Early History of Harley Davidson Racing


There’s nothing quite like a Harley Davidson motorcycle. From the raw power to the sleek designs, there are several reasons to appreciate these road-ripping beasts. However, while we’re all familiar with the popular motorcycle manufacturer, do you know the brand has a rich history in racing? That’s right, Harley Davidson bikes have won several races over the years.

In this post, we’ll talk about the early history of Harley Davidson racing and explain how the brand has manufactured some of the best racing bikes ever made.

The Beginning of Harley-Davidson

As Harley Davidson has grown into a massive company, it all started in a small shed over 100 years ago. After William S. Harley started to draw up plans for a small engine that fits on a standard bike, Arthur and Walter Davidson helped him finalize the design. They gave their new project the name “motor-bicycle.”

As the newly-formed team finished manufacturing the bike in 1903, they needed to make some adjustments. Once they completed the new prototype in 1904, the bike made its racing debut at a local event at the State Fair Park. The motorcycle finished in fourth place. From there, the Harley Davidson brand came to life.

While manufacturing racing bikes was the team’s plan moving forward, not everyone was onboard. In fact, Arthur Davidson was against it. He said he didn’t see any point in having a racing team and building race bikes. One of his biggest arguments was that the daily rider wouldn’t want or need a motorcycle that’s modified for racing.

Arthur’s brother, Walter Davidson, didn’t agree with his viewpoint.

Walter believed that a great way to show a bike’s performance was to bring it to the racetrack. In the end, Walter got what he wanted. Harley Davidson would soon join the racing world as some of the best bikes ever seen.

Once the brand had a working model with their new prototype in 1904, Harley-Davidson engines were listed in the January 1905 Automobile and Cycle Trade Journal—which was a huge deal. Just four months later, Harley Davidson motorcycles were already in production. During the first year, only five bikes were produced. However, in 1906 when the Harley team moved out of their shed and into a factory, 50 motorcycles were made. Additionally, within just one year of building the factory, the team had plans to expand to a second floor. In 1907, 150 motorcycles were produced. The rest is history.


Harley Davidson is also known for their history in hillclimbing. A hillclimb competition is essentially a drag race up a steep hill. Each rider has at least two attempts up the slope, and the contestant with the shortest time is crowned the winner. If no one reaches the top, the rider who traveled the furthest wins the competition.

Indian Motorcycle Company invented hillclimbing in the early 1900s. The brand would run their bikes up the steepest hills around Springfield, Massachusetts, to prove how their powerful motorcycles could handle rugged terrain. 

Within a few short years, hillclimbing exploded in popularity. This is when Harley Davidson decided to join the party. After Harley began their hillclimbing racing career around 1910, the company dominated the sport.

As the years went on, hillclimbing continued to gain attention around the country. Top motorcycle manufacturers like Harley, Indian, and Excelsior, saw the sport as an opportunity to market the performance and durability of their bikes. By 1928, both Excelsior and Indian built limited-edition motorcycles strictly for climbing hills. Harley would follow suit in 1929 by also manufacturing a hillclimb-only bike. This impressive and unique model, the Harley-Davidson DAH, is increasingly rare today and most can only be found in museums.

Unfortunately, the Great Depression caused the Excelsior brand to close its doors for good, and Indian and Harley-Davidson didn’t have the funding for hillclimbing. That said, professional hill climbing events were nearly nonexistent from this time forward.

However, this would change in the 1960s and 1970s, as the sport began to resurge in popularity. Also, as dirt bike culture was taking shape around the country, riders of all ages were taking their dirt bikes up the gnarliest of hills.

Today, professional hill climbing is certainly still a thing. AMA-sanctioned motorcycle hill climb events continue to take place around the country, including the annual National Grand Championship at Valley Springs Motorcycle Club in Bay City, Wisconsin. Although Harley bikes aren’t common in these races, we can’t help but to look back at the motorcycle brand that shaped the sport we enjoy today.

Endurance Racing

While Harley conquered the hill climbing scene, endurance racing was also a specialty of the massive motorcycle manufacturer. Once the Harley Davidson team moved out of their tiny shed and into a factory in 1906, it was time to put their bikes to the test. Walter Davidson and two other riders would join a Chicago Motorcycle Club endurance racing event that same year.

Endurance racing involves a long race covering challenging terrain of various types. The first team to cross the finish line is crowned the champion.

Unfortunately, the 300-mile race through rugged terrain was too much for the Harley bikes to handle. In fact, Walter’s bike didn’t make it through the first day.

