A crowd gathers to meet America’s brightest star motorcycle racer Charlie “Fearless” Balke in front of the Sacramento Excelsior dealership in late October, 1911. Mr. William A. Langley, who stands next to his wife Elma in the grand hat had operated his umbrella repair and bicycle shop at 1025 10th Street since 1907 and was one of the first agents selected to represent the Excelsior Auto-Cycle. Langley was an avid motorcyclist and traveler, his spitfire wife Elma joining him in the saddle on most every adventure. He was an active member of the local motorcycle club and upon acquiring his Excelsior franchise he wasted no time organizing and promoting races at nearby Agriculture Park, not to be confused with the old track of the same name in Los Angeles.
Standing next to Elma Langley is Balke’s new bride, a tall and lovely auburn-haired firecracker of a gal, lovingly nicknamed Snooks. Balke and Snooks, or Edith Bradford as she was really named, had only recently been wed three months prior in Chicago. The pair began their long distance courtship after being introduced through a mutual friend while Balke was racing at Los Angeles’ Agriculture Park back in 1908. It has been said that during that first encounter that it was Snooks who coined Balke’s nickname of “Fearless.” Charlie Van “Fearless” Balke was a daring and calculated young rider, a fierce competitor who began to pile up first place prizes and capture the spotlight of the sport just as it began to grow popular, and lucrative.
Balke sits atop his latest mount, an Excelsior 7 factory racer which he had been racing for a few weeks by the time of this photo, after an abrupt suspension from his contract with Indian. Though he began his career racing Thor’s and Merkel’s, he was quickly recruited onto the Springfield factory roster and around the the time of his wedding, Balke had made his name as a professional racer onboard Indian machines, his having been given the designation of No. 23. But in an odd turn of events, initiated potentially without Balke’s knowledge by his Indian teammate and increasingly bitter rival Jacob DeRosier, both DeRosier and Balke were let go as the top riders for the top team in the sport in the late-summer/early-fall of 1911.
Excelsior, which had also recently been acquired by Ignaz Schwinn and relocated to Chicago was determined to up the stakes in the sport and give the ever-dominant Springfield wigwam a real run for their money. With an especial focus on their new racing program, headed up by Joe Wolters and their new Excelsior 7 machine, Excelsior quickly added Balke and DeRosier to their roster. Beginning in September at Chicago’s new Riverview Stadium Motordrome Balke began doing what Balke did, winning races and setting records, but now he was doing it onboard this Excelsior 7 instead of his trusty old Indian No. 23.
Fearless Balke and his blushing bride Snooks had remained in Chicago following their wedding in August for the races at Riverview until the season closed at the end of September, when they then headed south to Birmingham Alabama for a week of racing in early October. From there the pair, joined by “old man” Wolters headed to California for the opening of Prince’s latest track, the Elmhurst Motordrome in Oakland. The new track would draw the top riders, a point known by Mr. Langley in nearby Sacramento who put together a series of races to draw in some of the big names. After a bit of a delay in Denver, Wolters and Balke arrived in Sacramento and began racing on the dirt oval at Agriculture Park on October 22nd, Balke winning every race he entered that day. There they remained through the 29th, setting records and facing off against some of the other top riders like Johhny Albright, Ray Seymour, the Samuelson brothers, and a young Hap Alzina who where now congregating in central California before packing up and setting off for Oakland to race on Jack Prince’s newest drome at Elmhurst for the remainder of the year.
Charlie Balke would only race for Excelsior from September of 1911 until July of 1912 when he was rehired by Indian There is honestly so much more to this story and those turbulent last days of 1911. The rivalry between Balke and DeRosier and the tragic demise of both stars in the coming years, the intensifying competition between Excelsior and Indian, and the popularity explosion of Jack Prince’s infamous board track motordromes are each deep and worthy topics for further exploration. In fact, just a few weeks after this shot was taken in Sacramento Balke was on the track when his teammate Joe Wolters collided with a biplane which had made an emergency landing in the infield and drifted onto the track at Elmhurst. There is even more to learn about Mr. Langley, his wife Elma, and their adventures in motorcycling, but suffice it to say that these days must have been something special to have been apart of. At least for these lucky folks one fine October day in Sacramento, they could say that they remember when they got to shake the hand of legendary Charlie Fearless Balke.