Monday, May 6, 2013

1914 & 1915 Birmingham Ledger Endurance Races - Episode #12

By: David L. Morrill
@ Deadly Dave's Blog

Updated: November 19, 2015

1914 Indian Poster
Scott Bashaw Collection
Several years ago, my friend Johnny Whitsett sent me some early motorcycling photographs taken in Birmingham, Alabama by Oscar V. Hunt. As a professional photographer, Mr. Hunt documented many sporting events in the early years of Birmingham.  He was also a motorcycle enthusiast , and close friend of the Birmingham Indian Motorcycle dealer, Bob Stubbs. Among that group of photos, were several that featured Harley-Davidson and Indian riders that were taken in downtown Birmingham in 1914. They document some type of endurance motorcycle race, but the information about the race had been lost over the last 100 years.

The Birmingham Ledger newspaper sponsored several early motorcycle events in Birmingham, but I had never seen any information on this event. Recently early motorcycle collector Scott Bashaw shared an Indian Motorcycle Company promotional poster that  touts Indian's domination of a Birmingham Ledger Speed and Endurance Run. I figured this might just be the race where these photos were taken, and set out to see what I could find.

Scott's poster does not list the year, but one of  O.V. Hunt's photos taken in 1914 shows a group of riders in front of the Birmingham Ledger Office at 2027 1st Avenue North.

1914 Birmingham Ledger Southern Championship Endurance Race

Motorcycle endurance runs, which were held on public roadways, were popular throughout the South beginning in the early days of motorcycling. They were often runs made between cities, to establish, or break record run times. In 1910, Birmingham Indian Motorcycle dealer Bob Stubbs set a record riding from Birmingham to Atlanta, Georgia in 7 hours and 5 minutes.

1914 Race Contestants at the Birmingham Ledger Office
O.V. Hunt 1914 - Johnny Whitsett Collection
In June 1914, The Federation of American Motorcyclists announced the three day Southern Championship Endurance Road Race to be held on July 4th, 5th, and 6th. starting in in Birmingham, Alabama. The race was sponsored by the Birmingham Ledger Newspaper , and took place on public roadways between Birmingham, Alabama and Atlanta, Georgia.

Birmingham's Bob Stubbs would lead the Indian team out of his dealership located at 1805 4th Avenue North in Birmingham. Stubbs was joined by his team riders Gail Joyce, and Gene Walker, and John McHale. All three were from Birmingham. Joyce and Walker were making names for themselves riding Indian racers provided by Stubbs on the one mile dirt oval at the Alabama State Fairgrounds in Birmingham. They were joined by Atlanta Indian rider Ed Wilcox, who had competed in the grueling 5 hour 1913 Savannah 300 Grand Prize Road Race.

The Harley-Davidson Team included Mooresville, NC. rider Gray Sloop, who had also competed in the 1913 Savannah 300 Road Race. He was joined by Atlanta riders Johnny Aiken, and R.B. Parrish. Aikens had been seriously injured during practice for the 1913 Savannah 300, when he crashed into a tree. Aikens had recovered from his injuries and was fit to ride. They were considered three of the best endurance riders in the country.

Atlanta's Johnny Aiken
O.V. Hunt 1914 - Johnny Whitsett Collection
Birmingham's William F. Specht Jr. rounded out the factory team. Specht, an accomplished racer and Harley-Davidson dealer from New Jersey,  had recently moved to Birmingham. He opened his Birmingham dealership in Cliff Howells bicycle shop on 3rd Avenue North.

In mid June 1914, William Specht and Joe Esdale did a test run of the race course for the July 4th race. Both riders arrived in Atlanta on time, and without incident. The next morning, they left Atlanta for the return trip to Birmingham.

They were accompanied by Atlanta Harley-Davidson dealer Johnny Aiken. The return runs of Esdale, and Aiken, were slowed by flat tires. Specht arrived  back in Birmingham at 4:00pm. repeating the previous day's perfect run. Esdale and Aiken, were delayed slightly by their tire problems, but arrived back in Birmingham without further incident.

