Tuesday, April 1, 2014

A Tale of Two McNeils

The way in which history is recorded, can sometimes be strange. Suppose that over a hundred years ago you had two early racers, with very similar names. They competed on the professional Motordrome races at about the same time. One would die early in a tragic accident. The other would have a long career becoming one of the top racing engineers in the country. And suppose over the past 100 years historians have mistakenly merged these two individuals into one person. One McNeil's story was lost in this accident of history. It's time to unravel this tale, and set the record straight.

James "Jock" McNeil - "The Little Scot"

James "Jock" McNeil of Edinburgh, Scotland - 1912

In September 1912, a young racer from Edinburgh, Scotland named James McNeil was hired to compete at the Stadium Motordrome at Brighton Beach, New York. Articles of the time state McNeil was either a Scottish, or European Racing Champion, prior to coming to New York. In just a few weeks, the little Scot, on his English JAP racer, would become a crowd favorite, and a dominant force at the Stadium Motordrome races.

At about the same time, a young Canadian rider named Joseph Addison "J.A." McNeil was making a name for himself in Motordrome racing both in Canada, and the United States. More on him later.

Stadium Motordrome Brighton Beach, NY. - 1912
Stadium Motordrome Brighton Beach, New York
Library of Congress Collection
By mid 1912, New York City had two new Motordromes in close proximity to the City. They were the Stadium Motordrome in Brighton Beach, New York, and the Vailsburg Motordrome in Newark, New Jersey.  A group of contracted riders competed at both of the new Motordromes.

Tragedy struck on September 8, 1912, when riders Eddie Hasha, Johnny Albright, and four spectators were killed in a racing accident at the Vailsburg Motordrome. Both Hasha, and Albright had competed at the Brighton Beach track, and their loss affected both fans, and riders.  The City fathers in Newark, moved quickly to stop motorcycle racing at the Newark track. The Brighton Beach track elected to continue racing, despite the tragic events at Newark.

Stadium Motordrome Ad - New York Times 1912
The operators of the Stadium Motordrome in Brighton Beach were mindful that a similar accident at their track, could lead to a complete ban on Motordrome racing.  They had a race scheduled just two days after the Newark tragedy, and immediate steps were taken to make the track safer, and calm spectators fears. An article detailing the safety changes appeared in the New York Times a week later.

New York times - September 15, 1912
Racing resumed at Brighton Beach on September 10th. James McNeil was scheduled to compete in his first race at the Brighton Beach Motordrome that night. One can only wonder if the little Scot was re-evaluating his career choice after such a violent deadly accident just a few days before.

Scranton, PA. Truth - September 10, 1912
McNeil rode his JAP Special, which featured a frame he built, along with an Indian racing fork,  and an 8 valve English JAP racing engine. That night, McNeil was matched with Arthur Chapple, in a race. Chapple easily won the first heat, and was on his way to an easy second heat win. Chapple had a tire failure, and McNeil took the win.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle - September 11, 1912
Scranton, PA. Truth - September 11, 1912
On September 13, 1912, McNeil won a race with John Cox.

New York Times - September 14, 1912

That weekend, Chapple again faced off with McNeil, in match races. Chapple won both races, but he would not have such an easy time beating McNeil in the future.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle - September 15, 1912
The next event, was a grueling 24 hour race, in which two man teams would circle the track for a whole day. The rules allowed for engine changes, if necessary, and for rebuilding wrecked bikes.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle - September 22, 1912

Brooklyn Daily Eagle - September 22, 1912
At the end of the 24 hour grind, the team of William Shields , and George Lochnar, covered 1374 miles for the win.  James McNeil, and Earl Eckel finished second, just there miles behind Shields and Lochnar. Chapple, and Wray, finished third some 9 miles behind the leaders. 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle - September 22, 1912

The final race of the season, was to be a six hour race on September 30, 1912. It's unclear if this race took place. Early winter weather hit the area, and the race results do not appear in either New York paper.

Atlanta Motordrome - 1913

For the 1913 racing season, James McNeil, and several other riders from the Brighton Beach Motordrome, took the long train ride from New York City, to Atlanta, Georgia. They came to compete at the newly opened Atlanta Motordrome. Shortly after arriving in Atlanta, McNeil picked up the the nickname "Jock," a common slang term for a Scot, from the Atlanta Press.

