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Joe Petrali - A Motorcycle Racing Legend

Added September 23, 2021
Joe Petrali

When you think of any sport, certain names immediately come to mind. In dirt track motorcycle racing, two of the biggest names belong to team Harley-Davidson® riders. In the 1980s and 90s, the name was Scott Parker. In the 1920s and 30s, it was Joe Petrali.

Introduction to Motorcycling

A native of San Francisco, Joe Petrali was born in 1904. At the age of 7, a neighbor gave Joe his first ride on a Flanders motorcycle; the same neighbor gave Joe the chance to solo at age 12. Joe would report in later years that this gave him an insatiable love of motorcycling.

In his early teens, Joe successfully persuaded his father to allow him to buy his first motorcycle - an Indian. The young Petrali immediately modified the motorcycle for competition. He also immediately started winning. By age 16, Joe was already on the factory racing team for Indian.

Team Indian to Team Harley-Davidson

On July 4, 1925, Joe was scheduled to compete on the board track in Altoona, Pa. He showed up several days early as a member of team Indian, but his motorcycle was lost somewhere enroute to the track.

Team Harley-Davidson member Ralph Hepburn broke his hand while practicing at Altoona and could not race. A deal was struck, and Joe agreed to fill in for Ralph. An impressed Motorcycling magazine trumpeted days later: “Dark Horse Wins at Altoona. Petrali who changed camps wins 100-mile National Championship. Board track speed records shattered.” 

Joe stayed with team Harley-Davidson for 1925 and finished the season as National Champion. Even before the end of the season, a new racing class of 350cc single cylinder motorcycles was becoming popular. Harley-Davidson’s entry into this class later became known as the “Peashooter” because of its distinctive sound.

Joe very quickly took to the new class and dominated in the years that followed.

A Racing Legacy

It was in 1935 that Joe accomplished his greatest feat. The AMA racing season for the 350cc class consisted of 13 total races. Joe swept the season on his Harley-Davidson® Peashooter; he won all 13 races and broke four records.

Another distinction was achieved in 1937 on the beaches of Daytona, Fla. There, on a specially built streamliner Harley-Davidson® motorcycle powered by a 61 cubic inch knucklehead engine, Joe broke the land speed record at a speed of 136.183 mph. Later on the same day, Joe broke the land speed record for 45 cubic inch motorcycles.

As if dirt track competition was not enough, Joe competed as a motorcycle hillclimber and accumulated five consecutive national championship titles from 1932 to 1936. He retired from racing in 1938 to work for aviator Howard Hughes as chief service and maintenance man and flight engineer. 

Joe died of a heart attack on Nov. 10, 1973. He was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1992 and the AMA Hall of Fame in 1998.

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