by Neale Bayly
As the sounds of thundering V-twin engines rip through the smoke filled air, it is joined by the rhythmic clatter of wooden boards and the shouts of the large crowd. Racers clad in leather caps and cloth riding suits crouch with steely determination behind bent handlebars as they jockey for position, banging elbows at over a hundred miles per hour. With exposed valve gear chattering, drive chains lashing and flames shooting from the barely muffled engines, riders brave flying splinters and the risk of high-speed get offs without safety barriers. Racing purpose built single-speed machines, with no clutch or brakes, it is 1914 and they are the heroes of the day.
Ninety years later, the shriek from a pack of highly tuned multi-cylinder motorcycles screams through the air: Howling and wailing in the distance, there is an eerie stillness as the crowd holds a collective breath in anticipation of their arrival. Bursting into sight, a cacophony of sound and motion erupts as a blaze of brightly colored, leather clad warriors scorch past at close to 200mph. Braking for the upcoming corner, one by one they flow through the turn in an effortless arc, knee pucks skimming the smooth asphalt, before ripping away into the distance: it is 2004 and they are the heroes of the day.
Standing in the peaceful sanctuary of the Wheels Through Time museum in Maggie Valley, NC, on a bitterly cold winter day, I am lost in a time warp. In front of me is a perfectly restored 1908 Reading Standard board track racing machine sitting on an antique walnut table. Examining the seamless joints of the tubular frame rails now covered in mirror finished paint, I think of the alloy box section frames we have come to accept as the norm. (Some European manufacturers excluded.)
The engine is held in the frame at the top, front and the bottom with exquisite mounting brackets. The cylinders only have fins at the top, the bottom of the barrels smooth like a top fuel Harley drag bike. Inside the polished motor, high compression pistons rise and fall in time with large racing valves. Taking fuel and air in and passing burned gasses out through enlarged ports, the valves are opened and closed by external pushrods. These get worked on by racing camshafts. Getting the fuel into the cylinders, a small, neat carburetor feeds both cylinders through neat, straight shot intake tubes. An intricate oblong gauze air filter built into the body of the carburetor allows air to join the fuel.
There is no gearbox, the final drive being taken straight from the crankshaft to the rear wheel on the left hand side of the motorcycle. On the right hand side, a pedal system attaches to the crankshaft and the rear wheel. The engine has no clutch or gears, and to start the bike the rider had to pedal the motor to life, riding off as soon as it fired. Starting by retarding the spark, he would then lift the exhaust valves to release the compression in the cylinders with the right hand twist grip and start pedaling. When the engine had built enough momentum, the valves would be dropped and hopefully the machine would start. To stop, he used the decompression lever, or a kill switch to stop the motor, and the soles of his boots for brakes. A far cry from the triple disc, radial brake set ups used today that will have your brain hitting the front of your helmet under deceleration.
A certain amount of oil lived in the bottom of the crankcase, a neat sight glass window showing the level. To add oil during a race, the rider would twist the left handlebar grip. Operated by a series of mechanical joints, a small pump would add oil from the back left hand side of the tank. The valve gear would have been oiled from a can before riding, and should have remained lubricated for the duration of the race. The throttle is set on the carburetor by hand. There are no cables anywhere on the bike.
Looking closely at the engine, the exhaust pipes are impossibly short, cut just a few inches from the heads and I can only wonder what the bike must sound like when it fires to life. The Reading Standard rolls on 28-inch tires that are a scant two inches wide, and rough boards for the tracks to help these skinny tires get suitable adhesion. Spoke rims attached to beautiful nickel hubs (chrome hadn’t been invented in 1908) that look like they came from my first ten-speed. Did I mention there are no brakes?
The more I look, the more incredible the bike becomes with its tidy minimalist approach, I stand gazing, lost in time and space, museum owner, Dale Walksler, joins me. Surrounded by 230 historic American motorcycles from across the last century, we discuss what might be said a hundred years from now when Matt Mladin’s Superbike is sitting on a podium being viewed as a piece of motorcycle history: A time when motorcycles were still powered by fossil fuel.
