The attic is a wonderland of sleeping memories.
Go up there when rain is falling gently on the roof. Open great-aunt Edith’s scrapbook. Handle it carefully, because the fading pages are brittle now, easily torn. Uncover the large, silver-plated trophy awarded to the winner of the first National Motorcycle Road Race, Elgin, Illinois, July 4, 1913.
Hold the trophy close to your ear, feel the roar of grandstand crowds cheering “Fearless” on to another record-breaking victory.
When my mechanic friend Bill Bradford of North Middletown told me about what he’d uncovered in his attic, I wanted to know more, sensing it might have everything—youth, love, and a passion always to try to be a little bit better. With these three elements, who could ask for anything more this side of Heaven?
The year is 1911, a marvelous year for fine-tuned discovery: the year a young Swiss immigrant, Louis Chevrolet, announced he’d developed a new kind of car, which he unashamedly named for himself—Roald Amundsen and his tireless dogs reached the South Pole—Harriet Quimby became the first woman to earn a pilot’s license from the Aero Club of America.
Stout-hearted individuals were pushing the envelope of movement, speed, and bravery. While greatness is often reserved for the politically and philosophically driven, there are other soaring stars that keep the universe interesting. Sometimes it’s a good thing to visit the attic and spend an afternoon browsing through what is sadly too often forgotten.
This, then, is Bill Bradford’s story of the short life of his great-uncle Charles Victor “Fearless” Balke, believed to be the first man to reach 100 miles an hour on a motorcycle.
Fearless lives today in a scrapbook saved from dust and moths in great-nephew Bill’s Bourbon County attic. Charles and Aunt Edith—he called her “Snooks”—married in 1911 in Los Angeles. She faithfully followed him across the country, cheering him on, carefully clipping the glowing newspaper headlines as he earned the title Fearless: “Balke Wins Cycle Derby,” “Balke Stars at Motordrome,” “Balke Takes Honors,” “Track Records Lowered Again,” “Daring Racer Thrills Crowds at State Fair,” “Charles Balke Captures One Mile Professional Championship,” “Charles Balke Breaks Overland Track Record, Riding a Mile in Fifty-One Seconds Flat.”
The marriage of Fearless and Snooks was destined to last just three breathtaking years—stopwatch clicking away the seconds.
A reporter for the Los Angeles Examiner wrote: “Charles Balke, the demon who suffered a nasty fall a week ago, came back and smashed a world’s record Sunday for the four-mile distance, clipping eleven seconds off the best record made during the last year.”
That ticking, fateful last day for Fearless came on June 8, 1914. He was rounding a practice turn at the Hawthorne oval when he collided with track equipment, killing him instantly. He was one week away from his 24th birthday.
One of the stories preserved in Aunt Edith’s scrapbook included this tribute beneath the headline in Motorcycling magazine—“Charles ‘Fearless’ Balke Is No More.”
“It seemed as if a large package of condensed sunshine suddenly disappeared when the boyish smile of Charles ‘Fearless’ Balke, the greatest motorcyclist of his day, and the conceded champion of the country, faded yesterday into the eternal peace.”
Look at his many pictures saved by Aunt Edith and there’s no doubt but that Fearless Balke on the Indian motorcycle was movie star handsome—strong, lantern jaw, intense eyes, and a to-die-for smile as wide as all outdoors.
Bill Bradford believes his famous great-uncle Fearless died doing what he loved the most, a life exemplifying courage and determination to be the best.
Great-nephew Bill wants a movie to be made about the young man whose life was so defined by motorcycling—“purr” becoming the roar of an engine, steady hands gripping the handle bars, and the wind whipping against the goggles of one more race, one more trophy.