In 1931, Ignaz Schwinn closed his motorcycle business. The 71 year-old
industrialist, faced with the harsh reality of the depression, decided to
focus his efforts on the bicycle enterprise that had been the basis of his
success. The two Excelsior hillclimb champions immediately switched
over to Schwinn's former rivals: Joe Petrali signed up as a full-time
rider for Harley-Davidson and Gene Rhyne joined the Indian team.
As economic conditions continued to worsen, the two companies that remained
saw their sales fall dramatically. As far as racing was concerned,
both Harley-Davidson and Indian made the decision to focus their efforts on
hillclimbs which had become the most popular two-wheeled spectator sport.
By the end of the year, the only track records that had changed from those on
the previous year's score sheet, were once again in the 21.35 cubic inch "peashooter"
class. Joe Petrali continued his winning streak with 5 National dirt track
championships, and was crowned the National track racing champion for 1931.
Unlike previous years, the National Hillclimb Championship was divided
into two events. In addition to a contest on the east coast, 1931 was the
first year for a Pacific Coast Championship. In the east, the title was
decided in September at Rochester, New York; while in the west, the race
took place in October at Oakland, California. Even without an Excelsior,
Gene Rhyne was still the quickest man to the top of both hills in the 45
inch pro class, retaining the crown for himself as well as bestowing
it upon his new Springfield employer. In the 61 cubic inch professional
class, two Harley riders, Russell Fischer in the east and "Windy" Lindstrom
in the west, captured the honors for Milwaukee.
1932 witnessed the continued decline of the motorcycle industry in the
United States. Officially sanctioned professional track races were now
limited to the small, single cylinder "peashooter" class, unpopular with
the average rider who preferred the heavy-weight big twin motor as his
personal mount. This lack of identification with the 21-inch class (and
a much reduced official program) resulted in an increase in locally
sponsored events. For the most part, these races were unsanctioned,
"outlaw" meets, contested without the benefit of official referees, track
rules, or the other "niceties" that had evolved in the formative years of
the 2-wheeled sport.
Hillclimbs were still conducted under the auspices of the A.M.A.
sanction. For 1932, the National Championship was held on the steep,
625 foot hill in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Joe Petrali, who (in 1928) had
been the first man to ride a motorcycle to the top of this hill, was over
the top in 12 and 1/2 seconds to claim the title for his Milwaukee employer.
"Windy" Lindstrom retained the Pacific Coast crown he had earned the
previous year, piloting a race-ready Harley-Davidson "DAH" to victory at
the 2nd running of the west coast title event.
In other news, Charles B. Franklin, Indian's most innovative engineer
in the post-Hedstrom years, died of respiratory disease at the age
of 52, leaving behind a legacy of benchmark designs that had thrilled
a generation of riders and race fans alike. Franklin's death came at
a low point in his beloved company's fortunes, and with his passing the
pale light grew dimmer above the drafting tables where he had once presided.
By 1933, the giant Springfield factory was operating at only 5% of its capacity.
The Milwaukee company was in slightly better shape with Joe Petrali still employed
at a salary of $40.00 a week. Harley-Davidson got their money's worth:
Petrali won the National track championship at Syracuse, and staged a repeat of his
previous year's triumph on the Bethlehem hill. With Excelsior out of the
picture and Indian completely out of professional racing, the news of Joe's
success could not have been as meaningful as in years past for the executives
back in Milwaukee.
In retrospect, the only bright spot on the horizon in 1933 was an editorial by E.C.
Smith, the Executive Secretary of the A.M.A. Smith suggested that new rules
were needed in order to expand amateur participation in the sport. By the
following year, the new system (called "Class C") would usher in the next chapter
of motorcycle racing in America. Although professional racing would continue
for a few more years (until 1938), the renaissance in the 2-wheeled sport was
destined to come about through the widespread participation of everyday riders.
Even without the benefit of hindsight, it was evident that an era had ended.
Tracks and factories had closed, engineers had moved on, and most of
the men whose heart's blood had once pounded with the thrill of "the race"
had left the arena. The inexorable passage of time and change of circumstance
had touched everyone.
More than 25 years had passed since "Skinny, Mile-a-Minute"
Collins had earned his nickname at the old horse track in Los Angeles.
The same quarter of a century had elapsed since Glenn Curtiss, the young
bicycle builder from New York, had watched the sand at Ormond Beach turn
to a blur beneath the wheels of his experimental racer.
Twenty years had gone by since the deaths of Jake DeRosier and his
arch rival, Charles Balke, and even the legendary Don Johns had been retired
for more than a decade. Bob Perry, "Shrimp" Burns, Teddy Carroll, Gene Walker,
and Ray Weishaar, teenagers who had raced in the teens, had all perished,
leaving their contemporaries to grow old with their memories and
sepia-toned photographs. The last of the weathered pine tracks
had been dismantled, and the scrappy fraternity of riders had disbanded.
"It was the Depression," some would say, that ended the golden age
of motorcycle racing in America. But it was really much more than an
economic event that brought this particular "golden age" to a close.
The end of the era was a natural life-cycle event. When the wooden
stadiums were finally silent, and the crowd had left the arena for the
last time, that first generation of "boys," whose earliest dream was to
race their hearts out, found themselves men, and set out on other paths.
Although their lives are now but a memory, it is truly a great memory:
of men who lived life with a passion, and in doing so.....lived