Motorcycles of Competition

Americans have a love of speed. In the 1800s, we raced across the continent, raced steamboats up the Mississippi (with often explosive results) and one of our first national sports heroes was the race horse, Dan Patch. The combination of the bicycle and the internal combustion engine led to the development of the motorcycle in the early twentieth century. Powered by primitive single cylinder engines, these early cycles were the beginnings of the sophisticated racing motorcycles of today.

Early motorcycle competitions in the United States were primarily held at county fair horse race tracks, along with some hill climb events. The earliest record of a motorcycle speed event was on July 31, 1900, in Boston, when a “speed performance” contest was held. As motorcycles grew more complicated (with twin and four cylinder engines, overhead valve and overhead camshaft engines, multi-speed gearboxes and chain drive), they began to outgrow the dirt track ovals and looked for a new type of track where they could continue their pursuit of speed.

A public anxious to see ever faster racing, along with the more technologically advanced motorcycles and cars of the day, led to the construction of the Super Speedways of the era. Unlike the concrete and asphalt Daytona and Talladega of today, the ’20s era speedways were made of wood.

These board tracks were constructed all over the country and varied from one mile to two miles in length. Usually made of 1x6 pine boards and banked (unlike the brick-covered Indianapolis Speedway) up to 60 degrees, these board tracks were fiendishly fast and produced both breathtaking racing and numerous fatalities. The motorcycles and cars were simply going too fast for the safety equipment of the time. The many fatalities and high maintenance (along with some convenient fires) led to the end of the board tracks almost as rapidly as they grew.

The Depression of 1929 caused motorcycle racing to return to a more basic level. Production-based flathead V-twins from Harley-Davidson and Indian took the place of the factory-only overhead cam racers. Racing returned to county fair tracks and hill climbs; these events became very popular with both racers and spectators. Production-based racers (like the 1940 Indian Scout on display) were rugged, reliable, easy to fix and were the backbone of American Motorcycle Association racing until the 1950s.  At that time, the British began to make their presence felt with cycles like the Triumph twins and the BSA Gold Star (as is also displayed).

As the 1950s passed to the 1960s and ’70s, motorcycle racing in the United States also changed. Short track dirt racing remained the backbone of AMA competition, but other forms of racing grew rapidly as the “baby boomer” generation discovered the fun of both riding and racing motorcycles. Drag racing, trials and moto-cross, speedway, and ice-racing blossomed in these years as manufacturers from Europe (Montessa and Bultaco from Spain, Parilla and Ducati from Italy) and Japan (Honda, Yamaha and Kawasaki) all looked to capitalize on America’s interest in going fast on motorcycles.

As you examine the exhibit “Competition Motorcycles from Asphalt to Ice,” notice how each of these cycles in their own special way shows our passion for going ever faster on two wheels.  

by Dennis Kipp