One of the first AMA Class C racing stars, Ben Campanale was one of the top racers in New England during the mid-1930s. He made a name for himself nationally by becoming the first two-time winner of the Daytona 200, winning the classic event in 1938 and 1939.
Born in Worcester, Mass., on Sept. 19, 1914, Campanale came into motorcycling in perhaps one of the most roundabout ways of any Hall of Famer. As a teenager, Campanale was a bicycle racer of some renown. Always looking for a thrill, Campanale wanted to build an iceboat to speed along the frozen lakes near his home. He found a farmer who had on old Harley-Davidson sitting behind a barn out in the elements. Campanale paid five dollars for the abandoned bike and took the engine out and went to work rebuilding it. He finally got the motor running and, with the addition of an old propeller from a nearby airport, had the major ingredients to build his iceboat.
"The first time I put it on the ice it ran great until I hit the higher speeds," Campanale recalled. "The propeller wasn't angled right and the boat tried to lift itself off the ice."
After properly setting up the propeller, Campanale became one of the most popular guys on the lake. Daring ice skaters would hold on to ropes behind the boat and be propelled across the ice at speeds of up to 80 mph!
In the spring, Campanale fixed up the frame of the old 1924 Harley, installed the motor and learned to ride in the fields behind his house, driving his neighbors nuts with the noise. In 1934, Campanale entered his first race, the national championship TT in Keene, New Hampshire.
"I just went up, paid my one dollar AMA membership fee and was ready to race," said Campanale, who was just 19 years old at the time. "Things were a lot simpler in those days. E.C. Smith looked at the old rig I had and just sort of grinned. I'm sure it was quite a picture with me, no racing experience, and riding this old worn-down street bike."
Campanale surprised everyone that day in Keene by not only finishing the race, but finishing in fifth place. A total unknown to his fellow racers, Campanale became somewhat of a local celebrity after his excellent finish in Keene.
From there, Campanale went on to establish quite a reputation by winning regional TT and hillclimbing championships in New England.
In 1938, Campanale went to Daytona Beach, Fla., to take a shot at racing in the 200. Once again, Campanale was relatively unknown, this time going against more than 100 of the best motorcycle racers in the country. His bike was a Harley-Davidson WLDR street bike with the lights taken off. As the race progressed, it became a battle between Campanale, Tommy Hays and Lester Hillbish. At one point, Hillbish forced Campanale off the course. This infuriated Campanale and he charged as hard as he could to catch back up with Hillbish. After gaining on Hillbish, Campanale pulled alongside and began kicking at Hillbish's front wheel.
"I was going to let him know he'd better not mess with me again," recalled Campanale. Perhaps thinking Campanale was a crazy man, Hillbish kept his distance. Campanale pulled away to win by about one minute over Hillbish, Hayes a distant third. Afterwards, Hillbish and a bunch of his friends came over to protest Campy's rough riding. Luckily for Campanale, AMA official and former racing great Jim Davis happened to see Hillbish running Campanale off the track and did not allow the protest.
The next year Campanale returned, but was no longer the underdog. This time he was given a factory Harley-Davidson. William Harley, one of the founders of Harley-Davidson, came up to Campanale just before the race and asked him how the motor was running. Campanale replied that it was just perfect. As Campanale prepared for the start, Harley smiled and gave him one last piece of advice. "If any shenanigans should happen during the race, you know what to do." At which time Harley began kicking at the front wheel of Campanale's bike.
Campanale went on to win the race to become its first two-time winner.
In order to make extra money during his racing days, Campanale did stunt riding. His best known stunt was crashing through a wall of wooden boards. He gave up stunt riding when once he had to used fresh wood and the boards didn't give way when he hit them.
Campanale survived one of the worst motorcycle racing crashes of all time at Oakland, California, in 1941. June McCall went down at a high rate of speed during the running of the Oakland 200. Campanale and several other riders crashed trying to avoid McCall. Campanale was forced to hit the outside fence in the incident. In all, five riders were involved in the crash. Tommy Hays and McCall were tragically killed in the accident.
Campanale said it looked as if a bomb had gone off over the race track with riders and bikes strewn all over. He and Jim Kelly were both hospitalized for months. Campanale said the doctors gave him less than a 50-50 chance to live after the crash and his wife, Anna, was so shaken by the incident she never attended another race. Because of his injuries, Campanale was never drafted during World War II.
Campanale came back after the war and resumed his racing career and won several AMA Pacific Coast titles. He also moved to California and opened a Harley-Davidson dealership in Pomona. One of his most famous regular customers was Clark Gable. Once, Campanale took Gable to lunch at a small restaurant across the street from his dealership and ordered the house specialty: macaroni and cheese.
The mayor of Laconia, N.H., declared June 9, 1997 as Ben Campanale Day. He also received a formal commendation from New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen recognizing Campanale as a national motorcycle racing hero and legend.
Ben Campanale passed away in 2003 and he was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1998.