The Loudon Challenge - America’s Oldest Motorcycle Race: Roots Over a Century Deep
When you bring up the topic of the Loudon Challenge to motorcycle enthusiasts, a sense of nostalgia is almost sure to envelop them, and for good reason. Though the race did not become official until the 30s, the Challenge began as a Gypsy tour way, way back in the 1910s.
Though it has gone through several incarnations over the years, the Loudon Challenge continues to bring racers and fans from across the country to compete in and enjoy all of the excitement and camaraderie that the race brings along with it.
Gypsies, Bikes, and Speed
It was the late 1910s. The Great Depression had not become a reality for the majority of America. The 20s were on the version of exploding on the country, bringing an almost hedonistic, devil-may-care attitude with it. And motorcycle enthusiasts were often able to find the time to take a break from their work-a-day worlds to gather and celebrate the lifestyle and freedom that accompanied owning a bike.
Each June, riders from across America gathered in the Lakes Region of the Northwest and welcomed the summer together. In the days before Americans had the luxury of hotels or motels, they camped together in groups, much like gypsies. This is where the name “gypsy tours” originated.
With Henry Ford perfecting the assembly line, the automobile’s price drastically dropped, making cars accessible for most Americans. The result was waning motorcycle sales. In response to this, the Federation of American Motorcyclists (FAM) decided to create more official gypsy tours to stimulate motorcycle sales across the country. This is where the Loudon’s roots sprouted.
This rally would remain the largest gathering of motorcyclists in the country until Sturgis dethroned it in the 70s.
The Second Coming: The Laconia
While informal races were not in short supply during the gypsy tours, in the 30s, the AMA brought the Class C TTs to the scene, and racers from all over the country flocked to the Laconia Classic’s original site in Swanzey, NH. The first AMA 200-Mile TT National was held in 1934. The estimated number of fans at this race was around 10,000. This is an astounding number considering that it was during the height of the Great Depression.
After searching for a few places to call home, the Classic landed just outside Laconia, hence its original name: the Laconia Classic. This race helped to make a name for many regional racers, as they were often known to take on and beat many of the more well-known national racers. That was until 1938, the year that the Classic took its place just outside of Laconia.
As America was rising out of the Great Depression, companies like Indian began to more or less sponsor racers by paying their way to get to competitions around the country. That year, Indian decided to ship the biggest name in racing at the time to Laconia from California: Ed Kratz. He dominated the competition, and through his victory, the Laconia Classic found itself on the map as the nation’s premier TT race. This held true for decades.
During its height, Laconia eventually became a weeklong event. It ultimately became a significant source of revenue for the area, as the money seemed to be free-flowing from visitors during their week in the vicinity.
Transitioning Into the Loudon Classic
With the increasing popularity of the Laconia Classic, the crowds grew exponentially year after year. And every year, the crowd was rowdier than the last. The insanity brought about by the visitors to Laconia reached a fever pitch in 1965.
The year prior, the complaints brought about by local residents due to the unruliness of the crowds caused the New England Dealer Association to step in in an attempt to reach an agreement with the event’s producers. Being unable to do so, the Classic was forced to find a new home. Bryar Motorsports Park near Loudon was built to house the enormous event, and it opened its gate in 1965. The Loudon Challenge was born. But it was a tough delivery.
In order to appease locals, officials created incredibly stringent rules that were almost impossible for the over 20,000 visitors to the Challenge to follow or for authorities to enforce. The crime of “loitering” would be considered committed by any three or more people congregated together, and it was punishable by arrest.
The answer to the issue of lack of enforcement was to bring in the National Guard, and they took the task both seriously and literally. If more than three people were gathered, every attempt was made to arrest the lawbreakers. Riots broke out.
During what became known as the Weir’s Beach Riot, thousands of attendees damaged properties, burned cars, and pelted rocks at the National Guard there to enforce the rules. As a result, over 100 people were arrested, and over 60 were hospitalized for their injuries during the upheaval.
After this occurrence, the numbers to the Challenge waned considerably, but the race was still part of the National circuit until 2002. The Challenge is still alive and kicking today, but the races held there are club events.
What Makes the Loudon Challenge Legendary?
Aside from being the oldest motorcycle race in American History and the crazy ride had by the racers on the tracks, the Loudon is probably best known for its legendary wild parties. It’s even been said only about half the attendees acknowledged a race was even going on during the week-long stretch of hedonism and debauchery.
From impromptu hill climb races to fireworks fights to every kind of crazy partying imaginable in between, the antics of the attendees could arguably be the most legendary part of Challenge week.
Though the number of attendees has dropped over the years, there is no doubt that those who choose to visit Loudon during Challenge week will be there looking to have a good time, and odds are, they won’t be disappointed.
The Loudon Challenge: A Motorcycle Racing Legend
Regardless of whether fans attend the Loudon Challenge for the parties or the races, they will be met with excitement, entertainment, and adventure.
With its roots going back to the days of the gypsy tours and eventually morphing into what would become America’s oldest motorcycle racing event, the Loudon Challenge is a motorcycle racing legend. Though it may not be the most popular motorcycle event in the country anymore, there is no doubt that it will remain in the hearts of motorcycle enthusiasts across the nation.