A. McNeil all wheeled up to the line, peppered in among a new school of up-and-comers like Don Johns, Otto Walker, Leslie Parkhurst, Teddy Carroll, Bob Perry, Gene Walker, Ray Weishaar, and the Goudy brothers Bill and Carl. There was however, one outlier, one man who was to go toe to toe against the well-armed factory boys from Harley-Davidson, Indian, and Excelsior, his name was William R. Kemp, and he came prepared for the battle with an extra pair of cylinders.
A native of Detroit, there is still much to learn about the man who brought a 4-cylinder to a v-twin fight, but Kemp’s tenacity in the sport is evident from his racing efforts throughout the mid-teens, squaring off against America’s top class onboard his Henderson 4 on least a dozen occasions before WWI. Kemp was a factory rider for Henderson, though the extent of Henderson’s support is unknown. We do know that he represented the company exclusively in the events in which he competed before the war, and the machine that he debuted at the September 12th race in Chicago was without question a unique one-off racer, dripping with highly specialized components. By 1915 the Henderson company was doing quite well in a shrinking American motorcycle market so it is no stretch to think that factory supported racing and endurance efforts on the part of Henderson would have been a reasonable strategy to employ, especially given the marketing potential and visibility of the sport by that point. But to compete with the heavily invested “big three” and their 11K’s, big valve X’s, and overhead 8-valve’s, Henderson would need to have been actively modifying and tailoring their more touring oriented machines for the track. Kemp’s Henderson featured a short-coupled frame and rigid fork, factory racing cylinders and intake, Schebler carb, Bethlehem plugs, a Berling magneto, and Blue Streak tires, which Goodyear had provided to all racers for the event.
The 300-Mile, 150 lap race on September 12th was a grueling test of all riders and machines with a record setting high temperature in the mid-90’s. The stands were filled with over 10,000 people eager to see the event after having had it postponed from the week before due to rain. Kemp rode hard, keeping pace with the field onboard his Henderson 4 at an average speed of 80 mph, often brushing elbows within the pack with front runners Otto Walker and Teddy Carroll. The reliability of the Henderson would be its main advantage and it was said that Kemp’s pit man had the easiest day of the entire affair, only having to change a single spark plug and fill it up with fuel just twice to earn his paycheck. Astonishingly, despite the heat and rough surface the Goodyear Blue Streak clinchers held up against the timbers for miles on end, only four tires were changed in the entire field during the race, Kemp’s heavier Henderson not being counted among the ones changed. The Henderson 4 was able to maintain a more consistent speed with only the two stops for fuel which kept Kemp in the running, however, the top speed of the factory twins began to edge him out lap after lap. By the 80th lap or so it was apparent that Kemp would not be in the running for a podium finish, but he kept it screwed on nevertheless, a point of his gameness and sportsmanship made in reports after the race. In doing so he demonstrated the rugged resilience and durability of the Henderson 4 as well as his own grit in handling the machine so gracefully in a field of lightweight, ported, fire-breathing, big-valve thoroughbred twins.
After three and a half hours of hard riding around the planks of Speedway Park it was Excelsior’s Carl Goudy who took the day, breaking all records for the distance coming in first and claiming the $1,000 prize. Indian’s Teddy Carroll came in 8 laps later, followed by Harley-Davidson’s Ray Weishaar, the “Kansas Cyclone” in third. William Kemp had completed 256 miles of the 300 when the race was then called following sixth place finisher, Indian’s Erle “Red” Armstrong, but for his effort and the uniqueness of his mount Kemp was recognized in mentions throughout the press of the day. Kemp continued to compete onboard Henderson 4’s for the remainder of 1915 and throughout the 1916 season before America’s involvement in WWI brought the cessation of professional competitions, a period which also brought about the acquisition of the Henderson company by Excelsior. When looking at this photo though, one can only imagine what a ride that must have been. To be tucked in on a roaring 4, jockeying amongst two dozen open-pipe twins, each with a legend onboard, pulling 80 on two miles of planks in front of thousands of the drop-jawed and cheering.
This photo of William Kemp and his Henderson special comes from the family collection of Fred Myers, a fellow competitor and factory rider for Indian.