By Katie Bush
Oklahoma City has been a "loud city" even before it became the state capital of Oklahoma. Of course, the reference to "loud city" is not to the Oklahoma City Thunder basketball team, but rather the excitement and roar of motorcycle engines that once filled the air of this great city at the turn of the century. The brand new sport of motorcycle racing drove its way into the hearts of the citizens of the Oklahoma City community in the year 1909 when the Oklahoma Motorcycle Club (also known as the Oklahoma City Motorcycle Club) was established. A previously unknown 1912 panoramic photo of the club's members lined up on their motorcycles was recently discovered during the unveiling of the Oklahoma Century Chest in 2013. This image, as well as others of Grand Boulevard, which became the speedway for the racing events, visually represent the dedication of the emerging sport's members.
The historical impact of motorcycle clubs and their involvement in the promotion of the use of motorcycles and racing events in Oklahoma City is quite extensive. From the first racing event held at the state fairgrounds on November 27, 1909, to the present day, motorcycle clubs have grown in popularity throughout the state
The first racing event at the state fairgrounds was a seven-race competition that took place on a dirt track. The races were as follows:
The turnout for this event was not nearly what the club had hoped it to be. Many competitors registered for the event, but due to a strong south wind, only about half of them showed up ready to ride. Still, the competition was a success and proved that the state fairgrounds would be a good host for future racing opportunities.
The Oklahoma City Motorcycle Club hosted another big racing event on April 2, 1911. Twelve competitors registered for this race. The entry fee was $1 per entrant and provided the winner with a $12 windfall. The course began in Oklahoma City at the University Station at Belle Isle and traveled to El Reno. Once the competitors reached El Reno, they would return to University Station; the total course of the race was sixty-four miles. Asa Schenck won with a time of one hour and thirty-eight minutes on his Flying Markle motorcycle. Coming in second place was Ira Ivy, president of the club, on his Excelsior motorcycle. This race proved the daring nature of these motorcycle racers.
The most defining race for the Oklahoma City Motorcycle Club occurred on Independence Day in 1912. Encompassing the entirety of the city, racers competed on Grand Boulevard in Oklahoma City. President Ivy of the Oklahoma City Motorcycle Club made arrangements with the city for the club to have complete control of the boulevard for the duration of the race. Details of the race were outlined as follows: competitors began the race with a standing start on Grand Boulevard just north of Belle Isle Amusement Park, traversing the course four times counterclockwise, turning the 28.1-mile street into a 113-mile speedway. Both single and twin motorcycles rode the course together, though both classes were awarded separately. Seven men competed on twin motorcycles and eighteen men competed in the single class. The race brought riders in from out of state competing for $400 in prizes. The big winners were Orlando Gross, who won the twin class on his Indian motorcycle, covering the distance in two hours and thirteen minutes. Claud "Jap" McGranahan won the single class, coming in at two hours, forty-seven minutes, and fifty-two seconds. Only four riders from the twin class and six riders from the single class managed to finish the full four laps of the race. Several competitors were eliminated from the race due to mechanical troubles and accidents on the speedway. One competitor, Churchill, wrecked his bike when he hit an object on the speedway that forced him and his bike into a ditch at sixty-five miles per hour. He suffered from a deep cut in his leg and other minor injuries.
After the race, President Ivy announced that another race would take place in Oklahoma City on Grand Boulevard during the Labor Day celebration. President Ivy stated, "Grand Boulevard is the best motor speedway between Indianapolis and the Pacific Coast, all others being the saucer variety." This statement was soon to be tested by visiting racers caught up in the growing popularity of motorcycle clubs throughout the country. Many competitors from northern parts of the country traveled south and west during the colder seasons of the year, bringing new competitors to Oklahoma City.
Excitement for the Labor Day race resulted in the construction of a thousand-seat grandstand at the start/finish line. The grandstand was especially important for this race because the motorcycle club expected registration numbers for competitors to double in comparison to the Fourth of July race. In addition, they expected the number of spectators to rise dramatically (around eight thousand spectators showed up for this event). Registration numbers for the Labor Day race did grow, with thirty-five registered, but by race day only nineteen started the race, and of those only six competitors completed the race. Just like the Independence Day race, the winners were separated into the two classes of motorcycles; prizes were given to those with the best total lap times. The competitors of this race entered the track at regular intervals with a "flying start." This meant that the riders were to set up east of the start line and had the opportunity to get their bike going at a good speed before their time began.
Two new racers to the Oklahoma City track won second place in their corresponding classes. One of the competitors, Renhardt, completed the 113-mile race in almost exactly three hours on his single Indian motorcycle. The other rider created quite a stir when he almost quit due to an injury. M. M. Murray, an Oklahoma City motorcycle police officer, stopped for a time to get his machine oiled after his second lap. It was reported that his hands were rubbed so raw from gripping his handlebars that they were bleeding profusely. Murray was just about to give up on the race, but after he bandaged up his hands he hopped back on his twin Harley Davidson motorcycle and finished the race. Unable to grasp the handlebars, Murray finished the race by steering his bike with his arms folded up in the crevice of his handlebars. His ending time came out to be three hours and three minutes. Afterward, Murray's only frustration was with the eight-mile stretch of sandy road that slowed him down.
There were four returning competitors from the Independence Day race that finished the Labor Day contest: Charles Churchill, Jap McGranahan, Jess McMichael, and Perry V. Stoddom. President Ivy stated that he expected the winner of this race to average sixty miles per hour. The rider that got closest to this average, Jess McMichael on his twin Harley Davidson, finished the course in two hours and twenty-eight minutes. McMichael finished in first place even after he experienced a fourteen-minute delay when his handlebars broke off and had to be repaired. Churchill did not finish the Independence Day race after he wrecked his motorcycle running at sixty-five miles per hour, but finished third place in the twin class on his Indian motorcycle in the Labor Day race. Perry V. Stoddom finished the single class on his Harley Davidson in third place at three hours and five minutes.
Nobody took the races as seriously as Jap McGranahan. Having won first place in both the Labor Day and Independence Day races in the single motorcycle class, McGranahan also won the fastest single lap time for both races in his division. Unfortunately, McGranahan's competitive nature and obsession with winning races cost him his life. During the week of the final big races of 1912, twenty-one-year-old Jap McGranahan of Piedmont, Oklahoma, was practicing his daredevil driving skills on Grand Boulevard for the upcoming Thanksgiving Day race. It was reported on November 29, 1912, by the Daily Oklahoman that he was traveling at a speed of seventy miles per hour when a car unexpectedly came out onto the road in front of him. McGranahan swerved into a ditch and was thrown from his bike more than one hundred feet. McGranahan fractured his skull at the base of his brain and received many internal injuries that ended his life two weeks after the accident.
In the subsequent years, the Oklahoma City Motorcycle Club endured great change. After the death of Claud "Jap" McGranahan, General Manager Edward C. Clark left Oklahoma to continue his career as an advertiser. Even though the last race to take place on Grand Boulevard occurred in 1914, annual races continued on Labor Day at State Fair Park.
This article was originally published in The Chronicles of Oklahoma, Volume XCIII, Number 2 (Summer 2015).