>Racing & Speed History

>>Leo Anthony #23

by Charlie LECACH

The year 1998 will be forever marked by the passing away of a man who really made America's motorcycle history.
And although the name of Leo Anthony might not sound familiar to most Harley riders of today, in his time he used
to be a true hero, cheered by the crowd, a man whose picture was regularly published in the racing column of
"The Enthusiast" magazine.

Leo was born on December 15th 1916 and wasn't even fourteen when he started riding a motorcycle in 1930, the first one being a used 1919 F-Head 61 cubic inch Harley. In the very beginning he never thought he'd race one day, but as it often happens, things came all naturally. First of all, he swapped his old pocket valve job for a more modern Harley, a 45" flathead DLD with vertical generator. In 1934 he attended his first real race in Jefferson, Ohio, and finished second ! Three years later, in 1937, he did another second place finish in an important race held in Springfield, Illinois. Up to this time, Harley-Davidson had never given him anything, not even a pair of spark plugs (as Leo said himself), but with this good result, the factory started to get interested in him. They first invited him to Milwaukee and supplied him with various parts. For example, Leo needed another carburetor and a different rear sprocket to win a race in Milwaukee. He did a great job in winning two races (5 and 10 miles) in front of an audience composed by a lot of Harley-Davidson officials, which was rather good for him ! At this point, things really started to change for Leo, as he got factory support. Moreover, a very close friendship was established with Walter Davidson Jr. (son of Walter Sr., one of the four founders and "brain" of the team). Walter Jr. opened a lot of doors to Leo. On one day for example, Leo asked the racing department if he could get a 21 inch front wheel for a long distance race : he got quite an unfriendly answer, being told that such wheels didn't exist in the factory and that he had to look somewhere else… But his request came to the ears of Walter Davidson Jr., who rushed into the racing dept. Being extremely furious, he ordered his employees to immediately build this wheel for Leo Anthony if he needed one, even if necessary parts weren't at hand in the factory building !

During the 1938 Daytona 200, Ben Campanale finished first, but he had struggled for 182 miles with Leo until he broke his engine at six miserable laps preceding the end of this big race ! His revenge came in 1949, when Leo finished at the 8th place and Campanale at the 32nd. It seems even more impressive when you know that in each one of these 200 mile events, over hundred participants entered the race, a lot of them never making it to the finishing line.

Leo was also chosen by Harley-Davidson officials to test a 45" flathead prototype called the WRL, which was mounted in a double loop frame and had a foot shifter and hand clutch, a motorcycle considered by many enthusiasts of today as one of the most beautiful racing bikes ever built.

During World War II, Leo was drafted to become motorcycle instructor in Texas, but he broke his ankle while getting there… So he returned to Port Huron, Michigan, 70 miles north of Detroit, where he opened a bar he ran for several years. After the war, in 1948, it was also in his hometown that he founded the local motorcycle club (Port Huron M.C.). On the 38 acres this club now owns at three miles from downtown, they have a club house, a half mile track for summer time and an ice track for wintertime ! Of course, ice track racing was also one of the sports Leo used to practice during his career, even into the mid-1960's when he was almost fifty years old !

The end of the WR's reign came in 1952 with the introduction of the new 45 cubic inch K model and the derived KR racer with compact gearbox and hydraulic forks. A lot of racers were factory supplied with the new KR model, but not Leo. Quite upset, he turned his choice towards Norton, who immediately provided him with a brand new racing bike. Having seen this disappointing scene, Walter Davidson asked him what he was doing on a British bike ! Straight away, he had a KR model shipped to him through the local dealership, but Leo's first reaction was to refuse it… To be honest, although he still loved the world of racing, he was already thinking of his retirement. But the temptation was too strong and he decided to race on a KR for one season before coming back to the good old WR model. However, in 1958, Harley-Davidson's racing department didn't want to take care of service and repairs of Leo's racing bikes. Yet he had won 5 out of 6 races he attended, but in the last one he felt quite lonesome, not knowing any of the other racers anymore. The youngsters were on their way up…

His last official race was the Auto City Race in Flint, Michigan. When he looked back during that race, he saw the pack of young racers sticking behind his wheel. He ended up having a spill in a curve with his motorcycle and when he went back to the race he tried to catch up the pack during twelve laps without gaining an inch. This was when he definitely decided to stop his career as a professional racer.

Among his important victories, he won the 5 Miles National in Montgomery, Alabama, the 10 Mile National in Richmond, Virginia and the Charity Newsies Race of Columbus, Ohio, three races he won within three weeks in 1947. During this busy moment, all he did on his WR engine was to check the spark plugs ! In 1947, he also won the 25 Mile National Championship. The following year, he was the winner of the 3 Miles Nationals in Spencer, Iowa. To these national victories, you can add countless wins in State Championships. The main difference between National and State Championships, besides the greater fame of the first ones, is that you get factory support when you're a winner in a national event and in State Championships, technical and financial is provided by local dealers.

Until the end of his life, Leo Anthony was deeply involved in motorcycling, being a Harley and then a Yamaha dealer and always riding a motorcycle or sidecar himself. Moreover, he attended numerous bike events, including the annual Bike Week in Daytona he never missed despite the long distance between Michigan and Florida. He came there to meet friends and to be with his son Leo Jr., who still comes every year to participate in vintage races with his fathers former WR Harleys. One year, in 1993 if I remember well, his son had an accident in a "pre-1940" or a "Class C" race on Daytona's big speedway. Being injured, he was immediately brought to the hospital. Meanwhile, I was with Leo Sr. and asked him if he wanted me to drive him to the hospital to see his son. He answered "no" with a great serenity, saying "'just a few broken bones, we're used to it…" This was a real diehard racers family !

Within a couple of years, Leo Anthony became a very close friend, a very enriching person, whom I could listen talk for hours, with whom I could easily spend an entire afternoon watching Dirt Track races, Leo seeing every small detail of the race and making his comments, always with a lot of enthusiasm and good mood. Before passing away, he gave me one of his racing jerseys from the 1940's, telling me he only had two left over from his career. One would be for his son, and he wanted me to have the other one to bring it back to France and keep it. For this he can trust me, it's true that I'd never sell it at any price and I wouldn't trade it for anything,, except maybe for Leo's very own WR racer...

The young Leo Anthony in 1937

This pic made the cover of "The Enthusiast" in October 1946

The young Leo Anthony alive and kickin' in 1996

A pair of Leo's gas tanks now owned by Jeff Baer

Leo's Racing Sweater

The "Leo Anthony Racing Team" logo, founded in memory of the legendary #23

I am now gathering as much info as I can get on Leo and if all works out, I'm thinking about writing a book about him. If you have any data, photos or documents relating to him, or parts that have been owned by him, I would appreciate it if you contact me: charliehd23@hotmail.com