Racing in Venice – Part 2

We left off last month with the upset victory by Caleb Bragg over Barney Oldfield in the inaugural auto races at the Los Angeles Motordome, “the Boards,” in Playa del Rey.

Oh my, what a sight this track must have been! Constructed in 1910 as the first board-track speedway in the world, the size of this track was overwhelmingly mind-boggling. Imagine, if you will, a mile circumference wooden track, looming out over the marshlands of the valley of the current Playa del Rey backwater. At a mile circumference, or officially 5281 feet, which meant a diameter of 1682 feet, this behemoth track was over twice the size of the Rose Bowl, which has a circumference of 2430 feet, and is only 880 feet from its longest north to south sides. Or larger than even the L.A. Coliseum, which is 1038 feet at its widest east/west measurement. Both, a mere pittance compared to the Boards. And with bleachers and scoreboards and judges’ stands and whatever added on, this must have been one distinctive landmark of the times. Man, that sucker must have been huge! 

I’ve personally tooled along the bikepath behind the current Fisherman’s Village in the Marina and down along the waterway of Ballona Creek east towards Lincoln Boulevard, imagining the spectacle that arose on these now quiet acres, unbelieving of the history that once burst forth here. If you visit the County Library in the Marina, there’s a map on the wall showing the old sites of West L.A., and one of the most prominent among them is the old “Boards,”  alone out there in the open, flat wilds of the old river basin. I just can’t believe there doesn’t exist any early photographs of this once majestic monster. Or why it tragically burned in 1913.

In those years, this track was the sensation of the fledgling board track phenomenon, when banked courses capable of supporting high speeds found great favor. The larger tracks were ultimately granted sanctions for a limited number of major car races. Consequently, track operators would also stage motorcycle races to generate additional revenue. And that’s where we pick up our story – on motorcycle racing.

Back in the day,there were 4 major motorcycle manufacturers who fielded racing teams: Excelsior, Cyclone, Indian and Harley-Davidson.

Ignaz Schwinn is best known for co-founding the Schwinn Bicycle Co., but he was also the owner of the Excelsior Motorcycle Co., which he bought in 1911. Under Schwinn’s direction, the Chicago-based firm became one of the world’s leading motorcycle manufacturers of the 1910s and ‘20s.

Schwinn saw the importance of racing to Excelsior’s sales. The earliest Excelsior racing stars were Joe Wolters and Jake De Rosier, who came to Excelsior after a contentious break from Indian during the 1911 racing season. Wolters and De Rosier dominated much of the board track racing during 1911 and 1912.

I guess the “good old X,” as the Excelsior was then called, was really quite a motorcycle. On December 30th, 1912, Lee Humiston circled the banked one-mile “Boards” on his direct-drive 61 cubic-inch Excelsior twin in 36 seconds flat, to become the first motorcyclist in the world “officially” timed at 100 mph. One week after his milestone accomplishment, “The Humiston Comet,” (as he was promptly nicknamed by the press) surpassed DeRosier's record for 100 miles, trimming nearly seven and a half minutes from his best time.

This victory inspired both the Indian and Harley-Davidson factories to develop even faster motors with which to compete on the pro circuit. And, the publicity was enormous for Excelsior. Every school boy in America knew that a man had traveled at 100 miles per hour on a motorcycle, and that he had accomplished this feat on an Excelsior built in Chicago.

Then, in 1915, Ignaz Schwinn set the motorcycle world back on its heels by introducing the very first production model to be placed on the American market with a gasoline tank which was not square, rectangular and ugly. This one had gracefully rounded corners and a curved top frame bar which followed the beautiful slanting curve of the tank. It was not until many years afterward that other American manufacturers adopted this “streamlined” look.

Sadly, Schwinn reluctantly discontinued the manufacturing of motorcycles in 1931, due to the onset of the Depression.

Perhaps the most legendary of all pioneer motorcycles produced in the United States during this era was the overhead-cam Cyclone, manufactured by the Joerns Motor Manufacturing Company of St. Paul, Minnesota. Designed by Andrew Strand, a Swedish-born engineer with experience in the automotive industry, the Cyclone was first offered for sale to the public in the summer of 1914.

That year, the Cyclone made its first major appearance at a Labor Day race in California, giving an unequivocal demonstration of its speed advantage in winning both the 5 and 10-mile National Championships. For the rest of the year, and in 1915, the “yellow speed demon,” best remembered for its overhead cam motor and bright yellow paint scheme, continued to break records and cause a sensation on American race tracks.

