Tribute To Legendary Dirt Track Racer Joe Leonard. A Restored 1949 Harley WR/WRTT

1fortuneFrederick Fortune is a graphic designer in the San Francisco Bay Area, a motorcycle hobbyist whose taste is vintage historic motorcycles. A professional encounter with legendary racer Larry Headricks, then his son and another chance encounter with other racing legend Joe Leonard. When listening and absorbing their racing stories, Frederick fell in love with the spindly, brutally simple, and no-nonsense WR racers. This feature is unusually very long but worth reading to the last word. You will learn a lot about a big and important chapter of dirt track racing and understand and appreciate the passion of those spending years restoring classic racers.

2bisfortuneIntroduced in 1929 as the model D and as a competitor to Indian’s successful 750cc sidevalve Scout v-twin, the Harley-Davidson Model WL’s popularity (better known as the ’45’, signifying its capacity in cubic inches) skyrocketed when the USA’s entered into WW2, creating an unprecedented demand for a military version or the WLA. A model known as WLC was the Canadian version of the motorcycle. The WL solo’s 750cc flathead sidevalve engine would turn out to be one of the longest running Harley motors, ending its days in the 1973 3-wheeled Servicar and eventually evolving into the Sportster Flathead, Ironhead and Evolution motors.

01fortune02fortuneBefore and after the war, a derivative Harley hot rodded version of the 45 enjoyed considerable success in American oval track racing following the AMA’s introduction in 1937 of the Class C for 750cc production-based motorcycles which was intended to make racing more affordable for ordinary enthusiasts. Indian’s Sport Scout set the initial standard but Harley was quick to follow, introducing ever more powerful versions of the ’45’, culminating in 1941 with the arrival of the first 45 built specifically for racing: the WR, which was available in dirt track and WRTT road-racing forms. The WRTT having floorboards and a front brake unlike the Flat Track WR bikes.

2fortuneWith the legendary “The Patron”, Tom Sifton’s, tuning the WR, Harley ruled the tracks. In 1948, the WR won 19 of the 23 National events, including a dominant performance at Daytona in which seven of the top 10 finishers rode H-D bikes. In 1949, Harley-Davidson’s WRs won 19 out of 24 National races. In 1950 Larry Headrick, riding a WR prepared by Tom Sifton, won all three AMA national mile races to gain the coveted ‘No.1’ plate before a crippling street accident, shattering his left leg. Headrick, at 30 years old with a bad leg and four children to feed, decided to give up racing. He will always be remembered for that one shining season in 1950 when he was the best rider in the country.

3fortune4fortuneFortunately for Harley racing efforts, earlier in 1949 at the insistence of Tom Sifton, a talented newcomer was given trial run on a Sifton Harley WR. The new team member was Joe Leonard. Eventually an American AMA and Indianapolis Racing legend, Joe began his career riding Triumph. Seeing the young rider was strong, fast and fearless, Tom felt Joe had potential. Joe’s big break on the Sifton Team came as a result of two tragic incidences, an injury to Al Rudy that started Larry Headricks on his amazing but short lived career and Larry’s career ending accident.

03fortune04fortuneSifton recognized Leonard’s raw talent and hired him to ride for his team. Leonard would later say that the day Sifton hired him was one of the most exciting days in his racing career. “He was more than just an engine builder,” said Leonard, “He was a coach, a scout of your competition and a father-like figure. He could read a track and tell you the best way to ride it and he was almost always right.” The rest is history.

5fortune6fortuneIn the early 1950’s Joe Leonard and Tom Sifton’s shop dominated the National Championship Dirt Racing circuit. Using Harley Davidson WR/WRTT built and tuned by Tom Sifton and Charlie West, Joe Leonard was the scourge of the nation’s half-mile, one mile, road racing and TT tracks. To this day the Harley Davidson WR was and still is considered one of the best racing motorcycles ever built. Sifton WRs, from Rudy to Headrick to Joe Leonard, were the bikes to beat.

7fortune8fortunePresent day. Frederick Fortune explains.

