In 1916 at Dodge City, Kansas, Harley-Davidson nailed down once and for all that Milwaukee's racing motorcycles were the best in the business. The victor was a young Milwaukee man with a "One Thousand Dollar Smile" -- HW
The Dodge City Classic
Harley-Davidson’s Battle for Racing Supremacy
The dust has settled, the last spectator gone home, but the legend remains...
the 300-mile race at Dodge City, Kansas, had become the premier battleground of American
motorcycle competition. It was a fitting arena. The memory of Indian Wars, buffalo
hunters, cattle drives, and gunfighters haunted the “Wickedest Little City in America.”
Now the motor age had brought its magic to the banked, two-mile dirt track on the
Kansas prairie. It was at this famous race that the Harley-Davidson motorcycle would
prove its speed and endurance above all others.
On July 4th, 1916, twenty-year-old Irving Janke straddled a Harley-Davidson eight-valve racer at the Great Plains Classic. The “youngster” looked out of place beside his battle-scarred opponents. Janke was a dark horse in this field of veterans.
* * *
Except for a few very early attempts, the founders of Harley-Davidson had shied away from outright
speed racing. For years reliability or endurance runs were favoried. The Harley was
a work-horse and not a racing stud. When a private owner won a race of speed on a
Harley-Davidson, the Milwaukee factory quickly noted that these were “stock” motors,
and not special racing jobs.
But racing had given Indian and Excelsior a mystique that translated into sales -- one that Harley-Davidson could not forever ignore -- and at the first Dodge City race in 1914, Milwaukee joined the big name racing game.
Harley-Davidson’s initial effort was not inspiring. Indian, Thor, and Excelsior took the top six places in a field that also included Merkel and Pope. Just two of six Harleys finished the race. The one positive note came at the 120-mile mark when a Harley vied for the lead, but then chain failure took it out of the race. The Milwaukee crew went home determined to do better next time -- and they did.
In 1915, a smoothly functioning pit crew and updated equipment saw H-D on a winning streak that held right through the big Dodge City race. When the final flag dropped, Harley-Davidson riders had taken first, second, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh places. Milwaukee had beaten Indian, Excelsior, Pope, Emblem, Merkel, and the overhead-camshaft Cyclone at the biggest race of all -- Dodge City.
Not just beaten them, but rubbed their faces in the dirt. Only Carl Goudy on a big valve Excelsior managed to eck out third place. One rival spat: “Harley-Davidson, first and second, is something we are getting sick of hearing.”
If 1914 had been Milwaukee’s introduction to long distance dirt track racing, and 1915 the initial success, 1916 would be the showdown. Like gunfighters facing off at high noon on a dusty frontier street, the 1916 race was the final drama in this world of pre-World War One motorcycle competition. Few, however, dreamed the winner would be a fresh-faced, smiling lad from Milwaukee.
Irving Janke was born in that city in 1896. At an early age he caught the motorcycle bug. First he rode for the post office and later as delivery boy for Schuster’s department store. Later, in the 1920s, he was a Milwaukee motorcycle cop. As a teenager Janke often landed on the wrong side of the law. Arrested seven times for speeding, one Milwaukee officer told the judge, “A millionaire couldn’t pay his fines. He’s...the most reckless motorcyclist in the city.”
Then fate took a hand. Janke’s boss at Schuster’s was an ardent racing fan. He noticed the youngster’s ability and in 1912 encouraged him to try racing. Janke’s success on local tracks drew the attention of Harley-Davidson’s Hugh Sharp, who saw a potential home-town hero -- but one riding an Indian!
Overnight, Janke was hired by the Harley factory as a test rider. Young, handsome, and always neatly dressed, Janke appeared in serveral company advertisements, including one with Arthur Davidson’s wife and daughter. He was given a racing machine, expenses, and became a factory-sponsored rider. Only eighteen, the older racers nicknamed him “the youngster.” Janke’s reputation quickly grew. One paper called him, “the local speed wizard who has had a phenomenal rise in the motorcycle...world.”
In 1914, Janke took part in Harley-Davidson’s first official team effort at Savannah, Georgia. He placed 3rd in the big 300-miler. Janke wired home: FINISHED THIRD NO ACCIDENT AM WELL IRVING.
Janke’s widowed mother afterwards remarked, “I was worried because this is the first time Irving has ever been so far away from home...” She had reason to worry. During the Savannah race two riders were killed outright on the track.
