Joe Petrali, or Smokin’ Joe, as his friends liked to call him, was arguably the country’s finest racer from the mid-1920s to the mid-30s, and perhaps one of the greatest motorcycle racers of all time. Petrali was one of the last great Class A racing stars who competed in board track racing, dirt track, speed records and hillclimbs. Petrali won an amazing 49 AMA national championship races, a mark that would not be surpassed for 55 years, until 1992, when Scott Parker won his 50th AMA national.
By the time Petrali retired from racing in 1938, Class A, which featured purpose-built, high-dollar racing machines, had faded and the new Class C racing formula, which called for lightly modified production motorcycles, was taking center stage. Petrali’s retirement symbolically marked an end of the great three-decade era in motorcycle racing, where it was the cream of the best racers in the country competing against one another on the best racing machines the factories could build.
Petrali was born in San Francisco on February 22, 1904, although his birth certificate had been lost in the great 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Petrali discovered that fact later in life when Hughes Aircraft hired him and he needed a security clearance. The Petralis barely missed the San Francisco disaster. They had moved to Sacramento just a few months prior to the quake.
The young Petrali became fascinated with motorcycles when one of the older neighborhood boys, named Dewey Houghton, bought a Flanders IV. Petrali smiled during an interview when he recalled that the Flanders wasn’t called the IV because it had four cylinders, but because it produced a mere four horsepower. Houghton gave Petrali rides on the bike for years. By the time he was 12, Petrali was actually at the controls with Houghton keeping a watchful eye from the passenger seat. Houghton kept offering Petrali a solo ride, but the shy youngster would timidly decline. Finally, Petrali started to take off one day and Houghton simply planted his feet and watched as Petrali motored away by himself. After getting over the initial shock of riding solo, Petrali proudly rode up and down his neighborhood streets showing off to all his buddies until the ride came to a crashing end. The Flanders had run out of gas.
Petrali grew up just blocks away from the state fairgrounds and the neighborhood kids would loosen up a few boards on the fence surrounding the mile oval when they knew a race was coming to town. Petrali loved to watch the Class A stars of the 1910s. He vividly remembered the bright yellow Cyclone ridden by Don Johns and was especially impressed by Charles "Fearless" Balke who wore, of all things, leather pants and puttees to keep from burning his legs. Balke left a lasting impression on the youngster. Petrali wore leather pants and puttees throughout his racing career.
As soon as someone would hire him, Petrali was eager to work around motorcycles. He found a summer job as a parts washer in a local Sacramento motorcycle shop owned by Archie Rife. There, Petrali began learning the mechanical skills that would ultimately earn him a good living for the rest of his life. At the age of 13, Petrali saved enough money to buy his first bike, a four-year-old 30.50-inch (500cc) Indian Standard for which he paid $35.
His first taste of competition came a year later when the 14-year-old entered an economy run put on at the fairgrounds by the local motorcycle club. Back then, the clubs would hold economy runs, judged by class, and then district results were tabulated to determine the national winner in each category. Joe got his gallon of gas, had his bike’s tank sealed by an official and off he went.
"I only weighed about 80 pounds so I just laid down and putted around all day on idle. I went 176 miles on that gallon of gas and won the national economy class for 30.50-cubic-inch motorcycles," he recalled. First event, first national victory.
Petrali went on to enter and win a number of endurance runs. In one particularly famous run, he and his boss, Archie Rife, entered a marathon event in which the two of them tooled along for three days and four nights. Finally, exhausted race officials called the event after all other riders had long since dropped out and determined the race a tie between Petrali and Rife. That endurance run was also a recognized record. While endurance and economy runs were okay, what Petrali really wanted to do was race.
His big break came in 1921. A Pacific Coast championship race was held in Fresno, California. Shrimp Burns had tragically died at a race in Toledo, Ohio, the week before and Indian agreed to let Petrali have a tryout on a machine that was being prepped in California for Burns, since they bike would have gone unused otherwise. Petrali, who was just 17 at the time, fudged on his age and entered the race, which featured all of the top stars of the day. Never short on confidence, Petrali was not awed by his competition and fully expected to win his first big event. He nearly did.
