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1918 Indian 8-Valve Racer

By Dave Tharp, Virtual Museum Curator
Photos by Mark Mitchell Photography

The Engine Bicycle racing on banked, wooden velodromes was enormously popular at the turn of the 20th century. Many of the very first machines identifiable as motorcycles were built by bicycle mechanics, and were used as "pacers" to train bicycle racers. The first race probably occurred the first time that two of them happened to be on the track at the same time.

Oscar Hedstrom was one of these enterprising young mechanics, and his design was so elegant and reliable that it was produced in quantity by the Hendee Manufacturing Company as the first Indian motorcycle.

Timber was cheap, labor was plentiful, and board track racing offered a level of spectacle not seen since Roman times. With the help of an engineer from New Jersey by the name of Jack Prince -- who sought to build a chain of large tracks from coast to coast -- board track races spread across the nation like wildfire. The Coliseum in Los Angeles, over a quarter mile long, was opened in 1909, followed immediately by a one-third mile bowl in Springfield, Mass., and in 1910 by full mile-long tracks in Playa del Rey, California (a suburb wedged between Los Angeles and the Pacific ocean) and Salt Lake City, Utah. Tracks up to two miles in length were thrown up in 1911 in Oakland, Denver, Buffalo, Cleveland, Chicago, and Detroit. 1912 brought tracks to Milwaukee, Omaha, Houston, Cleveland and Atlantic City. Race promoters made wads of money, with $10,000 daily gate receipts a common draw.

Very high speeds and a complete lack of safety precautions lead to spectacular wrecks on the board tracks in the 1910s, often killing a half-dozen competitors and spectators at a time. Controversy over safety had already caused the national sanctioning organization to switch the 1913 National Championship Races over from the boards to the safer, but less profitable, dirt ovals. True to form, racing improved the breed. Motorcycles went from able-to-keep-up-with-bicycles in 1900 to the first 100-mph average lap, turned by Lee Humiston on a "Big-Valve" Excelsior at the Playa del Rey track in 1912. Technical competition among the manufacturers was just as fierce as the racing itself. The race for prestige led famous manufacturers like Indian, Excelsior, Cyclone, Thor, and Flying Merkel to develop purpose-built racing equipment with the highest attainable horsepower they could squeeze from their motors.

In 1916, Indian introduced the Model H racer, and placed it on sale to the public at the astronomical price of $350. It featured overhead-valve heads with four valves per cylinder, and was easily capable of speeds of over 120 mph. In various forms, it was raced on the dirt track as well as on the boards with very great success. It is unknown how many of the 8-valve racers were manufactured, but production was very small indeed; most machines were ridden either by factory riders or were "loaned" to promising privateers.

This beautiful 1918 8-valve racer, restored by Brad Wilmarth of Petersburg, Virginia and owned by Daniel Statnekov of Sante Fe, New Mexico, sports a prototype "Marion" frame, which made its formal debut at the Marion, Indiana 200-mile road race of 1919. It received the highly coveted "Red" Wolverton award for the best restored machine at the 1996 AMCA National Meet at Oley, Pennsylvania, achieving a full 100 points. It is currently on display at the Vintage Museum in Oxnard, California.

Although the bike has been run, its proper place is in a museum. Like the other board track bikes of its era, it lacks such amenities as brakes, a clutch, or even a throttle (carbs were run wide open, with the only control of the engine speed being an ignition cut-out). It's basically a deathtrap.

But no matter what the era, racebikes always look fast!


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