When people talk about early motorcycle racing legends, one of the first names that comes to mind is Jim Davis. His racing career spanned more than two decades, riding bikes for both Harley-Davidson and Indian as well as a few British manufacturers. He won titles under the Federation of American Motorcyclists (FAM), the Motorcycle and Allied Trades Association (M&ATA) and the American Motorcyclist Association(AMA). By the end of his career, he had won over 50 national events under the FAM and M&ATA, plus another 21 under the AMA.
Racing was in Jim Davis' blood since his birth on March 23, 1896 in Columbus, Ohio. Davis' father was a former bicycle racer and passed the love of two wheel competition down to his son. Davis attended his first motorcycle race in 1913 while accompanying his father on a business trip to Savannah, GA. Davis was so enthralled by the race, that upon returning home he convinced his father to by him a Yale motorcycle. This soon led to competing in his first motorcycle race in Lancaster, Ohio at age 14. Davis won his first victory there on a borrowed Indian twin. His prize was a pair of rubber goggles and a quart of oil.
Davis continued to enter amateur events and was doing rather well. In 1915, he had a chance meeting with Frank Weschler, the head of sales for Indian. Davis just happened to be at the Columbus Indian dealership when Weshler was visiting. The owner of the dealership bragged to Weschler about Davis' racing prowess and recommended that Davis be given an Indian factory race bike. The owner must have been pretty convincing because Davis received a brand new eight-valve closed-port Indian factory race bike within a few weeks.
Davis spent the rest of that year competing in local events around his home state of Ohio. In 1916, Davis left Ohio for his first national event, the FAM 100-Mile National in Detroit. Weighing in at a mere 120 lbs and only 20 years old, Davis must have looked out of place when he lined up against the other 25 - 30 seasoned racers. Any doubt in his ability as a racer was soon dismissed as Davis lead the entire 100 mile race and came away with his first national victory. Immediately following the race, Davis headed to Saratoga, New York and won his second national race. With back to back victories under his belt, Indian soon placed Davis on their payroll and he began traveling the country to compete for the Wigwam.
Just as his career began to take off, the world was heading into World War I. Motorcycle racing took a backseat to the war effort and like many young men, Davis was drafted into the Army. Luckily, his commanding officer recognized him from the race circuit and got him assigned to motorcycle escort duty. Davis spent the war transporting officials stateside and I bet he got them to their destinations in record time.
Davis' position as an Indian factory racer ended in 1920 after he faked a telegram from M&ATA president A.B. Coffman which he used to gain entrance into an invitation only racing event. Within 24-hours of being kicked off the Indian racing team, Harley-Davidson signed Davis onto their team. Davis raced for Harley for the next 5 years, winning many notable events. The first of which was the Dodge City 300 miler. For this race, Harley-Davidson chose to run a pocket-valve version of their new Ottaway inspired "banjo 2-cam". This change came about because H-D management thought that there would be a public relations benefit to running a motorcycle which at last resembled something that was available to the general public. Up until that time, both Harley-Davidson and Indian had run purpose built race bikes, only available to factory racers.
After a successful run with Harley-Davidson, Davis was back over to Indian for the 1926 season. He won three national titles that year racing both dirt track and board track events. Davis went on to double this one year record in 1928, winning a total of 6 national titles and was named the AMA national champion. The following year brought more national titles and second AMA national champion title. Davis' last AMA victory came in 1930 at Syracuse, New York. Although he never won another national title, Davis continued to race competitively until 1936. All told, he raced 1500 events and covered 30,000 competition miles.
Even though he was retired from racing, Davis continued to be active in the sport. Ironically, he received his only serious motorcycle racing injury during this time, when he was hit by Don Evans in 1948 while waving the checkered flag.
In 1984, Davis received the Dudley Perkins Award, AMA's highest honor, for his life-long contributions to the sport. He was also inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1998.
Jim Davis died on February 5, 2000 in Daytona Beach, FL. He was 103 years old at the time of his death. Who says that riding motorcycles shortens your life...