Harley-Davidson Racing History
You may have checked out Nic de Sena’s great article about the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee showcasing the Motor Company’s racing heritage in 2016.
As he related in his piece, one of the exhibits, “Racing Machines from the KR to the XR,” takes us back to the days of Harley-Davidson’s competition through the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.
Great as the Motor Company’s success was in that era, going back further reveals stunning successes in a time when you’d least expect it – the throes of the Great Depression.
The year was 1936 and future looked pretty bleak. World-wide, the economy was in the tank and war clouds were gathering over Europe and in the Pacific.
The kind of confidence and enthusiasm that is required to take bold chances in an industry that should have been happy to simply survive had to be hard to come by. Nonetheless, Harley-Davidson thundered ahead as told in the November 1936 issue of The Enthusiast, Harley-Davidson’s in-house magazine.
Indeed, 1936 was a big year for the Motor Company because it was the first year for the new 61 cubic inch OHV V-twin model. Later dubbed the “Knucklehead” that engine remains one of the most sought-after classic Harley-Davidson powerplants ever put on the market.
The knucklehead engine design would become the top-of-the-line engine for Harley-Davidson until it was phased out with the introduction of the Panhead in 1948. It was also the second year for the 80 cubic inch side valve flathead models introduced in 1935. All the new models to be in dealer showrooms in 1937 were featured in that issue of the Enthusiast.
But there was a lot more history in that year and in that issue than the new Harley-Davidson models. In October, 1936, Bill Connelly and Fred Dauria took an 80 cubic inch sidecar rig and smashed both the transcontinental solo motorcycle and motorcycle sidecar speed record set only 12 days before they broke it.
They beat the solo bike record by one hour and 34 minutes and the sidecar record by 17 hours and nine minutes, making the crossing from New York City to Los Angeles in 69 hours and 46 minutes with the two men piloting in 100 mile shifts, running day and night. This image (right), from that issue of the Enthusiast, shows Connelly (then an American Motorcyclist Association district commissioner) at left, and Dauria on the bike. Los Angeles H-D dealer, Rich Budelier is in the middle.
Impressive as that record run was, it was not the only high-profile victory in Harley’s pocket 80 years ago. For those of us who don’t think of Harley-Davidson as an ISDT contender, think again. Harley-Davidson riders H. Persoon and V. Ripel took a 61 c.i. sidehack rig to a gold medal at the ISDT held that year in southern Germany. They are shown in this image (right) from the Enthusiast posing with their victory laurels.
Meanwhile, in Flint, Mich., H-D rigs took five out of six top places in the Michigan Reliability Run.
The Run included a river crossing as shown in this image (below left) from the Enthusiast. I wonder how many riders today would put their new Tri-Glide in the river!
Over in Wisconsin, Steve Kakuk of Manitowoc, shown in this image (large bottom image) leaving the pack in a cloud of dust, rode his 61 c.i. Harley to victory in the Wisconsin TT championship near Madison. Kakuk and his brothers, Joe and Louie were reported to have cleaned up in all of the Class C races at that event, all on Harleys.
Indeed, that issue of the Enthusiast reported Harley-Davidson victories in TT, endurance run and hill-climb competitions from New Hampshire, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Georgia, Indiana, and Massachusetts in the month of September alone.
The old saying goes, “Fortune favors the bold,” and if history is any indicator, it sure applied to Harley-Davidson eighty years ago.
For more, visit the Harley-Davidson Museum.