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The Early, Deadly Days of Motorcycle Racing

A century ago, Americans fell in love with speed. While the Wright Brothers flew overhead and Model T’s rolled off Henry Ford’s assembly line, the new sport of motorcycle racing began drawing large crowds bent on celebrating a piston-powered future.

The Hendee Manufacturing Company introduced the 1.75-horsepower, single-cylinder Indian in 1901. Harley-Davidson followed in 1903. Inevitably, racing ensued. Early contests were held on horse-racing ovals and bicycle velodromes, but around 1909 wooden tracks built specifically for cars and motorcycles began to appear in Los Angeles and then elsewhere.

It was in 1911 that a livery worker named Ashley Franklin Van Order moved from Illinois to Southern California so he could ride his motorcycle year-round. Van Order took a job selling Harley-Davidsons and began riding competitively, but his racing career was cut short soon afterward by an accident, followed by an ultimatum. “His wife, Lilly, told him that if he ever rode again, she was out of there,” says Van Order’s grandson, Jim Bolingmo Sr., a retired professor of science and math. Van Order turned to photography, and the images he amassed from the mid-1910s through the 1920s—his own and possibly others’—constitute the most complete and compelling visual record of early motorcycle racing.

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