Sitting under the Reading Standard is a 1914 Harley Davidson and Dale tells me that most of the bikes raced in this period were all purpose built factory racers, ridden by the stars of the day. Much like today, privateers still rode modified road bikes and races were held all around the country at sanctioned events on the old board tracks from 1909 until 1928. Apparently there is a myth circulating that the sport ended because it was too dangerous and too many people got killed. It most certainly is a fact that a lot of people did get killed and on one particularly tragic day in 1912, eight people lost their lives at the Motordrome in Newark, New Jersey: Two racers and six spectators, with a good number of others suffering injury. The real reason for the disappearance of board track racing, though, was the tracks began to rot out and it was much cheaper to build and maintain dirt tracks. And so America’s fascination with going sideways in the dirt developed further with emergence of class C racing and as many fans of this exciting sport will attest, it’s still certainly very alive and well today.
As dangerous as it was back then, it was still the most exciting spectacle the motorcycle enthusiast could enjoy, much like modern Superbike. And, delving back into the archives, I came across an amusing account of an incident from a race after D. O. Kinnie‘s clothes were shredded from his body in a high-speed tumble. “With the crowd of onlookers who rushed to Kinnie’s assistance were a large number of the fair sex, but these soon beat a hasty retreat when it was seen that he was not properly dressed to receive company.”
Heading towards the back of the Wheels Through Time museum, I find Dale’s board track racer exhibit. Overshadowed by a huge mural of a board track race in progress, there is a mixture of fully restored-to-actual- condition race bikes on display, along with accompanying memorabilia and artifacts from the period. One of the prominently featured bikes in fully restored condition is a 1924 Harley Davidson with a twin cam racing engine in a Keystone racing frame. Raced by the Domnyan brothers, it uses a factory racing 61 cubic inch engine (1,000cc) and produces around 40 horsepower. Powering the featherweight machine to speeds in excess of 100mph, it was fastidiously restored by one of America’s top vintage restoration experts, Steve Hungtzinger. The bike is one of about six in existence and has a value of around $150,000.
Sitting below the restored bikes is a row of original condition equipment. Immediately drawing my eye to its battle weary form, the 1913 Thor provokes a few questions. According to Dale, there were many American manufacturers around at this time with such wonderful names as Cyclone, Pope, Jefferson, Excelsior, Henderson, Lightening-Bradly, Ace and Emblem joining the still famous names of Harley Davidson and Indian.
In the corner, a race bike with a leaning sidecar attached stands alone on a sloping display. A 61 cubic inch Indian Daytona, it was built in 1920 and raced by the legendary Pop Dryer. With its flexible sidecar attached, it was regularly raced both on the boards and in the dirt. Behind the unit on the wall, an old poster informed me that Pop held a 10-mile and a 25-mile speed record with this very machine. Completing a 25-mile race at Toledo, Ohio back in 1921 in 21 minutes and 47 seconds, (more than 60mph average) he lapped nearly as quickly as the solo motorcycles of the day.
Right below it, Dale pointed out an original condition 1921 single cylinder Harley Davidson SCA. (Single cylinder alcohol). As half a 61 cubic inch, (30.5) the 500cc single is the only one left in the world out of six originally built and is valued at around $200,000. As we meander back through time, Dale tells me tales of past legends, such as E.G. “Cannonball” Baker, Jim Davis, Maldwin Jones and more, and shines a bright light back in modern motorcycling’s glorious past.
Stopping to pause at a beautifully restored 1924 JDCA 74 cubic inch Harley Davidson I am fascinated to learn it is what was known as an “Outlaw” bike and is one of around 20 or 30 left. Raced in non-sanctioned events around the country, this particular bike was ridden by a gentleman by the name of Carl Doran, from Minneapolis. According to Dale, there were never more than a few hundred bikes built for this type of racing so a fully restored example is extremely rare.
As we walk back to Dale’s office so I can take home some reference material, he tells me a little more about the emergence of class “C” racing at the end of the board track era. As a result of the depression, the class dictated that racers could only use stripped road models. Passing decades of modern motorcycle history as we walk, the bridge to current AMA Superbike racing could not be clearer as we stop at Brad Andres’ three time Daytona 200 winner. Sitting proudly on the upper floor of the museum, it now lives amongst the ‘new’ generation of road racers that appeared in 1961 when Roger Reiman won the first Daytona 200 to be run on asphalt. And finally, leaving all the now silent heroes behind, it feels good to know that a place like Wheels Through Time exists to honor their memory and maintain this historical link to the motorcycles we currently ride.