First Win For Factory Harley Racing? October 1914 Birmingham

This article on the first win for the factory Harley racing was researched and written by David Morrill and reposted from his blog with permission.

This story started with a trip to my local Harley-Davidson dealer a few months back. Harley is now selling early racing photographs from their achieves, and the local dealer had several framed board track photos for sale. I picked up a photo of Otto Walker taken after his win at Venice, California in April 1915. The small plaque on the photo claimed this was Harley-Davidson’s first Championship win. That was a little surprising, as I had heard of at least one earlier win.  I figured it was time to share a small and almost forgotten piece of Harley-Davidson’s motorcycle race history.

Harley-Davidson 11-K Racer

1914 was a pivotal year for Harley-Davidson. Although long opposed to Championship racing, the factory changed course.  They hired engineer William “Bill” Ottaway to develop their production V-twin engine for racing. The result was the Harley-Davidson 11-K racer.

Leslie “Red” Parkhurst was the first rider hired by the Harley Davidson factory in 1914 to ride the new racer. By July, the racer was ready for its first big test, the Dodge City 300  Road Race in Dodge City, Kansas. Parkhurst was one of six team members sent by the factory to compete in the Dodge City 300 that year. The new racers were fast, but only two of six were running at the end of the race.

Leslie “Red ” Parkhurst
Daniel Statnekov Collection

On October 5, 1914, Red Parkhurst lined up for the Federation of American Motorcyclists (FAM) One Hour Championship Race held at the Alabama State Fairgrounds Raceway in Birmingham, Alabama.  Parkhurst was riding one of Bill Ottaway’s factory prepared 11-K Harley racers. Parkhurst was assisted in his pit by the new Birmingham Harley-Davidson dealer William F. Specht Jr., along with Johnny Aiken.

Specht, who was also a racer, had relocated to Birmingham from Atlantic City, New Jersey. In early 1914, he opened a Harley-Davidson dealership in Cliff Howell’s bicycle shop in downtown Birmingham. The arrival of the first wagon load of 1914 Harley-Davidsons in Birmingham was documented by local photographer and motorcycle enthusiast O.V. Hunt.

In the Birmingham race, Parkhurst’s chief competition was Excelsior factory rider Joe Wolters. The Birmingham Indian dealer Bob Stubbs, sponsored two local racers, Gail Joyce and Gene Walker. Joyce was the more experienced of the two, having won several Southern Series races outside Birmingham. Walker had made a name for himself in the amateur ranks at the Birmingham track, but this would be his first professional race.

Alabama State Fairgrounds Raceway
O.V. Hunt – Birmingham Public Library

As the race started, Gene Walker jumped into the the lead setting a new track record. Parkhurst was running second, followed by Wolters.  On the third lap, Parkhurst passed Walker for the lead. Walker was later passed by Wolters. Parkhurst built a considerable lead over Walker, Wolters, and Gail.  On lap 33, a fuel problem forced Parkhurst into the pits.

Red Parkhurst
Daniel Statnekov Collection

In the Harley-Davidson pit, Specht and Aiken refueled Pankhurst’s axillary fuel tank. Parkhurst attempted to clean his oil and dirt covered goggles with a handkerchief he kept tied to his handlebars. The handkerchief was also covered with oil and dirt, so Parkhurst asked a spectator for a clean handkerchief. The spectator enthusiastically provided a handkerchief, and assisted Parkhurst with cleaning his goggles. Parkhurst rejoined the race, and when the flag was thrown to end the race, he was leading Joe Wolters by half a lap. Gene Walker finished 3 laps behind Parkhurst. Shortly after the race, Gail Joyce filed an official protest, claiming the spectator in the pits had improperly aided Parkhurst.

The results of the race were not settled until the following week at the Chicago Motorcycle Show. On Tuesday of the show, Joe Wolters approached FAM Chairman John L. Donovan claiming he was due another lap at Birmingham. He claimed he had finished a half a lap ahead of Parkhurst.

The October 27, 1914 issue of Bicycling World and Motorcycle Review quoted Chairman Donovan’s finding on the two Birmingham race protests. In disallowing Joyce’s protest, Chairman Donovan stated:

“Safety requires that competitors in races shall be permitted to see what they are doing. It certainly would be ridiculous to disqualify Parkhurst because he permitted someone to assist him in wiping the oil and dirt off his goggles. Parkhurst clearly is entitled to the victory.”

Concerning Joe Wolters’ late protest, Chairman Donovan stated:

“Of course, the rules require that protests shall be made within a half hour after the close of the race. The rules would not permit official consideration of additional points not included in the original protest. But courtesy required that I should wire for information and I did so. It is perfectly clear that Parkhurst won the F. A. M. hour championship fairly and squarely.”

With the protests settled, Parkhurst was awarded the trophy and his winnings on the second day of the Chicago show.  Shortly after the decision was announced, a large sign proclaiming Parkhurst’s victory on a “stripped stock Harley-Davidson against ported and eight valve machines,” appeared behind the 11-K Harley-Davidson on display at the show. Parkhurst’s win went on be the center piece of Harley-Davidson’s advertising for the upcoming 1915 model.

1915 Harley-Davidson Ad
Popular Mechanics
Was the 1914 Birmingham Championship Race win the first for a  Harley-Davidson factory rider on a factory prepared bike? I’ll leave that one to the experts. The one/two finish of factory riders Otto Walker and Red Parkhurst in the 1915 Venice race was a more prestigious win against stiffer competition. But Parkhurst’s Birmingham win may have paid a much more import role in Harley-Davidson race history, and opened the door for the Venice win months later.
Harley Davidson founders William Harley and William Davidson attended the July 1914 Dodge City 300 Road Race.  They made it clear in post-race comments; their intention was to provide factory prepared machines to select dealer supported riders. It appears they had no intention of a full factory supported racing team. The publicity surrounding Parkhurst’s Birmingham win may have changed their minds. In November 1914 they sent a factory supported race team to compete in the Savannah 300 Road Race in Savannah, Georgia.
This was the beginning of the famed Harley-Davidson Racing Team, which came to be known as “The Wrecking Crew.” Parkhurst’s 1914 Birmingham win may have opened the door for creation of a fully factory supported racing team. The Harley-Davidson Factory Racing Team continues to compete today, and is one of the longest running and most successful racing teams in the country.
Daniel K. Statnekov and Don Emde have been extremely helpful in many of my articles. Their assistance is deeply appreciated! Daniel Statnekov’s work, Pioneers of American Motorcycle Racing is a must read!
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.