Pioneers of American Motorcycle Racing
by Daniel K. Statnekov
|©1998 - 2006 Daniel K. Statnekov |
It was a natural consequence that the first motorcycles were
tried on the short (1/6th to 1/8th-mile) board tracks, or
velodromes, that had been built for bicycle racing.
These indoor, wooden speedways were popular with enthusiasts
and were viewed by the bicycle manufacturers as dynamic bill
boards with which to advertise their product. The velodromes
were adequate to demonstrate speed and reliability of the
motor-driven two-wheelers, but they were not suited for an
all-out motorcycle race.
By 1908, however, some of the longer bicycle tracks began
to feature the motor-powered cycles. Even so, the board tracks
were narrow, and competition was limited to a race between only
two machines at a time. This changed in March of 1909 when John
Shillington Prince, a former high-wheel bicycle world champion,
opened the Coliseum motordrome in Los Angeles. At 3&1/2 laps
to the mile, the new Coliseum was nearly twice as long as the
velodromes and provided a circular, wooden speedway that could handle
the 60 to 70 mile per hour speeds that the riders could coax from
their otherwise stock machines.
Almost immediately, the spectacle of men hurtling at "break-neck"
speeds around the new motordromes became a passionately attended
spectator sport. Huge crowds thronged to the board tracks
that seemed to spring up overnight in cities across the country.
This did not go unnoticed by the co-founders of the largest motorcycle
producer of the day, the Hendee Company, manufacturer of the Indian "Motocycle."
Both George M. Hendee and Carl Oscar Hedstrom understood the publicity value
that racing brought to their enterprise. Before joining forces,
the two partners had had extensive experience in the two-wheeled sport.
Hendee had won the National Amateur High Wheel Championship of the United
States in 1882 and held the title until 1886. After retiring from
professional racing in 1895, the former champion continued to be involved
in the bicycle trade, and in 1897 he established his own manufacturing firm
in Springfield, Massachusetts.
"Oscar" Hedstrom had also started out as a bicycle builder and amateur racer,
and had been a star rider in the 1890's. A skilled machinist and
pattern maker by trade, Hedstrom specialized in custom-built machines that
were popular with professional racing men in the New York area. Like
Orient's Charles Metz, Oscar Hedstrom's interest in building a practical
motorcycle was ignited when he built a motorized pacing machine for use
on the bicycle tracks
Hedstrom's Tandem Pacer
At a race at Madison Square Garden in 1900, George Hendee first observed the
use of the motorized tandem and was impressed with the performance and reliability
of Hedstrom's machine. At their first meeting, Hendee proposed building a
light road machine for everyday transportation that would free the rider from the
drudgery of pedalling. This was in line with Hedstrom's own thinking and
the two men became partners on the spot.
By early Spring of 1901, the first Indian "Motocycle" was ready for a road
test, and before the year was out the Hendee Company had already sold several
machines to the public. The following year the Springfield company
entered three of their "motocycles" in the rigorous Boston to New York
endurance run. All of the Indian entries completed the distance, each
finishing with a perfect score. The publicity that resulted from this
was helpful, and by the end of the year the company had rung up sales for more
than a hundred machines.
The two partners continued to field entries in various sporting events, and
their success was rewarded with even more publicity. Within a short
time the fledgling company had more orders than they could fill. For
the next five years the Hendee company continued to make progress.
Although racing continued to be an important component of their success,
the primary focus of the partners efforts was concentrated on their standard
production machines which they sold in ever-increasing numbers.
The Indian sales catalog for 1908, however, broke with tradition and included
a production model designed solely for racing. Available in both single
and twin cylinder versions (Indian had added a twin to their line the previous
year), the new machine featured a torpedo-shaped tank clipped to the top frame
tube, and a saddle that allowed the rider to assume a crouched position for
racing. The new model had been designed to keep Indian in the lead:
in the marketplace and on the race track as well.