Wells Bennett was a leading racer, hillclimber and cross-country specialist of the 1910s and early 1920s. He is best known for his 24-hour, transcontinental and Canada-to-Mexico records of the early 1920s, while riding for Henderson.
William Wells Bennett was born in Wichita, Kansas, on June 24, 1891. From an early age he showed a keen sense of adventure and exploration that would lead him to become one of the best-known motorcyclist of the era. As a boy, Bennett explored mile after mile of rural roads near his home in Kansas.
"I usually made my trips alone, because the other boys of my age thought the trips to hard to make," Bennett said in a 1921 article in Motorcycle and Bicycle Illustrated. It was on one of these long rides that Bennett first saw an automobile. He gave chase on his bike until his lungs could hold out no longer. His first exposure to motorcycles was not as memorable.
"It was around 1901 and the man riding it was pushing and pedaling and could not make it run," Bennett recalled. "I turned up my nose and rode away deciding I would just as soon have my wheel (bicycle)."
It wasn’t long, however, before Bennett was impressed with motorcycles. He was riding home, struggling against the wind one day on his bicycle, when a motorcyclist rode past with great speed. The young Bennett started to hang around a local bicycle shop that also sold motorcycles and became acquainted with a few motorcycle owners. He cleverly offered to clean the motorcycles or run errands for the owners in hopes of being offered a ride. He finally got the opportunity to ride one and motorcycles became his youthful obsession. He would hang around the local shop for hours, listening to the tall tales the motorcyclists would tell about their adventures.
Another bicycle dealer in town was offered a motorcycle franchise and the owner, not knowing anything about the newfangled motorcycle, asked Bennett if he would uncrate and assemble the first machine. Bennett gladly put the motorcycle together and got it running. To his delight, the shop owner told him to ride it around town and if he could get people to buy them, he would get a commission. The 13-year-old could not believe his luck. Soon, Bennett entered his first motorcycle contest, a sand-riding event where the object was to see who could ride the farthest in soft sand before bogging down or tipping over. Young Bennett won the contest.
By the time Bennett was 15, he fudged his age so that he could enter a local road race. He said his bike was far from the fastest, but he was able to ride the rutted turns better and won the race. Some of the first dirt track races Bennett competed in were free-for-all events pitting motorcycles and cars racing at the same time around the ovals.
By the time he was 21, Bennett was well established as one of the leading dirt-track racers in Kansas. In 1912, he saw his first board-track race in Denver. At first, he was intimidated by the speed and apparent danger of the boards, but after a race, he went to the pits and met a few of the racers. They’d heard of Bennett’s dirt-track success and that bolstered his confidence.
Later on that day there was a race for single-cylinder machines. Bennett asked if it was too late to enter. The promoter gladly let him in the race, introducing him as the champion of Kansas.
"Even though I’d been in hundreds of motorcycle races by then, I felt odd jumping into my first board track race without even as much as a lap of practice," Bennett said. "I managed to win the race, but later realized how lucky I was to survive unscathed after riding with no training or experience. I saw many a good boy killed in that same way."
In the winter of 1912, Bennett traveled to Los Angeles to compete on the lucrative board-track circuit. From 1912 to the outbreak of World War I, Bennett traveled the country racing board-track events and making as much as $200 to $300 per week, a princely sum in those days.
In 1914, he signed with Excelsior. Like many riders of the day, Bennett found it difficult to hold on to the money he earned. He put it in polite terms in a 1921 interview: "I made good money and accumulated a good roll, but traveling around with a crowd and being a good fellow costs a lot of money." In other words, there was plenty of partying going on between races.
During the war years, racing slowed to a crawl. Bennett began running in various cross-country and city-to-city timed events that became popular during that time. He had a contract with Excelsior and set numerous city-to-city records, such as Los Angeles to San Francisco, San Diego to Phoenix, Fresno to Los Angeles, etc.
Bennett also became involved in stunt riding for movies in Hollywood, where he made $45 per day, a good wage in the early 1920s. Bennett was in charge of the 200-plus motorcycle squadron in the film "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court."
After the war, Bennett resumed racing, still with the Excelsior factory. By this time, the board tracks were fading away. The biggest race of the late 1910s and early 1920s was the Dodge City Classic. In 1921, it looked like Bennett would finally break through to win the prestigious event in his former home state. His Excelsior was clocked at more than two seconds per lap faster than the next-fastest qualifier, but during the race, a rocker arm broke and forced him to retire.
1922 was a great year for Bennett. In April, Excelsior sent him to the prestigious San Juan Capistrano Hillclimb in Southern California. He won the hillclimb, dethroning the dominant Dudley Perkins on his Harley-Davidson. Excelsior heavily advertised the Capistrano National victory. The following month a Henderson factory team assembled on the creaky and deteriorating board track in Tacoma, Washington. There, Bennett rode a Henderson Four (by then owned by Excelsior) to a new 24-hour record of 1,562.54 miles, breaking the seven-year-old mark held by Indian and "Cannonball" Baker by more than 28 miles.
Bennett had to be helped off the bike after the 24-hour record, which was done solo. It was considered Henderson's greatest sporting achievement and the record stood for 15 years. Bennett ended the year by breaking the transcontinental record on a Henderson, making the coast-to-coast trip from Los Angeles to New York, in 6 days, 16 hours and 13 minutes, bettering a record set by Baker on an Ace just a month earlier.
Increasingly, the cross-country record runs, once popular and accepted, were being frowned upon by local law enforcement. Bennett had to devise ways to avoid populated areas (often the only areas that had paved roads) to stay away from the police. Despite his efforts, Bennett was still arrested in Los Angeles during a record attempt. By the early 1920s, the Motorcycle and Allied Trades Association (M&ATA, the motorcycling organization that was the predecessor of the AMA) announced that it would no longer sanction speed contests that used public roads. In August of 1923, Bennett set the last record for the classic Three-Flags Run (Mexico to Canada or vice versa) with a time of 42 hours, 24 minutes.
By the mid 1920s, Bennett scaled back his racing activities to run his Excelsior/Henderson motorcycle dealership in Portland, Oregon. He sold his motorcycle business in 1930 and took a position as a service rep for Ford Motor Co. He retired to his ranch at the foot of Mt. Hood, near Hood River, Oregon. He died in 1969.
Bennett will be remembered as one of the pioneers of motorcycle racing. Part of a hardy breed of riders who braved the most perilous period of the sport, he rates as one of the greatest cross-country riders of all time.