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

by Daniel K. Statnekov

©1998 - 2006 Daniel K. Statnekov   
Chapter 25

In 1931, Ignaz Schwinn closed his motorcycle business. The 71 year-old industrialist, faced with the harsh reality of the depression, decided to focus his efforts on the bicycle enterprise that had been the basis of his success.  The two Excelsior hillclimb champions immediately switched over to Schwinn's former rivals:  Joe Petrali signed up as a full-time rider for Harley-Davidson and Gene Rhyne joined the Indian team.

As economic conditions continued to worsen, the two companies that remained saw their sales fall dramatically.  As far as racing was concerned, both Harley-Davidson and Indian made the decision to focus their efforts on hillclimbs which had become the most popular two-wheeled spectator sport.  By the end of the year, the only track records that had changed from those on the previous year's score sheet, were once again in the 21.35 cubic inch "peashooter" class.  Joe Petrali continued his winning streak with 5 National dirt track championships, and was crowned the National track racing champion for 1931.

Unlike previous years, the National Hillclimb Championship was divided into two events.  In addition to a contest on the east coast, 1931 was the first year for a Pacific Coast Championship.  In the east, the title was decided in September at Rochester, New York;  while in the west, the race took place in October at Oakland, California.  Even without an Excelsior, Gene Rhyne was still the quickest man to the top of both hills in the 45 inch pro class, retaining the crown for himself as well as bestowing it upon his new Springfield employer.  In the 61 cubic inch professional class, two Harley riders, Russell Fischer in the east and "Windy" Lindstrom in the west, captured the honors for Milwaukee.

1932 witnessed the continued decline of the motorcycle industry in the United States.  Officially sanctioned professional track races were now limited to the small, single cylinder "peashooter" class, unpopular with the average rider who preferred the heavy-weight big twin motor as his personal mount.  This lack of identification with the 21-inch class (and a much reduced official program) resulted in an increase in locally sponsored events.  For the most part, these races were unsanctioned, "outlaw" meets, contested without the benefit of official referees, track rules, or the other "niceties" that had evolved in the formative years of the 2-wheeled sport.

Hillclimbs were still conducted under the auspices of the A.M.A. sanction.  For 1932, the National Championship was held on the steep, 625 foot hill in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.  Joe Petrali, who (in 1928) had been the first man to ride a motorcycle to the top of this hill, was over the top in 12 and 1/2 seconds to claim the title for his Milwaukee employer.  "Windy" Lindstrom retained the Pacific Coast crown he had earned the previous year, piloting a race-ready Harley-Davidson "DAH" to victory at the 2nd running of the west coast title event.

In other news, Charles B. Franklin, Indian's most innovative engineer in the post-Hedstrom years, died of respiratory disease at the age of 52, leaving behind a legacy of benchmark designs that had thrilled a generation of riders and race fans alike. Franklin's death came at a low point in his beloved company's fortunes, and with his passing the pale light grew dimmer above the drafting tables where he had once presided.

By 1933, the giant Springfield factory was operating at only 5% of its capacity.  The Milwaukee company was in slightly better shape with Joe Petrali still employed at a salary of $40.00 a week.  Harley-Davidson got their money's worth:  Petrali won the National track championship at Syracuse, and staged a repeat of his previous year's triumph on the Bethlehem hill.  With Excelsior out of the picture and Indian completely out of professional racing, the news of Joe's success could not have been as meaningful as in years past for the executives back in Milwaukee.

In retrospect, the only bright spot on the horizon in 1933 was an editorial by E.C. Smith, the Executive Secretary of the A.M.A.  Smith suggested that new rules were needed in order to expand amateur participation in the sport.  By the following year, the new system (called "Class C") would usher in the next chapter of motorcycle racing in America.  Although professional racing would continue for a few more years (until 1938), the renaissance in the 2-wheeled sport was destined to come about through the widespread participation of everyday riders.

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Even without the benefit of hindsight, it was evident that an era had ended.  Tracks and factories had closed, engineers had moved on, and most of the men whose heart's blood had once pounded with the thrill of "the race" had left the arena.  The inexorable passage of time and change of circumstance had touched everyone.

More than 25 years had passed since "Skinny, Mile-a-Minute" Collins had earned his nickname at the old horse track in Los Angeles.  The same quarter of a century had elapsed since Glenn Curtiss, the young bicycle builder from New York, had watched the sand at Ormond Beach turn to a blur beneath the wheels of his experimental racer.

Twenty years had gone by since the deaths of Jake DeRosier and his arch rival, Charles Balke, and even the legendary Don Johns had been retired for more than a decade.  Bob Perry, "Shrimp" Burns, Teddy Carroll, Gene Walker, and Ray Weishaar, teenagers who had raced in the teens, had all perished, leaving their contemporaries to grow old with their memories and sepia-toned photographs.  The last of the weathered pine tracks had been dismantled, and the scrappy fraternity of riders had disbanded.

"It was the Depression," some would say, that ended the golden age of motorcycle racing in America.  But it was really much more than an economic event that brought this particular "golden age" to a close.  The end of the era was a natural life-cycle event.  When the wooden stadiums were finally silent, and the crowd had left the arena for the last time, that first generation of "boys," whose earliest dream was to race their hearts out, found themselves men, and set out on other paths.

Although their lives are now but a memory, it is truly a great memory:  of men who lived life with a passion, and in doing so.....lived great lives.

The End   
Webmaster:  Daniel K. Statnekov

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