Davis was born March 23, 1896, in Columbus, Ohio, and began racing professionally in 1911. He used to remark that he remembered that first race because he won it, and because his prize was a pair of goggles and a quart of motorcycle oil. He would later go on to ride for the Indian and Harley-Davidson factories, and become one of the few motorcycle racers in history to win National events under sanction of the Federation of American Motorcyclists (FAM), the Motorcycle and Allied Trades Association (M&ATA), and the AMA.
Davis was drafted into the U.S. Army during World War I, where he served stateside as a motorcycle escort. He continued to race sporadically during his time in the service, and after the War, he returned to racing fulltime, setting an incredible string of records for the day and emerging as the era’s most dominant racer. He also earned a degree in civil engineering from the University of Southern California.
Perhaps Davis’ greatest achievement came when he won on the two-mile dirt oval at Dodge City, Kansas, on July 5, 1930. He rode a factory Harley and set a race record of 3 hours, 40 minutes, four seconds in the 300-mile event. He later won overall National Championship titles in 1928 and 1929.
Davis retired from racing after winning 90 gold, 40 silver and 35 bronze medals, but he remained active in the sport as an AMA official. He acted as the flagman for the very first 200-mile motorcycle race at Daytona Beach, Florida, in 1937. In 1948, he waved the checkered flag in Atlanta, Georgia, when Bobby Hill and Billy Huber came across the finish line in a dead heat to make for the first and only first-place tie in AMA championship motorcycle racing history.
In 1984, Davis received the Dud Perkins Award, the highest honor to be bestowed upon an individual by that organization. He was inducted to the Dirt Track Hall of Fame in 1998 and the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1999.
Despite the fact that he had remained in perfect mental health throughout his life, Davis continued to battle the frailties of his age. He was admitted to a Daytona hospital last week, where he was diagnosed with bone cancer. He passed away at 2:46 a.m. Sunday.
“This is such a huge loss, because Jim was the last connection to that whole era of dirt track and board track racing,” said Andrea Phillips, a longtime friend of Davis, and archivist for the Trailblazers Motorcycle Club, which is dedicated to the preservation of the history and sport of motorcycle racing. “He was always so generous with his time, his experiences and his memories from that time. It was something that none of us knew about, because he was the only one left from that time period. He was always willing to share stories with people, whether it was little kids or older people. No matter where he went, if there were motorcycle people around, they just congregated around him. His memory was crystal clear. He was always a racer. I remember that one time during an interview, Jim said that he wished he was younger just so that he could get on one of the dirt track bikes of today because they were built so much better and were so much faster. He will be sorely missed.”
A memorial service for Davis has been scheduled to take place on March 6, during Bike Week, at Daytona International Speedway. The service is scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. Attendees are instructed to go to the tunnel at the east banking of the speedway and ask for directions for the service. In lieu of flowers, please send donations to the “Daytona Monument Fund” c/o Dick Klamfoth, 10213 Honda Hills Rd., Thorneville, OH 43076.