A Sketch from the Pioneer Days of Road Racing

China…Chains and Chance

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.

Then came the San Diego to Phoenix road race. My mount, by virtue of my showing in the enduro, was a Twin-cylinder Thor. Not knowing anything about the profession of road racing, I set forth with not too much preparation. After using seven tubes I worked myself into third position. Seven miles from Phoenix I got a puncture and had to wheel the rest of the way on the rim. My finish was in fifth position. The winner, Paul Derkhim, made the fast time of 16 hours and 10 minutes. My own time was 20 hours and 40 minutes. Later I was to ride this same course and set a record of 12 hours and 10 minutes.

During that race I learned things. I found out that nearly all the boys were able, for instance, to run the seven miles from the foot of Mountain Springs grade to Coyote Wells in eleven minutes. Over the existing road this was quite some running. It was during that race that I settled on a technique. I found I did best by hitting the sand pretty fast. By guiding ever so lightly I learned to keep the machine in a rut, the rut and the wheels doing about half the work of guiding. If you lost a rut it was too bad. The small tires would dig in fast, run you all over the road, and you’d end by losing so much speed that it was necessary either to pedal real hard or to get off and run alongside of the machine. By the time you could get the mount back into the proper rut and again get up speed quite a loss of time had been suffered. I found out all about “lugging” tires to the rim. By letting out air when you came to the sand the tires would balloon out a little and thus would not cut in or slow you up. However, when partly flat they would also tend to creep and that was hard on valve stems. As I said, I used seven tubes during the trip and then finished on the rim. I always felt that tires cost me my right to third position.

Road events increased in popularity following the early ones staged by the combined efforts of the Phoenix and the San Diego motorcycle clubs. The Springerville to Phoenix run in 1916-a 423-mile run, was one of the biggest. I had the good fortune to win this event. In it were Joe Walters, Cannon Ball, Baker, Bedell, Crandall, Dodds and other lights.

We rode the course once, the reverse way, and as we went we bought gas and oil ahead of time for the actual run. By figuring out mileage and then paying for one gallon of gas and one quart of oil extra we were able to guard against loss of time from the standpoint of fueling. In this type of racing there was not the opportunity for the teamwork which was to develop later in connection with many forms of motorcycle competition with factory teams. A rider was pretty much on his own and often had to do as much head work as he did riding.

Illustrative of this, it might be interesting to review some of the incidents of that race as they related to my own part in the event. I had talked things over with Cannon Ball Baker and we had decided to cooperate with each other, somewhat on the order of a two-man team. This meant that one day one fellow could clear the road of cattle, for instance, while the other fellow hung back just enough to feed a lot of dust to the rest of the field.

I drew number one and Baker drew the last number. Consequently, I set as moderate a pace as I could to enable him to come through to the front. All went well until I picked the wrong road and took off on what turned out to be a scenic tour of some Indian Cliff dwellings. When I pulled into Flagstaff I had third position. Baker was in the lead and Bedell, who was a forest ranger in those parts and who knew all the roads by heart, was in second. The race committee checked us in and then locked our machines in a garage. It was impossible to do any work on our outfits until we were checked out the next morning and were on our own time.

Just before I took off on the wrong road, my first day, I had stopped at one of the appointed refueling spots only to find that the station man had not expected me so early and still had his pump locked up. I waited for him to go in the house and get the keys. When I asked about oil he said, “Oh, that’s still out in the shed.” I decided to skip the oil. The result was that with my added unnecessary mileage I ran out of oil about a mile before I hit Flagstaff.

The next morning when it was time to start off I had all the job of priming the oil pump. I was worried that Bedell would start even up with me, and if he did he would have a total lead of 4 ½ minutes on me. Priming an oil pump in a cold motor at Flagstaff in November is quite a job. Also, when I stopped the day before I had a hot motor. That morning the motor was so cold that, combined with the altitude the machine would pop a few pops and stop. I had to change to a richer mixture. When I did get going I fairly flew. To make matters worse, I saw my so-called teammate, Baker, stopped by the road just a couple of blocks out of Flagstaff. Then I knew I was on my own against the old forest ranger Bedell, a real menace to my ambitions. I was so winded from all my exertions starting the motor in the high altitude I couldn’t even call to Baker to see what the trouble was.

Because the city of Prescott had contributed toward the purse we were required to turn off the main road which led on through Black Canyon, go about 2 ½ miles into town, sign up, and then come back out to the main road and go on. Just before I got to Prescott I hit a bridge too hard and it turned the bars down on the Indian I was riding. After signing up I stopped long enough to pull these up and tighten them. All the while I had my ear cocked for some of the others to be coming in on that 2 ½ miles. As it turned out, I got clear out to the road again and still couldn’t hear anyone. That encouraged me, so I proceeded to crank it on again.

At Canyonville they did not have gas pumps. Instead they kept gas in big drums. I had left word to have my gas all poured out in buckets. When I pulled in I told the fellow to gas her up while I put in the oil. He poured in a bucket and, seeing that it did not fill the tank, I told him to pour in another. So he emptied another bucket.

Just out of town I had to cross a stream with about eight inches of water in it. I rode carefully so as not to get water on any vital part of my critical mount and thought I did a good job of it. Nevertheless, about 10 feet from the far bank there was a cough, a sputter and dead silence. That is, it was a dead silence providing a lot of profanity on my part wasn’t considered as noise.

I checked the mag, and then saw some water on the carburetor around the air valve. I couldn’t believe that I had splashed it there-and, I hadn’t. Taking the carburetor apart, I found it full of water. I emptied and dried it. When I put it on it filled again with water. Then I figured out what had happened. The fellow had poured in two buckets all right, but the second one had been a bucket of drinking water he had there for the fellows.

By this time my verbal outburst had echoed back in the form of two fellows from up at the station. While one helped me turn the motor over and drain out the tank, the other went back for another bucket of gas. One gallon we used to wash out the tank. Then we filled her. When turning the motor over all my tools, spare chain links and what have you fell out of the tool box. I grabbed up a handful of these and away I went.

Not much farther along I dove into a canyon and broke a chain. For a moment I was in a quandary. Upon looking into the tool box I found that one of the things I had not picked up out of the dust had been a spare link. Then I happened to remember. The night before, just as a preparation for some such contingency, I had taken two spare links apart and stowed all the pieces in a pocket. This bit of forethought, and all for no particular reason other than as a possible means of saving time in case of chain trouble, saved the race for me. I had lost 45 minutes while getting the water out of my tank. I couldn’t have made it back to where the chain links were left. As it was, I quickly made repairs and once again started racing.

About twenty miles out of Phoenix came my last bit of worry. The gas line broke where it fastened on the carburetor. I rode along with one hand and held the line against the carburetor with the other hand. When it took both hands on the bars I had to bank on the few drops which would drip into the carburetor, then hurry up and grab the line again before the motor died. Despite all these adverse experiences, I made it to Phoenix ahead of any of the competitors.

All the other riders were going through troubles similar to my own and no doubt some of those who failed to finish were not so lucky as to have the trouble develop at a point near outside help. Nobody thought much about all the problems we faced at that time because we were not used to anything different.

“I was prone to put half of a 150 dollar set of china in that part of the sack which hung on my chest…”