McNeil would be competing against established Motordrome stars like "Millionaire" Morty Graves from Los Angeles, French Champion Georges Renal, Freddie Luther of Ft Worth, Wilmer "Tex" Richards from Waco,  and Billy Shields, who he had raced against McNeil at Brighton Beach. Local rider, Harry Glenn was also an accomplished racer, with Motordrome experience, and quickly adapted to the new 1/4 mile circular Atlanta board track.

Atlanta Motordrome Ad - June 1913

On May 27, 1913 riders took to the new Atlanta Motordrome. McNeil and two other riders narrowly escaped serious injury in separate incidents. While traveling about 85 miles per hour on the steeply banked track, McNeil's front tire began to jump the rim. McNeil was able to slow his bike, and thereby escape a sure trip to the hospital.

Atlanta Constitution - May 28, 1913

This article identifies him as "Jack" McNeil, but this may be a misprint of his new nickname "Jock" He is first identified as "Jock McNeil" in an Atlanta Constitution article on June 1, 1913. 

Atlanta Constitution - June 1, 1912

On June 2, photos of McNeil along with riders Freddie Luther, and Billy Shields appeared on the Atlanta Constitution's Sports page.

Atlanta Constitution - June 2, 1912

Atlanta's unpredictable weather meant that several racing programs were scheduled, only to be canceled due to wet track conditions. The first races took place on June 14, 1913.

Atlanta Constitution - June 14, 1913.
Despite the previous cancellations, seven thousand enthusiastic fans showed up for the Opening day's races.

Atlanta Constitution - June 15, 1913
Jock McNeil, was pitted against the French Champion Georges Renel in the third heat. McNeil won both the heat race, and the six mile final. Billy Shields finished second.

Tex Richards on his eight valve Indian dominated the second race meet held on June 17th.  McNeil won two heat races that day.

Atlanta Constitution - June 18, 1913

Over the next several weeks, a rivalry developed between Tex Richards on his Indian, and McNeil on his JAP Special. The local press fueled the rivalry, which went on to include Morty Graves in a three way fight for dominance at the Motordrome.  They would swap wins in match races, much to the delight of the local race fans. Morty Graves, who was from a wealthy Chicago family, went so far as to order a new Excelsior racer to give him a competitive edge.

Swapping the track record became a regular competition between the three riders. On June 25th, Tex Richards broke the track record during a heat race. Jock McNeil won one final race, and was leading Richard in the Motordrome purse race, when his bike suddenly began to misfire. Richards took the lead, with Billy Shields in a close second. McNeil's bike came back to life and he rode the wheels off it, and was a close third at the end of the race.

Atlanta Constitution - June 27, 1913

Atlanta Constitution - June 28, 1913

On June 28th, Morty Graves smashed the one mile track record averaging 92 miles per hour on Jock McNeil's JAP Special. Graves new Excelsior had not yet arrived. Jock McNeil rode the same bike to beat Tex Richards in the nights match race.  How Graves came to ride McNeil's JAP is not reported, but McNeil was non too  happy about it.

McNeil, who secretly ordered two new JAP racing engines from London, stated he was going to break Graves record, and then go after Eddie Hasha's four lap, one mile, World's record at the July 4th race. One of the engines McNeil ordered was the newest long stroke motor, while the other an updated short stroke motor. Both motors were said to be faster than JAP engine McNeil was using at the time.

Atlanta Constitution - July 1, 1913
The July 4th races were rained out, and took place July 8th. Despite all the hype about a record attempt by McNeil, Tex Wilmer won the money races after Jock's motorcycle developed engine trouble. Rain postponed the next several scheduled races. Racing finally resumed  on July 16th. Once again Tex Richards dominated the races. Jock McNeil made an attempt to break the one mile track record but fell short by just one an hour averaging 91 miles per hour for four laps.

On July 24th, Jock McNeil won the 105 lap "Marathon" race against nine other rider, picking up the $500 prize.

Atlanta Constitution - July 26, 1913

On August 12th, the rivalry with Morty Graves came to an end, when Graves was severely injured in a race. It was initially thought Graves would lose one of his eyes, but after he laid off the racing game for a while, he made a full recovery.

