Playing to a packed house, Joe Petrali, battle-scarred veteran of motorcycle competition, won the National Dirt Track Championship in four straight events on the Syracuse mile oval, Saturday, August 31. Never in better form and probably never in his career leading such a determined and capable field of competitors, Petrali brought the stands to their feet again and again with his displays of track generalship. Three records fell during the day and when the prize-winning championship helmet was placed upon his head, none who saw that little ceremony doubted that Joe Petrali was justly dubbed the National Champion of the dirt tracks.
With four former National Champions in the pits-Balinski, Petrali, Johnny Seymour and Jim Davis-and with some fast foreign jobs lined up for the classic, fast foreign machines manned by such riders as George Matheson, Goldie Restall, Paul McClellan, Andy Hader, Jimmie Ferguson and John Gustafson, even the time trials took on an air of dramatic tenseness.
It was eleven o’clock when the riders were called for the time trials. Ranking Champion Louis Balinski (JAP ) was called to the line. The crowd watched as he came down for the flag and sat breathless as he dived into the turn, all out, down the back stretch, still wide open. Into the turn and down the stretch-not a break in that steady, ripping exhaust. Captain Leavell, official timer announced the time-45:74 seconds. A wave of applause swept the stands for the speed showed that what was to follow would be a speed contest to be remembered.
Petrali was next. Nothing prosaic about these time trials! The customers began to rise even as he turned into the stretch, hugging the tanks and coaxing every drop of speed from his little mount. They howled with glee when the time was announced-44:30. The men in the pits, hardened to the thrills of such speed tussles, look at one another, speechless. Even Hank Syvertsen, Harley-Davidson speed doctor, wondered if his watch were right.
Freddie Toscani (Indian) wheeled the track in 45:30. The Indian contingent went wild, for one of their favorites was sure to be there in the final accounting. One after another they clicked off the time trials and the results were close to the 45-second mark in each case.
Then came the pay-off, when Jim Davis, who has ridden every Syracuse meet since 1921, and who probably knew the track better than any one rider in this meet, came down to the line, raised his hand and flew into the turn. In a perfect streamline crouch, a unit with his motor, he seemed to fly around the oval watches in the crowd told the storv even before the electric timer results were announced. Jim had turned the track in 44:28, and we knew that records would be wrecked that day.
A pause, and then the machines were wheeled out to the line for the One-Mile National Championship. Davis, Petrali, Toscani, Kathcart, Balinski and Hillbish were in the line-up. The motors were started and they rolled away. Starter Reggie Pink crouched, tense, with his flags behind him. The field came into the stretch and approached the line evenly. The motors roared, the green flag dropped, and the first competition event was on. When the field tore into the first turn a blanket might have covered them. When they came out onto the back stretch, Petrali was leading, Balinski close behind, with Davis, Toscani and Kathcart closely bunched behind. Into the turn, wide open, not a rider hit the button! The stands rose as a man! Which rider would come out of that turn first? A dramatic stillness fell. Then Petrali emerged from the turn, then Davis, Balinski, Toscani. Balinski swung into pace behind Petrali, Davis and Toscani shifted. All figured on jumping pace at the finish. The roaring crescendo of the motors brought the crowd to its feet, yelling. The field riders came out of pace and made their drive, but Joe had too much and he crossed the line, inches ahead. Balinski was in second place and Davis and Toscani were close. Wheel lengths separated them as they made their finish. Winning time was 44:32 seconds.
The same six, with Restall and Thomas added, started in the Five-Mile National Championship. Davis took the lead when the flag fell. Toscani and Balinski battled for position close behind. Out of the turn, Petrali came up and the four put on a dog-eat-dog contest that brought the spectators to their feet and kept them there through the entire race.
Through three laps they battled and in the backstretch Petrali moved in. It took everything his little Harley-Davidson had to hold the lead he gained as they came out of the turn, but he managed it and then he and Jim Davis put on a speed duel from which Joe emerged the winner.
Time for the five-mile was 3:40.58. Not fast enough to break the record for the distance, made on the banked track at Bakersfield, California, but fast enough for that flat track at Syracuse. The checkup showed that Joe Petrali was National Champion of the dirt tracks. He had enough points to put him over with the title even though he stayed out of the rest of the races. When the announcement was made that he had nailed the Championship, he was presented with the beautiful championship crash helmet, donated by A.J. Reach Company of Philadelphia. Few ovations to track heroes have been more sincere than the one Joe received. The champ was evidently superstitious, as he soon recovered his old crash hat for the finish of the events.
