Jake De Rosier is considered to be one of the very first factory-backed motorcycle racers. The great racing champion of the first decade of the 20th century rode for Indian Motocycle (and later Excelsior) and was the fastest rider in the United States in the early 1900s. His name was synonymous with motorcycle racing during the first decade of the sport.
De Rosier's appearance at the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy in 1911 was the first entry of an American rider in that classic event. De Rosier gained tremendous popularity at home and abroad by competing, and winning, a series of match races against Charles Collier, who was the British champion. De Rosier raced until early 1912, when he suffered a career-ending crash at the Los Angeles Motordrome. De Rosier's leg was badly injured in the accident and he ultimately died almost a year later from complications of a third operation on his leg.
De Rosier was born in Quebec, Canada in 1880 and as a young boy of 4 moved to Massachusetts with his family. The young De Rosier took up bicycle racing in his teens, during the heyday of the sport, and was one of the top racers in New England by 1897.
When Frenchman Henri Fournier brought the first bicycle pacing machines to the United States in 1898, De Rosier became infatuated with the motorized machines. After much persuasion, De Rosier convinced Fournier to let him ride one of the motor pacers. Fournier was impressed with the youngster's ability on the pacing bike and hired him to ride the machine in Paris races.
De Rosier became known as one of the best pacing riders in the country and was pacing the top American bicycle racers at the turn of the century. While pacing bicycle champion John Nelson in 1901, De Rosier met Indian co-founder Oscar Hedstrom, who was building tandem pacing machines at the time. It was through that meeting that De Rosier was asked to become one of the first employees of Indian. Although De Rosier stayed with Indian only a few months, he continued to race the machines in the endurance runs and bicycle velodrome track races of the day.
De Rosier's breakthrough race came at the 1908 Federation of American Motorcyclist (FAM) National Championships held in Paterson, New Jersey. De Rosier was the top rider of the meet and was signed to a full-time racing contract with Indian. From that point forward, De Rosier won races nearly every weekend and soon became the acknowledged king of professional motorcycle racing.
In 1909, De Rosier began racing 100-mile record trials at the newly built Los Angeles Motordrome. It was on the new board tracks, much larger than bicycle velodromes where De Rosier earned the majority of his victories. De Rosier's popularity was such that promoter and board track builder Jack Prince hired De Rosier to race at the opening of many of the board tracks that he was building across the country.
De Rosier reached the pinnacle of his career in 1911. Racing on the board tracks, he set numerous FAM records. In an amazing show of dominance, at the end of 1911 De Rosier held every FAM speed record for professional riders.
It was during that year that De Rosier traveled to Great Britain to compete in the Isle of Man TT. At the TT, De Rosier set the fastest qualifying speed, but found the course to be extremely difficult, leading to his famous quote, "This ain't going to be no tea party," which was immortalized by the British. De Rosier, who wore black theatrical tights for better aerodynamics, led the first lap. The course was so rough that De Rosier's tool cases were broken and he lost all his tools and spares. When he crashed a few laps later he had no tools to make repairs. He put a borrowed spark plug in his Indian and continued the race to finish 12th, only to be disqualified for receiving outside assistance on the course.
After the TT, De Rosier took part in a series of match races against British champion Charles Collier at the famous Brooklands circuit. De Rosier won two of the three races using his board track racing experience on the banked circuit to draft past Collier before the finish line. De Rosier left England as a popular figure, having received numerous gifts from British fans. Tributes to De Rosier, including a poem, appeared in British motorcycle newspapers and magazines.
Upon his return from England, De Rosier and Indian had a disagreement and De Rosier signed to race for Excelsior. While he won races for Excelsior, he never recaptured the success he had with Indian.
On March 12, 1912, De Rosier sustained serious injuries in a match race with Charles Balke at the Los Angeles Stadium Motordrome. Doctors gave De Rosier a slim chance of recovery. De Rosier rallied after an operation on his severely broken leg, but he never fully recovered. He returned to Massachusetts for a third operation on his leg and, at the age of 33, died from complications of the surgery on February 25, 1913. Hundreds attended his funeral and Indian ordered its flags at half-mast and ceased production for five minutes as the funeral procession passed the factory. De Rosier was laid to rest at St. Michael's Cemetery in Springfield, Massachusetts, nearly in the shadow of the Indian factory.
During his career De Rosier reportedly won nearly 900 races of all types during his racing career. He was said to have had a magnetic personality and was considered the craftiest racer of his era. He rode from the earliest days of single-cylinder motor bicycles to the time of full-fledged motorcycles capable of triple-digit speeds. The motorcycle magazines of the time called him the most famous racing motorcyclist the sport had ever known.