Sunday, December 8, 2013

Atlanta's, Johnny Aiken - Episode #20

By: David L. Morrill
@ Mototique

Updated: April 28, 2015

Johnny Aiken - Birmingham, AL.
O.V. Hunt 1914 - Johnny Whitsett Collection
As, I've said in other stories, my interest in early Southern motorcycling started with some old motorcycle photos taken in 1914 and 1915 by Birmingham, Al. photographer O.V. Hunt. Over the past few years, I've tried to identify many of the riders in these photos. One Harley-Davidson rider appeared in several photos, and I was finally able to identify him, as Atlanta Harley-Davidson dealer/racer Johnny Aiken. Since Johnny played a part in many of these stories, it's time to share his part in early Southern racing history.

John D. Aiken, was born in North Dakota in 1887. When and why he came to Atlanta, Georgia, has been lost to time, but by the early teens he was living in Atlanta, and was a dealer for Thor and Jefferson motorcycles.

In August 1913, word got out that the Atlanta Motordrome was planning a race for black riders. On September 5, 1913, the planned race was the subject of a full page highly critical article under the headline was "Dealers Condemn Atlanta's Colored Races" in Motorcycling magazine.

Motorcycling - September 5, 1913
Scott Bashaw Collection
The article quoted local Atlanta Harley-Davidson dealer Gus Castle, and Johnny Aiken.  Aiken's stated:
"Except that it will popularize motorcycling among Negros and in that way cheapen the sport in the eyes of white men."
After holding the race on October 28, 1913, the tracks race sanction was withdrawn, which caused the track to close, and file for bankruptcy.

1913 Savannah 300 Road Race

Johnny Aikens first appears in the early motorcycle press, as a competitor in the 1913 Savannah 300 Mile Road Race. For some reason early in his career, the S was removed from the end of his name in many early newspaper reports. This continued through most of his motorcycle racing career.

The Savannah 300 was a grueling 5 hour race, held on part of the old Grand Prize Auto Racing Course, used 11 miles of public roads outside Savannah, Georgia.  Aiken was one the riders representing Harley-Davidson. During one of the practice sessions, Aiken was thrown from his motorcycle, and crashed into a tree. His injuries kept him from competing in races for the next several months..

Atlanta Constitution - December 27, 1913

By 1914 Johnny Aiken had gone to work for Gus Castle's as a salesman at the Harley-Davidson Southern Branch at 224 Peachtree Street in Atlanta.

Atlanta Constitution - 1914

Georgia Endurance Runs

While recovering from his Savannah injuries, Aiken became involved in promoting motorcycle endurance runs in Georgia as a member of the Atlanta Motorcycle Club. These races were generally run between major cities on the public roads, with daily runs lasting 5 to 6 hours. By March 1914, Aiken had recovered sufficiently to also compete in the races.

Atlanta Constitution - March 22, 1914
Aikens, riding a Harley-Davidson, was one of only four riders, of the original 33 entrants to complete the March 1914 run. Aiken was also mentioned in an Atlanta Constitution article on the upcoming Memorial Day Endurance Run.

Atlanta Constitution - March 29, 1914

Atlanta Harley-Davidson Dealer

Aiken was also a very successful Harley-Davidson dealer. His notoriety, as one of the top endurance riders in the south, drew many customers to the Peachtree Street dealership causing sales to soar. An early example of "Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday."

Atlanta Constitution - April 5, 1914
Aiken continued his endurance riding, when time allowed.

Atlanta Constitution - April 12, 1914
The 1914 Stone Mountain Run

In late April 1914, Johnny Aiken made a run up Georgia's Stone Mountain on a Harley-Davidson V twin. This was said to have been the first time a gasoline powered vehicle made it to the top of  Stone Mountain's extremely steep 50% grade. The Atlanta Constitution article on the event did not identify the rider as Johnny Aiken.

Johnny Aiken - Stone Mountain, Georgia
Chris Price@Georgia Motorcycle History
Atlanta Constitution - April 26, 1914
The 1914 Birmingham Ledger Endurance Run

In April 1914, the Birmingham Ledger Newspaper announced they would be sponsoring a Motorcycle Endurance Run from Birmingham, Al. to Atlanta, GA., and back. The race was billed as the Southern Championship Race. It started at the Ledger Office in downtown Birmingham at 4 am on July 4th. Aiken was one of the riders selected by Harley-Davidson to ride for them in the race.

