Fred Ludlow On Harley Factory Banjo Race Engine

Harley factory racer Fred Ludlow

Fred Ludlow was a top board track racer in the teens and made the transition to dirt track racing with ease. The Californian’s greatest accomplishment came in September of 1921, when he won five national championships at the M&ATA (which later became the AMA) ¬†finale on the dirt mile at Syracuse, New York.

Ludlow was born on August 23, 1895, in Los Angeles. He finished two years of high school before being offered a full-time job as a truck driver. Ludlow saved his earnings and purchased his first motorcycle, an Indian. When truck driving proved to be too tame for him, he began racing in the Los Angeles-area motordromes at the age of 16.

Besides his obvious riding skills, Ludlow also gained a reputation as an excellent mechanic. It was Ludlow who turned the wrenches for Charlie “Fearless” Blake during his numerous speed-record runs on the boards during the later part of 1913.

Ludlow served in the Signal Corps during World War I. He left for Europe in April of 1918 and returned from the war in August of 1919. Soon after his discharge, Ludlow was hired by Harley-Davidson’s competition manager Bill Ottoway to race for the Milwaukee-based team. His factory debut came in a November race that year at Ascot Park. When his bike broke a chain and he was credited with fourth.

The team Harley assembled in 1920, later to be known as the “Wrecking Crew,” was chock full of talent. Ludlow joined Ralph Hepburn, Otto Walker, Red Parkhurst and later, Jim Davis, Ray Weishaar and Maldwyn Jones, in one of the most powerful factory squads ever put together.

Fred Ludlow rode this pocket-valve Harley-Davidson racer 102.87 mph

In February of 1920, Harley-Davidson sent some of its top riders, including Ludlow, to Daytona Beach, Florida, to test its new machines and to attempt speed records. Winter storms had left the beach in terrible condition with a rippled surface full of driftwood and other debris. Ludlow tested mostly on Harley’s single-cylinder machines and made a record one-way run of 103 mph early in the tests. He was also the passenger in a sidecar record run with Red Parkhurst at the controls. To save weight, the sidecar was nothing more than a bare-bones steel shell with no padding. Ludlow donned a thick fur coat in a futile effort to gain some protection, but was still battered around in the sidecar on the rough beach at speeds approaching 90 miles per hour. His entire body was said to be covered with bruises afterwards.

Ludlow competed in most of great races of the day, such as the Dodge City 300. He achieved his greatest success on September 19, 1921 on the famous Syracuse (New York) Mile. That day, Ludlow earned a clean sweep of all the national titles up for grabs. Ludlow won a perfect five wins in five races on his factory Harley-Davidson, besting most of the top stars of the day, including the likes of Jim Davis, Don Marks, and Ralph Hepburn. It was one of the most dominant performances in the history of the sport.

Leslie Parkhurst (on machine) and Fred Ludlow.

Leslie Parkhurst on Harley racer, Fred Ludlow in sidecar

Ludlow’s popularity was such that Harley-Davidson employed him to travel the country in a sidecar to host racing film shows to various clubs and other organizations interested in racing. Surprisingly, Ludlow’s success at Syracuse in 1921 proved to be his swan song on the race tracks of America. He was fired by Harley-Davidson in 1922 and went to work as a mechanic for C. Will Risdon’s Indian dealership in Los Angeles. In 1923, he joined the South Pasadena Police Department as a motorcycle officer. A year later, he transferred to a similar post in the Pasadena Police Department.

While he did very little track racing, Ludlow turned his attention to top-speed record attempts on the various dry lakes in Southern California and became known as one of the best in the field of record speed runs. Ludlow topped all riders at the AMA-sanctioned Los Angeles Speed Trials on Muroc Dry Lake in 1936, before an estimated 3,000 spectators.  Muroc was later closed to the public and became part of Edwards Air Force Base, site of the first sound-barrier jet flights and later NASA space shuttle landings.

Ludlow spent the rest of his working days with the Pasadena Police Department. He was a favorite speaker at various motorcycle gatherings and was an authority on early motorcycle competition. Fred Ludlow died in 1984 at the age of 89.

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