Jack Milne has a place in motorcycle racing history that will never be erased. Milne was the first American motorcycle racer to win a world championship. In 1937, Milne won the Speedway World Championship at London’s Wembley Stadium in front of 85,000 fans, securing a position of permanence that few racers could hope to achieve. Milne also won the American Speedway title in 1936. His younger brother, Cordy, was also a world-class Speedway rider.
Jack Milne was born in Buffalo, New York in 1907. After his childhood in Detroit, his family moved to Pasadena, California, when Jack was 15 and that’s where he attended high school. On leaving school, both Milne brothers went to work for Western Union as a messenger delivery boys. Cordy saved his money and bought a motorcycle. Jack bought a small gas station. Later he joined his younger brother as a motorcyclist.
“I worked my way onto an Indian Scout, a 37-inch V-Twin,” Jack said in a 1995 interview with Street Bike magazine. “I just liked to go fast. I cut off the long bars that forced you to sit upright and I was able to lean into the wind and go for it. There were few speed limits and fewer cops then.”
The more adventurous Cordy converted his street bike into a speedway racer. The modifications didn’t work very well, but Cordy didn’t care. He was into racing. He was soon to bring his big brother into the sport with him.
In 1933, a pair of Comerford-JAP racebikes arrived from England for Jack and Cordy. Jack was impressed by his little brother’s earnings and decided they could make a living from racing. He sold his service station and bought the Speedway bikes for $300 each. Their new Speedway racing bikes featured methanol-fueled 500cc single-cylinder motors with a 16:1 compression ratio, produced 40 horsepower and weighed just 200 pounds. Both Milne brothers began winning a lot of races on little short tracks and high school cinder running tracks up and down the West Coast, making $15 to $30 per night each.
“There were six or seven stadium tracks in Southern California and an equal number up north,” Jack said. “Gilmore Stadium, at 3rd and Fairfax in Los Angeles held 18,000. Sacramento’s stadium held 15,000, and they were regularly filled. California didn’t have other pro sports and motorcycle racing was big time.”
Gilmore Oil became the brothers’ sponsor and the company picked up the tab for a trailer, gas, oil, tires and other expenses.
In 1934, Jack was involved in a hard crash with Putt Mossman, resulting in crushed vertebrae for Jack, an injury that nearly ended his racing career.
Jack recovered from his injuries and returned to racing to finish runner-up to his brother in the 1935 American Speedway National Championship. That winter, the Milnes went to San Francisco and hopped on a ship to Australia, having accepted an offer to race down under.
“In those days, there weren’t any jets, so it took a good two months just to travel to Australia and England,” Milne said. “You could buy an around-the-world ticket for $350. We paid our own way to Australia, so if we didn’t win, we didn’t get home.”
There, the brothers found the Aussie tracks were of a much higher standard than what they were used to in America. Jack had a solid foreign racing debut by finishing third in the 1936 Australian Speedway Championship despite of having to learn standing starts. American races at the time were down with rolling starts.
In 1936, Jack finally bested his little brother and won the U.S. title. Again, they went to Australia for the off-season and it started what would become an historic year for Jack. He won the Australian title that year over fellow American Wilbur Lamoreaux. From there, he moved to England to contest the popular and lucrative British League. Six weeks by ship from Australia to England through the Suez Canal gave Jack and Cordy plenty of time to work on their bikes below deck.
British League Speedway was a team sport, and even though less than a decade old, was hugely popular. The tracks were larger than in America and crowds of 60,000 were not uncommon. Jack and Cordy tried to get on the same team, but the ACU denied the request. Jack raced for New Cross, while Cordy was allocated to Hackney.
Jack was amazed at how popular he became in British Speedway. He was much-loved by the Brits for his determination. Not long after coming to race in England, he lost his left thumb in an accident when sportingly trying to avoid a downed rider. His picture was on John Player Tobacco trading cards that scores of British boys cherished.
Jack said the money was good, but the demands were that of true professional athlete.
“The London area alone had eight major tracks ranging from a tenth to a third of a mile,” Milne recalled. “During the late 1930s, Speedway was Britain’s major spectator sport. We normally ran six-man teams and raced as much as five or six nights a week. It was a grueling schedule.”
On September 2, 1937, America had one of its proudest moments in motorcycle racing history. In front of 85,000 cheering fans at Wembley Stadium, Milne won the Speedway World Championship. If that weren’t enough, Wilbur Lamoreaux finished second and Cordy third, giving U.S. riders the top three spots in what was arguably the most important motorcycle racing championship of the era.
Jack and Cordy lived and raced two more years in England. They were heroes, being photographed everywhere they went, but they were seemingly unaffected by their status. Jack narrowly missed defending his world title in 1938. Soon after, World War II put an end to the Milnes' life in England.
“The tracks went dark overnight,” Jack said. “The whole country closed down when the war started. Cordy and I bummed around from port to port trying to book passage back to the States. We finally boarded a ship that was lit up like a Christmas tree and covered with American flags in hopes that the Germans wouldn’t sink a neutral ship."
Back in Pasadena, the brothers took $4,000 of their earnings and opened a bicycle shop that evolved into a motorcycle shop. Later, they opened car dealerships and a thriving grandstand business. The seats people sat in at the Rose Bowl Parade and the Long Beach Grand Prix were the Milnes'. They started in that business after buying the old grandstands from a track that closed down.
Jack and Cordy continued racing Speedway in California into the early 1950s, but Jack said the advent of television caused the crowds to dwindle and the sport eventually died off for nearly 20 years.
It was Jack, along with Harry Oxley, who helped revive Speedway racing in the late 1960s, bringing Speedway world champions Ivan Mauger and Barry Briggs, both of New Zealand, for a series of exhibitions that re-lit the spark in America.
Jack lived long enough to see Bruce Penhall and Sam Ermolenko follow in his footsteps as American riders to win World Speedway Championships.
The grand old champ died in December of 1995. He still owned the bike on which he won the world championship. He left a legacy in American Speedway that reverberates yet today.