Atlanta Constitution - August 13, 1913
That same night, McNeil won a heat race, and finished second in two feature races. On August 15th, Atlanta's Harry Glenn narrowly escaped serious injury when he blew a rear tire during a sweepstakes race. The racing game in Atlanta, was getting dangerous. So far, no rider had been seriously injured, but it seemed to be just a mater of time till one was seriously injured, or killed.

On August 17th, Jock McNeil decided to attempt a record run during a practice session for the days races. McNeil felt he could gain a mile an hour, or two, by running the "white boards" at the top of the  Motordrome's racing surface.
Atlanta Constitution - August 20, 1913
The press reports state McNeil had been dared by friends to run the white boards. These boards marked the top of the track, and were not intended to be part of the racing surface. He was lapping at 90 miles per hour, when the white boards gave way. McNeil was thrown from his bike, and gravely injured.

Atlanta Constitution - August 19, 1913
James "Jock" McNeil died of his injuries on August 20, 1913. McNeil's brother, who worked for the Indian Motorcycle Company was in Atlanta at the time. He came to watch his brother races, but instead had to take care of his brother's funeral arrangements.

Atlanta Constitution - August 21, 1913
James "Jock" McNeil was buried in Atlanta on August 21, 1913, but the location of his grave site is unknown. A McNeil benefit race was scheduled, but was delayed by weather until October 7, 1913. The benefit race was won by McNeil's Rival Tex Richards, and all the proceeds went to McNeil's mother in Scotland.

Atlanta Constitution - October 8, 1913
The death of Jock McNeil was just one nail in the coffin of the Atlanta Motordrome. The constant race cancellations due to weather, and the death of the popular racer in full view of spectators caused the crowds dwindle. Poor management of the track also played a major role. The Atlanta Constitution, which had regularly reported on the races with favorable articles, became highly critical of the track management.

In October 1913, a race for black riders was held at the Motordrome. This was not a popular decision in Jim Crow Atlanta, and it was widely criticized by both local motorcycle dealers, and the National racing press. The track's sanction for National Championship races was withdrawn, and that forced the track into bankruptcy in late 1913. It briefly reopened under new management in 1914, but closed after only a few races. For more information on the story of the Atlanta Motordrome, click on the link below:

In a strange twist of fate, the Atlanta Constitution reported that Wilmer "Tex" Richards had been killed in a race in Houston, Texas in March 1914. The article stated Richards was riding the same JAP Special  Jock McNeil was riding the day he was killed.

Atlanta Constitution - March 26, 1914

The report of Richard"s death proved to be premature. Despite being hurled some 275 feet outside the Houston track, Richards had miraculously escaped serious injury. He later returned to Atlanta, and continued as one of the top racers in the South for many years.

Joseph Addison "J.A." McNeil

Joseph Addison "J. A." McNeil
Daniel K. Statnekov Collection

According to a February 4, 1916 article in the Toronto World newspaper, Joseph Addison McNeil was born of Scotch parents in Prince Edward Island, Canada. By 1906, he was an accomplished bicycle racer, and moved to the United States to compete. In a July 1908, McNeil appears as a bicycle competitor in the Motorcycle and Bicycle Races taking place at the newly opened Seal Gardens Saucer Track in Los Angeles.

Los Angeles, CA. Herald - July 11, 1908

The Seal Gardens track also featured some of the best motorcycle racers in the country. This was probably McNeil's introduction to the world of professional motorcycle racing. In 1911, McNeil made the switch from bicycle to motorcycle racing in Omaha, Nebraska.

The first mention of J. A. McNeil in the national racing press comes in May and June 1913,when the Salt Lake Tribune reports he is racing his Excelsior at the opening of Wandemere Motordrome in Salt Lake City, Utah.  An August 1913 Automobile Journal article reports that J. A. McNeil competed in four motorcycle Class A Match Races at the Wandemere Motordrome. McNeil, who was riding an Excelsior motorcycle, finished second in two races, and third in two other races.

Automobile Journal - August 1913

By 1914, J.A. McNeil had been hired as a test rider for the Cyclone racers of the Joerns Manufacturing Company in St. Paul, Minnesota. In October, McNeil set a new one mile speed record of 101 miles per hour, at Omaha, Nebraska.

