Old-Time Motorcycle Racers And Their Equipment

Time Trials, The Boards, Dirt Track, Road Racing

By Fred Ludlow, Photography by Fred Ludlow

From the January 1935 issue of Motorcyclist magazine

MUCH has been written about racing in America between the years of 1911 and 1929, but, to the best of my knowledge, there are still to be heralded some of the factors which operated behind the scenes.

As it may be of help and interest to present day riders, I would like to bring out if possible the elements of team work, the knowledge of mechanics, the versatility of the riders and the broadness of their training during the period I have mentioned.

In those days a rider, whether he be a National champion or just a member of a factory team, had to be ready to jump from a hard surfaced track to a soft one. He had to ride in dust so thick he could not see the rider ahead of him. One race might be one-lap on a mile and the next might be 300 miles. Following that he might be called upon to ride at Daytona Beach for a speed record.

Through it all he had to strive for team work, employing the tricks of the trade, not only to bring for himself a victory which was expected of him by fans and his factory alike, but he also had to conspire to bring through his team mates. It was like modern football. There was no place for straight sensational riding. In those days there was no demand for grandstanding. You were expected to fit into a general program, and you were trained to do it on dirt, sand or boards.

Training always has to have a starting point and mine started with the fastest ride I ever had in my life; not in terms of the stop watch, but in terms of my own sensations. Lee Humiston had just run the one-mile in 36 seconds (100 m.p.h.) and he had also turned 100 miles in 68 minutes upon the old board track at Playa del Rey or what some called the Venice Boards.

Indian was in hopes of recovering the record and accordingly Chas Balky riding a factory big base, eight valve was working to get it back. He was doing his work at the Indian agency in Los Angeles, C. Will Risdon’s place. I was working to develop an open port side valve dirt track job in connection with local events. It happened that one day I landed on the boards together with Balky, neither of us paying any attention to the other, and each trying to find bugs in his respective equipment.

Balky started out just as I did for a trial. Although my job was not capable of as much as his factory equipment, by reason of our starting together I happened to get pace on him and in consequence stayed with him for a few laps, the fastest of which clocked 39 seconds. Balky looked around under his arm and saw me hanging on so he put into use his unusual ability to ride the bottom board. I couldn’t stay on the bottom board but I didn’t lose pace. Before long we both came in and stopped.

After changing plugs Balky came over and asked if I had ever ridden a big base, eight valve. I told him no, and that my fastest lap had been the one we just turned. He said he would like to listen to his job and asked if I would like to take it around. Of course I said I would. He told me how to handle it and I took off to warm up and turned 37 4/5 seconds. That lap did things to me. In a sense it was the fastest I ever turned. The surprises I experienced as this motor responded to my every wish were so great that I never again received quite the same thrill. It was my initiation into speed and it clinched my determination to try for some real records.

By Fred Ludlow
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