William Ottaway oversees his team, at least one of which being in desperate need of new shoes, diligently swapping out a fouled plug on Otto Walker’s Harley-Davidson 11K factory special. It was the 85th lap of 150 around the massive new 2-mile board track at Chicago’s Speedway Park when Walker had to come back in to the pit. He was one of six entered by the Motor Co. into the 300-Mile grind in Chicago on September 12th, 1915, it was one of the hottest days on record in the Windy City that year. Milwaukee’s “Wrecking Crew,” led by Ottaway, were joined in Chicago by Bill Harley and a host of factory management, as well as a reported 100 or so of Milwaukee’s most die-hard enthusiasts who rode their machines down for the event.
The Harley team joined a field of 20 other entrants, 8 from the local Excelsior camp, 10 from Indian, and William Kemp onboard his modified Henderson 4. A crowd of over 10,000 spectators, somewhat sparse for such an immense venue, came out in the heat to see the afternoon-long affair, anxious to see the intense speed and delight in the electric atmosphere scored by the military band. The race began at 1:22 P.M. and much to the crowd’s gratification, the full field of 26 riders kept a tight pack in the first miles of the race, nearly touching tires at 90 miles per hour.
The Harley-Davidson team were coming off of a strong debut year as a factory program in 1915, and though most of the hometown favorites all ran the local Excelsior brand, Harley’s Wrecking Crew had been making a lot of noise in the sport, and taking a lot of victories in their first official season. Curley Fredericks was the first of the “Greys” out of the mix following a spill during a fierce battle with Indian’s Gene Walker early on. At nearly 100 miles per hour Curley’s rear tire blew, given the heat and distance of the event that day it was expected that a few rubbers would fly. What wasn’t expected however was when the tire grabbed his rear fender, pulling it into his rim, crumpling in and locking up his rear wheel. The young Fredericks went flying and hit the timber, but he came up with a smile and managed to haul his machine off the track.
Curley’s teammate Joe Wolters, the old veteran of the sport even in 1915, had been hobbling around with two canes in the weeks leading up to the race in Chicago but was determined to compete. Despite his limp, his canes, and his swollen foot Wolters cut though the dense field of fire breathers. Unfortunately though, just 3 laps after Curley’s blow out Wolter’s also threw a tire and sprung his frame. Wolters was visibly irritated with the thought of having to retire so early and in just a little more than 30 mies in Harley-Davidson had already lost 1/3 of its team.
Leslie Parkhurst, the star of the early Harley program pulled into the pits on the 48th lap with a stuck intake valve and a seized brake drum. The lanky ginger spent a half hour in the pit anxiously awaiting the repairs to be completed, time which took him out of the running for any top position. Otto Walker pitted 2 laps after Parkhurst for fuel and oil and was back at it, wringing the neck of his new 11K and leading the race for the majority of first 150 miles. Forty minutes later Walker was back with a fouled plug, which was promptly switched out, the moment that I believe this photo comes from. Just 10 laps later, after running wide open for nearly 200 miles, Walker again returned to the pit on the 95th lap, this time with a broken valve, his race was done.
That left only two, Bill Brier and young Ray Weishaar, Harley’s newest recruit in the running for a podium finish. Brier ran a consistent race, pitting only for fluids and again for fouled plug of his own on the 131st lap. Brier would go on to finish in 4th place in a time of 3 hours, 37 minutes, and 8 seconds. Weishaar was riding fast, earning his nickname as the Kansas Cyclone and keeping pace at the front of the narrowing pack. He made 3 pit stops for gas and oil throughout the race, but escaped the need for any time consuming procedures like tires, valves, or plugs. However, somewhere around lap 120 Weishaar’s helmet strapped snapped. At speed he pulled the broken strap to his mouth and held his helmet on with his teeth for 4 laps until the referee forced him to pit and get a new helmet. The time that he lost in the swap seemingly cost him 2nd place by a matter of less than 30 seconds, being beaten across the line by Indian’s Teddy Caroll, who was just behind Excelsior’s Carl Goudy in 1st place.
Just as it is in modern racing, the art is in the balance and harmony struck between the performance capabilities of the machines, the skillset and determination of the riders, and the efficiency and effectiveness of a good crew, all are essential to winning. Weishaar took the top spot for Harley-Davidson that day in 1915, and happily took the $300 prize for 3rd place as well, some of which he hopefully used to buy that poor pit crew member some new shoes.