Joe Petrali

Motorcycles - Class of 1992

Joe Petrali

Joe Petrali, the gentle man of many careers from Sacramento, California, proved he was born to ride a motorcycle.

From the time he learned to sneak through a fence (about age 6), he craved watching pioneer bike racers throwing dirt and caution to the wind at the State Fairgrounds track located a block from his home. At 14, he entered an economy run on his $35 single cylinder Indian. He went 176 miles on a gallon of gas and gained his first national victory. Jumping the gun on licensing rules, he started riding the boards a few months before his 18th birthday. His first flash of brilliance in the bigtime came on July 4, 1925 at the Altoona, Pennsylvania, board track. Ralph Hepburn, later to gain fame and lose his life driving the Novi at Indianapolis, was injured on his Harley in a practice spill. He told Petrali if he could fix it he could ride it. Finding the trouble quickly and making necessary repairs, he went on to win his first 100-miler and became the first man to crack 100 mph for the distance, setting a speed record that stood for years.

Petrali's racing regalia consisted of leather pants, puttees and a surplus WWI Balloon-Jumpers Helmet. Spit-shined dress shoes, immaculate black and white sweaters, and often a shirt and tie completed his wardrobe. "I tried to clean up the motorcycle field," explained Petrali. "I always tried to look good".

Not one to dwell on past achievements, Petrali never kept a tally of his national victories, but they totaled nearly 70. He won the 1925 National Board Track Championship and was king of the dirt tracks five times between 1931 and 1936. An eight-time National Hill Climb Champion, Petrali once chalked up 31 consecutive victories and never found a hill he couldn't conquer. To top off his career, Petrali established the world motorcycle speed record of 136.183 mph at Daytona Beach on March 13, 1937. The record stood for 11 years. Shortly thereafter, he retired from racing and went to work for Howard Hughes. As flight engineer, Petrali was onboard for Hughes' first and only flight of the legendary "Spruce Goose".

In his later years, Petrali touched motorsports history many more times as International Timekeeper and USAC Certification Committee Chairman who presided over all world record speed attempts at the Bonneville Salt Flats. His true love came to the fore even then, as he would frequently show off his AMA Life Membership Card number 1. Petrali's record was so phenomenal that it has achieved the level of folklore. His life's impact on racing long ago insured his place in the Motorsports Hall of Fame.