Cincinnati, OH Enquirer - October 5, 1914
The wire service article on McNeil's record identified him as John W. McNeil. He later raised his speed record to 111 miles per hour. After McNeil's records, articles sometimes erroneously referred to McNeil, as an American from Omaha, Nebraska.  McNeil confirmed in an article in the Winnipeg Tribune that he was in fact a Canadian, having been born in Prince Edward Island, of Scottish parents. 

Winnipeg, Canada Tribune - July 1, 1915 

In 1915, Joseph McNeil, who was a machinist by trade,  left Cyclone and was hired by Ignaz Schwinn as a development rider/engineer for his Excelsior Motorcycle Company. McNeil played an important part in the development of Excelsior's engines, and for the next few years often raced the bikes he helped develop.

McNeil returned to Canada in early 1916, and enlisted in the army at the beginning of World War 1. He was seriously injured as a motorcycle dispatch rider in England, badly breaking one leg, when he struck a wagon. Press accounts erroneously reported one of his legs had been amputated, but this was not true. He did spend many months recovering in a hospital in England.

Ottawa Journal - April 5, 1919
After the war, McNeil returned to Excelsior, where he continued his development work, and also served as  the Racing Team Manager.

1920 Excelsior Racing Team - Wells Bennett, Bob Perry, J.A. McNeil, Joe Wolters

McNeil played a significant role in developing Excelsior's new gear drive overhead valve racer (pictured above). Excelsior rider Bob Perry took the new racer out for a practice run at the Ascot Park Speedway in Los Angeles in January, and was killed in a crash.

Indianapolis, IN. News - January 15, 1920
Perry was a favorite of Excelsior owner Ignaz Schwinn, and legend has it Schwinn went into the race shop, and personally smashed the racers with a hammer. That story may be more legend, than fact, but Excelsior did suspend their racing activities for part of 1920.

By September 1920, Excelsior had returned to the racing circuit, and McNeil entered the grueling 200 Mile Road Race at Marion, Indiana. McNeil was running well, but crashed through a chain link fence putting him out of the race.  He was not seriously injured.

Indianapolis, IN. News - September 7, 1920
1921, appears to have been McNeil's final year as an active rider.  The forty-one year old McNeil, left racing to his younger team riders, but continued to play a significant part in the development of Excelsior's overhead cam racing engines, and served as the Racing Team Manager.

In 1937, McNeil developed a motorcycle featuring a six cylinder automobile engine for a Bonneville salt Flats record speed record attempt.  Fred Luther attempted a motorcycle land speed record run-on the Salt Flats, but a high speed engine failure ended the record attempt.  With his retirement from racing, James McNeil faded into history.

Over the next one hundred years, the stories of two McNeils were merged into a single person, one J.A. "Jock" McNeil.. This is understandable, as the press accounts of both McNeils rarely mentioned first names. When they did, they were often wrong, i.e. John, Jack, etc. I did not find any press accounts of the time that identified J. A. McNeil by the nickname "Jock", and found no evidence he rode a JAP engined bike during his career.

It is clear, that both James "Jock" McNeil of Edinburgh, Scotland, and Joseph Addison "J. A." McNeil of Phillip Island, Canada each played significant roles in early racing, and deserve their separate places in Motorcycle racing history.


Atlanta Constitution

Automobile Journal - August 1913

Brooklyn, NY. Daily Eagle

Cincinnati Enquirer

Daniel K. Statnekov Collection


Indianapolis, IN. News

Ottawa, Canada Journal


Scranton, PA. Daily Truth

Stephen Wright 
American Racers 1900-1940

Toronto, Canada World

Newspapers.com New York Times

Winnipeg, Canada Tribune

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Piedmont Park - Atlanta's Early Racetracks - Part 2

As one strolls the manicured fields in Atlanta's Piedmont Park today, you would find few traces of the old Piedmont Park Racetrack, which once occupied the site. Local history buffs, will tell you that in the early 1900s, this was the site of the first Auburn vs Georgia football games, and the first Atlanta Crackers baseball games. However, no one knows the early Georgia motorcycle history that took place at the site. It's now time to share that significant piece of Atlanta racing history.

