Categories: Features
April 13, 2020
| On 2 years ago

Don Emde On Creating The Speed Kings

If you know only one thing about Don Emde, it is probably that, with his 1972 Daytona 200 victory, he became the first – and only – son of a Daytona 200 winner to duplicate the feat. Since those days, Emde has devoted his life to motorcycling. He was the publisher of Motorcycle Dealer News from 1985-1990. For the past 26 years, he has been Publisher/Editor-in-Chief of two magazines for LeMans Corp: Parts Magazine and Drag Specialties Magazine. Ten years ago, his portfolio was expanded to include a third title, Parts Europe Magazine, for its Trier, Germany-based warehouse.

During that time, Emde has also authored several books. His first was the 1990 history of the Daytona 200, which is often referred to as the Bible of Daytona 200 history. In 2016, Emde published Finding Cannon Ball’s Trail, in which he chronicled a reconstruction of Cannon Ball’s historic 1914 cross-country record run. Not content to merely reconstruct the route through available technology, Emde and his colleague, Joe Colombero, traced out the route and then led a centennial retracing of the route – down to the minute of the start with a group of 30 riders, including many motorcycle industry notables.

Being a life-long collector of motorcycle magazines and memorabilia, Emde has served on the Board of Trustees of the American Motorcycle Heritage Foundation, including a stint as its Chairman. So, it should come as no surprise to learn that Emde’s latest book also looks to enlighten its readers about another era in motorcycle racing, the rise and fall of motordrome racing. The Speed Kings outlines in extraordinary detail, both in photography and text, the short but vibrant history of motorcycle board track racing. The result is a 372-page large-format book that was the first motorcycle-related book to win the Motor Press Guild’s Book of the Year award.

Joe Wolters leads Jake DeRosier and Charles “Fearless” Balke at Los Angeles Stadium in February of 1912. Image: Stephen Wright Collection (Don Emde)

Despite the years Emde spent writing The Speed Kings, he still has a lot to say on the topic, and MO was fortunate enough to spend some time with him discussing the 50 years of work that culminated in the book.

Buy The Speed Kings here

MO: Since you just won the Motor Press Guild’s 2019 Book of the Year award, we thought this would be a good time to find out a little background about The Speed Kings. So, we’ll just start with: What drew you to the topic?

Don Emde: It goes back to the whole idea of growing up in the motorcycle sport. My father raced, and he went back so much farther than I did and knew people like Joe Petrali and some of the early Indian and Harley founders. So, he was always a big fan of those early days, and I guess I would call him an influencer. But he never raced board track. It was even well before his years. He raced in the forties with all the hand-shift WRs and Indian Scouts. He also collected a lot of magazines. So, after his racing years were over, he had a motorcycle dealership, and when I was growing up, we were living the life of a family with a motorcycle shop. I was down there even at a pretty young age, and I started getting the bug and started collecting magazines. Sometimes, they would have different ones they were selling the shops, and I would get one I could take home. So, I started to like the AMA magazine and some of those others, and that really started me collecting magazines. 

Then, my life went through my years of racing and then staying in the motorcycle business afterward, motorcycling has been my life. I was an AMA member and getting my magazines. I started subscribing to Cycle World and Motorcyclist, and those were my primary three magazines. My collection really started to build. Then, as an adult, I became a collector. My collection started with 1960s issues, but I began looking even farther back. I had my father’s AMA magazines and some other ones from the forties, and I started trying to find some of those early 1900s magazines. It took a while, especially once the vintage and antique stuff really kicked in because those early magazines started costing big money.

MO: At least, you were a little ahead of the curve.

DE: Sometimes, it would just be a swap meet somewhere, and I’d find three or four of them. Eventually, when eBay came out, you could buy them easier, but they were really expensive to buy one at a time. Then, I started getting people who knew who I was and that I collected these things, and I started, just over time, getting people who’d say, “Hey I got a guy, and his grandfather died, and he has 50 of them.” For the last 20 years, I had a couple of guys hunting for me to fill in those old magazines, and it was kind of like, “Well, if I don’t have it, I need it.” 

I keep everything in file cabinets with acid-free folders, and it’s all organized well. So, I guess what I’m getting around to is just how many years it took to really build the collection before the idea of the book was ever considered. I basically tried just to fill in the span of years, and the thing that can be so fascinating is when you have one of those magazines is that they’re kind of like those early Sears and Roebuck catalogs. You look through the gloves and goggles and things, and you can get a good laugh. But it’s hard to get a good understanding of how it all flows, and the thing that’s so fascinating is that, in the early days, there were over 100 brands of motorcycles. And so there was the magazine in New York called Motorcycle Illustrated, and that came out every week. There were 60, 80, or sometimes for a show issue, it would be 100 pages, coming out every week. Not long after that, one in Chicago called Motorcycling came out, and it was every week. Later, it was the Pacific Motorcyclist, which became Motorcyclist magazine.

Ray Creviston stands with 1,000 Excelsior at Houston Motordrome in 1914 (Don Emde Collection)


As I started to fill in the collection, you could start to see the flow because it would be week to week to week. In some cases, I have the same race being covered by Motorcycling as well as Motorcycle Illustrated. So, I got a couple of points of view, and I became kind of addicted. One of my great finds would be July 10th of 1911 you know, but then I’d skip a couple of weeks. Later, I might fill in the 17th and the 20th, and I’d be filling in all those weeks and then really find out what happened. 

I guess we’re coming back around to The Speed Kings. It took me about four years of research and writing and production, but it really was about 40, 50 years of collecting, of really getting a collection together to build it. Because the thing that you know nobody’s really ever been able to do, I think, is to be able to work from that kind of a base. 