Specht Harley-Davidson Dealership  Birmingham, Al.
Johnny Aiken - William F. Specht, Jr. - Gray Sloop
O.V. Hunt 1914 - Johnny Whitsett Collection
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   A total of 31 riders paid the $5.00 entry fee, and drew a number, to determine their start time.  The riders were sent out individually at two minute intervals. There was a $500.00 cash prize for the winning rider. There were also two "splendid" cups, one for the individual winner, and one for the winning team. 

The riders lined up at the Start/Finish line in front of the Birmingham Ledger Office at 4:00 AM on July 4th for the start of the race. The riders were sent out individually at two minute intervals. The 211 mile course would have control points at Gadsden, Al. and Rome, GA. 

Birmingham, AL. Starting Line
O. V. Hunt 1914 - Birmingham, AL. Public Library Archives 

The only serious incident happened just outside Gadsden, Alabama, when William Specht collided with Gadsden rider Will Alford. Initial reports stated Specht had been disemboweled and probably will die. This was reported in the Birmingham News, a competitor with the Birmingham Ledger, and proved to be a gross exaggeration Specht's injuries.

Birmingham News - July 7, 1914

It was left to a Harley-Davidson spokesman to squash the rumor of Specht's impending death. In reality, Specht was not badly hurt, but both bikes were destroyed. Specht, and Alford were unable rejoin the race.

There was a one hour lunch break at the Rome, Ga. control point.  As the rider's left Rome, headed to Atlanta, they had no idea of the challenges they met. There were three mountains to cross on the way into Atlanta. If that wasn't enough of a challenge, torrential rains began falling as the approached the Altoona pass, with it's three hairpin turns. A total of 21 riders, wet and tired riders, crossed the Atlanta start/finish line in front of Atlanta's Piedmont Hotel. Eighteen riders arrived on time, with three others 10 to 20 minutes late.

At the end of the first leg, eight  Harley-Davidson riders had perfect scores. These included Gray Sloop, Johnny Aiken, and Red Parrish. Gray Sloop made the run in  6 hours, breaking the 1910 record set by Bob Stubbs' on his Indian, by over an hour.

Atlanta Constitution - July 5, 1914

They were followed by Indian riders Bob Stubbs , Gene Walker, and Gayle Joyce, who also had perfect scores. Their Indian teammate Brown had been forced out near Carterville by mechanical problems.

On July 5th, the race contestants reversed course returning to Birmingham from Atlanta.

Race Competitors
O. V. Hunt 1914 - Birmingham, AL. Public Library Archives

Upon arrival in Birmingham, the Harley-Davidson Team claimed the Indian Team was followed "by an automobile, with spare parts, and skilled mechanics".  They also claimed one of the Indian riders received help from the mechanics following their team in violation of the event's rules. The Harley-Davidson Team filed a protest with the referee, but the referee ruled against them.

The decision was made that the Harley-Davidson team riders would not compete in Sunday's return to run to Atlanta. Harley-Davidson ran several ads in the Atlanta Constitution, which were picked up by newspapers around the country, to explain their position.

Atlanta Constitution - July 5, 1914
Atlanta Constitution - July 8, 1914
Chicago Daily Tribune - July 26, 1914

Wheels Through Time Museum Collection
Photo by Chris Price of Georgia Motorcycle History

With the withdrawal of the Harley-Davidson Team, the remaining two days of the race were dominated by the Indian riders.  At the end of the 860 mile run, the Birmingham Indian team had dominated the race.
Gail Joyce - Birmingham, AL. 1914 - Indian
O.V. Hunt Collection

Gail Joyce won the race, with his teammates Gene Walker in second, and Johnny McHale in third.  Bob Stubbs was among the six Indian riders that finished the race without mechanical problems.

Robert Stubbs - Gadsden, AL. ca 1914
Robert Scarboro Collection
Gadsden, Alabama Public Library Archives 

Johnny McHale - Birmingham 1914
O.V. Hunt - Birmingham, AL. Public Library Archive
Christine Turner Collection

In response to the ads run by Harley-Davidson in the Atlanta Constitution, the Indian Motocycle Company ran their own ad after the race was completed.

