Biker News & Biker Lifestyle

Letter to the Throttle- A dirt track and hill climb history and remembering the good times.

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.By David Walters

Insane Throttle Reader

The splinters come up fast and hard. Long sharp broken off shards of wood implanting into your cheeks as your body hurls over the roughhewn track of wooden planks. 2 x 4 pieces of wood that would require constant maintenance.  Motordromes shaped by the idea of Velodromes conjured up images of mile long tracks, wide passing width and unimagined speeds for the era. Half mile and shorter tracks would pop up to reduce cost, and give fans an even more up-close spectacle.

Top rated for the time, 61inch motors hurl you at over 100 miles an hour on high banked tracks, banks of 45 degrees or more. Extensive Grandstands paved the way for its popularity to boom in the Post World War 1 era. Veterans implanted with the horrors of a new style of trench warfare returned with a need for danger. Adrenaline and prize money (at times as much as 25,000 in the early 1910s) brought both competitor and spectator in unheard of droves. Both in the face of danger. A rider could avoid a splinting board just to wind up sliding up track into the crowd. Fatalities for both were not uncommon. Motordromes became Muderdomes according to the New York Times.

The end of the “War to End all Wars”. A generation referred to as the “Lost Generation”. Prohibition. The start to the Great Depression.  Words and moments in time most of us are familiar with. Dirt track racing had been around and competing for spectators but by the early to mid-1930s, splintered wood was giving way to the more practical dirt tracks. Operating and maintenance costs were crushing. Lumber bills would total as much as 175,000 in the late 1910s and early 20s to repair tracks. To say nothing of a new focus on safety and advances in technology allowing man and machine to reach unheard of speeds.

The death of the broad track for motorcycles ( cars would continue until the 1940s and later) was quick. Perhaps even appropriate to say painless? A crash on dirt, while able to turn nasty and devastating, did not have the frequency of death and injury from an impaling wooden shard. Perhaps like me, you are a fan of racing. That Era within our history of the motorcycle or America, or (also like me) you are a huge history nerd. Then names like Harley, Indian, Excelsior ( which was owned by bicycle maker Schwinn), The Milwaukee Mile ( which was one of the first dirt tracks), Walter Davidson, Al Crocker, and racers with names like Smokin Joe, Shrimp, Fearless Balke and Hepburn, make you feel like you born a few decades too late.

Smokin Joe Petrali was a famous Broad, Dirt and Hill Climb champion. He raced for Indian, Harley, Excelsior and worked in Kansas City for Al Crocker. Yeah, that Crocker. Smoking Joe would win 49 AMA races and countless “unsanctioned” races. He is the only racer to ever win every single race in a season for an AMA Championship sponsored title. In 1925 Petrali would be the first to average over 100 miles an hour for an entire broad track race. When Harley spent 1926 on the sidelines of racing, Petrali raced for Excelsior helping to build motors for the Hillclimbers as well. He also won his first Dirt Track Championship on Excelsior winning the 10 mile championship at the Milwaukee Mile. Petrali would do much for the sport of racing outside of Broad Track. He is the only AMA racer to win a Dirt Track and Hill Climb National Championship in the same year. He set a land speed record at Daytona Beach that stood for 11 years before being broken in the Bonneville Salt Flats.

The pull for me, is how stories and histories align. Smokin Joe got his start on an Indian at the age of 17. He was riding a bike meant for Al “Shrimp” Burns. Burns was killed the week prior on an identical bike that had killed legendary racer Charles “Fearless” Balke., who had been admired by a kid named Smokin Joe Petrali.

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Shrimp Burns was you and I. As a youngster he was constantly harassing mechanics and salesmen at local bike shops for more info, more how’s and whys of the bike. At 12 he was hired to clean up the shop. He was also promptly fired for sneaking off around the block on a Pope Motorcycle. Lucky for the racing world he was rehired shortly and allowed to be a message runner and given a Pope to ride around and advertise for the dealer on Sundays.

Shrimp won his first race at the age of 15, against much seasoned riders. He was often bullied and protested against by older riders, tired of being chased around the tracks by a “kid”. The kid was tough. After one crash he came back out to win the 5-mile heat, with a broken collarbone, hand and separated shoulder. When he came home from World War 1 at the age of 20, Harley signed him to his first sponsorship racing team. A year later he was a factory Indian rider. An almost unheard of sin in that era. Shrimp was underappreciated and underdeveloped at Harley. His Indian contract promised him the best equipment, techs and center stage.

He would quickly win Championships in the 25 and 100-mile races against his old Harley teammates. Unfortunately, we are left to wonder how great Shrimp would have continued to be. He was killed less than two years after signing that Indian contract. He died in a crash at the Fort Miami Mile. During the second race of the day Ray Weishaar became lose in the turn and Shrip went high on the track to avoid a crash. In doing so he almost clipped a fence and had to shoot down sharply across the track and clipped the front of Weishaar. Shrimp wrecked head first through a fence at wide open speed, killing him. It was too be his last race he had promised his fiancé who had come down to watch him race.

Many other stories, and stars of the era exist. These are just some of the first that I ever read about and loved. Many great clubs got their start in the glory days of racing or through bonds formed with each other on and off the track. War, racing, competition, belonging, adrenaline. Love. I believe these are still the key words that make up the bonds of this thing you love.

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