A Sketch from the Pioneer Days of Road Racing

China…Chains and Chance

By Roy Artley, Photography by Unknown

From the March 1935 issue of Motorcyclist Magazine

During the period from 1913 to 1921 an important phase of American motorcycle history was in the making. While it is true that much of the activity centered in the Southwestern part of the country, what grew out of the competition there was to stimulate interest all over the nation. It was during that period that such names as Cannon Ball Baker, Paul Derkhim, Joe Walters, Harry Crandall, Lorenzo Boido, Roy Smith, Allen T. Bedell, Art Holmes, “Crazy Hoss” Verrill, Harry Weitzel, L.E.Wilson, Clarence Biggs, George Currier and others were carved on the walls of road racing fame.

Equipment incorporated such features as single speed, 28x2 ½” tires, the old style coaster brake, and carried all of 2 ½ gallons of gas and 2 quarts of oil.

The roads over which the road races were run were just what the desert had to offer at that time. For the most part we had deep sand, ruts, rocky washes and once in a while a river bottom.

To compensate for the lack of gears and different speeds it was the practice to let air out of the tires when riding bottomless sand in order to keep from digging in. Of course, when the tires were soft they would creep and take out a valve. To overcome this they were “lugged” onto the rim.

My own advent into competition was in a road race from San Diego to Phoenix in 1913. That was my first actual road race competition and by dint of hard riding and a lot of figuring I grabbed off what was to me the highly honorary fifth position. To understand the thrill of this win it is really necessary to know a little about my training for the event. It extended over the period of from 1911 up to the time of the race. I had established quite a sense of balance, so it was alleged, and I had accomplished this through my job of delivering china for an old firm by the name of Alfred Stahel, in San Diego.

Provided with a double sack arrangement, I was prone to put half of a $150 set of china in that part of the sack which hung on my back and the other half in the part of the sack which hung on my chest. Of course, riding under this handicap called for sitting up very straight and watching for chuck holes. If I hit a hole the front sack would bump on the Prestolite tank and smash went part of the china.

The mere act of delivering china, however, was not what really prepared me for road racing. I used to hang around a corner where there were some older sicklers. For my special benefit they would brag about sliding the hind wheel around corners in the dirt roads of San Diego. To me, accustomed to my rigid upright position of riding, this was quite a feat and, of course, those fellows being heroes to me, there was nothing to do but practice that rear wheel sliding. At first I used to practice on the way back from a delivery and needless to say I took many spills. Finally, after having slid around nearly every dirt corner in San Diego, either on the seat of my pants or the back of my neck, I got so I could take a $75 set of china, at least, and broadside right up to the customer’s front door. Broadsiding with a $150 set was too much of a gamble even for my youthful imagination. Having polished off this art to my own satisfaction, and I now suspect even to the surprise of my heroes, they decided to really make a motorcycle rider out of me. So, they began talking about sliding the front wheel around the corner. That was really what made a messenger boy out of me. At the cost of much skin and china I practiced the front wheel sliding act and gradually worked my way right out of the china business into a new job. I could carry a special delivery letter, and slide both wheels, with Uncle Sam not nearly so worried as had been my previous employer.

In 1912, on a single cylinder Thor, I made a perfect score in an enduro which was staged by the San Diego M.C. That was my first victory and I looked forward to receiving the medal with heart throbs and considerable anticipation. Unfortunately the club went broke about then with the result that while the heart throbs lack their erstwhile vigor I still am looking for the medal.

By Roy Artley
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