Atlanta Constitution - July 8, 1914

Motorcycle Illustrated - July 9, 1914
The controversy over the race results was settled by a telegram from Birmingham Ledger Editor B. H. Mooney that appeared in the Sports section of the July 8, 1914 Atlanta Constitution Newspaper confirming Indian riders had won the race. Gail Joyce was the winner, followed by Gene Walker in second, and John McHale in third.

Atlanta Constitution - July 9, 1914

1914 Birmingham Ledger Indian Team trophy
T. McClellan Collection

Atlanta Constitution July 12, 1914

1915 Birmingham Ledger Cup Race

Birmingham Ledger - April 3, 1915

Despite the controversy surrounding the results of the 1914 race, another race was scheduled for Easter Sunday, April 4, 1915. The 422 mile Birmingham Ledger Cup Race followed the same route between Birmingham and Atlanta as the 1914 race. Unlike, the 1914 race, that started at 3:00 am, the 1915 race started at the more civilized hour of 10:00 am.  Both Harley-Davidson, and Indian, entered two teams each in the race.

Birmingham Harley-Davidson Team #1:

William Specht,  Willard E. DeGroat.

Atlanta Harley-Davidson Team #2:

Johnny Aiken, Wilmer "Tex" Richards, H.P. Buttrick, R. B. Parrish.

Birmingham Indian Team #1:

Bob Stubbs, Ollie Roberts, Robert Horton,  John T. McHale.

Atlanta Indian Team #2:

Ed Wilcox, Harry Glenn, Berry Cohen.

On Easter Sunday morning,  24 riders lined up in front of the Birmingham Ledger Office, and were again sent out at 2 minute intervals. Remarkably, at the end of the first days run from Birmingham to Atlanta, 22 of the riders arrived in Atlanta with a perfect scores.

Atlanta Constitution - April 5, 1915
Atlanta Harley-Davidson rider, Johnny Aiken, was the first rider to arrive at the final check point. Aiken set a new records for the run between Birmingham and Atlanta in 5 hours and 30 minutes. This broke the previous record by half and hour. The only incident, was a crash outside Rome, Georgia involving Birmingham Harley-Davidson rider W. E. DeGroat, who was an accomplished local racer, having won the professional sidecar race October held at the Alabama State Fairgrounds Raceway on October 7, 1914.
Willard E. "Big Daddy" DeGroat  of Birmingham, AL.
1915 Birmingham Ledger Race - Gadsden, AL. - 1915
Gadsden Alabama Public Library Archives - Robert Scarboro Collection

Birmingham Ledger - April 10, 1915
At the end second days run from Atlanta, back to Birmingham, W.E. DeGroat appeared to have shaken off his crash the day before. When the scores were tallied, DeGroat was tied with Indian rider D. H. Horton for first place. 

Birmingham ledger - April 7, 1915

The Team Prize was awarded Indian Team #1 consisting of Stubbs, Horton, and Roberts. It was decided the individual race winner was to be decided by the run back to Atlanta starting at 5:30 am. on Tuesday April 6th, but this was later changed to 5:30 am Friday April 9th.

Friday morning, DeGroat lined up at the starting line, but Horton failed to show for the return run. DeGroat filed a protest, asking to be awarded the win, due to a forfeit by Horton. After waiting a reasonable amount of time for Horton to arrive, the event referee declared DeGroat the winner.

Bob Stubbs filed a protest for Horton. Stubbs stated Horton  had been instructed by the referee not to show up for the return run, due to DeGroat's protest. It was left to the State Referees, who  reviewed both protests.

Birmingham Ledger - April 7, 1915
In a meeting at the Ledger Offices on the evening of April 9th, the judges awarded the individual prize, and the Birmingham Ledger Cup to DeGroat. Upon hearing of the judges ruling, Horton sent a note to them withdrawing the protest filed on his behalf. He also asked that the individual prize be awarded to DeGroat.

