Archives: The Quiet Member of Harley’s Wrecking Crew

Larry Lawrence | April 30, 2019

Archives: The Quiet Member of Harley’s Wrecking Crew

Irving Janke was a Harley-Davidson factory test rider who, in that position, was often the first rider to get to race the factory’s newest creations. Janke was part of Harley’s original mid-1910s Wrecking Crew, a group of factory or factory-supported riders who successfully ushered in Harley-Davidson’s participation into national racing. Ray Weishaar, Floyd Clymer, Otto Walker and Leslie “Red” Parkhurst became the “big name” riders of Harley’s Wrecking Crew, while Janke is often overlooked. But the “quiet” member of Milwaukee’s first factory squad was a major contributor nevertheless, becoming the first Harley factory rider to score a podium result in national competition, winning the all-important Dodge City 300 in 1916 and scoring other top-national results, in spite of not being a full-time racer like some of his teammates.

Archives: The Quiet Member of Harley’s Wrecking Crew

Irving Janke pictured sitting on his winning factory Harley-Davidson after his big win in the 1916 Dodge City 300. (A.F. Van Order photo)

There has been debate over the years exactly what riders were part of Harley-Davidson’s Original Wrecking Crew. Harley first officially entered a team at the Dodge City 300 in 1914. The factory Harley riders were Walter Cunningham, Paul Garst, Paul Gott, “Red” Parkhurst and Alvin Stratton, all riding new 61 cubic inch (1000cc), twin-cylinder Model 11-K competition machines designed by engineer Bill Ottaway. Cunningham actually ran as high as second in the race briefly before a stretched chain and fouled plugs dropped him from contention. Nevertheless, Harley being so competitive in its first factory outing generated a lot of excitement.

Both William Harley and William Davidson attended Dodge City and were noticeably pleased with their motorcycle’s speed. It was very likely the moment the two decided to enter the company more seriously into competition.

More than likely the “Wrecking Crew” name came into association with the 1915 and 1916 teams. Factory riders of those years included carryovers from the 1914 team – Walker, Parkhurst and Stratton – in addition to Ray Weishaar, Floyd Clymer, Harry Crandall, Bill Brier and an 18-year-old Harley test rider named Irving Janke. Janke was actually a factory at the very end of 1914 when he was one of the factory entrants at the big Savannah Road Race in November that concluded the racing season. His result there would prove historic.

Gathering upon months of racing experience, the Harley factory team came into its own in 1915, with Otto Walker winning big national events that season, including the first and second-place sweep of Harley-Davidson at the 1915 Dodge City race with Walker first ahead of teammate Harry Crandall. Harley also placed four other riders inside the top ten, and that was against six other factory squads. The Motor Company, which just a couple of years earlier proudly proclaimed its non-support of racing, heralded the Dodge City results with ads in all of the country’s motorcycle publications. Harley was now truly a racing company. Then in 1916 it was Janke who won Dodge City, the last major national before the outbreak of World War I.

Janke was born in Milwaukee in 1986 and started riding motorcycles when he was just 13 years old. By the time he was 17 he was one of the top up-and-coming motorcycle racers around Milwaukee. As soon as he turned 18, he turned pro and was often the youngest rider in the races he contested.

His skills on motorcycle from a young age earned him the dream job of any young motorcyclist, test rider for Harley-Davidson. Janke’s countless hours testing various Harley models obviously served him well in racing. Janke will go down in history as the first factory Harley-Davidson rider to earn a podium finish when he took third behind Indian’s Lee Taylor and Excelsior’s Joe Wolters, at the big FAM 300-Mile Road Race National in Savannah, Georgia, in November of 1914.

In 1915 Janke won the motorcycle division of the prestigious Uniontown (Pa.) Hillclimb for Harley in front of 30,000 spectator. Notably Janke’s time at Uniontown beat all the cars’ times.
The biggest win of his career came in the Dodge City 300 in 1916. It just happened to be the biggest race of the year. Harley entered an eight-rider team in the event that year with Paul Gott, Clarence Johnson, Harry Crandall, Sam Correnti, Floyd Clymer and Ray Weishaar joining Janke on the squad. Indian had a powerful six-rider team featuring Morty Graves, Gene Walker and Don Johns and Excelsior featured seven riders led by Bob Perry and Joe Wolter. It was the best of the best. Johns won the pole with a circuit of the two-mile track at 1:24 in time trials.

In the grueling 300-mile contest held in 100-degree heat, pole setter Johns led early on a factory Indian, before being overtaking by Clymer. Then it was Clymer and Janke battling for the lead throughout the much of the race with Clymer leading most of the way. But then Clymer’s bike failed after 220 miles of racing. Janke took over the lead at that point and was out front the rest of the race. He was over two minutes ahead of Excelsior’s Joe Wolter at the finish. Fellow Harley rider Weishaar took third, a full 10 minutes behind Janke.

Janke’s run in the 300-miler of three hours, 45 minutes and 36 seconds, smashed the old 300-mile record by ten minutes and nine seconds, a testimony to not only Janke’s riding ability, but the amazingly fast pit stops the Harley team was able to perform and the speed of the new eight-valve Harley racer. He averaged 79.79 mile per hour, a remarkable feat for motorcycles of that era for that distance on a dirt track.

Janke won $800 for his Dodge City victory, nearly $20,000 in today’s dollars.

World War I put motorcycle racing on hold for a couple of years and by the time racing resumed in earnest in 1919, Janke had mostly retired from the sport.

Janke, or “Yank” as his friends nicknamed him, eventually left Harley-Davidson and became a motorcycle police officer in Milwaukee in the early 1920s, retiring as deputy sheriff in 1954. In retirement he moved to Florida and died in St. Petersburg in January of 1957.

While a lesser known of the Harley Wrecking Crew, Janke should always be remembered for his 1916 Dodge City victory and for being the first national podium finisher on a Harley-Davidson.

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Larry Lawrence | Archives Editor In addition to writing our Archives section on a weekly basis, Lawrence is another who is capable of covering any event we throw his way.