Down on his spirits, Walter had his eyes set on the next race, and started making improvements to his Harley motorcycle. Two years later, Walter and two of his buddies went for redemption at another endurance race in New York’s Catskill Mountains. This time, Walter and his Harley Davidson bike won the competition. In fact, he finished with a perfect 1,000 +5 score! With this incredible achievement, Harley Davidson was put on the map.

Dirt-Track Racing

As Harley would win countless endurance races over the years, the motorcycle company was also successful in dirt-tracking racing. Dirt-track racing, also called flat-track racing, involved racing around a dirt, oval-shaped track. Riders would reach very high speeds as they zip around the course to cross the finish line.

During the 1930s, Harley Davidson took dirt-track racing by storm. This was thanks to the emergence of legendary rider Joe Petrali. He would go on to be one of the most successful motorcycle riders in history!

After Harley bikes won competition after competition in the 1930s, the sky was the limit. In 1947, dirt-track racer Jimmy Chann would win the first of three consecutive AMA Grand National Championships.

As the decade turned to the 1950s, Harley was still in their winning ways. In 1950, Harley Davidson riders won 18 of 25 National Championships, and they also broke six new racing records.

After Harley yet again wins the AMA Grand National Championship in 1954, Harley riders would continue to dominate the sport. Over the next eight years, Harley Davidson wins every Grand National Championship.

Throughout the next 60+ years, Harley Davidson would continue to be a force in flat-track racing. Countless records were broken, several races were won, and new innovative dirt racing bikes were introduced—all led by Harley Davidson. From 1970 moving forward, a Sportster-based motorcycle, the XR-750 racer, was a huge reason for the success. In fact, this motorcycle became the dominant dirt-track racer over the next three decades.

Joe Petrali

When you talk about Harley Davidson racing, the name Joe Petrali is in the conversation. This iconic rider was born in San Francisco in 1904 and grew up a racer from the first time he rode a bike at age 12. By age 14, Petrali won his first race.

As Joe had several successful races in the 1920s, he really shined during the 30s. The year of 1935 was his brightest moment, as he won all 13 national championships across the country! Just a year later, Petrali wasn’t done making history. He went on to set the new land speed record of 136.183 mph. Joe accomplished this feat on a modified Harley Davidson 61-cubic-inch, overhead, valve-driven motorcycle.

Petrali said goodbye to racing two years later, putting a stamp on his legendary career. As we look back on the history of successful Harley Davidson riders, Joe Petrali is the name that tops the list.

Garage Bagger Stereo

While racing isn’t too common for Harley Davidson nowadays, the large motorcycle brand is more popular than ever before. The brand continues to innovate and push the industry forward, manufacturing powerful, hard-charging bikes with advanced technology. While you probably won’t be taking your motorcycle to the racetrack, you can still experience the raw power and reliability of Harley motorcycles—the same performance enjoyed by Joe Petrali nearly 100 years ago.

As modern motorcycles have advanced greatly over the years, this includes their accessories and impressive add-ons. While there are a number of ways to upgrade your bike, improving the sound system is becoming increasingly popular. From advanced Harley Davidson speakers to high-tech radios with all the features, there are several ways to boost the audio on your bike.

If you’re looking for a high-quality, great-sounding audio system for your motorcycle, Garage Bagger Stereo has you covered! We’re happy to sell a wide variety of products for Harley Davidson bikes, including:

  • Harley Davidson speakers
  • Radios
  • Subwoofers
  • Tweeters
  • Amplifiers
  • Batteries
  • And more!

No matter what audio system you had in mind, we have your solution! Also, if you don’t want to handle the installation yourself, we’re here to help! We have a skilled team of knowledgeable, experienced audio system installers.

As you love your Harley Davidson motorcycle, we want you to love it even more. That’s why we focus on building the best motorcycle audio systems in the business. 

Call us today to find the sound system of your dreams

This Blog Was Reviewed for Accuracy By Audio Expert, Chris Lowe

Chris Lowe, the esteemed owner of Garage Bagger Stereo, is a globally recognized authority in Motorcycle and Boat Audio systems. With a decorated experience spanning over a decade, Chris has curated audio experiences for enthusiasts and businesses worldwide. His expertise and stellar work are prominently showcased across various social media platforms and can be further explored through the offerings on the official Garage Bagger Stereo website.

Originally hailing from South Georgia and currently residing in Greenville, South Carolina, Chris's fervor for boating and motorcycles is deeply rooted. It's this passion, coupled with his affection for car audio, that has seamlessly interwoven his personal interests with his professional pursuits. This synergy has not only invigorated his daily endeavors but also continually fuels his commitment to excellence in the audio industry.