Bob Perry was one of the top motorcycle racers in the second half of the 1910s. He was said to have possessed the most fluid racing style of the riders of his era. Racing great Jim Davis said he tried to emulate Perry's style when he was learning to ride.
A factory Excelsior rider for nearly his entire career, Perry was very close to the Schwinn family (owners of Excelsior) and was like a son to Ignaz Schwinn. Perry won four nationals during his career. Perhaps his greatest victory came in the 300-mile FAM national road race held in Savannah, Georgia, in December of 1914. Perry died on January 2, 1920, from injuries suffered while qualifying for a race at Ascot Park in Los Angeles. The entire motorcycling community mourned the loss of Perry, who was considered by most of his fellow competitors to be the friendliest and most admired rider of his day.
Robert Perry was born in Bozeman, Montana, in May of 1892. Perry's father died when he was 6 and he moved to Joliet, Illinois, to live with his uncle. While short in stature, Perry became a leading athlete at his high school, participating in wrestling, track and field, and basketball. Perry went on to attend the University of Illinois to study mechanical engineering and became a leading collegiate wrestler. One of the few college-educated racers of his day, Perry was dubbed "The Student" by his fellow competitors. Fans affectionately knew him as "Little Bob."
In a 1915 interview with "Motor Cycle Illustrated," Perry described his first racing experience.
"A kind-hearted owner of a single-cylinder Armac allowed me to try out his machine on the local dirt track. He told me not to open up until I had gone twice around the track, but just as soon as I hit the first turn and got into the back stretch, I just naturally opened up everything and flattened out on the tank, expecting to smash all the records in creation. When I got around to the grandstand, I saw the owner of the machine frantically waving his arms for me to stop. I did so and he promptly took the mount away from me."
Perry lived near a track where the local riders raced and in the spring of 1911, using the savings from his job at the chemical laboratory of Illinois Steel Co., he purchased his first bike, a single-cylinder Excelsior belt drive. Perry began practicing and eventually racing on the dirt tracks of northern Illinois. His first victory came at a local event in Aurora on August 20, 1911. Perry continued to hone his racing skills at local races through 1912.
In March of 1913, Perry traded in his single for a twin-cylinder Excelsior, against the advice of many of his friends who said he was too small to handle the bigger machine. By this time, Perry was working for an Excelsior dealership in Joliet and the owner of the shop persuaded Excelsior to give Perry a factory machine during the middle of the 1913 season. Perry began winning county fair and other small races on a regular basis. He was first recognized as a top national contender when he led the first eight laps (about 65 miles) of the July 4, 1913, FAM national 250-mile road race at Elgin, Illinois, before a cam shaft failed on his bike.
Perry's breakthrough win came in 1913 when he beat Charles Balke in the FAM convention races at Denver and set a new 10-mile dirt track record in the process.
Using the earnings from his races wins, Perry entered the University of Illinois Engineering School in September of 1913, where he later graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering. Over the Christmas holiday break, Perry made a trip to Savannah, Georgia, to enter in the FAM national 300-mile road race. Perry came through with a surprise victory in the big race over Maldwyn Jones on the Merkel.
Perry started the 1914 season as the hottest rider in the country, winning the FAM five-mile national title in Sacramento in April, and then finishing second to Balke at the 10-mile championship in Hawthorne, Illinois, in May. But then Perry crashed at a race in Canada and his injuries limited his racing for the rest of 1914. He did come back to Savannah late that season to try to defend his title, but his bike broke a chain and he eventually finished fifth.
Perry continued as one of the nation's top riders throughout 1915 and 1916. Highlights included winning the FAM One-Hour Championship on the one-mile dirt track at Hawthorne, Illinois, in October of 1915, and a big victory at the 100-mile national in Detroit in June of 1916. Perry disdained the board tracks of his era and raced primarily on dirt tracks and in road races.
During World War I, Perry served in the Naval Aviation Corps, based in Key West, Florida. After the war, Perry returned to work as an engineer for Excelsior. The Schwinn family considered Perry such a valuable asset to the company that they tried to dissuade him from returning to racing. The lure of speed was too much however, and Perry returned to racing in the 200-mile national road race in Marion, Indiana, in September of 1919, where he finished sixth.
In January of 1920, Perry went to Los Angeles to race a new overhead valve Excelsior. In qualifying for a race at Ascot Park (then a paved one-mile oval) Perry told some of his fellow competitors that he was going to attempt to turn a new lap record by not letting off the throttle through the turns. After warming up, Perry came into turn one faster than anyone had ever seen a rider attempt. Perry's bike went into a skid and hit the outside wall then crashed and bounced back to the inside wall. Perry died at 10:45 p.m. that night in the hospital from his injuries.
Perry's death hit the industry hard. He had been one of the most-liked riders in the country. Upon hearing the news of Perry's death, Ignaz Schwinn, in agony, was reported to have taken a sledge hammer to a racing bike at the Excelsior shop.
Perry will be remembered for his infectious smile and his true skill on the track. Ever the student, Perry approached racing from a calculating and studied manner.
He was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1998.