Saturday, February 1, 2014

Joe Wolters Cheats the Angel of Death - Episode #22

By: David L. Morrill
@ Mototique

Joe Wolters
Daniel Statnekov Collection -

I ran across this story while doing research one day. The December 11, 1911 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper featured this headline:

Needless to say, that one caught my attention, and I set out find out what I could about one of the strangest events in early racing history.

By 1911, Joe Wolters, and his Excelsior Motorcycles teammate Jake De Rosier, were dominating board track races around the country. In December of 1911, Wolters found himself in San Francisco, California competing in a series of races at the newly opened half mile Oakland Motordrome in Elmhurst, CA. The Oakland Motordrome featured a steep 40 degree circular wooden racing surface. These early steeply banked circular tracks were known as "Saucer Tracks", as they looked like large saucers. The motorcycles of the day would hit close to 80 miles per hour on the saucer board tracks.

Oakland Motordrome
San Francisco Chronicle - December 1911

The events held at the Oakland Motordrome on December 10, 1911, featured several motorcycle races, along with a flying exhibitions. Among the flyers featured in the aviation exhibitions was Didier Masson, and his Curtiss Flyer Biplane.

Didier Masson & his Curtiss Flyer Biplane
Masson was a famous French Aviator, who had been on a barnstorming tour of the United States since 1910. A photograph of Masson's Curtiss Flyer Biplane in flight was featured in the advertising for the day's events.

Oakland Motordrome Ad
San Francisco Chronicle - December 9, 1911

Joe Wolters had just finished winning the afternoon's Ten Mile Professional Race at the Motordrome in commanding fashion, and was still traveling at a blistering pace, when Masson attempted to land his Biplane on the track's infield. The events, which followed were described in the newspaper article below:

San Francisco Chronicle - December 11, 1911
The fact that Wolters escaped the crash with only minor injuries, and Masson was uninjured, is truly amazing.  Wolters bike had torn through the wing of the biplane, and struck the revolving propeller snapping it off. He was truly one lucky fellow that day!

Joe Wolters went on to win many more races, and set numerous track records, during his long career. In 1963, at age 81, Wolters recounted the events of that day, along with his long racing career,  in an article that appeared in the Tucson, AZ. Daily Citizen newspaper.

Tucson, AZ. Daily Citizen - August 16, 1963

In the article Joe Wolters stated, he woke up in the hospital two hours after the crash with a skull fracture, but was released after just six hours. These early racers were a tough breed. Wolters retired from motorcycle racing in 1921, after a long and successful career.

Dedier Masson repaired his Curtiss Flyer, and continued his barnstorming tour. Later, Masson served as a mercenary pilot in the Mexican Civil War, and went on to serve in the French Air Corp's Escadrille 18 during World War 1. He once again escaped death, when the engine for his Newport 17 fighter cut out during a dogfight with a German opponent. Masson was able still able to shoot down the German plane, before crash-landing his Newport.  Crawling from his wrecked plane, Masson then narrowly escaped a German artillery barrage. Truly a very lucky man! For more information on Masson's career please visit:

Despite their many accomplishments, the scrappy Chicago motorcycle racer, and the French flyer, would always be remembered for their strange death defying meeting at the Oakland Motordrome on December 11, 1911.

Joe Wolters also played an important part in another of my stories. The link is below:


  1. WOW, what a thrilling story! Many thanks for that. The early days were so exciting.


  2. Thanks Andreas. Glad you liked the story!

    1. Joe Wolter was my grandfather. Many thanks for researching then publishing the interesting article and pictures.

  3. Paul D. Wolter December 3, 2016
    Joe Wolter was my grandfather, and I remember him showing me his two huge 2" binders filled with articles about his racing and ice skating escapades. I also remember seeing a lot of his trophies he won racing motorcycles. Unfortunately I only have several old photographs showing him with motorcycles. My uncle Less Wolter inherited all his racing memorabilia who in turn gave it to his daughter. I contacted the daughter many years ago inquiring about the racing memorabilia. She told me she no longer had any of it and lost it in a storage unit.
    I greatly appreciate seeing and reading the interesting article and seeing the pictures. I only wish that I had experienced owning an Excelsior.

  4. Thanks Paul. It is always an honor to share information with the families of these early racers. Joe is a principal in two other episodes. If you go down to the Labels column on the right side of the home page, and scroll down to Joe's name, the link will take you to the other stories. There are several other rare photos of him in those articles. There is a very early 1907 photo of Joe on an Apache racer in Stephen Wright's book American Racer. Sorry to hear about the loss of Joe's memorabilia. Sadly this is not an uncommon story. A family member of one famous racer I wrote about said a chest of drawers full of his memorabilia disappeared over the years.