This is part one of a two-part series on the renewal of the long-running American Flat Track racing rivalry between Indian and Harley-Davidson. Part two will be published in the February issue of SPEED SPORT Magazine.
With the revival of Indian Motorcycle and a return of the iconic brand to American Flat Track racing this season, it’s a good time to look back at Indian vs. Harley-Davidson — the biggest rivalry in American motorcycle racing during the first half of the 20th century.
Indian emerged from the dozens of American motorcycle manufacturers in the first decade of the 1900s to become the giant of the industry. Indian was the dominant maker in motorcycle racing’s first decade in sales and in competition, winning many city-to-city endurance events as well as early board-track and dirt-track races.
Many motorcycle racers of that era had been leading bicycle racers and that was the case with Jake DeRosier, generally considered the first factory motorcycle racer.
DeRosier’s racing success with Indian helped solidify the Springfield, Mass., manufacturer’s reputation of being on the cutting edge of motorcycle design.
Harley-Davidson got a later start, but the Milwaukee-based maker also made technically superior machines and it wasn’t long before riders of Indians and Harley-Davidsons began meeting in local competitions.
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One of the seminal events that highlighted the up-and-coming Harley-Davidson came in 1908, when Walter Davidson himself (one of Harley-Davidson’s original founders) entered the Federation of American Motorcyclists National Endurance Contest in New York. The course was 354 miles from the Catskills to New York City.
Davidson came away with the victory, greatly bolstering the maker’s reputation. Davidson rode a reportedly stock machine, advertising that the bike he raced was taken directly from New York dealership’s showroom floor (never mind that it would not be difficult for Harley to make sure the motorcycle sitting on that showroom floor be a special factory-prepped machine).
Part of the endurance contest was a 50-mile economy test and a Harley-Davidson also won that portion, covering the 50 miles with a remarkably small amount of one quart and one ounce of gasoline. The motorcycle magazines of the day put it another way, the Harley-Davidson went 50 miles for a nickel.
While many of the high-profile motorcycle contests of the 1900s were more about reliability and economy than speed, by the 1910s motorcycle racing was entering a golden age with dozens of makers contesting in speed competitions on tracks and public road courses across the country. Indian was still clearly the dominant force in racing with its factory-backed efforts. Harley-Davidson was well represented by private entries, but Harley made a point of not entering factory machines, reasoning that victories by private entries were a more powerful statement.
While Harley-Davidson was almost certainly providing support to some of the private entries during the early 1910s, the lion’s share of the racing accolades were going to other manufacturers. Brands like Cyclone, Emblem, Dayton, Excelsior, Merkel, Pope, Thor, Reading-Standard and, of course, Indian were indeed seeing bumps in sales after big race wins. So pressure was mounting among Harley enthusiasts for Milwaukee to respond with a factory effort of its own.
On July 4, 1914, at the famous Dodge City (Kan.) 300, Harley-Davidson backed six private entries, but the team did not do well. Worse still, the Dodge City race was won by Glen Boyd on the archrival Indian.
The Dodge City fiasco inspired Harley-Davidson to hire racing manager Bill Ottaway from Thor with the directive of forming a competitive racing squad.
Harley entered its first full-fledged factory effort under Ottaway’s direction for the 300-mile FAM National Road Race in Savannah, Ga., in November 1914. The Savannah Road Race was the big season-ending event and it drew a variety of factory entries.
If one had to point to the exact start of the Harley-Indian Wars, the Savannah 300 on Thanksgiving Day 1914 would be a good starting point. It marked the first of what would be 40 years of racing battles between the two factories.