We recently lost Joe Duck Jr. and his brother in a tragic automobile accident. They were on their way to the local Veteran's Day observance. but all who knew him, will never forget him. This story is dedicated to my friend Joseph M. Duck Jr.
Now, Joe's story went this way. He told me his father, Joe Duck Sr. and Harry Conn, used to race Indian motorcycles at the Talladega County Fairgrounds in Sylacauga before World War I. He said one of his cousins, had an old photograph of his father, Harry Conn, and another fellow on their early Indian motorcycles. Over the next few years Joe would tell me several times, "I need to find that old picture, and show it to you."
As an old motorcycle racer, this story intrigued me. I've written extensively about these early days of American motorcycle racing, with a focus on the South. That said, I realized running down a 100 plus year old story about local motorcycle races was an impossible task. Local newspapers from this period, in small towns like Sylacauga, are often not archived back 104 years. They also often took little notice of these type of events. Most of what little we know of local racing in the South, is handed down word of mouth. I tucked that story away, hoping someday to find more information about it in the future.
I began checking around town for photos of the Talladega County Fairgrounds racetrack but came up empty handed. What little we know about the Fairgrounds, and the racetrack, comes from a couple of YESTERYEAR newspaper columns written by Marian A. Thurman in the mid 1950s. The Fairgrounds, which was located west of downtown Sylacauga at the corner of 4th Street and Fairgrounds Avenue (now Avondale Avenue). The Fairgrounds had relocated to this site from a smaller downtown site in 1913 or 1914.
|Former Site of the Entrance to the Talladega County Fairgrounds|
N/W Corner of 4th Street & Avondale Avenue (then Fairgrounds Avenue)
In his column on September 27, 1956, titled "It's 'Fair" Weather" Mr. Thurman confirmed both the presence of the racetrack, and that it occasionally hosted motorcycle racing. These quotes are from Mr. Thruman's article:
One evening I was at a reception at the Isabelle Comer Museum Board, here in Sylacauga. I went upstairs to look at the collections of old articles, and photographs kept there. I came across a commemorative publication on Sylacauga's history published in 1959. and there on one of the pages, was a 1910 photograph of Joe Duck Sr., Gary Caudle, and Harry Conn, and on their Indian motorcycles.
|Sylacauga, AL. - 1910|
The motorcycles of this period were little more large bicycles, with powerful engines. While the bumpy dirt roads of the time limited the speed of motorcycles to about 35 miles per hour, on a smooth dirt racetrack, these bikes could easily reach 50 to 60 miles per hour. Racing them was not for the faint of heart as racers rarely wore no helmets, and little protective gear could be seriously injured or even killed.
|1910 Single Cylinder Indian Motorcycle|
Indian Motorcycles were sold in Central Alabama by their local Agent, Robert Stubbs. He was probably the person who sold Joe Duck Sr., Harry Conn, and Gary Caudle their Indian motorcycles.
|Robert Stubbs Indian Dealership - 1805 4th Avenue North |
Birmingham, AL - 1912
Indian motorcycles became seriously involved in racing around 1905. Five years later, Indian, had grown to the largest of the American Motorcycle Companies. They were the choice to top racers, as well as riders Duck Sr., Conn, and Caudle.
There was a little more to Joe Ducks story. It seems, his father, and Harry Conn used to ride their Indians up to Birmingham, Alabama to compete at the races at the Alabama State Fairgrounds. There is significantly more information about the motorcycle races held at the Alabama State Fairgrounds in this period.
By the early teens, motorcycle racing had become one of the top spectator sports in country. The results of major races were reported in the sports pages of newspapers across the country. The Alabama State Fairgrounds track held its first motorcycle race on the fast one-mile dirt oval in 1906.
Robert Stubbs was billed as the "Southern Champion." in 1909. Stubbs had been handpicked by Indian co-founder Oscar Hedstrom for the Indian Racing team at the Annual Speed Trials in Ormond Beach, FL. Stubbs, and his teammates Walter Goerke, and Arthur Chapple each set new speed records at the trials. Even Hedstrom jumped on a special racer to set a new record.
|Indian Co-founder Oscar Hedstrom and his |
Indian Racing Team - Ormond Beach Fl. March 1909
When Joe Duck Sr. and Harry Conn, decided to enter a race at the Alabama State Fairgrounds in Birmingham, they would have found a whole different world from the local motorcycle races in Sylacauga. It would be like a local short track racer entering a NASCAR race at the Talladega Speedway. The amateur riders were known as "Trade" riders, as many of them worked at the local motorcycle shops. Trade Rider races had classes for both production motorcycles, and purpose-built racing bikes. They took place, along with the professional races, on holidays like the 4th of July, and Labor Day. They would be brushing shoulders with the likes of Robert Stubbs, his under studies Gail Joyce, Richard Gayle, and Gene Walker.
|Professional Motorcycle Race - Alabama State Fairgrounds Birmingham, AL. ca. 1914|
O.V. Hunt - Johnny Whitsett Collection
Even amateur motorcycle races at the Birmingham track, would have been a major step up. Riders like Duck, and Conn, would ride their bikes to the track, strip off the lights, go racing, then put the lights back on, and ride home. The one-mile Birmingham track was twice as long as the Sylacauga track, with wide sweeping turns, which allowed riders to reach much higher speeds. With the higher speeds, came considerably more danger to the riders, who streaked by within inches of the wooden spectator fencing that lined the outside of the track.
Birmingham professional photographer Oscar V. Hunt, who was himself a motorcycle enthusiast, captured the start of one of these Birmingham amateur races in these two rare photographs. The exact date, and the identity are unknown, but all the motorcycles appear to be Indians from the early teens.
|Amateur Trade Riders Race - Birmingham, AL.|
O.V. Hunt Collection - Birmingham Alabama Public Library Archives
|John Eugen Walker |
O.V. Hunt Collection
He was tragically killed while practicing for a race in 1924, when a grounds keeper pulled a tractor onto the track in front of him at East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. His fellow Birmingham Motorcycle Officers provided an escort for his funeral procession. He was buried in Birmingham's historic Elmwood Cemetery, just a mile from the track, where he started his racing career. He was eulogized on the Birmingham News Sports page by sportswriter Zipp Newman.
|Birmingham News - June 1924|
With the advent of World War I, Alabama's place in early motorcycle racing came to an end. Racing was curtailed around the country, as many young men went into the service. Most of the motorcycle production, tires, and spare parts went to the war effort. This caused motorcycle dealerships around the country to close their doors. In 1917, the Sylacauga Fairgrounds was heavily damaged by the tornado, which struck downtown. It was eventually rebuilt but closed in the early 1930s.
This was the end of the early glory days of motorcycle racing in Alabama. But, local riders Joe Duck Sr., and Harry Conn, were there not just as spectators, they got to take part. To even compete in an amateur race at one of the South's most famous racetracks, and walk among the stars of the sport, would have been something they would never forget.
I've done my best to pass down Joe's story, as he told me. Rest in peace my friend!
|Mr. Joseph M. Duck Jr. 1921 - 2011|
Bicycling World and Motorcycle Review
Birmingham Alabama Public Library Archives
Jody Lee - Sylacauga, AL.
Joseph M. Duck, Jr. - Sylacauga, AL.
Oscar V. Hunt Collection
YESTERYEAR - Marion A. Thurman - 1984