Tuesday, April 1, 2014

A Tale of Two McNeils - Episode #24

By: David L. Morrill
@ Mototique

Updated: January 23, 2018

James "Jock" McNeil on "Auld Nick" - Atlanta Motordrome  1913
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 in 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"

In September 1912, a young motorcycle racer from Edinburgh, Scotland named James McNeil was hired to compete at the Stadium Motordrome at Brighton Beach, New York. Articles of the time indicate 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 JAP Special racer nick named "Auld Nick" (Scottish slang for Old Devil), would become a crowd favorite, and a dominant force at the Stadium Motordrome.

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

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.
Motorcycle Illustrated - September 1912

Brooklyn Daily Eagle - September 11, 1912
Scranton, PA. Truth - September 11, 1912

On September 12, 1912, McNeil won a race with Arthur Chapple. The following day he 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.

Infield Crowd at the Atlanta Motordrome - ca 1913.
Chris Price  @ Archive Moto
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 at West View Cemetery in Atlanta on August 21, 1913.

Atlanta Constitution - August 22, 1913
 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

Joseph Addison McNeil was born in 1882 of Scotch parents in Prince Edward Island, Canada. McNeil was an accomplished bicycle racer, and in 1900 his family moved to Boston, Massachusetts, and he began to compete in cycling races around the United States.

Joseph A. McNeil - ca.1900
Paul Eichelberger Collection

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. By 1910, McNeil made the switch from bicycle to motorcycle racing competing in professional races at the Los Angeles Coliseum on a Reading Standard motorcycle. In March 1910,  J. A. McNeil finished third in the 12 Mile race for professional riders at the Coliseum.

Later that year, McNeil, and several other West Coast riders including Morty Graves spent three months racing at the Wandemere Motordrome in Salt Lake City Utah. Graves and McNeil returned to Los Angeles, and continued to compete at the Coliseum.

In mid 1913,  McNeil returned to Salt Lake City to compete. He appears in Tribune reports racing an Excelsior at the Wandemere.  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 led at the start of the race, but crashed through a chain link fence putting him out of the race.  He was not seriously injured.

J. A. McNeil - Excelsior leads the start of the Marion, Indiana Road Race
Motorcycle and Bicycle Illustrated - September 16, 1920

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 Prince Edward 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

Chris Price@Archive Moto

Daniel K. Statnekov Collection


Indianapolis, IN. News

Mark Stevens - Evanton, Scotland

Ottawa, Canada Journal

Paul Eichelberger Collection


Scranton, PA. Daily Truth

Stephen Wright 
American Racers 1900-1940

Toronto, Canada World

Newspapers.com New York Times

Winnipeg, Canada Tribune

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