Thursday, October 23, 2014

History Repeats Itself in Birmingham - Episode #28

By: David L. Morrill
@ Mototique

Updated: April 7, 2015

Alabama State Fairgrounds Raceway - Birmingham, Alabama
O.V. Hunt - October 1914
On October 5th, 1914, a little known event in early Harley-Davidson racing history took place in sleepy little Birmingham, Alabama. Along with Atlanta, Georgia, Birmingham had become a center of professional motorcycle racing in the South. The motorcycle races on the one mile dirt oval track at the Alabama State Fairgrounds  in west Birmingham drew large crowds, that came to see top riders from around the country.

Leslie, "Red" Parkhurst was Harley-Davidson's first factory rider, and came to town to compete in the One Hour F.A.M. National Championship Race at the Fairgrounds.  The race was meant to be another test of the newly introduced Harley-Davidson 11-K "Stripped Stock" racer. The bike had been introduced at the Dodge City 300 Mile Race on July 4th, but had not fared well. At the end of the 300 mile ordeal, only two of the five factory bikes were still running, and they were not in contention.

Harley-Davidson took a much lower key approach to the Birmingham race, sending just Red Parkhurst from the factory team. They also provided semi retired racer Arthur Mitchell, who was now living in Birmingham, along with Atlanta Harley rider Johnny Aiken, with a bikes for the race through the new Birmingham Harley-Davidson dealer William Specht Jr.

As the green flag dropped that day, Parkhurst's chief competition came from Excelsior rider Joe Wolters, and local Indian riders Gail Joyce , and Gene Walker. To the thrill of the Birmingham crowd, Walker led the first couple of laps, and set a new track record.  In the end though, Parkhurst overcame his competition, and led by a comfortable margin at the end of the race. Joe Wolters finished second, and Joyce came in third.

After the race, two protests were filed with the F.A.M. referee by the Excelsior, and Indian teams.  The results were not confirmed until the following week, at the Chicago Motorcycle Show, when Parkhurst was presented the Birmingham trophy, along with his prize money.  Shortly after the awards ceremony, an 11-K racer was rolled out the Harley-Davidson display, along with a billboard touting the Birmingham win.

Leslie "Red" Parkhurst
Bicycling World and Motorcycle Review - October 1914
Red Parhurst's 1914 win at Birmingham went down as Harley-Davidson's first race win in a National Championship event, and played a major part in Harley-Davidson's advertising program for the upcoming 1915 model.

1915 Harley-Davidson Ad
Fast forward one hundred years, and just a few miles east of the old Fairgrounds Raceway, to the Barber Motorsports Park.  In October each year, the Park holds the Barber Vintage Motorcycle Festival. Over the past ten years the Vintage Motorcycle Festival has become one of the premier vintage motorcycle events in the country, and the Century Race for 100 year old motorcycles, is highly anticipated.

Joe "Slojo" Gardella has won the race several times on Harley-Davidsons he rebuilt by hand. Joe is and incredibly talented machinist/fabricator, and has competed in several of the cross county Motorcycle Cannonball Runs for antique motorcycles on his restored Harley-Davidsons. He is always a serious contender in the Century Race, having won the event several times.

Start of the 2014 Barber Vintage Motorcycle Festival Century Race
 Jim Dohms - Dohms Creative Photography

When the green flag dropped on this years Century Race on Saturday October 11th, Joe Gardella jumped to the lead, and maintained that led the race wire to wire. His immaculately prepared 1914 Harley-Davidson, known as the "Gray Ghost" didn't miss a beat. As Joe crossed the finish line, I couldn't help but think back to Red Pankhurst's 1914 win in Birmingham one hundred years before. Well done Joe!

Slow Joe Gardella and The Gray Ghost - Barber Vintage Fest 2014
 Jim Dohms - Dohms Creative Photography
It seems some moments in motorsports are just meant to be. Surely Red was smiling down on Joe that day, as once again Harley-Davidson was victorious at Birmingham.

Joe Gardella, along with a group of 2014 Motorcycle Cannonball Event Riders, also participated in the Parade Lap of bikes and riders from the 2014 event.


A special thank you to the staff, and volunteers of the Barber Motorsports Park and the Barber Vintage Motorsport Museum for hosting this event. Also, a big thank you to my friends David Lloyd, and the folks at the Confederate Chapter of the Antique Motorcycle Club of America for organizing this event, and to my friends Jim Dohms of Dohms Creative Photography, and Rebecca Cunningham of Running Rabbit Films for sharing their incredible talents.


Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum

Bicycling World and Motorcycle Review

Birmingham, Alabama Public Library Archives

Confederate Chapter - Antique Motorcycle Club of America

David Lloyd 

Jim Dohms - Dohms Creative Photography

O.V. Hunt

Rebecca Cunningham - Running Rabbit Films

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