In the few instances when the Cyclone did appear in prominent long distance race programs (such as the April, 1915 Venice 300-miler – more to come later), it suffered from mechanical failures, leaving many fans unconvinced.

Unfortunately, the Cyclone's innovative engine design and success on the race track did not insure its survival. The motorcycle proved too expensive to build and sell at a competitive price, and the management of the Joerns firm was unwilling to underwrite further development. By the end of 1915, production was discontinued.

It is unknown how many Cyclones were built, but not more than a dozen are known to have survived to today.

Another early racing power was the Indian Motorcycle Company of Springfield, Massachusetts. Powered by a copy of the DeDion-Buton engine, the little machine was so practical and reliable that it attracted the attention of Springfield entrepreneur, George Hendee. They built a manufacturing plant, tooled up, and the first Indians - modest little single-cylinder machines - rolled out the door in 1902.

Almost as soon as the Hendee Manufacturing Company began mass-producing Indian motorcycles that year, the company went racing. By 1907, the Indians dominated speed and reliability contests, with motorcycle competitions becoming a popular form of entertainment throughout the U.S.

Becoming the first motorcycle with an electric starter and a fully modern electrical system, the Hendee Special astounded the industry. Prior to World War One, Indian was the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world, producing over 20,000 bikes per year.

Indians were the bike of choice for many racers, but Paul J.C. Derkum literally made his name on a 1908 Indian twin. On February 22, 1908, Derkum broke 10 speed records at a one-mile dirt track in Los Angeles - clicking off the fastest time ever for a flying mile, two miles, three miles and so on up to 10 miles.

Unlike Harley-Davidson, Indian strongly supported racing during this period as a way to improve their product and to present it to the buying public. The Indian factory machines dominated all forms of racing in the US, and in 1912, Indians won first, second and third at the Isle of Man TT. In 1911, representing the U.S.A. in the heavy class, Jack de Rosier riding an Indian won. Divesting his machine of all unnecessary parts, such as mudguards and “brakes,” he covered the kilometer in 29.6 seconds, a speed of 75.57 m.p.h.

The now famous Harley-Davidson Motor Company began life in a 10-by-15 foot shed in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1903. Today - over a century later - it is not only the world’s longest-surviving motorcycle company, but has become an internationally recognized brand and a symbol of success for American business.

Their remarkable success can be explained by the adage “ people are a company’s only sustainable competitive advantage.” And this is where the Harley’s took their early advantage, in the famous Wrecking Crew of riders that won everything in sight. These guys - Ralph Hepburn, Shrimp Burns, Ray Weishaar, Otto Walker, Fred Ludlow, Maldwyn Jones, Red Parkhurst, Eddie Brinck, and later legends Jim David and Joe Petrali - won every single race contested in 1921. The spindly bikes - with no brakes, clutches or throttles - were ridden by real men for real money. They include the famous Peashooter single and the double-overhead-camshaft 4-valve V-Twin that was raced before the end of World War I.

But it’s one of these riders that we now want to focus on. A rider who helped create another Venice first.

Harry “Otto” Walker, who throughout his life was always called “Otto,” was a leading racer of the 1910s and early 1920s and was one of Harley-Davidson’s first factory riders. Walker was born on the 4th of July in1890 in Lathrop, California, a small town in the Central Valley between Stockton and Modesto. He began racing as an amateur in 1911. The first time he won a race, the affable Californian with the easy smile was rewarded with a turkey. By 913, he was the top amateur on the West Coast, winning the Western Federation of Motorcyclists championships, racing in fairgrounds dirt tracks and on board circuits all over California.

Before joining Harley-Davidson in 1914, Walker teamed up with Erle “Red” Armstrong and “Dud” Perkins, riding the financially rewarding, rough-and-tumble California race circuit on “ported” Excelsiors.

By 1914, Harley-Davidson was just getting into competition and wanted to sponsor Walker. By the end of that season he turned pro. Walker’s pro career had no so sooner started when he was injured in a crash and was forced to sit out the rest of 1914.

Even with his success as an amateur, Walker was little known beyond the West Coast. But that all changed on April 4, 1915. In the first major event of 1915, Harley-Davidson continued their aggressive competition campaign against their main rivals, drawing as strong a field as had ever contested any American race.All of the big stars from the major factory teams, as well as factory-sponsored teams from five other manufacturers, including the newest sensation the overhead-cam Cyclone, were represented. On that day, Walker gave Harley-Davidson its first national victory when he won the 300-mile road race national held on the streets of Venice, California.

