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Exceptional 50 HP National Dirt Track Racing Photograph Surfaces

Every once in a while an extraordinary early racing image turns up from the past and this photo of the “Number Eleven” National is one of them. The driver is Lee Humiston, a motorcycle racing star of the period who is reported to be the first rider to set a motorcycle speed record of one-hundred mph, which he accomplished on an Excelsior V-twin on the Los Angeles Motodrome board track on November 5, 1911.

The National Motor Vehicle Company was founded in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1900 when it began producing electric cars. Gasoline-powered internal combustion-engined cars followed in 1903 and were built until 1924 when the Company ceased operations. The Company began entering competition events in the late-1900s and its most successful years were between 1911 to ’12.

In 1911 National’s placed first a total eighty-four times in hill climbs, and in road, speedway, and beach races. In 1912 Joe Dawson was the upset winner in a National, one of the hometown favorites entered in the 1912 Indianapolis 500 race (details below) when Ralph DePalma’s Mercedes engine failed two laps from the end of the competition.

You can view DePalma’s “1912 Gallant Defeat” by artist Peter Helck in our earlier coverage. The lead and enlargeable photos of Humiston piloting the National are via JT Chandler.

  • 1911 National 5 x 5 11/16-inch bore and stroke 40 h.p. engine and chassis photographs from an article in the “Motor Age” September 7, 1911, issue courtesy of Charles D. Test.

  • Cycle and “Automobile Trade Journal” article about the race in the June 1912 issue.


13 responses to “Exceptional 50 HP National Dirt Track Racing Photograph Surfaces

  1. This will bring up that question of Charles Bury and whether he was the riding mechanic in 1912 , as he was in 1911. All of the sources say he was not, but his grandson seemed to think differently. But, again a Simplex was involved…..has the Simplex gone back to Naples yet?

  2. I think this will be a static staged shot, with the spokes, fenceposts and dust all manipulated in the darkroom.
    I have a similar promotional image, of my 1908 Vauxhall taken supposdly at speed during a hillclimb. It is about 2 feet across and along with others of the same car, adorned the New Zealand Vauxhall impoters showroom wall. Looking carefully at this large image , you can see the
    manipulation as I described.
    Photography historians tell me the glass plate cameras were not able to shoot images quickly, hence why tbis technique was used.

    • I suspected as much on first glance. There wasn’t the telltale forward lean that vintage photos show when cars pass at speed.

      A staged pic that was doctored would explain that.

  3. While a number of publicity shots from the time were staged, this does not appear to be. A graphic focal plane shutter was capable of 1/1000 of a second and “extreme rapid ” plates were available that would easily make these photos in full sun.

  4. Joe Dawson,s National ended up in Western Australia with Allan Doone trying to beat a 264 mile Albany to Perth record set by a Talbot in 1914 . What we would like to know is how the National found its way back to the USA and later on in the Indi Museum?.

  5. Interesting to see that a Schacht finished 5th in the 1912 Indy 500 – the company were much better known for their high-wheelers.

  6. I doubt their “leaning into it” did anything for the handling of this behemoth, and I don’t think it’s staged, they are probably only going 19 mph ( or whatever) and eye protection was the only safety measure. ( leather cap simply kept your hair in place) Great shot, though.

  7. Staged or not this is still a dramatic photograph of the sheer determination it took to be involved in this type of racing.Thedriver at least has the steering wheel to hold on to,his passenger has his arms behind him probably holding onto the seat frame for stability as there is nothing in front of him to steady himself on.With all that dirt and small rock being thrown back by those front wheels I would be leaning forward to trying to make myself as small a projectile target as possibleThanks for posting his classic photo!

  8. I think it’s a live-action shot.

    There’s some slight forward leaning of the radiator, front wheels, and hood-former / dashboard.

    Whatever / however, it’s a really terrific image !

  9. It should be noted that Lee Humiston rode the first motorcycle to beat the ‘ton’ in an officially timed, and sanctioned speed run at Playa del Ray in 1912. His run humiliated Indian (Harley-Davidson was not a player in those days) and Excelsior had only just recently been bought by Ignaz Schwinn of bicycle fame.

  10. Humiston set the 100 mph record on December 30, 1912 at Playa del Rey. The speed had been achieved earlier, Glenn Curtiss, for example, with his V-8 powered Curtiss motorcycle at Ormand Beach, but the earlier 100 mph accomplishments were not entered into the record books for various reasons (Curtiss, for example, was not able to make the return run because of his broken drive shaft) and so the Humiston landmark record was established.

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