“I worked for Larry Headricks before his death in 2007 and rode off-road with his son Jerry, all the while ignorant of the history of his dad’s racing years and the motorcycles he rode. Years later I met Larry’s teammate Joe Leonard currently Chief Grill Tender at the local Barnaby’s Machine Shop “On any Wednesday” bbq and bench race sessions, where I also met Al Rudy’s son Chris, who would occasionally bring his dad’s old WR racer as it was being restored.
My attraction to the WR began and was magnified by an opportunity to acquire a near derelict WL from a friend. No stranger to building motorcycles from scratch, the decision was made to acquire it and build a WR racer of my own, albeit ridable and street legal as a tribute to these local legends… specifically Joe Leonard’s Sifton number 98.

10fortune11fortuneMy soon to be period correct racer arrived in California as a brutally chopped and raked 45 WL Solo model, acquired from an internet auction site. It arrived running but it had its problems… besides its chopped and mangled frame and rare 1 year only butchered and stretched BT UL forks, it sported an anachronistic 21” mini-braked front wheel and a UL rear 16″ rim running reversed. It was a disaster and while sad to look at, had distinct possibilities. I took over the project. Although its incorrect ‘53G servicar motor was running, the bike overall was too violated to be restored as a concours bike. So, I made the decision to emulate the 45WR on which Joe Leonard started his amazing career and to create a tribute to him in the form of a recreation of his Sifton racer in WR/WRTT trim.

After an intense hunt for images of the the Sifton WRs including Joe’s original racer, several interviews with Joe Leonard later and receiving his approval for the project, the bike was disassembled entirely. And the long slow process of finding, repairing and refinishing all the missing pieces began…The frame was repaired and straightened, the correct OEM front forks, correct front and rear hubs and everything in between, above and below was eventually found. In some instances the correct quality parts were simply not available, especially reliable hardware, so quality reproduction parts were sourced. The useable but incorrect parts were sold online, in part funding whenever possible the OEM bits and pieces needed. The rare BT forks even though literally butchered had value and they and the 21” front rim and brake were traded for used OEM parts.

14fortuneThe motor and transmission were pulled to be checked over and when pronounced alive, the motor was spruced up with new rings, valves lapped and high compression aluminum heads added. The transmission required new clutch pressure plates and springs but other than a deep clean, both components were readied. The Springer forks that came on the bike, though hacked back to the the correct length, were deemed inappropriate as well as unusable…they had the wrong taper, were off a one year only big twin so had the wrong diameter neck bearing shaft plus the fender and brake stay tabs had been ground off completely.

In casting wide for the correct forks as well as sources for OEM parts I stumbled across a local collector, Cannonball regular and antique motorcycle guru, Doug Feinsod of Santa Cruz Vintage Cycles, without whom the 45 would still be in boxes. Besides supplying technical advice to a vintage newbie, Doug supplied me with correct year forks, brake assemblies, hubs, bearings, exhaust header, pillion pad, and an appropriate set of tanks f to replace my mangled, mismatched bondo-slathered tanks.

The repaired but still damaged frame went back to the Puccio’s (of Ack Attack fame) frame shop for further straightening, drilled holes welded shut, and missing tank mounts and center stand tabs recreated. With the frame complete, everything went to the powder coater for an application of satin black. On return the motor and transmission were slipped in, correct 18″ steel rims were acquired and laced by Banke Performance to the newly refinished OEM hubs with stainless spokes from Buchanon. The rebuilt OEM forks were installed, and Dunlop K70s tires selected for a gnarly vintage look.

15fortuneThe WRTT racer was unique as it sported a front as well as a back fender, the rear bobbed at the hinge area. It offered a front brake as well as the rear, footboards, a rear pillion pad and a chin pad replacing the WL’s speedo and dash assembly. A bobbed rear fender I had already and a junk oddball front fender was found. This bike came to me with a narrow saddle sent out for expert recovering by Antique Motosmith in Oregon.