With nothing to lose with the young rookie on the bike, Jud Carriker, Indian’s Pacific Coast racing manager, figured it was a good time to experiment with running alcohol in the racing motor. So while Petrali earned the honor of becoming the first motorcyclist to race an alcohol-fueled machine, carburetion settings were a total guess and Carriker guessed wrong.
No problem for Carriker. He was, in essence, using Petrali as a test rider and would have time later to work out the fuel mixture, but for Petrali this was a major disaster. He wanted to have a chance to win the race, not to be used as a guinea pig. Fortunately for Petrali, Carriker was quickly figuring out how to make the bike run on alcohol.
By race time, Petrali had a very fast-running machine. But his next obstacle was the veteran Harley-Davidson team, which boxed the young Petrali in for nearly the entire race. Desperate to find a way around, Petrali retarded his bike's ignition, making it pop, and then looked down, faking a problem with the bike. The Harley riders let down their guard and on the final lap Petrali moved all the way up to take second place. It was his first finish in a major race and the 17-year-old earned the respect of the veteran stars.
The Fresno race did not prove to be the breakthrough Petrali had hoped for. He continued struggling along for another couple of years, suffering a spate of bad luck along the way.
His luck finally took a turn for the better on July 4, 1925 in Altoona, Pennsylvania. Altoona’s mile-plus-long board track was the site of that year’s AMAs 100-mile championship. Indian had promised Petrali a ride for the race, but when he arrived in town, he found his bike was not there. He waited all night at the train station hoping the bike would arrive. It never did. The bike had mistakenly been shipped to Pittsburgh by the rail line.
Early the next morning, Petrali walked back to the track weary and discouraged. Resigned to being only a spectator, he got a big break when Harley-Davidson star Ralph Hepburn crashed in practice and injured his hand badly enough that he would not be able to race. Hepburn approached Petrali and offered him his bike as long as he would agree to split whatever prize money Petrali might win. Petrali agreed and was entered.
Sometime during the race Eddie Brinck pitted with minor mechanical problems and dropped a few laps down. When Brinck returned to the track he ran his motor wide open hoping to gain back the laps he lost. Petrali not knowing this, saw Brinck draft past him and picked up the pace to follow. As the race neared completion, Hepburn, standing trackside and in his mind already spending half of first-place prize money, saw that Petrali had a big lead and waved for him to slow down. Petrali continued to match Brinck’s torrid pace and when the checkered flag fell, Petrali figured the flag was for Brinck. He didn’t find out until he pulled into the pits (where he found his foot was asleep and the bike fell over on top of him when he tried to bear its weight) that he had won the race.
His average speed of 100.36 mph was a board track record for 100 miles that was never broken. He split the $1,000 prize money with Hepburn and promptly hurried to the train station to catch the first train back to Kansas City, where he was working in a shop owned by Al Crocker (who later founded Crocker Motorcycles).
When Harley-Davidson heard of Petrali’s victory, it set out to sign him to a contract. The only problem was that no one knew how to reach Petrali. Harley put out the word to all of its dealers that it was looking for Petrali. After several days of searching, he was found working on bikes in the back of Crocker’s shop. In an amazing turn of events, Petrali found himself on Harley’s payroll almost before he could get his hands washed.
Petrali quickly proved his Altoona victory was no fluke when he won three national titles (the 10-, 25- and 50-mile championships for 61-inch motors) on September 7, 1925 on the boards in Laurel, Maryland, once again setting a new record in the process. While the sportswriters of the day were still arguing about how to spell his name and exactly where he was from, Petrali suddenly found himself crowned the national board track champion. All of his years of struggle and bad luck had vanished in one magical summer.
From there, Petrali started on a course as the most dominant rider of the next ten years. He rode for Harley-Davidson until it decided to temporarily withdraw its support of racing in 1926. From there he talked Ignaz Schwinn into getting Excelsior back into racing and he worked and raced for Excelsior through 1931. He helped that company design several racing motors that proved very successful, especially in the hands of top hillclimbers. In a unique deal, Schwinn agreed to let Petrali run his own Harley-Davidsons at tracks where he felt it was more competitive.