Added starters for the Ten-Mile National Championship were Hader and Gustafson. This event was almost a replica of the five-mile, with Davis, Petrali, Toscani and Balanski out in front, battling every inch of the way. Never more than five or six lengths separated them. It was a case of riding wide open or lose out. An over-slide, a little misjudgment on a turn, meant elimination. The finish was Petrali, Davis and Balinski and the time was 7:20.90, a new record, braking the one made in 1930 by Walt Stoddard, who negotiated the ten miles in 7:23.06.
The crowd was wild at this third straight win for Joe. They began to pull for a clean sweep. Old-timers began to dig up the dope sheets. There had been other clean sweeps- Freddie Ludlow made one in 1921; Johnny Seymour got his in 1926; Jim Davis made one in 1929. It looked like one of those same things for Joe Petrali in 1935.
Don Ackerman, popular secretary of the New York State Fair Commission and the man who has made it possible for motorcycle races to have such a wonderful spot on the program, came down the track and advised a little “breathing spell” before the races were resumed. He evidently thought too much high pressure all in one spot might cause cases of apoplexy in the stands. So the interim was capitalized on by the pit workers before the next event was started.
The Fifteen-Mile National Championship was one of the most astonishing speed scraps ever seen on an American track. There was evidently no thought of saving motors or nursing the jobs through. Toscani seemed to have tapped new speed from some source, and he battled even harder than before. Lap after lap he see-sawed around the course with Davis and Petrali, and a fast field right behind waiting for that chance that so often comes to field riders who are ready for it. Laps were turned in 43.90 and 44 seconds, flat. Joe was leading when they came out of the final turn and straightened out for the stretch. Jim was close behind and Toscani was nipping Davis’ rear wheel at every revolution. And so they crossed the line. Hillbish, that newcomer in fast competition, came through for fourth place.
Dirt Track Standing-1935
Joe Petrali 650
Louis Balinski 250
Jim Davis 130
Fred Toscani 100
J. L Gustafson 90
Griffin Kathcart 20
Andrew Hader 20
George Toth 20
Paul McClellan 20
Time for the fifteen-mile was 11:10.83-a new record, beating the former record of Jim Davis, of 11:29.56. That record was made in 1929.
The final event was the Twenty-five Mile National Championship. By the time it was called, everybody but the riders were jittery. The clean sweep, could Joe make it? Twenty-five miles is different. The riders would be more discreet. There were motors to be considered. These were the words passed along the rail and through the stands as the boys sat on their motors waiting for the start. They made the lap and came up a roaring cavalcade for the flag.
Freddie Toscani had found more horses and was hitching them up, right there at the start. Joe and Jim were wheel-to-wheeling it right up in front. Andy Hader, star of the last year’s performance, had found the sweet spot and was making the best possible use of it. Louis Balinski crept up on Joe and Jim at the five miles and hung on. Most of the time he hung onto Joe who was in front position.
The expected motor-nursing never came. The pace was even more furious than before. Davis dropped back a length. Saving the motor? Maybe. It looked as though something had to let go up there in front, and Jim Hader and Toscani were in a fine position to take advantage of anything that might happen. But at twenty miles Joe and Louis were still riding hub and hub.
At this juncture nature imposed an extra hazard. It began to sprinkle. The boys came past the stands wiping the mist from their goggles. There was a hurried consultation among the officials. Starter Pink came out with the flags. The referee checked with each rider as he came along and each gave the O.K. signal. Still it sprinkled. Twenty-one miles, twenty-two! Joe and Louis were still wheel to wheel! Joe’s clean sweep of the meet was possible! The starter came out with the yellow flag-one more to go! And it was the longest lap any of us had ever seen.
Then the sun came through and as it did so, the two leading riders, still Petrali and Balinski, flashed into the stretch. Valiantly did the former champ try to jump pace, and just as valiantly did Joe Petrali, clean sweeper, National Champion, make his final bid and won. Hader had come out of the field and crossed the line for third place, with Davis in fourth and Toscani fifth.
Time was 18:44.52-and a new record, lowering the former record of 19:4.85, held by Andy Hader.
Three records broken! A clean sweep for Joe Petrali and the finish of the greatest race meet we have ever witnessed it.