In early 1916, Janke was assigned a new Harley-Davidson “eight-valve” racer. This was Milwaukee’s secret weapon introduced the previous September in Chicago where Otto Walker turned a lap at 93.5 mph and nailed a new 100-mile record at 89.11 mph.
The eight-valve was Milwaukee’s first non-production racing engine. Early versions had a special head-cylinder with four pushrod-operated valves, but used the standard pocket-valve bottom end. This would later evolve into the famous “two-cam” bottom. The Harley eight-valve combustion chamber was of pent-roof design, and was more efficient than the flat-top style found in production OHVs like the Pope and Jefferson motorcycles, or in Indian’s older eight-valve racer.
That spring, Janke cleaned up on Milwaukee-area tracks with the eight-valve. But Dodge City was the big event, and by June, Milwaukee was abuzz with excitement. One paper noted, “Every motor cycle factory is straining its best efforts to place on the...Dodge (track) the fastest two-wheeler in its production.”
Although a hometown favorite, Janke was not originally scheduled for Dodge City. He was only added after Otto Walker was injured on the Chicago speedway. Janke had yet to win a long distance race, and it was believed that previous Dodge City events had wrung all the speed the famous dirt track would allow. As a result, the 1916 competition would be desperate and bitter.
Much had changed in the world since the first Dodge City race in 1914. War had broken out in Europe, and by 1916 American isolationism had slipped in favor of England and France. Because Milwaukee was heavily ethnic German, that city had been slow to jump on the patriotic bandwagon. So slow in fact, that some had branded Milwaukee as subversive. In spite of Arthur Davidson’s trip to England in early 1915 on the Luisitania to open a “London Branch” -- missing by a few weeks that ship’s torpedoing off the Irish Coast -- Harley-Davidson may have endured a few anti-patriotic slurs.
For years the Harley-Davidson motorcycle had worn gray paint, and the name “silent gray fellow” was known to every motorcyclist. By 1916, that had been shortened to just “gray fellow,” but that name may have been a too close for comfort to the “field gray” that described the uniforms of the Kaiser’s army. One suspects that Milwaukee’s dropping the color gray in 1917 for the more patriotic “olive drab” was due to suspicions of mixed loyalty.
Perhaps for those reasons, more American flags were seen at Dodge City in 1916 than ever before. Yet the traditional carnival atmosphere remained, with vendors hawking peanuts, candy, and colorful balloons for the children. This was the biggest Dodge City event yet. Twenty-thousand spectators packed the stands, with the racers’ wives seated in a reserved section. Autos lined the south side of the track.
Another change was the presence of only three motorcycle factories. This starkly portrayed the melt-down of the American motorcycle industry. Rising labor and material costs due to the war in Europe, along with a shortage of component parts, spelled doom for the smaller motorcycle builders. Of the 21 starters, six were Indian mounted, seven rode Excelsiors, and eight were on Harley-Davidsons. Three Harleys were eight-valve racers. These were ridden by Janke, Floyd Clymer, and Clarence Johnston.
Milwaukee’s racing success in 1915 and the appearance of the Harley eight-valve had riled the competition. Word had gotten around, however, that the eight-valve was vulnerable to dust, and that if you could get ahead and kick up some dirt, they would sputter and slow down. Floyd Clymer, another replacement on the Harley team, had looked longingly at the new-fangled eight-valves, but didn’t think he’d get to ride one. The veteran riders, however, thought the pocket-valve was still a better bet on the “long grind,” and Bill Ottaway assigned Clymer an eight-valve. “I climbed on,” Clymer later said, “and what a bunch of dynamite I had under me.”
Just before 11 o’clock, the machines were wheeled onto the track. Five abreast, they were led around the speedway by a auto in a rolling start. One observer described it as a “wolf-pack in a steer-drive.” As they approached the starting line, the pace auto dropped away, the riders closed ranks, and the flag dropped. The famous Cowboy Band struck up a tune and the crowd cheered their favorites as the third Great Plains Classic roared to life.
Flashing past the timers’ stand, the racers surged forward. Don Johns on an eight-valve Indian jumped the pack and some thought he would repeat his sizzling early performance of 1915. But on the second go-around Floyd Clymer passed Johns. He would hold this lead until the 53rd lap, during which he would break the track’s previous 100-mile record and earn $100 for his effort. It was a typical Kansas summer day: bright sun and a temperature pushing 100 degrees. A breeze kept flags snapping and the spectators comfortable, but slowed the racers as they turned into the wind.