Petrali won two national titles in 1926 (both on Harley-Davidsons). In 1927, he earned his first championship for Excelsior, winning the 10-mile AMA dirt track championship in front of the Harley brass on the Milwaukee Mile. However, 1927 ultimately proved to be a devastating year for Petrali. Eddie Brinck crashed directly in front of him at a half-mile dirt track race in Springfield, Massachusetts. Petrali hit Brinck’s machine and was thrown 15 feet into the air. Brinck succumbed to his injuries in the hospital that night and Petrali was not expected to recover. He was so bad that the doctor allowed an intern to practice his stitching technique on Petrali’s lip, of which a large chuck was torn off, found hours later amongst the wreckage at the track and rushed to the hospital to be sown back. Petrali did make a gradual recovery and returned to racing less than a year later.
Petrali began his assault on hillclimbing events in 1929, when he won both the 45-inch and 61-inch national championships riding an Excelsior at Muskegon, Michigan. The big 61-cubic-inch (1,000cc) Excelsior that Petrali had custom-built was affectionately dubbed "Big Bertha." Riding Big Bertha, Petrali became the first rider to top many of the historic hills of the hillclimbing circuit.
The beginning of the Great Depression took its toll on Excelsior and the company ceased production early in 1931. Petrali received a phone call from Milwaukee and was promptly re-signed by Harley.
The 1931 season proved an outstanding one for Petrali. He won eight of the 16 dirt track and hillclimb AMA nationals that year. The following season, 1932, Petrali earned the distinction of being the only rider in AMA history to win both the dirt track and hillclimb national championship in the same year! He repeated that feat three more times in 1933, 1935 and 1936. Petrali was at the peak of his form in the early '30s. He won with such regularity that the races where said to be somewhat boring with the outcome rarely being in question. In one particularly impressive stretch from May to August of 1935, Petrali won every Class A national race – 10 in a row! During this incredible period, Petrali found the time to get married in 1933. The couple later had a son, David.
By 1937, Petrali, then 33, began to scale back his racing efforts. He was still winning, but Class A racing was fading quickly. Class C was sweeping the country and, as Petrali saw it, the change wasn’t for the better. Instead of a track full of seasoned pros who had spent years getting to the pinnacle of the sport, Petrali saw rank amateurs taking to the track and he wasn’t eager to get in the middle of these young and wild riders who competed against one another on heavy street bikes.
Petrali left racing with a bang. On March 13, 1937 at Daytona Beach, Petrali rode a specially built streamlined Harley-Davidson to a new one-mile motorcycle speed record of 136.183 mph. That record would hold for 11 years until Rollie Free finally broke the mark on a Vincent at the Bonneville Salt Flats.
Petrali won his 49th and final AMA national on August 29, 1937 at the national hillclimb in Muskegon, Michigan. Petrali’s final race was at the Oakland 200 in November of 1938. It was his one and only foray into Class C racing. The track was an oiled-down dirt track mile. Bikes were sliding everywhere and Petrali was almost hit several times. He pulled off the track and hung up his leathers for good. The last great Class A champion walked away from racing.
Petrali’s post-racing life was just about as interesting as his days on the track. He went into aviation and worked for Howard Hughes and was flight engineer during the popular flight of the "Spruce Goose," the world’s largest flying boat. As a hobby, he became a crew chief for teams at the Indianapolis 500 and eventually worked for its sanctioning body, the United States Auto Club, verifying economy and speed runs. Petrali was in charge of land speed record certifications at the famous Bonneville Salt Flats during the 1960s.
Petrali, who made his home in the Los Angeles area, often gave talks on the old days of racing to motorcycling clubs and was famous for always carrying an AMA membership card that identified him as AMA Life Member #1.
Petrali died on the road in Casa Grande, Arizona, from a heart attack on November 10, 1973 while conducting an economy run for Buick.