Piedmont Park Race Track - 1903
Atlanta History Center Collection
The story of the Piedmont Park Race Track begins in1887, when the Gentleman's Driving Club purchased land about a mile and a half northeast of downtown Atlanta from a local farmer. The Driving Club built a half mile oval dirt track for horse racing named Piedmont Park. The track was built at the base of a hill on the property forming a natural amphitheater.

Atlanta Constitution - August 28, 1887

Gentleman's Driving Club Racetrack - 1892
Atlanta Daughters of the American Revolution Collection
In 1895, the property surrounding the racetrack was developed for the Cotton States Exhibition & International Exhibition. Several permanent building including a Coliseum, were added to the site for the exhibition.

Piedmont Park Plan - 1895
Piedmont Park Conservancy Collection

The first Motorcycle events held in Piedmont Park were not actually motorcycle races. Bicycle racing had become the rage in the late 1800s. In 1897, a retired English bicycle racer named Jack Prince built a banked wooden velodrome bicycle track inside the Piedmont Park Coliseum, and began holding bicycle races.

Jack Prince
Daniel J. Statnekov Collection

Atlanta Constitution - April 13, 1897

Bicycle racing became hugely popular in Atlanta, and a former Atlanta bicycle messenger named Bobby Walthour, was making a name for himself throughout the south.  By 1899, early motorcycles were being used to pacer top bicycle racers, who would closely follow the pacing motorcycle.

Orient Tandem Pacer
Daniel J. Statnekov Collection

This early example of slip streaming, allowed the bicycle racers of the day to reach higher speeds. In October 1899, Swedish rider John Lawson arrived in Atlanta, with his tandem pacing motorcycle, for a series of races with Walthour, and the other top riders. Walthour had already arranged with Gus Castle to have an Orient Tandem Pacer delivered to Atlanta, and was training with it. This was the first appearance of a motorcycle in the state of Georgia.

Bobby Walthour, Sr. paced by motorcycle - 1908
United States Bicycling Hall of Fame Collection

Atlanta Constitution - October 14, 1899

Atlanta Constitution - October 21, 1899
On October 22, 1899, motorcycles made their first appearance on the half mile horse track. A crowd of spectators, estimated at between five and six thousand forced the promoters to move the event from the Velodrome on the inside of the coliseum to the outside horse track.

Atlanta Constitution - October 23, 1899
By 1902, Bobby Walthour had returned to Atlanta from Europe as one of the top riders in the world. He was training, and competing in motorcycle paced bicycle events at the Coliseum track.  October 11, 1902,  was declared Bobby Walthour Day at the Interstate Fair taking place in Piedmont Park. A series of competitions featuring Walthour, were scheduled at the Piedmont Park.

Atlanta Constitution - October 10, 1902
Among the competitions was a ten mile race between Walthour, with his pacing motorcycle, against five fast trotting horses. Once again, Atlanta's unpredictable weather made a mess of the horse track, and the race was delayed until October 17th.  Walthour won the race, which was run as as a relay with each of the five trotters doing two laps. The race took place in front of a crowd of some fifteen thousand enthusiastic fans. Part of the enthusiasm, may have been based on the fact that wagers were taken on the outcome of races at the coliseum, and horse track.

Atlanta Constitution - October 18, 1902
Walthour continued to race at the Piedmont Park track until he had a nasty fall in mid November, and broke his collarbone.

Atlanta Constitution - November 6, 1911
Atlanta Constitution - November 12, 1902
Piedmont Park was used as a fairgrounds until 1904, but the property had fallen into disrepair. The City of Atlanta agreed to purchase the property for a city park. In 1909, the city hired brothers Carey and Frederick Olmsted Jr. to create a master plan for Piedmont Park. They were the sons of  Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed New York's Central Park. Improvements were made to the park, but an economic slow down delayed the completion of the project until 1912.

Olmsted Piedmont Park Plan
Piedmont Park Conservancy Collection
In May 1912, the Atlanta Motorcycle Club met at the Transportation Club. The purpose of the meeting was to promote motorcycling, and motorcycle competitions in Atlanta. The club was aligned with the Federation of American Motorcyclists (F.A.M.) which was the sanctioning body for professional motorcycle competitions throughout the country.