Electrics came next and as the bike is intended to be street legal, making a functional head/tail/brake light set up was critical. A side-mount licence plate bracket topped off by a vintage brake light was fabricated and mounted. The motor’s generator turned out to be a nearly new aftermarket 12v set up, so a solid state generator endcap regulator was installed and an old style regulator assembly gutted and refitted to the original spot on the front of the motor now housing a bare bones junction block, battery capacitor and fuse. Vintage cloth covered wiring was sourced and everything wired in, the wiring matching the reproduction handlebars and controls acquired. A WL pull type brake light switch finished off the elemental electrical system.

Next the tins were sent out for paint and pinstiping. In looking closely at the vintage photos and talking to Joe, I learned the Sifton bikes had several different tank paint schemes so I figured I’d be safe picking one of Harley’s stock black and racing orange schemes from the era. And since I didn’t have the exact correct year tanks anyway, no purist toes were stepped on any harder than necessary.

While the tins were out for paint the controls were installed…foot clutch, front brake, and both throttle and advance/retard cables. The throttle stumped me, the Tillotson carb being set-up for a pull open and the repro handlebar throttle set up for push open. That was solved by a reverse spiral which was acquired (as was most of the hardware needed) from Wendy at Flatland Motorcyle. The magneto control twist was different. The bike came with a Fairbanks Morse mag locked down in a crude homemade motor mount. Some diligent searching found a Fairbanks Morse collector who had one from an early Ironhead Sportster motor that would do the trick. That and the correct rotator control plates for early Sportsters allowed me to end up with a left wrist controlled advance/retard set up running the mag rather than the stock WL’s timer/distributer. Joe’s number plates 98x were recreated exactly from found photos, signed by Joe and were mounted when the tins returned.”

The bike was finished in time for its debut at the 2016 Quail Motorcycle Gathering where it was well received, gathering a steady stream of photographers and videographers including a team doing a documentary for the Discovery Channel.

Owner and major assembly Frederick Fortune
Girder forks OEM 1949
Frame OEM 1949
Tank OEM 1957
Motor 1953G 750cc with hi-compression heads
Magneto Fairbanks Morse
Carburetor OEM Linkert
Brakes OEM stock
Wheels OEM hubs, aftermarket steel rims
Spokes/Tires Buchanon stainless steel/Dunlop K70s
Bars, levers, controls OEM and aftermarket
Headlight Belray-ish
Saddle WRTT recover by antiquemotosmith
Taillight and bracket Owner fabricated steel, repro taillight
Fenders OEM rear bobbed, front unknown
Powdercoat Spray Technology
Paint/Pinstriping Trailer Steve

17 Responses to “Tribute To Legendary Dirt Track Racer Joe Leonard. A Restored 1949 Harley WR/WRTT”

  1. 1 Damon Sep 26th, 2016 at 8:10 am


  2. 2 P. Hamilton Sep 26th, 2016 at 8:12 am

    More like that Cyril!

  3. 3 Troy Sep 26th, 2016 at 8:24 am

    Very cool. I learned a ton.

  4. 4 JohnnySpeed Sep 26th, 2016 at 9:25 am

    Now that’s a bike! The 45s, in their various iterations, are the best motors Harley ever built and the WR is the best of the best. I rode a mildly chopped 45 as my main bike for years and it’s still the best handling and most reliable bike I’ve ever owned.

  5. 5 John Adams Sep 26th, 2016 at 10:52 am

    Awesome bike, rebuild and piece Cyril.

  6. 6 richards Sep 26th, 2016 at 11:21 am

    GREAT article! The bike is beautiful, perfect!

  7. 7 Chris Delgado Sep 26th, 2016 at 11:35 am

    A piece of motorcycle history at its best.

  8. 8 Dezguy Sep 26th, 2016 at 12:48 pm

    Great read, and a very nice bike. Thanks

  9. 9 Phil Leonard Sep 26th, 2016 at 12:53 pm

    I was privileged to be at the Quail and got a first hand look at this beauty. Has the Discovery special aired? If no, does anyone know when?

