Pioneers of American Motorcycle Racing
by Daniel K. Statnekov
|©1998 - 2006 Daniel K. Statnekov |
1919 was not a good year for Excelsiors on the race track. The
Chicago company was unable to advertise even a single victory in any
of the National Championships contested in the first year of racing
after the war. The only publicity that Ignaz Schwinn's motorcycle
company could generate came from inter-city distance records set by their
famed long distance pilot, Wells Bennett. Although Excelsior's
exact production figures were not known, it was obvious that their
sales position was a distant 3rd as well.
Everyone in the Excelsior engineering department was hopeful about the
Chicago company's prospects for the 1920 racing season. McNeil
and Perry had finished work on the Cyclone-inspired overhead-cam engine
and dynamometer tests had demonstrated that their new powerplant developed
sufficient horsepower to run away from the competition. The completed
machine was a formidable statement of brute horsepower, designed to win
back the glory for Ignaz Schwinn's motorcycle company.
The first important meet of the year was scheduled to begin on January 4th,
at Ascot Park in Los Angeles. The Excelsior team arrived early in
order to warm up their new equipment and familiarize themselves with the
track. In practice, the new overhead-cam racer fulfilled the
promise of its Chicago "bench test." It had thunderous power
and was capable of very high speeds.
The day before the opening event of the Ascot meet, it was announced in
the pits that Bob Perry would ride the new Excelsior "wide open" and
try for a record lap. Spectators gathered at track side to watch
Ignaz Schwinn's "favorite son" make the record-setting attempt. The
following account is the combined eyewitness reports of Bob Perry's last lap:
Perry was traveling too fast and in fact was going at a speed which
was estimated at 95 to 100 mph; faster than any machine had ever
traveled over the Ascot Park course. The Excelsior rider tempted fate
by taking the lower turn wide open at the top of the track. He
started to skid on entering the turn, clipped the iron guard rail at
the top of the track, but managed to save himself and start down for
Halfway to the pole, however, the machine skidded and went down hard.
Bob was thrown clear off the machine and with terrific momentum was carried
along feet first toward the top rail. When Perry hit the dirt apron
at the top of the track his momentum stood him on his feet; falling over,
he continued to slide head first until he struck one of the upright outer
posts at the top of the track.
"Shrimp" Burns was one of the first to reach the unconscious rider.
Along with some of the others, the Shrimp gently lifted the injured rider
into a sidecar which carried him down the track to an ambulance.
Perry was rushed to the hospital where it was found that his skull had
been fractured at the base, his jaw broken and he had other injuries
about his head. He never regained consciousness from the time
of the accident at 4:15 until 9:40 that night when he passed away.
"Little Bob" was 28 years-old at the time of his death.
It has been reported that upon receiving the news of Perry's death,
Ignaz Schwinn was so enraged that he stormed into the design department
where he smashed several of the new overhead-cam engines that were being
assembled there. Out of respect for Bob Perry's memory, Schwinn
ordered the remaining Excelsior team riders to retire from the upcoming
100-mile Ascot race.
The opening event of the 1920 season then became a contest between
Indian and Harley-Davidson. Although the Springfield company
had not spent nearly as much money in their racing department as their
Milwaukee rival had spent to develop their "banjo" 2-cam, a special
version of the Indian Powerplus motor had also been perfected.
Charles B. Franklin was responsible for the sidevalve's improvement.
Born in Dublin, in 1880, Franklin (like Jacob DeRosier in the U.S.) became
fascinated with the motorized 2-wheelers when they first appeared at the
turn-of-the-century. As a young man, the Irish enthusiast became
an avid rider and throughout the early years was an outstanding competitor.
This brought him to the attention of Indian's representative in Great Britain,
and in 1911 he was invited to ride for the Indian team at the famous Isle of
Man TT. In that event DeRosier fared poorly, but Franklin placed
2nd in a memorable three place victory for the Springfield company.
This success combined with the Irish engineer's reputation as a keen student
of advanced motorcycle design brought him to the attention of Indian management.
Just before America entered the war, Franklin resigned from his life-time
civil service position, and accepted President Hendee's offer to join the
Springfield company. He arrived in America in December of 1916, and
immediately went to work as Charles Gustafson's assistant. By the
end of the war, Franklin had finalized his design for the (soon to be famous)
Indian Scout and engineered improvements for the Powerplus and the old
Hedstrom 8-valve as well.
Charles B. Franklin's improvements were significant. In the long run,
the Irish engineer's contribution to Indian would be as auspicious as
William Ottaway's contribution to Harley-Davidson, both men would pursue
their life's passion to the benefit of their respective companies.
Page installed: Nov. 15, 1996 |
Page revised: June 28, 2003