Atlanta Constitution - May 3, 1912
By October, the Atlanta Motorcycle Club, which had previously sanctioned motorcycle races at Asa Candler's Atlanta Speedway, decided to sanction their first motorcycle race at the Piedmont Park horse track. An announcement for the October 19 race, appeared in the Atlanta Constitution.

Atlanta Constitution - October 7, 1912
The competition, would have classes for both amateur and professional racers. A detailed article on the seven scheduled races appeared in the Constitution the following day.

Atlanta Constitution - October 18, 1912.

Heavy rains the night before, forced the cancellation of the race. The unpredictable nature of weather in Atlanta was a constant problem for race promoters.

Atlanta Constitution - October 20, 1912

The race took place on Saturday, October 26, 1912, and drew a crowd of three thousand spectators. The results were published in the Constitution.

Atlanta Constitution - October 27, 1912
Shortly before the 6 horsepower race, Harry Glenn's twin cylinder Excelsior motorcycle caught fire on the track, and was heavily damaged. Glenn, who was also the Manager of Atlanta Indian dealer, switched to his Indian racer for the remaining races. The professional class races were both won by seventeen year old Atlanta racer ,Ollie Roberts, riding a Thor motorcycle. This was Roberts third motorcycle race, and the first time he beat the much more experienced Glenn, who finished second. Glenn did manage to set the track record lapping the half mile track in 38 seconds at 47.3 miles per hour.

Harry Glenn - Stewart Avenue Hill Climb - Atlanta 1914
Atlanta Constitution - May 12, 1914
With their first event a rousing success, the Atlanta Motorcycle Club scheduled another event at the Park.

Atlanta Constitution - November 23, 1912
It is unclear, if this race took place. The Constitution did not report the results, and there was not cancellation notice in the paper. The Constitution did report that Atlanta's earliest known snowfall blanketed the City just a couple days later.

In early 1913, Jack Prince returned to Atlanta. Prince announced he would be building a steeply banked circular board track less than a mile from Piedmont Park. The track was designed specifically for motorcycle racing, and was named the Atlanta Motordrome. The Atlanta Motorcycle Club announced they were supporting the construction of the Motordrome, and several club members participated in the test of the newly completed Motordrome.  It appears no further races were scheduled for at Piedmont Park, for the next couple of years.

Atlanta Constitution - May 19, 1913

In late January 1915, Atlanta motorcyclists met at the Southern Motorcycle Company to organize a race at Piedmont Park.

Atlanta Constitution - October 26, 1915
There is no further mention of the race in the Atlanta Constitution. As America entered World War l, Atlanta Motorcyclists met at Piedmont Park in 1917 to form a volunteer military motorcycle unit known as the Atlanta Motorcycle Minute Men.

Atlanta Constitution - April 24, 1917

Atlanta Constitution - April 25, 1917
Eventually, several Atlanta motorcyclists, were drafted into the Army serving as dispatch riders, or motorcycle mechanics. The next chapter of Motorcycle racing in Atlanta, would begin with the opening of the Atlanta Motordrome.

Piedmont Park has become one of Atlanta's most popular City Parks. The site of the Piedmont Park Race Track has been redeveloped into ball fields.

Racetrack Site - Piedmont Park, Atlanta, GA.
Piedmont Park Active Oval Sports Fields
Piedmont Park Conservancy Collection
This article is part of a four part series on Atlanta's early racetracks. It started with the Atlanta Speedway, and continues with Piedmont Park,  the Atlanta Motordrome, and the Lakewood Speedway. Click on the links below to read those stories:

Atlanta Speedway - Atlanta's Early Racetracks - Part 1

Atlanta Motordrome - Atlanta's Early Racetracks Part 3

Lakewood Speedway - Atlanta's Early Racetrack Part 4


Atlanta Constitution

Daughters of the American Revolution - Atlanta Chapter


Andrew M. Homan - Life in the Slipstream: The Legend of Bobby Walthour Sr.

Daniel K. Statnekov Collection


Piedmont Park Conservancy

United States Bicycling Hall of Fame: Bobby Walthour Sr.

Wikipedia.org: Piedmont Park