A St. Louis-based motorcycle racer, dealer, sponsor and AMA official, Earl Widman truly had experience in just about every aspect of motorcycling.
Widman was born in Highland, Illinois, on November 24, 1924. The Widman family moved to St. Louis when Earl was 12. While Earl was in high school, his father bought a motor scooter, which was Earl's first introduction to motorcycling. He learned to work on the scooter, gaining the skills that would serve him well later in life. Before long, Widman stepped up to a well-used Indian and finally a Harley-Davidson, the brand he would become most closely associated with. He started racing a few local events. He looked up to AMA TT Steeplechase champ J.B. Jones and Indian Wrecking Crew member Bill Tuman.
Just out of high school, Widman was called to service in World War II. The day he received his draft notice from the Army, he promptly rushed down to the local Navy recruiter to sign up for duty. He'd heard that the Navy offered better food.
Widman worked in the engine room of one of the ships that was part of the D-Day invasion of France. The ship had one side blown apart when it was hit by artillery. Widman found himself floating in the English Channel, hurt. He was rescued and returned to the United States to recuperate from his shoulder injury.
After the war, Widman went back to riding and racing. He earned a reputation as an all-around good racer, but was especially known for his skills on TT Steeplechase tracks.
Widman wanted to become a Harley-Davidson dealer and made it known to management in Milwaukee. He had already started a small Velocette agency in his garage and felt ready to open a full-fledged dealership. In 1946 a dealership opening came up in Springfield, Illinois, and Widman, with the help of his father, had the financing in place. He was excited about owning a dealership in the town that hosted the AMA national championship. Unfortunately for Widman, the powers at Harley felt he was too young at age 21 to own a dealership. He continued at his regular job with Shell Oil and his small Velocette operation. A couple of years later, a dealership opening came available in his hometown of St. Louis. Again, Harley-Davidson felt Widman was too young, but Widman was not to be denied this opportunity. He found an older partner and they were approved. The dealership opened early in 1948.
Through hard work and perseverance, everything seemed to be falling into place for Widman. The first bump in the road came just a few months after the dealership's opening. Widman had been preparing to travel to Daytona in the March of 1948 to compete in his first Daytona 200. His plans hit a snag when his new business partner informed him that he was the one going to Daytona and Earl would have to stay home and look after the shop. Earl missed Daytona that year, but that would be the last time he missed the spring classic. Before long, Widman bought out his partner.
Widman's dealership prospered and he continued to improve his racing skills. During the mid 1950s, Widman earned a number of TT titles. 1953 was his best season at the nationals, earning top-10 finishes at the Peoria (Illinois) TT, the Dodge City (Kansas) 200 and Laconia (New Hampshire) road race. Widman was also a regular in the Daytona 200 from the late 1940s to the late 1960s. He was big in stature for a motorcycle racer, standing 5' 11' and 190 pounds. By the time he retired from racing, Widman had competed in more Daytona 200s than any other rider in the history of the series. When he was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 1998, Widman still ranked second in all-time Daytona mileage and appearances. According to his son, Ron, Earl decided to quit racing at Daytona when Ron started competing in the race. "The old man didn't want to get beat by his own son," Ron says with a grin.
After retiring from racing, Widman spent time helping his sons, Tom and Ron, with their racing efforts. Ron became an AMA road race champion in the junior ranks and a highly respected rider on the national level. He later was a co-founder of the Midwest Cafe Racing Association (MCRA) road racing club.
For years, Earl was an AMA referee. He was also a race promoter and sponsor. AMA Grand National competitor Terry Poovey was one of the best known of the Widman Harley-Davidson-sponsored riders.
Bowling was a serious hobby for Widman. He opened a bowling pro shop behind his dealership and became one of the top bowling ball fitters in the country. Widman was a top league bowler as well and even qualified for a few pro bowling tournaments.
In 1982, Widman retired and he and his wife, Florence, moved to Daytona Beach, Florida. Widman died on April 7, 1998. The family-owned Widman dealership still thrives in St. Louis.