Roy Artley was a pioneering motorcycle racer during the 1910s and ‘20s. He is best remembered for his city-to-city record runs, primarily in his home state of California during the late-1910s. Artley’s biggest national victory came in 1916 when he won the Springerville-to-Phoenix race in Arizona, riding for the factory Indian team.
Artley learned his motorcycle riding skills as a delivery rider: delivering, of all things, fine china! He carried the china in a sack that was draped over his shoulder. In an article for "The Motorcyclist" in 1935, he described how he perfected broad sliding his Thor on nearly every dirt road of San Diego. Predictably, with his sliding exploits, the young Artley worked himself right out of the china delivering business, but he quickly picked up a job delivering mail. He later said that the Postal Service wasn’t nearly as concerned with his wild riding as the china company was.
In 1912, Artley entered his first local competition on his Thor, an enduro sponsored by the San Diego Motorcycle Club. He medalled in that first race. Unfortunately, the club was running short on funds and he never received the medal he’d earned in his very first race.
Artley’s first national race came in 1913 when he entered his Thor in the then-famous San Diego-to-Phoenix road race and finished fifth. Even though it was called a road race, it was really a wide-open desert race. The "roads" were nothing more than old sandy trails left over from the covered wagon days. The West was still very wild in that era, adding to the risks normally associated with motorcycle racing. Racers had to watch out for roving bands of renegade Indians and the occasional band of cattle thieves roaming the border country. A racer also ran a very real risk of dying from dehydration or heat stroke in the desert heat should he suffer a breakdown.
Artley became one of the top racers of these desert city-to-city events and was hired by Indian in 1916. As an Indian factory rider, he competed in the most famous races of the day, such as the nationals held on the old paved Ascot Park circuit, the Marion (Indiana) road races and Dodge City (Kansas) 300-Mile dirt track event. While he earned several top-10 finishes in those classic races, his biggest victory came in the Springerville-to-Phoenix race, which replaced the old San Diego-to-Phoenix event in 1916.
In a 1935 interview, Artley recalled that even though he was an Indian factory rider, he and the other riders had no team support on these long and grueling events. He pre-rode the Springerville-to-Phoenix route in reverse a few days before the start of the race and pre-paid for gasoline and oil in small towns along the route. During the race, he arrived early at one of his stops and the gas station owner was relaxing away from the hot desert sun in his house and left the gas pump locked. Artley finally got the slow-moving attendant to come out and fill his gas tank, only to find that the oil he had already purchased was locked up in a shed behind the house. Not wanting to lose any more precious time than he already had, Artley roared off without the oil. He ran out of oil just a mile away from the overnight checkpoint town of Flagstaff.
Later in the race, a gas attendant accidentally put water in the Indian’s gas tank. Artley discovered this fact miles down the road and luckily was close to another small town when the bike came to a stop. Artley recalled the moment he discovered what had happened.
"Taking the carburetor apart, I found it full of water. The fellow had poured two buckets all right, but the second one had been a bucket of drinking water sitting there for the fellows. I remember standing in the middle of nowhere in dead silence, providing the profanity streaming from my lips wasn’t considered noise."
Artley recovered from that difficulty and won the race over archrival and Indian teammate Alan Bedell, who was a native of Arizona and knew the route much better.
From 1916 to 1919, Artley set a slew of city-to-city records for Henderson Motorcycles. In 1916, he set a new mark from San Francisco to Los Angeles in a time of 10 hours, 39 minutes, bettering the old record by nearly six hours. In 1917 he beat "Cannonball" Baker’s three-flag record, going from Canada to Mexico in three days and 25 minutes. Artley also set numerous sidecar records, once with legendary racer Jim Davis as passenger. Goodyear advertised Artley’s record runs nationwide to promote its line of motorcycle tires.
By the 1920s, law enforcement and increased motor vehicle traffic put a damper on the city-to-city records runs. Artley closed out his racing career in hillclimbing. His last national was at the Santa Ana (California) National Hillclimb in 1921. He finished seventh in that event.