An early Class A racing champion, Jim Davis was one of the few who won titles under the banner of the predecessors to the American Motorcyclist Association, the Federation of American Motorcyclists (FAM) and the Motorcycle and Allied Trades Association (M&ATA). He excelled in board-track racing and on dirt ovals. Davis also won the very first national race sanctioned by the AMA, the 25-mile AMA National Championship held on a one-mile dirt oval in Toledo, Ohio, on July 26, 1924.
Davis rode for both the Harley-Davidson and Indian factory racing teams. In addition to being a great racing champion, Davis went on to become an AMA official, serving in various capacities including deputy chairman of competition. His most visible job with the AMA was as chief referee and starter. Davis earned 21 AMA national championships and a reported 50-plus pre-AMA national titles under the auspices of the FAM and M&ATA.
Davis was born in Columbus, Ohio, on March 23, 1896. His father was a bicycle racer and, as a boy, Jim also enjoyed bicycling. He started riding a Yale motorcycle when he was in fifth grade.
"There were five or six other kids in my neighborhood with motorcycles, which still had pedals on them, and we were always racing each other," remembers Davis. "I won the first official race I entered and won a pair of rubber goggles and a quart of oil. I was on top of the world."
In 1915, Davis happened to be at his neighborhood Indian dealership when Frank Weschler, head of sales for Indian, came to visit. The owner of the dealership introduced Davis and told Weschler of the 19-year-old's racing exploits. The dealer asked Weschler if he might send Davis a factory Indian racing machine. Davis never expected anything to come of the casual meeting, but a few weeks later the dealer called Davis into the dealership. Davis was thrilled to find a brand-new eight-valve closed-port Indian factory racer with his name on it.
By 1916, Davis was well known in the area of Columbus, but he had never been out of the state of Ohio and rarely even outside his hometown. The Columbus Indian dealer took Davis to Detroit to race in the FAM 100-Mile National. Racing for the first time against unfamiliar competition, Davis, who weighed all of 120 pounds, looked at the group of grizzled veteran racers lined up for the Detroit final and considered them a pretty rough-looking bunch. Starting from the outside of the front row, Davis put his Indian first into turn one and was never headed for the entire 100 miles.
"After the race, a guy came up to me and asked how much money I won," Davis recalls. "I didn't know anything about it. When I went up to the podium they gave me a gold medal and $100. I couldn't believe my eyes! A hundred dollars was a lot of money in those days. I felt like the richest man in the world."
After Detroit, Davis took a train up to Saratoga, New York, to race another national, and again he won. Davis was somewhat taken aback by his sudden success. "I didn't know whether I was that good or everyone else was that bad."
After winning his first two nationals, Davis' life changed dramatically. Suddenly, this homebody from Ohio was traveling all across the country racing. Indian put him on the company payroll paying him $25 per week plus expenses. It all happened so fast that the young Davis didn't quite know how to cope. After one race victory, a proud Weschler told Davis he was sending him to California to compete in more national races. By this time, Davis had been away from home for several weeks for the first time in his life. When he was told of the California trip, instead of a look of excitement, Davis had a bewildered look. Weschler could tell something was wrong. He asked Davis if he was homesick, and Davis admitted he was, so instead of California, Weschler allowed Davis to go back home for a few weeks.
With the U.S. entering World War I in 1917, racing slowed to a crawl. Davis was drafted into the Army. When he got off the train at the Army base in Chilicothe, Ohio, Davis was recognized by a commander and he assigned him motorcycle escort duty. He served out the war stateside, transporting and escorting important military and government officials in a sidecar rig.
In 1918, Davis married his wife, Louise, through a Justice of the Peace in Springfield, Illinois, on the spur of the moment after fellow racer Gene Walker needled him for not being married. Davis said that after Walker found out he and Louise were married, he told Davis that he convinced all the other riders to let Davis win the race that weekend. Davis was fastest in qualifying and went on to win the event easily.
"To this day, I don't know whether I won that race fair and square or the boys let me win," Davis admits.
During the war, Davis also enrolled in Ohio State University to study civil engineering. He later earned his degree from the University of Southern California when he moved west to race the Southern California board-track circuit.
Davis' employment as a factory Indian rider came to an abrupt end in 1920. Davis went to a race in Phoenix, only to find that it was an invitational and that only two riders of each motorcycle brand would be allowed to ride. Two Indian riders were already invited to race. Not one to be easily deterred, Davis got the referee to agree to let him race if he got a wire from M&ATA president A.B. Coffman. Davis went to the Western Union office down the street and through the persuasion of a big box of chocolates, convinced a young lady working there that he was merely wanting to pull a gag on a friend and got her to fake a telegram that simply read: "Permit Davis to Ride." Signed A.B. Coffman. Davis then paid a young boy a quarter to ride his bike to the track and give the telegram to the referee. Davis watched as the ref opened the telegram and then waved Davis over and permitted him to race. The following week Davis paid dearly for his shenanigans when he was suspended for a year by one A.B. Coffman. To add insult to injury, Davis was also fired from Indian for the incident. In less than 24 hours after being fired by Indian, Harley-Davidson quickly hired Davis, took care of his suspension, and he continued to race the rest of the season.
For the kid who had rarely been out of his hometown while growing up, motorcycle racing carried him across the country and even overseas. Davis won numerous races in Australia on a variety of machines, mostly British.
Davis raced for Harley-Davidson until 1925. Indian re-hired him for the 1926 season and he immediately rewarded the company by winning three national titles that year on both board tracks and dirt ovals. Davis' biggest season was in 1928, when he won six national titles and was named the overall AMA national champion, a feat he repeated in 1929. Davis won his final AMA national at Syracuse, New York, in 1930. He continued to be a one of the top competitors for the next five years.
After his retirement from racing, Davis was instrumental in forming the motorcycle division of the Ohio State Highway Patrol. He worked for the Highway Patrol for 14 years. Afterwards, he went to work for his family-owned architectural business. He also became an official for the AMA.
Davis recalled two moments as the most memorable events of his years as a starter. One was the time he flagged the only dead heat in AMA history when Bobby Hill and Billy Huber crossed the finish line simultaneously in Atlanta on August 8, 1948. Another was at Daytona in 1948 when he was hit by Don Evans' crashing bike, just as Evans was receiving the checkered flag. That incident sidelined Davis for a year. Ironically it was his only serious injury from racing.
Davis was awarded the AMA's Dudley Perkins Award, the highest honor given by the association, for his life-long contributions to the sport of motorcycling.
Davis became a celebrity in the latter years of his life. He frequently spoke at gatherings of motorcyclists, entertaining crowds with humorous tales of the his life and times in racing. Davis remained sharp even beyond his 100th birthday and was always happy to grant interviews to writers and reporters.
Davis died on February 5, 2000 in Daytona Beach, Fla. He was 103.