Atlanta Constitution - June 14, 1914

O.V. Hunt photographed a group of the Harley-Davidson and Indian riders entered in the Ledger Endurance Run in front of the Birmingham Ledger Office as part of the pre-race publicity. Johnny Aiken is the Harley-Davidson rider at the far left of the photo.

O.V. Hunt 1914 - Johnny Whitsett Collection

At the end of the first day's 211 mile leg from Birmingham to Atlanta, Aiken was one of eight Harley-Davidson riders to arrive in Atlanta, with a perfect score. A controversy arose on the next days return leg to Birmingham. The Harley-Davidson Team accused the Indian Team of using trained mechanics, who followed their riders in an automobile, and assisted their riders with needed repairs.

A protest was filed, which Harley-Davidson lost. Harley then withdrew their riders from the final legs of the race. Harley claimed they won the race, and ran several ads, which appeared in newspapers around the country.

Atlanta Constitution - May 3, 1914

With the withdrawal of the Harley-Davidson Team, Indian rider Gail Joyce won the race, and his Indian team mate, Gene Walker, finished 2nd.

The 1914 Birmingham F.A.M. Championship Race

In October 1914, Johnny Aiken, and his friend William F. Specht, Jr. played a small, but important part in an important event in the Harley-Davidson Racing Team's early history.

Prior to 1914, Harley-Davidson had limited it's racing to mostly endurance runs, and hill climb competitions. These events required production motorcycles, which were available to the general public. Harley felt these races were a better marketing tool for the strength and endurance of their motorcycles. They avoided the costly dangerous world of professional track racing popular at the time. These board, and dirt track races, required special purpose built racing machines in the hands of the best professional riders of the era.

Harley reversed course, in 1914. They built special 11-K racers, and hired several professional riders to ride them. Their first major race was the Dodge City 300 Mile Road Road. The July 4th race did not go well for Harley, and mechanical problems forced most of the bikes to retire. The Harley Team returned to Milwaukee, and re-evaluated their racing efforts.

In October, Harley dispatched a single factory rider, Red Parkhurst, to Birmingham, Alabama for the F.A.M. One Hour Championship Race. They also supplied riders, Johnny Aiken, and Arthur Mitchell, the new Harley racers through the Birmingham dealer. Aiken suffered mechanical problems, and did not compete in the Championship race, but he and William F. Specht, Jr. acted as Parkhurst's pit crew for the Championship race.

Johnny Aiken - William  F. Specht Jr. - Gray Sloop 
 Specht Harley-Davidson - Birmingham, AL.
O.V. Hunt 1914 - Johnny Whitsett Collection
The pre-race activities at the Alabama State Fairgrounds Raceway in Birmingham were captured by local photographer O. V. Hunt. In the photo below, Birmingham's Gene Walker on his Indian 8 Valve racer, is on the far right. Johnny Aiken is seen with his arms crossed standing behind, and to the left, of Gene Walker. This was Walker's first professional race, and O. V. Hunt was a close friend of Walker's sponsor, Birmingham Indian dealer Robert Stubbs.

Alabama State Fairgrounds Raceway - Birmingham, AL.
O. V. Hunt 1914 - Johnny Whitsett Collection
Walker led the first few laps of the race, and set a new track record. Parkhurst later took the lead, and won the race.  Joe Wolters on an Excelsior finished second, while Gail Joyce finished third, and Walker fifth on Indians.

After the race, protests were filed by both Joe Wolters of the Excelsior Team, and Walker's Indian team mate Gail Joyce, who finished fourth.  Wolters claimed he had been shorted a lap, and had actually won the race. A later check of the scoring, revealed Wolters had been scored correctly. It was also found his protest had not been filed in a timely manner, and it was dismissed.  Gail Joyce claimed Parkhurst had received assistance from a spectator in cleaning  his goggles during a pit stop.

The investigation into Joyce's protest stated, that Johnny Aiken, and Bill Specht,  were refueling Parkhurst's bike during the pit stop. Parkhurst attempted to clean his dirt caked goggles, with a handkerchief, which was tied to his handlebars. He asked a spectator to borrow a clean handkerchief, and the excited spectator, helped Parkhurst in clean his goggles.

The F.A.M., who sanctioned the race, determined the spectator had provided a clean handkerchief to Parkhurst, and assisted him with cleaning his glasses. They ruled Parkhurst needed to see to race safely, and dismissed Joyce's protest. This was  the Harley-Davidson Racing Team's first Championship Race win.

