Motorcycle racing in the 1910s and ’20 was brutal. The glorified bicycles of the 1900s gave way to truly powerful motors. Frames and tires hadn’t kept pace. Simply keeping tires on the wheels and frame in one piece became a major issue. Little thought was given to rider safety and there was enough money in the sport in that era, that a long line of riders where waiting to fill a factory seat should a rider be injured. Many leading riders didn’t survive the early years of the sport.
That’s one of the reasons Jim Davis was such a gem to motorcycle racing.
Davis began racing in the 1910s, became the nation’s top racer of the 1920s and not only lived to tell the tale, but made it all the way to the new millennium, living to the ripe old age of 103. Think about it: when Davis was racing motorcycles in 1918 it was still possible to meet an aged Civil War veteran. He literally saw the sport of motorcycle racing grow from its infancy to the late 1990s. Davis raced the ultra-fast board tracks and pot-hole lined horse areans from where some didn’t survive.
Luckily someone ran tape on Jim Davis that day … .
That’s why in the late ‘90s at Daytona International Speedway, when Davis walked in to the media center to check out the 600 Supersport press conference, one reporter saw the opportunity of a lifetime. After introductions, Davis graciously agreed to do a short interview with the reporter.
It was a flog for the reporter with no idea the opportunity to interview Davis would present itself, he was quickly gathering his thoughts to come up with reasonably appropriate questions for the old racing centenarian, who was still sharp as a tack.
Davis gave the reporter much more time than expected and it was pure gold. Davis told of a time that in some ways was similar to the salad days of the 1990s. Factory riders traveled the country by rail to various races, their bikes most often brought to the events by the factory, complete with mechanics at the ready.
There was good money to be made, but with their short career expectancy, most riders lived for the moment and their earnings were spent on wine, women and song.
Davis was a bit unique in that he wasn’t afraid of having a good time with his racing buddies, but he knew his limits, was careful with his money and tried to get to bed at a reasonable hour.
The conservative off-track lifestyle obviously served him well. He survived the most ruthless years of motorcycle racing in America, served stateside in World War I, was a state motorcycle police officer (he survived being wiped out by a speeding rider when he was starter on the old Daytona Beach course).
Racing even allowed him to travel internationally, winning races in Australia.
Davis stayed involved in some way with motorcycle racing for the rest of his life. He frequently spoke at gatherings of motorcyclists, entertaining crowds with humorous tales of his life and times in racing. In 1985 when Davis met up with Chris Carr, Freddie Spencer and Eddie Lawson at a centennial celebration of the birth of the motorcycle in Anaheim, California. Broadcaster Larry Maiers spent some time with Davis at that event. “I asked Davis if there was anything he’d like to still do in racing. He said that he wanted to ‘meet that Spencer fellow’ so I brought both Eddie Lawson, Freddie Spencer and Chris Carr who were there that day, over to meet him. They were just in awe of this man.”
At Daytona one very lucky reporter captured on tape just a bit of Davis’ life in his own words by the good fortune of happening to be in the right place at the right time.