Willard E. DeGroat - 1915
Specht's Harley-Davidson - Birmingham, AL.
Jessica DeGroat Hayes Collection

Birmingham Ledger - April 10, 1915

Atlanta Constitution - April 10, 1915

DeGroat's win  appeared in a Harley-Davidson ad in the Atlanta Constitution.

Atlanta Constitution - April 11, 1915

Stubb's Indian Ad
Birmingham Ledger - April 1915

Atlanta Constitution - April 25, 1915

With the results of the 1915 race decided, the score between Harley-Davidson, and Indian, stood at one individual win, and two team wins for Indian. Harley-Davidson claimed one individual win. The results of both the 1914, and 1915 races were a point of contention between Indian and Harley-Davidson riders, for years to come, as each claimed to have been cheated. As America's involvement in World War 1 approached, the 1915 race was the final running of the Birmingham Ledger Cup Race.

The 1914 and 1915 Birmingham Ledger Cup Races, were just two small skirmishes in the ongoing competition between the Indian, and Harley-Davidson companies, for sales dominance in the American motorcycle market. This competition continued on roads, race tracks, and dealerships for years to come. It finally came to an end when Indian closed it's doors in 1953.


Gray Sloop, was one of two riders, killed in separate accidents during the Savannah 300 Road Race on November 25, 1914.  

Bob Stubbs, closed his Birmingham Indian dealership in 1918, and taking a job in Montgomery, AL. He died of cancer in 1922.

William F. Specht Jr. closed his Birmingham Harley-Davidson dealership, and returned to Atlantic City, NJ. He became a successful hill climb competitor for Harley-Davidson. 

Gail Joyce, the 1914 race winner, continued his successful racing career.  Joyce opened the Joyce Motor Company in Birmingham in 1918. He owned the Birmingham Harley-Davidson dealer until his death in 1934.

Gene Walker , who finished 2nd in the 1914 race, was hired as an Indian factory rider in 1915. Walker became one of the top motorcycle racers in the country. He was killed in a racing accident in 1924.

Johnny Aiken, who competed in both the 1914 and 1915 races, continued to work Atlanta Harley-Davidson dealer Gus Castle, until he enlisted in the Army at the start of World War 1. He served overseas as a 1st Lieutenant in a Motorcycle Dispatch Company, and remained in the Army until 1920. Upon his return to Atlanta after the war, he made the switch to automobile racing, and became one of the top drivers at Atlanta's Lakewood Speedway.

Ed Wilcox, who competed in both the 1914 and 1915 races, was killed in a racing accident at Atlanta's Lakewood Speedway in 1917. He was attempting to take the lead from Gene Walker on the first lap of the race. He lost control, and crashed into the fence on the outside of the track.

Willard E. "Big Daddy" DeGroat, winner of the 1915 race, later joined the Birmingham Police Department He attained the rank of Detective, and served in the Homicide until he retired in 1945. He passed away in Birmingham in 1965 at age 75.

The Birmingham Ledger was purchased by their competitor The Birmingham News in 1920, and ceased publication later that year. The Birmingham News is Birmingham's newspaper.

Charlotte, NC. Observer - April 18, 1920


Atlanta Constitution

Birmingham Public Library Archive - O. V. Hunt Collection

Birmingham News

Charlotte, NC. Observer

Chicago Daily Tribune

Chris Price

Gadsden Alabama Public Library Archive - Robert (Bobby) Scarboro Collection

Georgia Motorcycle History

Jessica DeGroat Hayes

Johnny Whitsett Collection

Indianapolis Star

Motorcycle Illustrated

Robert (Bobby) Scarboro Collection - Gadsden Public Library Archives

Scott Bashaw Collection

Wheels Through Time Museum Collection


  1. Really interesting article to read. Must have taken a lot of work to research! Thanks!

  2. Thanks Charlie 101! Yes this one took several years, before all the pieces fell into place. Unfortunately, the Birmingham Library Archive did not have microfilm of the the Birmingham Ledger newspaper for the 1914 race. Maybe it will turn up someday!