Motorcycle racing legend Jim Davis started his career in the age of vintage motorcycles. In 1911, at the age of 14, he won his first motorcycle race riding a borrowed motorcycle. The prize: a quart of oil and a pair of goggles, quite a rare luxury for racers in those days. His life spanned three centuries: born in 1896, he lived to the age of 103 and passed away in 2000. Davis won 21 American Motorcycle Association National Championships, including the first AMA National Championship in 1924 and 50 other national titles. His impressive collection of wins includes 90 gold medals and 40 silver and 35 bronze medals.
In 1920, he was fired by his sponsor for an audacious caper involving a box of chocolates and a forged telegram, but that hardly slowed him down. Read on for the details of his bold exploits.
Motorcycle Racer Jim Davis – The Early Days in Ohio
Davis was born in 1896 in Columbus Ohio. His dad was a former bicycle racer. He took young Jim to one of the earliest motorcycle races in Savannah, Georgia. Completely fascinated by the race, Davis convinced his dad to buy him his first motorcycle, a Yale, when he was 10. For the next few years, he raced against other neighborhood children. Recognizing that the Yale would not win a race, he borrowed an Indian twin and entered his first professional race at the age of 14 and won the goggles and the quart of oil.
A few years later, Davis was hanging around the Indian motorcycle dealership in Columbus. The head of sales for Indian, Frank Weschler, visited the store while Davis was there. The owner introduced the young Davis to Weschler and boasted of his skill in racing. Knowing a home town hero could do a lot for sales, the owner urged Weschler to sponsor Davis. Davis, a humble lad, was flattered but did not expect anything to come of the chance meeting. But a few weeks later, an eight valve Indian factory race bike showed up at the store with Davis’s name on it, and he was, as they say, off to the races.
In 1916, Davis was well known as a consistent local winner, but he had never left the state of Ohio. The local Indian store owner took Davis to the FAM 100 Mile National race in Detroit, Michigan. Davis won handily and went on to Saratoga, New York, where he won his second national. In response Indian put him on a salary and sent him on the road as a national factory racer.
The Brakes of Life – War
In 1917, the US entered World War I and races were few and far between. Davis was drafted, but he was not sent to Europe. A resourceful officer realized he would be useful stateside, and Davis became a motorcycle escort, driving officers around on a side car motorcycle. While in the army, he enrolled in Ohio State University and began to study civil engineering. He completed his degree at the University of Southern California. There in southern California he entered the insanely dangerous world of board track racing in “the murderdrome.”
In 1920, Davis went to Phoenix to race. When he arrived, he discovered the race was an invitational and only two riders from each manufacturer could race. And two riders had already registered for Indian. Davis had the finish line on his mind and would not be deterred by such a simple hitch as being denied a place on the starting line. He convinced a referee to let him race if he could get a telegram authorizing him to enter from the president of the Motorcycle and Allied Trades Association that produced the race.
Davis had no way to convince the M&ATA president to bend his own rules. But he was persuasive, determined, and charming. Armed with a box of chocolates, he sashayed into the local Western Union telegraph office. He presented a young woman in the telegraph office with the box of chocolates and told her he had a plan to pull a prank on a friend. The prank, he said, required a telegram, that would simply say “Permit Davis to ride. Signed, A.B. Coffman.” He convinced the young woman to type the “telegram” notice on Western Union stationary and hired a kid to take the ersatz telegram to the referee. His devious gambit succeeded and the referee allowed Davis to race.
M&ATA president Coffman found out about the ruse and suspended Davis from racing for a year. Indian learned of Davis’ chicanery and the suspension and fired him. But that did not slow Davis down. Harley hired him within 24 hours and “negotiated” (hmm..) with MATA to lift his suspension, and he returned almost immediately to racing.
Motorcycle Racer Jim Davis – Later Life & Legacy
Davis raced for the famous Harley “Wrecking Crew” for five years. In 1925, he returned to Indian. Three years later, in 1928, he won all six AMA National titles riding for Indian. Then he did it again in 1929! Davis retired from motorcycle racing in 1936, with over 1,500 races. After retiring from racing, he started the Ohio State Highway Patrol Motorcycle Officer Corp and served with the Corp for 14 years.
Davis remained active in AMA racing after his retirement, serving as a race official. Ironically, having survived the deadly board track era and around 30,000 total miles of racing without injury, Davis received his only serious motorcycle related injury in 1948, 12 years after he quit racing. As the checkered flag waved for Don Evans crossing the finish line at Daytona, Don’s bike slid out and slammed into Davis. A year later he was back to officiating.
Davis remained a popular personality on the racing circuit throughout his life. He was always happy to talk to fans and give interviews. His mind and his memories were sharp and his stories always fascinated. Jim Davis passed away at the age of 103 on February 5th, 2000. The AMA inducted Davis into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame and gave him their highest honor, the Dudley Perkins Award for life long contributions to the sport of motorcycle racing.
More Motorcycle Legends
We’ve got more tales of fascinating characters, adventurers and innovators from the early days of motorcycles in our Gentleman’s Lounge. For instance, Burt Munro tinkered with his 1920s Indian for 40 years before he set a land speed record when he was in his 60s. Hercules “Hell Rider” Glen Curtiss set a land speed record by attaching a blimp engine to a motorcycle, and, arguably, invented the modern airplane. Fritz Von Opel built a rocket powered motorcycle. Explorer Carl Clancy Stearns was the person to ride around the world. Bessie Stringfield, an African American woman rode across the United States and through the American South, and two suffragettes, the Van Buren sisters, for the right to vote and serve in the military. Gentleman’s lounge also has interesting articles on vintage motorcycle engines and more. Enjoy!