Red Bryan was one of the leading AMA National Hillclimbers of the 1930s to the 1950s. Bryan won eight AMA Hillclimb National Championships starting in 1938 and going through 1951, when he earned his final national title. He won his early championships during hillclimbing’s golden era of the 1930s, riding homebuilt Indians. He later became a Harley-Davidson factory-backed rider. He won on Muskegon, Michigan’s famous Mount Garfield hill against top climbers such Joe Petrali, Howard Mitzell and Windy Lindstrom. Bryan had a long and successful run in AMA National Hillclimbs and turned in some of his finest performances later in his career, winning in dominating fashion into his 40s.
Bryan began hillclimbing in 1928 on an old Excelsior-Henderson Super X that he paid $65 for. A burgeoning mechanic, the 18-year-old Bryan made the old Excelsior-Henderson into a strong hillclimber. His first climb was at Glenmary Park in Columbus, Ohio. He won his first novice event that same year in Haydenville, Ohio. By 1930, Bryan earned a regional hillclimb title in Louisville, Kentucky, and qualified for the AMA national championship climb in Muskegon. He finished sixth in the 21.35-inch (350cc) Expert class.
Bryan campaigned Super Xs until the mid-1930s when he "borrowed" his brother Darrell’s (also a leading hillclimber) side-valve Indian and completely redesigned and modified it into an overhead-valve machine. Converting the Indian took nearly a year of exhaustive work. He had his own cylinders cast and put the finishing touches on them in his shop. He also designed and fabricated heads for the Indian and built a special, lightweight frame from chromoly aircraft tubing. The highly modified Indian featured Harley-Davidson pistons and push-rod mechanism and Graham automotive valves. The initial runs of the Bryan Special were disappointing, but a visit to famous West Coast cam specialist Tom Sifton yielded great results and Bryan began winning on a regular basis with his creation.
The highwater mark for Bryan’s Indian was winning a pair of AMA National Hillclimb Championships in 1938 – his first. He beat the legendary factory rider Joe Petrali in the 45-inch (750cc) Class A division by a scant 0.08 seconds. This was during a period when AMA Hillclimbing was arguably the most popular form of motorcycle racing. Bryan was now a big name in the sport and was contracted by Harley-Davidson in 1939. He would ride for the Milwaukee-based maker through the 1950s.
Harley-Davidson’s faith in Bryan paid quick dividends. In 1939, he defended his 45-inch Class A title beating Herb Reiber by 0.8 seconds, an eternity in hillclimb racing.
Bryan kept winning in the 1940s. He scored national titles in 1940 in the 45-inch Expert class and in 1941 he scored his first championship victory in the 74-inch Expert class. Then World War II brought a temporary end to racing.
Bryan, like many riders of his era, lost some of his prime racing years during the war, but unlike most he was able to come back strong in the early 1950s, in spite of being in his 40s. In fact, in was during this era when Bryan scored two of the most impressive victories of his career.
He showed the newcomers to the sport after the war that he would still be a force to be reckoned with when he tied leading West Coast climber Roy Burke in the 74-inch Class A National Championship. He eventually lost to Burke in a run-off, but the veteran Bryan proved that he was back and as fast as ever.
In 1950, he climbed Mount Garfield in 7.8 seconds, winning the 74-inch Expert class title and tripping the clock at more than half a second faster than second-place Earl Buck. Then, in 1951, he beat Buck again in 74-inch Class A, but this time by the margin of 0.6 seconds. In the hillclimbing world, where races are often won or lost on the basis of hundredths of a second, to win by these large margins was a rare feat, indeed.
Bryan’s winning 74-inch Class A time up Mount Garfield in 1950 of 7.54 seconds was the fastest any rider had ridden up the famous Muskegon hill to that point.
In the 1950s, Bryan became a motorcycle dealer in Columbus, carrying BSA and later BMW. He switched to BSA climbers in the 1950s and continued building racebikes and racing hillclimb well into the 1960s. In total, his racing career spanned nearly 40 years.
Bryan ran his dealership until he retired. He passed away in 1989. He left a legacy as one of the great racers and builders in AMA hillclimbing history.