For nearly 40 years, Joe Gee was one of the greats in the sport of enduro racing (then known as endurance runs). He began racing enduros during the infancy of the sport in the early 1930s and continued racing in the woods until 1970. Gee's greatest triumph was his 1951 victory at the Jack Pine Enduro, which earned him the title of AMA Endurance National Champion.
Gee was born in the small farming community of Wellston, Ohio on August 10, 1913. His father was a blacksmith. With the growing popularity of tractors and automobiles and the resulting decrease in the use of horses, the family's blacksmith business was falling off. The Gees moved to Columbus when Joe was 6 years old and there his father became a streetcar conductor.
When Gee was a teenager, one of his best friends got a motorcycle. Gee got the chance to ride the bike and was hooked. He saved his money and in 1930 bought a used 1926 Harley-Davidson.
In 1933, Gee went to watch a local dirt-track race and found a dealer who was offering rides on his Indian 101s in exchange for half of the prize money a rider might win. Gee jumped at the chance and competed in his first race. The next year, Gee, now working as a die maker, bought an Indian Sport Scout and raced the bike in Class C dirt track races in Ohio and surrounding states. Gee raced against the top early Class C racers such as Ed Kretz, the Castonguay brothers and other stars of the day. Gee won the Ohio dirt track championship in the mid-1930s.
Racing success didn't bring riches in those days. Once, Gee, along with Kenny Ingle, Al Shaffer and Louis Atkinson, traveled together to a race in Virginia. Of the four, Gee was the only rider to make any money at the race.
"For that I got the privilege of paying for the gas on the way home," recalled Gee.
Gee continued to race dirt track events until 1938, when he took over a Columbus Indian dealership. Gee admits he wasn't much of a motorcycle dealer. "I was always back in the shop tinkering on the bikes. I didn't really like to deal with people, so my wife (Rudy) was the one who dealt with all the customers."
Gee sold the shop when World War II started. He worked in a plant making parts for Curtis-Wright aircraft during the war.
While Gee gave up dirt-track racing in 1938, he continued racing in endurance runs after the war. Gee had already won the title of Ohio State Endurance Champion for the first time in 1934. He went on the earn that title five more times.
After racing the Jack Pine nearly every year from 1934 on, Gee finally won the prestigious event in 1951 at the age of 37, riding a Triumph.
"The Triumph I owned that year was brand new. I was working so much that I didn't have time to break the bike in. My wife rode the bike around town to break it in for me. People were looking at me before the start of the race. The bike was so shiny new when I started the race," Gee remembered.
In that era, the Jack Pine was a rugged, 500-mile run through some of the most challenging terrain in the state of Michigan. The Jack Pine was considered the ultimate test of rider and machine and the manufacturers put a lot of effort into winning the coveted cowbell trophy and heavily advertised wins in the contest.
Gee continued racing the Jack Pine through 1970. He was forced to retire from enduro racing after the 1970 season when he suffered a ruptured kidney while competing.
In his years of competition, Gee said he saw just about everything a rider could see in enduro racing.
"We used to race big ol' 500-pound, 74-cubic-inch Harleys and Indians through the woods," he recalled. "We used to break frames, handlebars, everything. Those things weren't made for such rough woods riding. You definitely didn't want to get one of those bikes hung up. It would wear you out so bad trying to get those bikes un-stuck, that you'd barely have the energy to throw your leg back over the saddle once you got it loose. One year at the Jack Pine, tornadoes had come through parts of the course and you've never seen so many trees on the ground. I spent all day riding around the ends of downed trees."
Besides his racing exploits, Gee was also active in organizing enduro runs. In 1947, he helped found the Enduro Riders Association, which is still active today. The association puts on an ISDE qualifier. Gee was hired by AMA president E.C. Smith to become the Ohio referee in 1946, a position he held for 20 years.
Gee said there is a special talent in laying out enduro courses.
"We used to go get township maps and we'd find old roads and abandoned stage coach trails that were still shown on the maps. A lot of farmers had claimed land that was still considered a road by the county. We used to have enduros every week. We even had one over New Years holiday, riding over frozen mud and snow."
Gee earned his pilot's license in 1930, soloing after only five hours of lessons. Once, Gee got caught in a snow storm and landed in blizzard conditions after the plane's motor quit running.
"A few guys had to come out and help me push the plane through the snow to the hangar," he said. "That was a lot more risky than racing motorcycles."
When inducted in the Hall of Fame in 1998, Gee still lived in Columbus and attended meetings of the Enduro Riders Association and some of the enduro races.
Gee died May 26, 2004.