Jim Davis, Master of the Motordrome | Icon

Board-Track Empire

By Aaron Frank, Photography by Harley-Davidson Archives

America’s first board-track was built at the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1909. It was a modest facility, just 1⁄3-mile around with 25-degree banked corners, modeled after a typical French velodrome. By the time the Roaring Twenties arrived, board-track racing was one of the nation’s most popular spectator sports. “Motordromes” had morphed into massive pinewood constructions a mile or more in length. As many as 20,000 spectators crowded grandstands at Beverly Hills, Dodge City or Sheepshead Bay to watch fire-breathing 1000cc V-twin racers storm around precipitous, 60-degree banked turns at over 100 mph. The action was loud, fast and horrifically dangerous. Countless big-name riders—and a number of spectators—were killed at the so-called “murderdromes” when crashing bikes were flung straight up into the crowd. The Isle of Man seems like a Shriners parade in comparison.

Everything about board-track racing was over-the-top: monster venues, massive crowds and, especially, the riders’ out-sized personalities. Like Roman gladiators 2000 years earlier, board-track racers were the most daring of men—and Jim Davis was the bravest. He won 21 American Motorcycle Association National Championships—including the first race ever sanctioned by the AMA at Toledo, Ohio, on July 26, 1924—and more than 50 non-AMA titles from the Federation of American Motorcyclists (FAM) and the Motorcycle & Allied Trades Association (M&ATA). It’s a record that will never be equaled.

Davis was born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1896, the son of a nationally ranked bicycle racer. He started riding motorcycles at age 11 and earned his first factory ride with Indian at age 19 in 1915, making $25 per week, plus expenses. Davis’ first stint with Indian ended abruptly in 1920. There was a big-money invitational in Phoenix and Davis wasn’t on the roster. Thinking quickly, the witty racer used a box of chocolates to charm the young receptionist at a nearby Western Union into faking a telegram that read: “Permit Davis to Ride, signed, A.B. Coffman"—president of the M&ATA. Davis then paid a boy a nickel to deliver the phony telegram to the race referee, who allowed him to race. Davis won the event, but when Coffman found out about the stunt he suspended Davis from competition for a year. Less than 24 hours later, Indian fired him.

Davis wasn’t unemployed for long: Harley-Davidson hired him within days, and made his suspension disappear. Davis raced for the legendary “Wrecking Crew” until 1925, when Indian lured him back. In ’28 he swept all six national titles and was named overall AMA National Champion, a feat he repeated in ’29. By the time Davis retired in ’36 he had raced in more than 1500 events, and covered an astounding 30,000 competition miles. After retiring, Davis had a 14-year career with the Ohio State Highway Patrol—he started that state’s motorcycle officer corps—then worked for the family architectural business. He also remained active in motorcycle racing as an AMA official and starter. Not only did he survive the board-track era, he survived to see the 21st century, passing away on February 5, 2000, at the age of 103.

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