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PAUL BROKAW THE COMPETITION RIDER
Written by Bill Brokaw
Paul’s competition primarily centered on hill climbing. He was not a good enough track racer to enjoy it, but one story will involve his hope of riding the half mile tracks of the vicinity. Neda took a good bit of 16mm movies of hill climbs that Paul was in. None are titled with date or location, sadly. They do show Paul’s significant ability. He retained some newspaper clippings reporting wins. Since he rode “professional” there is only three trophies that followed him through the years. Those are still in our possession. Hill climbing was far more popular in the 1920s and early ‘30s than any other form of competition. The “loops” brought the people out in large numbers. I was so young the last time he competed my memory is only of being at a climb my dad rode. All stories are taken from his tales.
The Indian hill climber
Soon after Paul and Neda started selling Indians, Paul had to get involved in climbing. He modified his Indians as needed, but those were not yet the days of extended frames. He became a master of hopping up those engines, widely selling a paper on the procedure as well as his special grind of cams. His bikes were hot! His time with Indian was only five years before he switched to Harley-Davidson. He found he could not duplicate, with a Harley, the performance of his Indian. So he rode His Indian for two years after becoming a Harley dealer. Such was his competitive drive. We have movies of him actually hill climbing an Indian four, but in just one event.
Paul the chemist
Fuel has always been the secret for increased performance, not that it was a secret. How best to make a better fuel was where the secret side could be found. Today there are regulations and great knowledge where fuel, better than gasoline, is involved. In the twenties experimentation was in its infancy. For these short bursts up a hill, fuel could be more reliably used than in track racing. So Paul did his experimenting. Fortunately, next door to his parents home in Waterloo there lived a bonafide chemist. Paul was working on a new formula and had mixed up a batch for trial. But he thought maybe his chemist neighbor would have some ideas for him or comments at least. Paul paid him a visit during which he was asked what he had currently mixed up. When Paul gave him the details the fellow looked concerned. He told Paul to cut up a blotter (commonly used to dry ink from an ink pen in those days) so that he could dip it in his can of mix. Then he was to place the wet blotter on a window sill to dry. Then he instructed Paul to find a feather and stroke the blotter. So he followed the simple instructions and when the feather touched the dried blotter it exploded with a bang. He was immediately less enthused about being too aggressive with his formulas.
Some of the real early racing engines had holes drilled in their cylinders to let exhaust out at the bottom of the stroke. These were called “ported” engines. It is easy to see the fire hazard this could be as well as the rather uncontrolled racket. So the rule-making bodies soon outlawed this modification. But the rule stayed in the books for a long period of time.
One of Paul’s hill climbing customers, with family ties up in Minnesota, loaded his climber in a trailer or something, and headed up to a Minnesota climb, and to see his family. When he arrived at the climb he was quickly greeted by the friendly officials. They asked his intentions. He responded that he was going to enter the climb. They were very apologetic as they advised him that it would be against the rules for him to enter. He was shocked by this of course but they were quick to justify their position with the rule book. Seemed he was in a Swedish part of Minnesota. They opened the book and showed him the rule about no “ported engines.” They explained that they all saw that he had ported his motorcycle to the hill climb, therefore making it ineligible for the competition. Being fair minded folks, and in view of the great distance he came, they offered to let him ride exhibition. He was an accomplished climber and his ride posted the fastest time over the top. For this they paid him as much as if he had won the competition. So all were happy and the rules were properly abided by.
The most famous hill climber and all around racer of the time was Joe Petralli. He rode for the Harley factory. His nick name was “One Ride Joe.” He traveled the country for the factory by train. His hill climb machine was enclosed in a custom wood case for rail delivery. Joe could read a hill like no other. Before a ride the rider would have to select the right gearing and traction chain combination for best result on the hill. Naturally there were no two hills alike. So Joe would go and check the dirt, the run allowed, the steepness, and probably more. Then he would make his selection of machine set-up. He would predictably set the fastest or furthest ride up the hill on his first ride. No second ride, as was normal, would be required.
This climb was a local event turned big time with Joe’s appearance. Joe could see no rider that could compare with his national level skills. Certainly no rider with a national reputation. So as Paul explained, Joe made his run and his mechanic dismantled the motorcycles and installed it back in the shipping box. The locals all took their second run as normal. Paul’s 2nd ride time over the top bested Joe’s by a bit. Joe’s mechanic came running back to get his bike out of the crate in a hurry. I am sure Joe was well aware that Paul was a Harley dealer and by my speculation judged that more good would be done by letting Paul be the winner. Whatever his thoughts, what he said was: “Let the guy have it. It’ll give him something to talk about for the rest of his life.” And Paul always added: “It sure has!”
How steep? Too steep.
There were two types of hills found around Iowa, a just plain hill or creek-bank, definitely a difference in their formation. Paul went to a climb where a bridge had been built for the riders to attack a creek bank. This hill had never had competition on it before. Paul was sizing it up and talking to some fellow riders about it. It looked too steep at the top. There was often a cocky fellow ready to take on anything and such a rider was there belittling Paul for worrying about it. Paul suggested going to the top of the hill for a better look. The guy said he would look at it as he went over the top. None the less, Paul hiked to the top and found where the sod was holding the dirt and it left a few feet at the top actually past vertical. The officials were summoned and some rapid spade work was done before the start. A tough climb that day.
Too many classes
In those days the American Motorcycle Association was run by the manufacturers. There was an effort to make hill climbs more friendly to more riders. To do this the AMA established a bunch of new classes for the sanctioned climbs. Most all events were sanctioned. Any one rider takes up alot of time on a hill where most riders do not make it to the top. With the desired growth of hill climbing participation being accomplished, the length of time an event took increased fearfully, as so many did not have the skills to top the hill. It hit its worse at one climb Paul went to. Dark caught up with the event and they had to work to get car headlights aimed at the hill well enough for the climb to be concluded. This quickly killed hill climbs as a spectator event. Don’t think Paul ever forgave the AMA for what they did to his sport.
The Pea Shooter
At most half mile races there was a class for special racing motorcycles. An “A” class. Most riders raced bikes that were based on what could be bought and ridden on the street. The A class bikes were purpose built and much lighter. Harley had built one of these models that was dubbed the “Pea Shooter.” Paul had a chance to buy one used, and he did. He took it to a local fairgrounds track to see what he had. He described the experience as amazing for him. It was the first motorcycle he had ridden on a track where he could really broadslide the bike aggressively all the way around the turns. He had visions of actually being a real flat track racer for the first time. He was so excited. So when the rules came out from the AMA for the new season, they had dropped the class and none of those bikes could be raced any longer. All part of making it better for the regular rider. He was crushed. He said it was the closest he ever got to being a real flat track rider. The stock chassis bikes just never worked well for him. I can relate as the only place I could ever go sideways with comfort was on ice, a very predictable surface. So the Brokaws were never track racers.
The day of the knee
One climb was on a soft steep hill with a good run. Paul made his charge at the hill getting well up when the bike went into a loop. He came off the back with his body vertical and spinning. He went a good ways down the hill before he hit the soft dirt. His boot went into the dirt but his body kept turning. We now know more about this type of injury to the knee cartilage and how it can be repaired. Back then there was nothing to be done. From then on Paul had a “trick” knee. It would come out of place easily. Then it would swell and he would have a period of great bother. He eventually learned how to get it back into place quickly, before the swelling set in. But he never ran after that because the knee could put him down in a moment. I think that ended his hill climbing.