[small red square] Pioneers of American Motorcycle Racing [small red square]

by Daniel K. Statnekov

©1998 - 2006 Daniel K. Statnekov   
Chapter 22

In 1923 there were more changes. Paul Anderson left Excelsior to ride a "half-twin," 30.50 cubic inch H-D on the 1/2-mile dirt tracks, and Gene Walker, who had been fired by Indian for refusing to participate in the 1921 Dodge City event, also turned up on a "half-twin" Harley.  Although Harley-Davidson did not field a factory team in 1923, the Milwaukee company rehired Jim Davis and Ralph Hepburn who once again donned their old racing jerseys to participate in strategic contests.

The flux of riders continued in 1924 with Paul Anderson switching to Indian and Gene Walker returning to his former Springfield employer.  That same year a new 5/8-mile track opened in Los Angeles named "Legion Ascot."  Large crowds attended the weekly events which because of the nature of the "short" track were limited to bikes of 30.50 cubic inches with only a small field of riders permitted to compete in any single event.  On April 13, 1924, the referee at the new speedway allowed ten riders to start in a 5-mile "sweepstakes" race.

In the 3rd lap, the riders came out of the north turn in a bunch and Ray Weishaar lost control of his 4-valve, "half-twin" when he hit a hole in the track.  The popular H-D rider made a desperate effort to regain control but went into the fence and was shot through the openings in the boards and down the embankment on the outside of the track.  Striking the boards as he went through the fence, Weishaar sustained a broken leg and internal injuries.

The former H-D team rider was conscious when picked up, and at first it was believed that he was not seriously hurt.  Mrs. Weishaar was at the track when the accident occurred and accompanied her husband to the hospital, but Ray's internal injuries proved much more serious and he died several hours later.  At the time of his fatal accident, the former Kansas State Champion was 34 years-old.  He was survived by his wife, Emma, and six month-old son, Billy Ray.

From the very beginning of his professional career, Ray Weishaar had been one of H-D's top contenders.  In 1916, he placed third at Dodge City and then went on to win the 100-mile F.A.M. championship at Detroit.  In 1919 he scored another third at the opening championship race at Ascot, and distinguished himself that same year by winning the 50-mile event at Grand Island, Nebraska.  Finally, in 1920, Weishaar won the prestigious Labor Day road race at Marion, Indiana.  He was fourth at Dodge City in 1921, and continued to race as a privateer after the Milwaukee team was disbanded in 1922.

By 1923, Weishaar had all but dropped out of racing, but when the new Ascot track opened in 1924, he resumed his career in order to earn enough money to pay off his mortgage.  The death of the popular rider was keenly felt by everyone in the sport.  Another one of the "boys" had lost his life along the way. Ray's former teammates served as pallbearers at his funeral in Los Angeles, and a nation-wide collection was taken up to help Emma pay off the mortgage on their home.

The loyal followers of the "Wigwam" also experienced tragedy in 1924.  On June 7th, Eugene E. Walker (who had switched back to Indian late in the 1923 racing season) was fatally injured while practicing alone on a 1/2-mile dirt track in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania.  An eyewitness reported that Gene swerved and crashed into a tree stump while trying to avoid a woman who was crossing the track.  The winner of nineteen National Championships during his 10 year professional career, the 31 year-old Indian star rider succumbed to his injuries and died on June 21st.

Gene Walker was a favorite at the Springfield factory where, in 1914, he had gone to work alongside of Teddy Carroll in the testing department.  The popular rider's death was the second major shock for the Hendee company in less than three years.  Both managers and factory workers alike had been greatly saddened by the "Shrimp's" death in 1921.  Consequently, it was not a complete surprise when, shortly after Walker's death, Indian announced that unless displacement limits were lowered to allow safer speeds, they would withdraw from dirt track racing at the end of the 1924 racing season.

It is doubtful, when it was all said and done, whether many of the race fans knew that Indian had been victorious in 75% of the Championship races contested in 1923;  or that the Wigwam's Milwaukee rival had achieved the very same percentage of National Championships in 1924.

Ignaz Schwinn's strategy of competing in strategic hillclimbs had also succeeded.  In 1923, at the Capistrano hillclimb, the Excelsior entry won the 80 cubic inch free-for-all (combined amateur and professional) class, and in 1924, the Chicago brand captured all three of the open classes at the same event.  Announcements in the trade press and colorful posters provided by the company heralded their triumphs on the walls of Excelsior dealerships across the country.

Undoubtedly, race followers noticed Ralph Hepburn's retirement from professional motorcycle racing at the end of the 1924 season.  Without the familiar faces of Otto Walker, "Red" Parkhurst, Maldwyn Jones, Teddy Carroll, "Shrimp" Burns, Ralph Hepburn, Don Johns, Bob Perry, Gene Walker, or Ray Weishaar at track-side, it must have seemed to the fans as if the very soul of the sport had somehow departed from the banked oval circuits.

And maybe it had.

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Perhaps the most significant motorcycle development of 1925 was the introduction of the Excelsior "Super-X."   Designed by Arthur "Connie" Constantine while working in the Harley-Davidson engineering department, the middle-weight, 45 cubic inch motorcycle was an instant hit in the marketplace, and provided a much needed boost in sales for Ignaz Schwinn's Chicago brand.

