It was his distinctive posture, the way his long back arched high above his shoulders when he tucked in tight on top of his Harley-Davidson that earned him the nickname “Camelback.” Harry Otto Walker was and will always be one of America’s most popular and recognizable pioneer motorcycle racers, and photographs like this one perfectly illustrate why. Walker was one of the first racers to be handpicked by Harley-Davidson’s Bill Ottaway in 1914 when he began forming the Motor Co.’s first factory racing program. It was Walker who won the first official factory victory at the International Grand Prize 300-Mile Road Race in Venice on April 11, 1915, and it would be Walker who was most consistently marking up podium finishes and broken records for the company over the following months and years. Between 1915 and 1918 the California native racked up over a dozen first place finishes and even more speed records across the country, including a huge first place at the Dodge City 300-Mile race in July, 1915.
When the war in Europe forced America to call upon its best, Walker answered by enlisting in newly formed U.S. Army Air Service where he served as an aviation electrician in France from May 1918 until his return on August 28, 1919. Bill Ottaway, who had continued tinkering on his racing tech throughout the war began to reassemble the infamous Harley-Davidson Wrecking Crew factory racing team as soon as the ceasefire was signed, and again one of the first men he recruited was the “Camelback.” On Labor Day 1919, within just weeks of his return home Walker placed third in the M&ATA’s International 200 Mile Motorcycle Championship Road Race in Marion, Indiana, America’s unofficial return to professional motorcycle competition. The older and wiser Walker became a cornerstone for the Harley-Davidson program, a leader during their most successful and dominant period at the height of Class A competition.
It was in February 1921 that Walker established himself as an eternal figure in the history of the sport when he became the first men to average speed over 100 mph during an event, smashing records at 1, 10, 15, and 50 miles onboard his 8-Valve Harley-Davidson Banjo 2-Cam. From Fresno Walker and the rest of the Wrecking Crew headed south to Los Angeles for the grand opening of Jack Prince’s latest board track speedway. Perhaps inspired by the glitz and glamour of a blooming Hollywood, the Harley-Davidson crew stepped onto the newly constructed Los Angeles Speedway in Beverly Hills in a burst of colorful jerseys and matching machines. Ralph Hepburn wore an orange and white jersey and rode a matching orange machine. Ray Weishaar wore a red jersey with white sleeves and mounted an olive drab machine while the young new recruit Jim Davis wore green and white to match his green machine. The ever dapper Fred Ludlow mounted a baby blue Harley and wore a blue jersey with white sleeves, and the white knight of the Motor Co., Otto Walker mounted a freshly painted all white banjo case 8-valve with a white sleeved, purple jersey.
It is that machine that is seen here in this photograph, a timeless and iconic image of a truly remarkable machine which was taken just one month after the LA Speedway event during the races at the Rose City Speedway in Portland, Oregon on May 29th and 30th, 1921. However, there is a twist here, one which bubbled up during the composition of this article, and one which had me digging through every photograph, newspaper clipping, book, and magazine article that I could find from 1921 to try and resolve. The machine is instantaneously recognizable if you are familiar with the team in this period, and so this article began as a look into the career of its renowned jockey Otto Walker, but several aspects of the man onboard this powerful and unique white Harley-Davidson do not match up with Walker. So out came the magnifying glass and fine toothed comb and soon more interesting details emerged.
The mischievous grin revealed a hint of a gap between the two front teeth, and there seems to be a bit of a dimple on the chin. The nose which is usually quite helpful in identifying is pressed up against the bar, in a playful way which renders it little help. The helmet, gloves, jersey, and specifically the collar of the jersey, though, revealed the truth. This maybe Walker’s machine, but it is his Wrecking Crew teammate, fellow Californian, fellow WWI vet, and good friend Fred Ludlow who is sitting in the saddle. Ludlow was added by Ottaway to the factory squad during the 1919 reboot, his success on early motordromes and endurance contests throughout California made him a perfect fit for the increasingly popular long distance races, and massive new board track speedways. Ludlow, a handsome and stylish, but rather diminutive gentleman helped create the legend that has become the Harley-Davidson Wrecking Crew along with his teammates in the early 1920’s through their consistent and skillful technique on the track.
Why Ludlow is posing for a photo on Walker’s machine is we may never know, there is no mention of a machine swap taking place over the course of the event, and there are photographs of Ludlow onboard his own baby blue mount alongside Jim Davis and Walker on their machines from Rose City. The helmet is a clue as Walker at the time used a thin flight cap or his signature German fighter pilot’s helmet which he had brought back from the war. The give away though, other than Ludlow’s chin and grin, are the light colored collars and short driving gloves. Ludlow’s blue and white jersey also featured a white collar when most of the other jerseys on the team, including Walker’s purple sweater, had collars which matched the color. The shorter style driving gloves were also unique to Ludlow, a small testimony to his consistent stylishness as most other riders preferred the full sized gauntlets, including Otto Walker.
Though both men were racing at Rose City that weekend, the old Camelback’s luck wore thin on the first day. He took home the win in the 15-Mile Northwest Championship and placed second in the 15-Mile open, but during a battle with Excelsior’s Wells Bennett in the 5-Mile race Walker’s machine struck a rock sending him into the dirt and cracking a few ribs along the way, his weekend on the track was short-lived. Ludlow racked up 2 first place finishes and a second place the first day, and on the second day of racing he took another two first place’s, one second, and one third. There is one other photo from the event which appears to show Ludlow at speed in a corner onboard Walker’s white 8-valve, so it would seem as though Walker’s spill, or perhaps some mechanical gremlins in Ludlow’s machine would have laid the groundwork for this remarkable photograph, and my subsequent confusion almost a century later. For whatever its worth, Walker’s machine and Ludlow’s grin make for a winning combination, and we have yet another remarkable photo from American motorcycle racing’s golden age which is bursting with details just below the surface.