larry laurent | June 26, 2022
Cycle news Archives
This Cycle news The Archives section is a reprint of the June 30, 2010 issue. NC has hundreds of past Archives columns of our files, too many of which are themselves archives. So to prevent this from happening, in the future we will go back to the past Archives articles while planning to keep new articles coming -Editor.
The cornfield classic
In 1919 and 1920, the small town of Marion, Indiana hosted one of the greatest races of the era. The Marion 200-Mile International Road Race brought all the factory teams together, and several teams made “Marion specials”—race bikes designed specifically to perform well on the five-mile course. The event was advertised with the grandest advertisements of the day, and while the Marion 200 – or the Cornfield Classic as the press at the time dubbed the race – was one of the greatest races of its time, the event ultimately turned out to be short-lived. The reasons for her demise became apparent, as we’ll see, but for two Labor Day weekends, Marion basked in the glory of national attention from her international run.
The battle of the “Big Three” was in full swing during this period after the end of World War I. Harley-Davidson, Excelsior and Indian vied for the attention of potential motorcycle buyers as America entered one of its most prosperous times. . While people had money to spend, motorcycles had already become an object of passion other than a cheap means of transport, which they had been considered a decade before. What was once a low-cost alternative to expensive automobiles had become what many saw as an impractical means of transportation after Henry Ford ramped up production of the Model T, which made cars affordable to the general public for the first time. Success on the circuit became even more important for manufacturers to rise above the fray as motorcycles were now more of a luxury than a necessity.
The Marion race was promoted by local Marion businessmen led by a Harley-Davidson distributor named Glenn Scott. Scott’s partners in the business were bankers, politicians and the head of the chamber of commerce. The track was a five-mile circuit southwest of town that would have cost $75,000 (nearly a million dollars in today’s money). The road race course was essentially a pair of two-mile straights joined by shorter half-mile straights – it was a giant rectangle; it’s what they called a road race course back then. All four turns were 90 degrees and slightly banked. The surface was rolled and oiled gravel. The pits were outside the main straight and a 5,000-seat grandstand was built on the opposite side of the pits.
The rise of the race was enormous, both in the local media and in the motorcycling press. It was originally hoped that British motorcycle builders would bring their works teams (hence the international designation), but this never happened and the only international entrant in the 1919 race was the Neo-Champion Percy Coleman from Zealand. The Marion Leader-Tribune newspaper featured a runner each day in its pages in the weeks leading up to the race and the entire front page of the newspaper the day before the race was devoted to stories from the event.
Admission to the race was one dollar and a spare seat was the same price. The promoters were expecting a crowd of 20,000 (roughly the exact population of Marion at the time) and it’s unclear how they would earn enough money to cover the cost of building the track, even if they were getting the 20,000 fans they were hoping for. It is obvious that the city of Marion contributed in some way financially since the race was seen as a means of promoting the city. The few hotels were filled to capacity, and the residents of Marion were invited by the town fathers to open their homes to visitors from as far away as Butte, Montana, and Boston, Massachusetts.
Marion was atop the Trenton gas field, the largest natural gas field ever discovered up to that time. In the 1880s the field was thought to hold an almost endless supply of natural gas and the area boomed with companies coming to take advantage of the cheap resource. But, by the early 1910s, the gas field dried up due to waste and overexploitation, and towns in the area struggled to keep businesses alive. Thus, the race was an attempt to further the cause of Marion’s trade.
Harley-Davidson, Indian and Excelsior fielded factory teams with six riders each. All the big names of the era were racing and all three manufacturers came to the race with machines designed to go to the max, taking advantage of the two-mile straights. Reports of the day listed the bikes top speed at 95 mph, a considerable feat considering they were ridden on oiled gravel.
Harley’s Red Parkhurst won the 200 miles in three hours and six minutes, averaging almost 67 mph in front of a crowd of 12,000 spectators. The race was a coup for Harley-Davidson, which swept the top three spots, with Ralph Hepburn and Otto Walker taking second and third. Hepburn even broke a chain during the race, put on a new link himself and still finished second. The Motor Company trumpeted Marion’s results around the world via two-page magazine advertisements.
The Motorcycle and Allied Trades Association (the AMA’s predecessor) shamelessly exaggerated the race. A statement from WH Parsons of the M&ATA proclaimed, “This was the greatest motorcycle race ever held in the history of the motorcycle trade. We are very pleased with the results, and if people in this community support it, we would like to make the International Championship Motorcycle Race an annual event in Marion.
The race has returned for one more year. In 1920, the accumulation was considerably less than it had been the previous year. All the factory teams were back and Harley-Davidson retained the International Road Race crown with Harley-Davidson Wrecking Crew member Ray Weishaar winning over Indian Leonard Buckner. To show you how fast motorcycle technology was advancing back then, Weishaar slashed Parkhurst’s winning time from the previous year by almost 20 minutes.
In the second year, the paper only reported crowds in the thousands, which was a sure sign that paid attendance had dropped significantly from the first year. Later articles revealed that authorities had found it impossible to police the vast five-mile course and that locals were content to walk through agricultural fields to watch the race without paying. It’s also been said that just watching motorcycles zoom past in a straight line at 90 mph, then zoom away and not come back for another four or five minutes isn’t a great viewing experience for fans. Also, it became confusing during the three hour race who was running where in the race.
A statement from WH Parsons of the M&ATA proclaimed, “It was the greatest motorcycle race ever held in the history of the motorcycle trade.”
With significant losses, Marion’s businessmen and politicians gave up on organizing the race after the 1920 Cornfield Classic.
The trail is still there southwest of town. The stands are long gone and the course itself has been converted to county roads. Today, the occasional farm lines the five-mile course. I spoke to a resident who lived on the old course, and he had heard that Marion had hosted a big international event a long time ago, but he didn’t know his farm was on the southwest corner. of the old route.
It would be 19 years before Marion hosted another national level race. In 1939, the AMA TT National Championship, Peoria’s predecessor, was held in Marion. The race lasted there until 1946, interrupted for five years due to the Second World War. The Marion TT was a humble event compared to the old international road race, never attracting more than a few thousand fans.
It wasn’t successful in the long run, but for two years after World War I, the small gas boom town of Marion, Indiana hosted the greatest motorcycle road race of its day. NC