September 2000 Racing History
Home / Features / Early Racers
    Yesterday's Heroes
   By Brett Herrey
Indian had their years of glory and they had their years in a slump, but one question was always asked by the rival companies. What is Indian going to come up with next? Indian was known as the pioneer motorcycle because they were the first production motorcycle for private use. They were also known as the premier motorcycle because of their uncanny abillity to create so many new innovative ideas in such short periods. Indian had a noted history of modification and performance upgrading throughout its long lived racing history. These changes could be as little as simple tuning or adjustment, to a complete overhaul of engine design. Once they expanded the motor to where nothing more could be done, they would completely change the whole engineering design and create another motor. Whatever the situation may have been, the Indian Motocycle Company was there to meet the challenge with the finest of materials and workmanship available during that era.

Indian depended upon a strong racing program to help bolster sales for the following season. Promoters loved to sponsor races that involved Indian and Harley because it was sure to gather many rival interests among dealers and riders alike. Competition was the backbone of engineering and it set the precedence for upcoming sales the following year. Both companies were famous for boasting from the previous racing season to promote new models. Noted historians and authors such as Harry V. Sucher, Jerry Hatfield and John Carroll, have all expressed the same point in their articles. Not all riders were factory sponsored. Many bought their own bikes and parts, plus assembled and tuned them to their own satisfaction. Sometimes these machines would outperform the factory machines. It was a credit to all riders who would put their life and soul into a machine they felt was the best company in the world. This dedication would sometimes lead to altercations in the parking lot or some other obscure area. The rivalry between Harley, Indian and Excelsior was so intense during a race, that it was hard for the riders as well as the fans to keep the feuds strictly on the hill or track. It was not unlikely to see a rider spend one year with one company and then switch to another company the following year. This was very common among professional or factory riders. It all depended on who would offer the most. To some, it was a simple job. They would do their best to win while employed by one company, but if they felt they could get more from another, they would switch as soon as the opportunity arose. This, however, was not the case with a privateer racer. They were usually devoted to the company that they bought the motorcycle from.

Click on pictures for full size

Indian riders. 

Here's a little contest for you:
Can you name the riders in the photo?

(Clue: Albert 'Shrimp' Burns and Orrie Steele are two of them)

Replies to the VI before Nov. 1st.

More reading here:

Website dedicated to Orrie Steele.

Daniel Statnekov's history of Ameican Vintage Racing Motorcycles 1900-1933

Check out the VI Links page too.


There were many occasions when riders would take life threatening chances to bring home a throphy or prize winning money. Many times these chances paid off while others were fatal. Such legendary riders as Jake DeRosier, Charles ’Fearless’ Balke, Albert ’Shrimp’ Burns and Eddie Hasha, to name a few, all met a fatal end. The remarkable chances they took, thrilled the crowds for years, until the mere thought of another fatality became unbearable to see. Eventually the spectators dispersed and the sport lost favor. Through these chances, the sport of motorcycle racing incorporated many chances that either eliminated that type of envent or allowed rule changes to insure rider as well as spectator safety. Those changes are well documented in a book called ”American Racing Motorcycles” by Jerry Hatfield, and ”The Iron Redskin” by Harry Sucher. It is not known whether these riders took chances because of a devotion to their particular breed of machine or whether it was for the prestige of being the one to own all the records and notoriety that comes with the number one plate. Some riders even took their daredevil antics outside the realm of motorcycle racing. One such racer was Bob Armstrong, son of Erle ’Pop’ Armstrong from the Indian factory school.  Bob was the hillclimbing champion in 1929, who tragically met his end in a boating accident in 1930. Like many incidents, the media would have a field day with each occurrence, calling for an end to such races, or at least an end to promotion of such events. 

On separate occasions, factory sponsorship would halt for a period of time until such newsworthy happenings were well in the past. The F.A.M., AM&ATA, an eventual AMA, stepped up their attacks on safety for the sacntioned events. These changes were not all foolproof, as they brought aout some not so honest racing tactics as far as internal engine design was concerned. Some motors were stroked and modified, but appeared stock, so they would fit in classes that they didn’t belong in. This practice eventually fell by the wayside as tougher restrictions were enforced. Overall the enforcements led to to safer meets, as well as a more relaxed sporting event for rider and spectator. Every race had a story,  whether it was glorious or tragic. Glen ’Slivers’ Boyd was a thrill seeking rider for Indian, who cheated death on the ’motordromes’ known as ’murderdromes’, when he lost control of his mount and took home half the Omaha board track in his body. Thus the nickname. Luckily, he survived and went on to thrill the crowd at a later time in his life. For the most part the racers were there to have fun, hopefully take home the trophy, and be able to do it all over again the next time, in one piece!

Indian racer, hillclimber and dealer Brownie Betar.

Brownie Betar Biography here.

Coming soon: Result of Brownie Betar T-shirt fund raiser.

Other VI articles by Brett Herrey:

The Wigwam Today.

Brownie Betar Biography.

Brownie Betar T-shirt Fundraiser.

My "Second" Indian.


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