One feature of the 1916 race were the colorful jerseys worn by the Harley-Davidson team. The color variations were useful when identifying riders on the back stretch from the Harley-Davidson tower -- or “periscope” as some were calling it. At noon, whistles blew in nearby Dodge City and spectators opened lunches or visited hot dog stands. One inexperienced race-goer inquired, “Don’t the riders stop for dinner?”
But there were no such luxury. The only stops were for fuel or repairs. This was a race of speed and endurance. As long as the machines ran, the riders suffered in silence. The race would continue until the final “century” had been conquered. Inevitably, the combination of heat and mechanical failure took their toll. Excelsior star Bob Perry was the first out in the jinxed 13th lap with a broken valve. Harley rider Harry Brandt couldn’t take the strain and quit in the 29th. Johnston’s eight-valve sputtered to a halt in the 35th. Excelsior mounted Stokes dropped out in the 38th. At the 100-mile mark, Janke was 36 seconds behind Clymer. At 150 miles -- the half-way point -- Janke and Clymer were running dead even. For the next 50 miles blue-and-red garbed Janke and black-and-gold Clymer jousted for the lead. First one, then the other pulled ahead, their identical eight-valves equal in speed as well. The rest trailed behind.
How unlikely a scene at this normally sleepy western city. Motorcycles battling for racing supremacy where a few years earlier frontier struggles had taken place. A last hint of times past could be seen in the dozing deputy sheriff, a double-barrel shotgun hanging over his knee, spitting tobacco juice on a hot Ford radiator, oblivious to the race.
More machines fell by the wayside. “Red” Armstrong (Indian) dropped out in the 70th lap. Paul Gott (H-D) suffered a spill in the 77th. Johns (Indian) broke a valve in the 79th. Crandall (H-D) quit in the 88th. Correnti (H-D) in the 91st. At the 200-mile mark, Janke finished the “double-century” three minutes and 23 seconds ahead of Clymer, who had stopped for a new tire. Clymer regained the lead while Janke was refueling. But then luck deserted the Colorado man. At 218 miles Clymer’s machine broke a valve, thus ending his chance for glory.
From then on it was Janke’s race. The only threat came from veteran rider Joe Wolter on a big valve Ex, who hung in Janke’s suction trail and hoped to sprint past him. But even this old trick didn’t work. Every time Wolter drew near, the youngster easily pulled away. No motorcycle remaining on the famous track that day could touch him.
Over the last punishing hundred miles Janke led the survivors -- a mere seven out of the original 21. They crossed the finish in this order: Janke, (H-D); Wolter, (Ex); Weishaar, (H-D); Warner, (Indian); Walker, (Ind); Graves, (Indian); and Boido (Ex). Janke made the 300 miles in 3 hours, 45 minutes, and 36 seconds, with an average speed of 79.79 mph. He finished 2:17 ahead of Wolter and 10:17 in front of 3rd place Ray Weishaar. He shaved 10 minutes 9 seconds off the previous year’s record set by Otto Walker.
When Janke found his legs again, the new champion climbed the pedestal and took the princely sum of $800 for his first place finish and $200 for the 200-mile record. Newspapers around the country reported on “Yank” and his smile. The play of words on his name appears to be another hint of the Milwaukee-based company’s desire for patriotism. Janke also received a gold award that remains in the Janke family to this day.
If Excelsior was satisfied with Wolter’s second place, it was a
numbing defeat for Indian, whose best showing was “Spec” Warner’s 4th place finish.
This from a company whose racing machines had once seemed invincible.
The 1916 Dodge City race was the first smashing victory for Harley-Davidson’s eight-valve racer. After years of bragging about stock engines, Milwaukee had now deployed a race engine radically different from their standard production motors. After the race, however, some observers commented upon this seeming hypocrisy. Janke defended the “special model” by saying, “Why not have eight valves?...you don’t see...old...nags in (horse racing.)”
At once plans were made for the 1917 Dodge City Classic, but it was not to be. The United States entry into the European war ended racing at Dodge City until 1920, at which time the late Jim Davis rode the Harley-Davidson to another victory. But by then the issue was no longer in doubt. So long as Harley-Davidson fielded a professional racing team -- the original “wrecking crew” --Harley-Davidson reigned supreme on the long grind.
So maybe the early emphasis on endurance runs wasn’t so wrong-headed after all. Because once Milwaukee added speed to their brew, the combination proved unbeatable. Maybe Harley-Davidson had been planning for this moment all along.
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