Don Johns was a leading motorcycle racer in the early era of the sport. He competed as a professional from 1912 to 1916 and is the racer most closely associated with the Cyclone, considered the fastest racing motorcycle of its time. Johns was an ace at board track, dirt track and road racing and won a number of FAM championships as well as numerous regional titles.
Johns began riding motorcycles when he was 11. As a youngster, Johns swept up the grandstands at racing venues around Southern California. Indian’s legendary rider Jake DeRosier took a young Johns under his wing and helped Johns learn to race. Later, when Johns set amateur speed records, it was on DeRosier’s factory Indian. In fact, a few weeks after Johns set these marks, DeRosier rode the very same machine in his famous match races with British star Charles Collier.
Johns won his first race at a track in San Bernardino, California, in 1909, riding a Thor. He became known as being a sometimes scrappy and aggressive rider. Once, he was suspended from competition for six months after punching another rider in the nose while the two were racing. Fisticuffs were not uncommon in the rough-and-tumble Southern California racing circuit.
Johns became prominent in 1911 when he beat Hap Alzina and Clarence Briggs in a try-out on a factory Indian. By beating these other top amateur riders, Johns was given the chance to ride DeRosier’s factory machine in record-setting attempts at the Playa del Rey board track. DeRosier set a slew of speed records that day for amateur riders, although it was argued by other amateurs of the day that Johns having the opportunity to ride a full-factory Indian was an unfair advantage.
Johns turned expert in 1912, but in one his first races outside of Southern California, Johns was suspended under the most bizarre circumstances. While racing at a bard track near Chicago, rider Dave Kinney crashed. Johns stopped to help Kinney and actually fainted while trying to help Kinney pull out a large splinter. The race referee suspended Johns for fainting on the grounds that if he fainted by simply pulling out splinters, then he wasn’t fit for the rigors of racing. Johns sat out almost a year before the factories applied pressure to allow him to come back.
After being reinstated Johns promptly won the Western Championships in San Jose, California, riding a factory Excelsior. At the end of 1913, Cyclone hired Johns to ride its bright yellow racer. The Cyclone had many features that were ahead of its time and was by far the fastest, albeit often unreliable, of the Class A factory racing machines of the era.
In a 1941 magazine interview, Johns recalled some things about the legendary Cyclone.
"The yellow rig attracted a great deal of attention wherever I raced it. It used special Swedish precision bearings and was very light and very powerful. The motor was so powerful that I would wear out a set of tires in just a few laps. I switched from U.S. Tires to a newly designed Goodyear and that helped. It was the first racer to turn over 5,000 rpms. It had a unique sound and was often five to seven miles per hour faster than the other factory rigs."
One legendary victory for Johns on the Cyclone was a winner-take-all one-lap race around a mile dirt track in Phoenix on November 18, 1913. The promoter offered the princely sum of $1,000 to the vehicle that could lap the mile the fastest – that included planes flying just above the mile oval. Johns and the Cyclone beat out automobile ace Barney Oldfield and barnstorming pilot Lincoln Beachly to win the prize.
The Cyclone, while often the fastest motorcycle at a race, suffered from reliability problems. Johns easily turned the fastest lap times and many times built big leads only to suffer mechanical problems with the bike. The most infamous race for Johns and Cyclone was the epic 1915 Dodge City 300. A total of seven manufacturers fielded factory teams in the event. Harley-Davidson, debuting in the classic race, and Indian each had eight riders.
Johns, on the Cyclone, turned laps over two mph faster than Dave Kinney’s qualifying speed in the early laps and was heavily favored to win the race. He opened a large lead, lapping a number of riders in the first fifty miles. Then the bike began to fade and he lost the lead just before the 100-mile mark and later dropped out of the running. Johns also lead similarly in the 100-mile national at Ascot Park until the Cyclone again failed before reaching the checkered flag.
Johns did win a number of shorter races on the Cyclone, including the one-mile FAM National held in Sacramento in July of 1915.
Johns left Cyclone and closed out his racing career riding an Indian. In 1916, Johns’ last full year of racing, he again was victorious in the one-mile national, this time held in Columbus, Ohio. Like many riders of the era, World War I brought a close to Johns’ racing career. Few of the factories returned to racing and Johns faded from the scene taking up a career as an oil-drilling toolmaker in Texas.
In all, Johns rode for Thor, Excelsior and Indian, but he will always be remembered for his exploits on the Cyclone.
Inducted in 1998