Indian’s Return to Racing: The “War” is On Again in 2017

Dec 26, 2016 View Comments by

Indian Scout FTR 750

Indian Motorcycle announced in June that after a 64-year absence the company would soon be returning to the AMA Pro Flat Track series. Indian has an all-new liquid-cooled, 750cc flat track race bike under development assisted by Jared Mees, the defending AMA Grand National Champion. Mees is also signed to be Indian’s factory team rider in 2017 when the Scout FTR 750 will be ready to race.

Indian’s return to racing renews one of the sport’s most heralded rivalries, dating back over a century but most intense during the post-World War II era. Known as the “Harley-Indian Wars,” riders of Harley-Davidsons and Indians battled race after race for top honors with their faithful fans in the grandstands rooting for the brand they rode to the track.

The rivalry between the two early-day motorcycle industry giants, Harley-Davidson Motor Company and Indian Motocycle (originally spelled with no “r”) Company, began when latecomer to the racing world, Harley-Davidson, finally gave in and fielded a small team of riders in 1914 for the prestigious 300-mile dirt track race held annually in Dodge City, KS. They did not score well in that first effort, but paid close attention to how the race unfolded and came back the following year with a larger team of riders and improved machines. When Harley rider Otto Walker took the win in 1915, Harley-Davidson became a factor in American motorcycle flat track racing forevermore. To Indian, it was a declaration of war!

Floyd Emde

Floyd Emde, Daytona, 1948

In the years to follow, both companies had large teams of riders, each getting their share of victories on exotic and ever-changing race machines that often had no direct relationship to the street bikes in their lines. Sensing that sales opportunities were being wasted with a racing series for motorcycles that few could afford to buy, in the early 1930s the AMA created a new format called Class C, in which all machines in the series needed to originate as street-legal motorcycles. The concept was “win on Sunday, sell on Monday” and it made a lot of good sense for dealers around the country. Thus began an all-new era of racing that included primarily American brands, but machines from England and Europe being sold in the United States were legal too. It didn’t take long, however, for Indian and Harley to take leadership roles, with each offering a competitive model that racers could strip the headlight and saddlebags off and go racing. Indian’s model of choice was the Sport Scout and Harley-Davidson’s was the WLDR, later upgraded and labeled as the WR. Both were 750cc, hand-shift, three-speed V-twins.

The two companies picked up in Class C where they left off with the previous series and the “war” was on again. Early stars on the production-based machines were Indian’s Ed Kretz and Harley’s Ben Campanale; the first three Daytona 200 races for Class C machines were won by these two riders. Racing came to a halt due to a real war: World War II. From 1942 to ’46, all national championships were put on hold, with many racers and street riders going abroad to serve Uncle Sam.

When the war ended, racing around the country got going again, initially mostly local events. In 1947, Daytona and other championships resumed and the sport got back in full swing. My father, San Diego native Floyd Emde, became one of the top riders in the nation. Originally a Harley-Davidson rider, he won the 10-mile national at Milwaukee, as well as other major races that year. Then, in a slightly unusual move, he received an offer for 1948 to race the all-new Indian 648 Big Base Scout. “Big Base” referred to a new and larger engine case developed during the war for Indian’s military bikes, and the additional oil capacity enhanced the model’s reliability. The 648 also had other upgrades from the previous model purpose-made for Class C racing. Floyd agreed to the switch and made the most of it, leading the 1948 Daytona 200 from start to finish. It was a convincing victory, and on that day surely no one would have believed it would be Indian’s last-ever Daytona 200 win, but it was. The company was still hanging on, but the cost of building military machines during the war had put them in bad financial condition.

Despite troubles at the plant and diminishing factory support, many Indian riders and teams kept the faith, scoring victories on the championship circuit on a privateer basis. Known as the “Indian Wrecking Crew,” Bobby Hill and Bill Tuman won numerous races in the early 1950s and each had a season or two to carry the AMA #1 plate, which designated the nation’s top-ranked rider. Their competition was broadening, however. In addition to Harley, Indian had Norton and other British brands to compete with.

The original Indian Motocycle Company shut down its Springfield, MA, factory in 1953. Even though the Scouts were no longer produced, some Indian riders still had ample parts and continued on. When a third “Indian Wrecking Crew” member, Ernie Beckman, scored a national win at Williams Grove, PA, on August 2, 1953, it would be the last time, to date, that the brand would be first to the checkers in an AMA National Championship race.

At the time, most people figured that the book was closed on Indian motorcycles in racing. Today, the “new” company has a racing machine in the late stages of development and it would seem that the future is again looking promising for fans. From what has been reported, a fair question to ask would be when, not if, an Indian motorcycle will win again. Stay tuned!

Text: Don Emde
Photography: Don Emde and Indian Motorcycle

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