Yes, they were once again racing in the streets of Venice! Unlike most road races, which were chiefly endurance competitions between distant cities, this was a race over a measured course through the Venice city streets, much like the first Venice Grand Prix less than a month before.

Paul “Dare Devil” Derkum was the promoter of the event. Derkum had earned his nickname in 1908 by setting records at the old Agricultural Park one-mile dirt track in Los Angeles. His achievements were chronicled in newspapers, with one Los Angeles scribe dubbing him “Dare Devil Derkum,” a name that stuck throughout his racing career.

When Jack Prince built the L.A. Coliseum Motordrome in 1909, the local star was among the first to ride that track. He continued to compete, and in 1913 came out on top in the first running of the “treacherous” San Diego to Phoenix Desert Race.

Employed by the railroad as a fireman on the night train, Derkum worked during the day as the manager of Jack Prince’s Coliseum motordrome. The young man’s industrious nature caught the eye of the board track impresario who gave his manager the added responsibility to supervise the construction of several of his board track designs.  Eventually, Paul Derkum became a race promoter himself. 

For this 300-mile Venice race, Derkum secured the cooperation of Venice city officials as well as the Mayor of the City of Los Angeles, Henry R. Rose. His political connections enabled the popular race promoter to lay out a course on Venice city streets. In addition to resurfacing the streets over which the race would be run, the city of Venice relocated powerlines and a railroad station to improve course safety.

Included in the 3-mile course were long concrete straightaways and mildly-banked, wooden-surfaced turns which Derkum constructed out of sections of the recently dismantled Playa del Rey board track, which had suffered a major fire in 1913.

Aha! The Boards track rises again. The seeming competition between Playa del Rey and Venice was finally put aside over the re-use of the famed board track.

For the 1915 Venice race, the Harley-Davidson factory fielded four entries with machines that featured improved engines developed by Bill Ottaway the previous winter. The team was led by Otto Walker and fellow racer Red Parkhurst. With an estimated 12,000 spectators in attendance, Parkhurst and Walker jumped ahead at the start, and throughout the race maintained a safe lead over their nearest rivals. Seldom separated from each other by more than a few feet, the two leaders dashed by the spectator stands neck and neck, and appeared more like bitter rivals than teammates.

Walker always wore a German aviator helmet, a souvenir from the war which became something of a trademark, instead of a motorcycle racing helmet during the races. Walker was also known for his unique riding style. He would arch his back on straightaways to give himself a better aerodynamic profile and his fellow competitors began calling him “Camelback” Walker.

Parkhurst led for the first 270 miles; then the two Harley riders began a battle for the lead - Walker finally gaining the advantage. The winning time of just over 69 mph set a new record for the 300-mile distance. When he rolled into the pits at the finish, it was discovered that the front of Walker’s machine was covered with blood. The Harley-Davidson team captain explained that his neck had become very stiff in the closing stages of the race. When he tried to rest his head on the handlebars, the vibration had bloodied his nose.

With Walker’s upset victory in the race over the established racing stars of the day, and Parkhurst’s second place showing, Venice was Harley-Davidson’s first win at a major race. Excelsiors had placed 3rd and 4th with Indian riders finishing 5th and 6th, while both Cyclones had suffered mechanical failures. There was cause for celebration in Milwaukee; Ottaway’s improved motor, and the newly formed team that the Harley-Davidson engineer had assembled for his company, had beaten the best machines and the best riders that their competition could field.

Walker followed up the Venice win with an even more impressive victory in July of that year when he won the prestigious Dodge City 300, the biggest motorcycling racing event in America during that era. Walker’s prize money for winning that race was $600, considered a princely sum for motorcycle racing during a time when the average American made about $20 a week.

In 1920, Walker won the big 100-mile M&ATA national held at Ascot Park in Los Angeles. With that victory, he reinforced the well earned reputation as a rider who could win the big events. And at a non-title race on a mile board track in Fresno on February 2, 1921, Walker became the first rider ever to win a motorcycle race at an average speed above 100 mph.

Walker retired after the 1922 racing season, and later ran a sport-fishing service on the Sacramento River. He died in 1963 at the age of 73.

But the sight of him blazing around the street course here in Venice must have been one of majestic glory. A first with an upset victory for the new guy. A first for putting Harley-Davidson on the racing map. And of course, another Venice first for a little-remembered, oft-forgotten day of racing, back in 1915.