Formerly employed by the Buick Division of General Motors, Arthur Constantine entered the motorcycle industry in 1920 when he was hired by William Harley to work in the H-D engineering department.    At the time of his employment, the 32 year-old Constantine was the only graduate engineer besides Harley in the company.  As Assistant Chief Engineer, "Connie" worked on a variety of projects (which included making improvements to the H-D 8-valve, and designing the "peashooter"), and quickly proved himself a valuable addition to the company.

As an extra curricular project, Harley's able assistant drew up plans for a mid-size V-twin.  Constantine was convinced that his new design could compete successfully with Franklin's Indian Scout, the popular model that had breathed new life into the Springfield company during the down-turned marketplace of the early 1920's.  When presented with Constantine's design, however, Walter Davidson condemned the engineer's efforts as an unauthorized undertaking and waste of valuable company time.  In the resultant recriminations, Constantine resigned his position with H-D.

Subsequently, Arthur Constantine took his blueprints to Excelsior where his unit-construction motor (combined engine and transmission in the same crankcase) came to fruition with the introduction of the Super-X.  Although there would be no official recognition of the 45 cubic inch class until 1926, the new Excelsior entry immediately proved competitive against larger machines.  Before the year was out, a Super-X had turned the mile at the Laurel, Maryland board track at 95.7 mph.

Although Harley-Davidson did not support a full factory team, the company continued to field an entry in National Championship events.  Their strategy paid off on the 4th of July at the Altoona, Pennsylvania board track.  In what was undoubtedly the most significant racing event of 1925, Joe Petrali finally achieved the long-sought, but elusive goal of finishing a 100-mile race in less than one hour.  On the latest rendition of William Ottaway's 2-cam pocket-valve racer, the 21 year-old H-D rider from Sacramento, California won the 100-mile National Championship in the record-setting time of 59 minutes, 47 and 1/5th seconds.

Born on George Washington's birthday in 1904, Joe Petrali was destined to become the stand-out Harley-Davidson star in the next generation of racers to follow the famous H-D "Wrecking Crew."  As a young boy, Petrali showed an aptitude for things mechanical and was fascinated by the motorized two wheelers.  An older enthusiast in Joe's neighborhood encouraged the youngster, taking him to watch riders such as Don Johns and Ray Creviston battle it out at the old fair grounds in Sacramento.

When he was 13 years-old, Joe's father allowed him to purchase a second-hand Indian single.  Shortly thereafter, Petrali dropped out of school and went to work at the local Indian dealership where the teenager's natural mechanical ability was quickly recognized by the agency's owner, Archie Rife.  Rife encouraged the young mechanic, allowing him to convert his Indian single to racing specifications.  With his "tuned" Hedstrom single, Joe was successful in many of the non-sanctioned events held at county fairs throughout Northern California.

His performance was noticed by Indian's West Coast competition manager, Jud Carriker, who (in the early Spring of 1920) secured a factory 8-valve for the promising youngster.  In order to give the teenager a chance, Carriker decided to experiment with alcohol fuel at the opening event at the Fresno board track.  Despite the fact that the volatile fuel caused his motor to run erratically, Petrali was able to work his way up to the front of the pack.  Seeing the young rider's promise, alarmed members of the "Wrecking Crew" attempted to box the Indian entry, but the 16 year-old Petrali, through heroic efforts and a hair-raising burst of speed, finished in 2nd place.

In 1921, the rising star from California came to the attention of the national racing audience.  Although billed as a starter for the "Wigwam" at the Altoona, Pennsylvania Spring meet, Petrali's machine failed to arrive in time for the race.  Harley-Davidson's Ralph Hepburn, who had injured his hand in practice, offered the young Indian rider the use of his 8-valve Harley with the understanding that Petrali share his winnings with him.

Hepburn's motor had seized in practice, causing the H-D racing star to fall, and Petrali, although unfamiliar with the Milwaukee brand of machinery, quickly dismantled and rebuilt the special Harley-Davidson race motor.  Before taking it out on the old Altoona dirt track (the Altoona board track did not open until 1923), Joe converted the engine to run on high test aviation fuel, and at the same time cured Hepburn's motor of its inclination to overheat.

(It's interesting to speculate that Petrali's work on Hepburn's 8-valve motor at this Spring race meet may have helped the H-D team rider win the subsequent Dodge City race in July.)

At the end of the race, Petrali was 2 laps ahead of Eddie Brinck, but unaware of his lap advantage, Joe battled furiously with his Indian teammate.  In a terrific see-saw contest that brought the crowd to its feet, Petrali raced the two additional laps, piloting Hepburn's machine over the finish line just behind Brinck.  When he coasted into the pits the teenager discovered that he'd actually won the race.

Afterwards, Joe Petrali continued to ride part time for Harley-Davidson.  The mechanically-gifted rider distinguished himself for the next several years, emerging as a full-fledged champion in 1925 with his under an hour 100-mile performance at the 1 and 1/4-mile Altoona board track.  As a follow up to his landmark victory, Petrali won the 10, 25, and 50-mile Championships at the Laurel, Maryland 1 and 1/8th-mile board track, earning him a total of four National Championships for the year.

Jim Davis, now a graduate engineer, was the other stand-out rider for the Milwaukee company, setting new records for 5 and 20-mile distances.  All-in-all, 1925 was another good year for Harley-Davidson, the company claiming 9 out of the 14 National Championships contested that year.

Webmaster:  Daniel K. Statnekov

Page installed: Nov. 15, 1996   
Page revised: June 28, 2003