What do you get when you combine drag racing, motocross, and a vertical surface?  Hillclimbing, the American way!  Two-wheeled motorsport in the USA went through dramatic changes before WW2, but it was hugely popular, depending on what ‘it’ was.  From around 1910, Board Track racing fascinated crowds of tens of thousands, crammed into bleachers and peering over the banked wooden speed bowls, risking their heads (literally) as the riders risked their hides.  With the press calling them ‘murderdromes’ by the ‘Teens, and the sanctioning bodies losing their taste for 100mph bloodsports, the Board Track era died by the early 1920s.

Professional racer Harold Matheison tackles the Fresno Hillclimb aboard a specialized Indian Chief racer with extra-long frame and racing Daytona moor with short exhaust stacks [Bonhams]
Those specialized wooden racing tracks then gave way to the most basic of racing surfaces – dirt – that became nearly the rule in American racing for the next 40 years.  Dirt Track racing on oval circuits had long been an American pastime, but the energy of the sport changed dramatically when it was re-imported from Australia, and the Golden Age of Dirt Track began in the mid-1920s.  Crowds of tens of thousands once again thronged race tracks from London to Buenos Aires to Los Angeles to Sydney, and specialized racing bikes like the Douglas DT5 and Rudge Dirt Track were kings of the broadslide, and riders like Sprouts Elder and Frank Varey became international stars, and very rich!

The most famous Dirt Track rider in the world in the 1920s was Sprouts Elder, who some credit with inventing the art of broadsliding his machines on the cinder tracks of the USA, before traveling to Australia to ‘show ’em how’. He shows the crowd ‘how to’ here in Laguna Beach, roaring up a sandy hill [Bonhams]
Another sport grew right alongside Dirt Track as an incredibly popular spectator sport, spawning freak machines that were useless in any other situation: Hillclimbing.  While European-style hillclimbs had been around on US roads since the early ‘Noughts, the sport of vertical drag racing was another matter entirely, and far more spectacular.   Riders gunned their highly-tuned, alcohol-burning motors from a standing start at the bottom of an incredibly steep hill, and let ‘er rip.  With the machine bucking like a wild animal over a completely ungroomed surface, an enormous rooster tail of flung dirt behind the bike, and a tremendous roar, it was everything a spectator could want in a sport, especially as the success rate on many hills was almost zero.  Riders had to be grabbed by helpers holding ropes to keep them sliding right back down the hill they’d come up, after their machine stalled or – even better – flipped end over end.

Famous for his Land Speed racing on Crockers and other machines, Sam Parriot was also a Slant Artist. Here his Indian gets away from him at the Laguna Beach Hillclimb. [Bonhams]
The sport is still popular in some areas, and the routine is the same today as in the mid-1920s, when most of these photos were taken in California.  The first hillclimbers of the early 1920s were road bikes stripped down, with chains over the rear wheels to help traction.  They soon developed into factory-built specials with extra-long frames, engines at the pinnacle of racing development (whether Sidevalve, IoE, or OHV).  The riders were big stars, and raced on other surfaces too, but the challenge of a taming an enormous hill was a lure these tough-guys couldn’t resist. And tough they were, taking crazy spills on their bikes, and getting right back on to try again, as the prize money could be very large, and by the late 1920s, a National Championship had been established.  And everybody wants to be the Champ!

Leonard Lamton at the Laguna Beach Hillclimb on his Harley-Davidson JDH twin-cam racer; note the friction dampers on the front forks, and the chalk lines marking off the ‘track’ of the race. [Bonhams]
These photos were included in an album of California dirt racing (1925-35) sold by Bonhams at Las Vegas in Jan. 2018.  They’re a beautiful chronicle of an outrageous sport, made by professional photographers to promote the sport and riders.  The

Sam Parriot at the Laguna Beach Hillclimb – always an Indian man, or a Crocker rider; anything but Harley-Davidsons for that fierce rivalry. [Bonhams]
Dudley Perkins opened the world’s second-longest-running Harley-Davidson dealership, in San Francisco, and was quite a racer. This is 1925 at the Capistrano Hillclimb, which he won [Bonhams]
Dudley Perkins in action, showing the style that wins the race! Capistrano Hillclimb, 1925. [Bonhams]
Swede Madsen at the Girard Hillclimb in April, 1926, with a brand-new factory A61 OHV Indian racer, purpose built to burn alcohol and win hillclimbs. [Bonhams]
A very famous photo of Mal Ord at the San Diego Hillclimb in 1930. Jeff Decker says this photo was the inspiration for his ‘Slant Artist’ sculpture, that sits outside the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee! [Bonhams]
June 28, 1925 at the Laguna Beach Hillclimb. An iconic shot of a rider about to part with his roaring Harley-Davidson JD racer. [Bonhams]
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