Jimmy Chann is best known for winning the Springfield (Ill.) Mile three years in a row, thus earning the prestigious AMA No. 1 plate for 1948 through 1950. His peers also recognized Chann as the Most Popular Rider of the Year (now called Pro Athlete of the Year) for 1949. During his peak in the late-1940s, Chann was considered one of the top dirt-track racers of all time.
Chann was the middle brother of a trio of racers. Older brother Steve and younger brother Pete were also well known racers of their day. Chann's racing career came to a premature end in 1953 due to a freak accident in which another rider hit a spectator during the Daytona 200 and Chann crashed while swerving to avoid the two. He retired from his trade as a shipbuilder in the early 1980s and died on Fathers Day in 1984.
Chann was born in Millville, N.J., on Sept. 30, 1915, and was raised on a farm with five brothers and three sisters. His older brother, Steve, was the first to become involved in motorcycling. At the age of 14, young Jimmy began taking occasional rides on his older brother’s Indian Scout. By the time he was 19, Chann began entering his first races. Steve and Jimmy took up Class A short-track racing in the 1930s. Jimmy began to make a name for himself on the tracks of New Jersey, New York, Washington, D.C., and eastern Pennsylvania, and by the late-1930s he was starting to race professionally.
The 1940 season was the first big year for Chann on the AMA Class C circuit. He traveled west and raced in the Oakland (Calif.) 200 where he finished a respectable 13th, even though his bike experienced mechanical problems. Back East, Chann really caught the attention of the racing world when he finished second in the popular Langhorne (Pa.) 100.
Just when Chann’s career was beginning to take off, World War II put a hold on his and hundreds of other racers' careers across the country. Chann went to work in the shipyards during the war, a trade he would come back to after his racing years.
After the war, Chann immediately became one of the country’s top racers. He won his first National, the Springfield Mile, in 1947. The Springfield win gave Chann the coveted AMA No. 1 plate. Chann would stubbornly hold on to that plate for three years in a row by winning Springfield two more times.
Chann had a dream season in 1949. He started out the season as runnerup at the Five-Mile National held in Troy, Ohio. He matched that finish again in Atlanta at the 10-Mile Championship. Then he put together a three-race national win streak starting at Springfield, continuing on the Milwaukee Mile and culminating with a victory at Langhorne. With his 1949 Springfield victory, Chann became the first rider to win that event three times. In recognition of his incredible season in 1949, Chann was honored with the AMA Most Popular Rider of the Year Award. Chann called winning that award the high point of his racing career.
Chann, who at the time worked at a Harley-Davidson dealership owned by his brother, took on much of Harley’s research and development on the racetrack during the early 1950s. Being a tester for new parts had its advantages and disadvantages. At times, Chan would have a new engine part that would make his bike the fastest in the field. On the other hand, sometimes new parts still needed further development work, and as a result, reliability of his racing mounts often suffered.
One of the most famous near-wins for Chann came during the 1950 Langhorne 100. Late in the race, Chann had a comfortable lead on the rest of the field. In fact, with the exception of second-place Billy Huber, who was on the lead lap, Chann had a two-lap lead on the field. With just eight laps to go in the race, Chann’s Harley-Davidson broke a chain. He was able to roll into the pits for a new chain and still finish third.
Early in the 1953 Daytona 200, Chann was running at top speed down the paved side of the beach-road course. Ahead, a spectator started to cross the track. A fellow racer hit the spectator and Chann swerved to avoid the two, crashing to the pavement hard. He was critically injured. While Chann eventually made a full recovery, he would never race seriously again. He left the motorcycle business and took a position at the shipyards building submarines. He and his wife, Elaine, had two boys.
Chann will always be remembered as a heady rider of considerable talent. His three consecutive victories at the Springfield Mile will go down in history as one of the great accomplishments in AMA Class C racing history.
Jimmy Chann was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1998.