1914 Savannah 300

The Savannah 300 was scheduled for Thanksgiving Day 1915. Harley-Davidson announced they were sending a full team of riders to compete in the race. Maybe it was the more experienced competition, or the memory of his painful injuries he sustained in the 1913 race, but Johnny Aiken decided not enter the race.

Aiken's friend, Mooresville , NC. Harley-Davidson dealer Gray Sloop, was chosen for the Harley-Davidson Team. Gray Sloop appears in the O.V. Hunt photo taken in front of the the Birmingham Harley-Davidson dealership in 1914, along with Aiken, and Specht.

Sadly, in an accident eerily similar to Johnny Aiken's 1914 crash, Sloop Gray was thrown from his bike at high speed on the second lap of the race. Gray stuck a tree, and was instantly killed. Later in the race another of Aiken's friends, Savannah ride Zeddie Kelly, also hit a tree, and was severely injured. He died in the hospital the next day.

Gray Sloop
O. V. Hunt - Johnny Whitsett Collection

New York Times - November 27, 1914

1914, was the final year for the Savannah 300 Mile Race. Accounts of the the deaths in the race appeared in newspapers around the country. The Savannah City Fathers cancelled any further motorcycle races on the course.

Wild and Woolly Georgia - 1915

In March, 1915, Johnny Aiken, and five other riders, were involved in an event, none would forget. They were on their regular 150 ride, when a local farmer accused them of frightening his mule. The farmer pulled a gun on them, and forced each of them to cough up five dollars in compensation. Motorcycling in Georgia back then, could be a very dangerous business!

Atlanta Constitution - March 30, 1915

The 1915 Birmingham Ledger Cup Race

The 1915 Birmingham Ledger Cup Endurance Run would took place on Easter Sunday. The race would follow the same course between Birmingham and Atlanta as the 1914.  Once again, Johnny Aiken was one of several riders representing Harley-Davidson in the race. When the first day's run to Atlanta was finished, Aiken was one of 22 riders with a perfect score.

Atlanta Constitution - April 5, 1915

Aikens time of 5 hours and 30 minutes broke the previous record by 30 minutes. Aiken's Harley-Davidson team mate, W. E. DeGroat of Birmingham, took the overall win in the race, and claimed the Birmingham Ledger Cup.

Atlanta Constitution - April 11, 1915

World War I

As the United States became involved in World War 1, Johnny Aiken enlisted in the Army. His skills as both a motorcycle rider, and mechanic, were badly needed by the Army's Motorcycle Dispatch Unit. First Lieutenant John Aiken,  served in a Motorcycle Dispatch Unit overseas from March 1918 until August 1919. He was then assigned to Camp Jesup, GA. Lt. Aiken was honorably discharged at the end of January 1920.

Automobile Racer

Upon his return to Atlanta, Johnny Aiken went to work at the Dodge Brothers garage. Aikens also began to race a Dodge race car on the one mile oval dirt track at Atlanta's Lakewood Speedway.

Atlanta's Lakewood Speedway

Atlanta Constitution - August 6, 1921
Aiken's chief competitors at Lakewood Speedway were Harry Glenn, and Bob Luton. Glenn, who was also Atlanta's Indian Motorcycle dealer, had started racing cars in 1918, but continued to ride motorcycle races at the Speedway.

Atlanta Constitution - June 16, 1918

Aiken, Glenn, and Luton would compete against each other in automobile races for the next several years. In July 1922, a photo of Aiken at the wheel of the Stutz racer he was going to drive at the Speedway appeared in the Atlanta Constitution.

Atlanta Constitution - July 2, 1922
Aiken won the five mile race, on July 4th, but was involved in a crash with fellow competitor Joe Lancaster, in which his cars rear axle was bent, and was unable to complete the race.

Atlanta Constitution - July 5, 1922

In September 1922, a match race was scheduled at Lakewood Speedway pitting Johnny Aiken against his rival Bob Luton. The race consisted of three heat races and The American Legion, who was sponsoring the day's events, put up a $1000. winner takes all purse.

Atlanta Constitution - October 15, 1921

Atlanta Constitution - September 10, 1922

Luton won the first three lap race, and Aiken won the second race. When the dust settled on the final  race, Johnny Aiken crossed the finish line first, and walked away with the $1000. purse.

Atlanta Constitution - September 18, 1922


After his automobile racing career, Johnny Aiken owned and operated an automotive garage in Atlanta for many years. He passed away in Atlanta in May 1973, at the age of  86.


Atlanta Constitution

Birmingham, Alabama Public Library Archives

Chris Price@Georgia Motorcycle History

Johnny Whitsett Collection

New York Times

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