John Charles Seymour talking shop with Indian veteran Charles Gustafson Jr. on the beach at Daytona in early January 1926. Johnny was the fearless champion, a young racer recited to the team during the sport’s spectacular revival following WWI and one of the few men left at the top of the professional racing game by the mid-to-late '20s. Gustafson was Indian royalty, having been as good as born into the company through his father’s early relationship with Indian and Hedstrom during the companies birth and later engineering contributions such as the side-valve platform itself. Gustafson Jr. went to work alongside his father early on at the company and raced alongside the pioneer’s of the sport, and when a fellow founding father at Indian, Charles Spencer, left the experimental department in 1924 it was Gustafson who picked up the reigns during a frenzied point in engine development in Springfield. On January 11th and 12th, 1926 the men were back on the sand in Florida for the same reason that so many speed-obsessed had traveled to those hallowed shores since the turn of the century; to crack a throttle so wide open as to see just how close they could get to the edge without going over.
Seymour worked on motorcycles at a local shop in Escanaba, Michigan throughout high school and upon graduation had saved up enough to purchase his own. He quickly began seeing just what his stock Indian was capable of by running laps around the fairground horse track and by January of 1916, he was entering into and winning his first races. By the end of that same year, the 17-year-old Seymour had earned a reputation as the best racer. Seymour was younger than the required age for Selective Service in WWI though he filled out his draft card, nonetheless he was never enlisted and remained in Escanaba through 1917 and 1918 running in any races he could and further developing his skill in the saddle. Those skills, along with his daring temperament paid off once sanctioned competition restarted in 1919, and on July 20th, 1919 he found himself going elbow to elbow with some of the best professionals in the country.
Many of the veteran professionals were still making their way back home from Europe at the start of 1919 so as the big factories rebooted their racing programs those riders who were ready began traveling to any events available, including half-mile dirt track events and state fair races. Bill Ottaway, head of the factory effort at Harley-Davidson was quick to begin reassembling his stable of talent and sent two of his reforming Wrecking Crew, Albert Shrimp Burns and Ralph Hepburn to Escanaba to run at the local half-mile flat track races. It is not clear if anyone at Indian had taken notice of or even reached out to young Seymour for this event, but when he gave the Harley-Davidson duo a hard run for their money, even beating them both out in two events, Seymour had definitely hit the radar in Springfield. From that point on Johnny Seymour became an Indian factory racer, traveling all over the country competing with men like Gene Walker, Floyd Clymer, Floyd Dryer, Curley Fredericks, and later being joined by Shrimp Burns and Jim Davis.
Seymour quickly became one of the fiercest and most successful riders for Indian. Specializing in flat track events onboard both singles and twins, he became one of the men you had to beat if you wanted to win in the early 1920s. In September of 1924, Seymour filled out his passport application writing in “motorcycle “racing” on the line labeled Object of Visit. He then set sail for Australia with fellow Indian teammate Paul Anderson and two of their “rivals,” Ralph Hepburn and Jim Davis from Harley-Davidson. The quartet of American professionals arrived in Melbourne just in time for the much-anticipated opening of the Melbourne Motordrome, a banked concrete stadium designed by the father of the famed American Motordrome, Jack Prince. Unfortunately Seymour took a heavy spill on the track during a race severely breaking one of his leg’s which took him out of the remainder of the Australian tour, though his traveling mates did quite well-running races all around Australia over the next few months, including some record runs by Paul Anderson at Sellick’s Beach on newly developed overhead valve Indian twins. Anderson would continue his international career into Europe in 1925, where at Arpajon, France in October of 1925 he made set new record runs onboard the OHV twin seen in this photo, though due to timing inaccuracies the speed records were not upheld.
Though Seymour returned in May 1925 still on the mend from his leg injuries, he was back in action within a few weeks and would begin a campaign of wins and broken records which would define his career. For the remainder of the 1925 season, Seymour demolished his competition onboard a new breed of OHV singles and twins developed in the experimental department at Indian. Johnny Seymour had only been able to race for half of the season but by the end of 1925, he added more than two dozen victories and broken records to his resume, including 3 National Championship titles and new records from 1 to 25 miles following his performance at the AMA Championships in Syracuse that September. Uninterested in rest, Seymour then headed south to the beaches of Daytona, a destination with a deep relationship with both Indian and speed. Seymour’s former teammate, the late Eugene Walker had last put the high number’s on the board for motorcycle land speed records back in April 1920, in the early days of Seymour’s career. Walker had stepped onto the sand in Daytona and stripped the new top speed records set by the boys at Harley-Davidson just two months before in 1920, setting new record speeds of 104 mph and 115.79 mph, records which still stood in 1926.
So, on January 11th and 12th, onboard the 61ci, 8-valve machine seen in this photograph, as well as a 4-valve 30.50 ci single, Seymour obliterated Walker’s standing records by hitting an astonishing 132 mph onboard the twin, and 112.63 mph onboard the single. With Seymour on the throttle, Indian had set yet another speed record on the sands in Daytona, a tradition which dated back 23 years to the very founding of the company when Oscar Hedstrom hit 53 mph onboard one of his first machines back in 1903. It had been 10 years since the high school boy from Escanaba began racing around his local horse track and now Seymour was an Internationally renowned motorcycle champion, he was the fastest man on two wheels. Seymour continued to compete in 1926, setting a handful of new records of his own including onboard a new AMA class of 21.35ci which he helped introduce the year before, and was on the scoreboard alongside teammate Jim Davis’s record-breaking run at Altoona and Curley Fredericks’ highest ever board track mark of 120.3 mph at Rockingham.
But the writing was on the wall, motorcycle competition and factory support were quickly deteriorating in the mid-to-late 1920s while auto racing was entering into a renaissance, so like several from the motorcycle game, Seymour began to shift his efforts into automobile racing. Between 1928 and 1936 Johnny Seymour redirected his fierce and fearless competitive drive into auto racing, and though he qualified and raced 6 times at the prestigious Indianapolis 500 his 4 wheel career was plagued by mechanical failures and he was never able to complete even a single attempt at Indy. On May 20th, 1939 Seymour lost control of his rear-engined Miller at Indy, hitting the wall at speed his car burst into flames and Seymour was badly burned, though he survived the 40-year-old speedster was ready to put the game behind him. Johnny Charles Seymour eventually settled down in Detroit with his wife Marie and their two daughters where he managed the Belle Isle Saddle Club until he passed away at the age of 61 in early 1958.
A special thanks to Glenn family for sharing this photograph from Harry’s collection.