Stephen Wright, Harry Sucher, and Jerry Hatfield and all these other guys who have done this stuff. They’ve always done their best with what information they could scrounge up. The difference was that, when you had limited amounts of information, then anything and everything went in, and it never quite flowed. When I got the idea of trying to put my book together, I went through my collection, and I found over 1,000 magazines that had something to do with board track racing. I started taking those home at night to scan them on my computer, and I ended up with about 6,000 pages. 

Then it allowed me to really get selective and make a story out of it. By going in and just staying focused on the riders who started as nobodies and became big stars and how it worked out for them. I ended up trying to be a little bit selective on how much other related things those guys were doing: their dirt tracking and their board tracking. I had to figure out how much of that to include. It was all just trying to become a story. It took a long time to pull it all together, but in the end, it allowed me to get really selective and stay focused.

MO: Plus, you have lots of photography in the book. Were you simultaneously collecting photos?

DE: I was collecting a lot of my own photography through different sources and eBay and the same guys that were finding the magazines for me. So, I was able to get quite a bit of good material, but a couple of other things happened. One was just by being around all the stuff, you know where some of the other photography might be. For example, I knew about the archives of Oscar Headstrom and George Hendee, the Indian founders. Also, Charlie and Esther Manthos had a museum for a time in Springfield, MA. They had scrapbooks and a lot of photography. When they passed away, their families donated that to the Wood Museum of Springfield History. I was able to go through their actual scrapbooks, and the museum would make the scans for me. There were some other sources, like Getty and some other photo archives.

Stephen Wright wrote American Racer, 1900-1939 on board tracking. He was a good friend, but he passed away seven years ago. I’m not a really rich guy, but I decided to spend more than I normally would to give his daughter a fair offer on her father’s archives. I think she knew that I was going to keep her Dad’s work alive. So, I was able to buy his whole collection.

A lot of the photography that is in American Racer, the first edition on the early days, I could make use of — although I didn’t use it in the same way that Stephen did. Stephen’s was a large panel plates type approach. I used the photos to fill in along with the stories that I ended up writing.

The Lagoon Motordrome in Ludlow, Kentucky, just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. Circa 1913. (Don Emde Collection)

So now, I had Stephen’s collection and could make use of images he probably would have himself if he were still around to publish more books. If you go back into some of his early books, there’s just a couple of little uses of an early collection that he found that was collected by a guy named Paul Derkum in Los Angeles. He was known as “Daredevil” Derkum, and you’ll find him in the early chapters of the book. But he had newspapers and a lot of early photography that had very limited use. So, I was able to actually use some things that had never seen the light of day.

More importantly is that later, after Derkum quit racing, he became a promoter. He became a track manager for some of the early board tracks. So, he was the track manager of the Vailsburg board track at Newark, NJ, and I won’t spill the beans about what ends up happening there. But it becomes very newsworthy, and as a result of being the track manager, Dirkum kept all of the newspapers from when the track opened through the whole time that he was there. He had all these original newspapers, and then there was some other related photography and other things you’ll see in the book that was, again, very limited use by Stephen where I actually devoted a couple of chapters to it. 

Maybe lastly, I’ve also been kind of a collector through the years of racer scrapbooks. I’ve got a couple of other real notables of the later years. There was a guy named Jack Prince who was the builder of most of the wooden tracks, first bicycling and then motorcycling and eventually the big car tracks. I was able to buy a scrapbook of his that had some really fantastic early photos of the first track in Los Angeles, called the Coliseum. 

Later, there was a kind of an amazing, a little bit creepy, way I got another scrapbook. What happened was there was one chapter where there was another big incident in Ludlow, KY. It was very newsworthy, and I ended up writing a lot about it, but I didn’t have a picture of the guy who caused the crash. So, I continued on in the production.

One day, one of these pickers called me and said he had this scrapbook for a guy named Odin Johnson. It turned out that was the exact guy that caused that one big crash. This was his own personal scrapbook not only with pictures of him, but also some of the other guys that he was racing against that we didn’t have pictures of. How weird is that?

I had the opportunity to acquire Stephen’s collection and other scrapbooks. Basically, all together, it was my own stuff, the things I was able to license from museums, photo sources, and then these scrapbooks. It all kind of came together. I even had the photos that didn’t even make the book.

A sample page from The Speed Kings shows a design style that carries through the book with text, photography and examples of related materials, such as this race program. (Don Emde Collection)

I think that a lot of books through the years have had to find a picture and then kind of reverse engineer. They have the picture then they try to write a caption and pull it together to where there’s still continuity. Whereas, I ended up writing the story first.

We’re self-publishers. So, we do our own production, and after I would write one chapter, I would give it to our art director and say, “Here’s the text, and here are some pictures. I’d like to get as many of these as I can and this one to be really big.” She did a wonderful job putting all that stuff together, but not everything could make it in. Everything was selective as we could make and the best of the best was included. And it just worked out. The style that she had was that there’s something going on on every page, and very few pages have just text. We tried to make it as appealing as we could.

It was a lot of work to put together, but it was very high energy. It was something that I was very motivated to do.

MO: It sounds like it.

DE: I think it probably might not be affordable for a traditional publishing company to do, but by just running my own business and having other things that we do that keep the doors open, I was able to treat it like my hobby. But I really wanted to create something that, when it was all done, someone could hold it, and not only would the stories and pictures be interesting, but overall just give an impression of “I want this book. I need to have this book.” So, I was totally happy with how it all came out.

The Speed Kings, Jay Leno approved. With Don Emde at a book signing.

Buy The Speed Kings here