  10. 10 NoH2oh Sep 26th, 2016 at 4:01 pm

    Wow. Not a line out of place. This is what I think of when I think motorcycle. Awesome job sir.

  11. 11 boston jim Sep 27th, 2016 at 8:22 am

    Joe Leonard is Great, Indy Car & H-D Racer, He was the MAN ! Back in the late 60’s & early 70’s, I had a small shop, in the basement, painting, selling bikes & parts, Cycledelic Choppers,Ma. I came home one day on my Panhead, with a 14″ over D&D Springer. I had a small regular house door, I had to get one grip at a time thru the opening. I get the front end in, & notice there’s a strange bike in my spot ! So, I’m stuck in the door opening, with nowhere to go. I have to go around & use the back door. I open the door, & a good friend is there with my older brother, He exclaims,” Hey, did you see my new bike “? Yeah, Why’s it in my shop? Well my mother wouldn’t let me bring it home ! Oh Great ! OK, lets go look at it ! I knew it was a 45 Solo, because I was Flipping Servi-Cars ! It was a Roller, with a Mag, Springer front End, etc. Just before I pulled the Timing Plug, I noticed the year was WRxxxx, WR ? I pulled the Timing Plug, took a peek, I was amazed at what I saw, the Crank looked like it was Chromed ! I knew we had something Special here. We took it to Bob LeBrie,the Famous motor builder from Concord, NH., who built my one kick Panhead ! Bob said, he could rebuild it, but, we’d be better off taking it to Arnold’s in Providence, RI, there’s a Guy named Harry that lived & breathed WR’s ! So, we headed to Arnold’s, met Harry, left it there. That was the winter of 70/71, my oldest brother was killed in a car crash in May, my friend Fatdog, who owned the WR, was killed in a car crash in Aug/Sept, I got married in Dec. 71. Harry the WR Master Builder, was killed in a Vintage race, sometime in the last 10 years. Arnold’s, the Largest H-D Dealer in New England at one time, closed it’s doors ? I don’t know where the motor is today, I hope it found a Good Home !

  12. 12 burnout Sep 27th, 2016 at 8:26 am

    Cool story about a cool bike. peace

  13. 13 Johnny Gypo Sep 27th, 2016 at 11:29 am

    Grear post, all around!! Thanks!

  14. 14 Patrick Kelly Sep 28th, 2016 at 12:18 am

    Small world back in 68 I bought a basket case WL, while putting it together I noticed it had the 6 stamped on the high fin heads, it also had a very large throated linkert. Well I got it going and it was quick, a guy from the souther tier told me he could put sportster P cams in it, the one cam had to have a oil pump drive gear pinned and pressed on, now I’ve been told you can’t put sportster cams in a WL, but this guy made that bike go faster than money, but with only three gears all the folks I beat off the line would catch up after going into third. The bike was fast dependable and I wish I still had it, cause if I did it would go into a paughco frame that takes a four or five speed tranny, that’s the last thing on my bucket list, oh yeah truett and Osborne wheels and rods as well. But I’m getting old so I better hit the
    Lottery soon!

  15. 15 Florida George Sep 28th, 2016 at 2:39 pm

    …In referance to Pat kelly’s post…I did up a 43 WLC motor with T&O 4 5/8 wheels, stroker popup pistons, Jim Leineweber reground stock cams and 320 grit porting along with manifold/jug matching. At first I tried an XR carb, but soon replaced it with an M51 Linkert. I installed it in a Paughco frame with 4 speed gearbox, along with their aluminun trans plate which worked perfectly.
    …BTW one can add a strip of steel to the right side of any trans plate and slot the frame mounting holes(sideways) so it will slide back & forth one inch. You will then be able to use any year Harley gearbox. Mine is of the 78 ratchet top variety. I hand machined out the aluminum heads to accept the popup pistons, leaving .030 clearence atop to make a nice squish chamber, of sorts. I used the settlement of brass at the bottom of the can for my head gaskets. I matched the heads to the jugs by belt sanding to acuratly flat. I wanted a 30 degree frame and after I had it powder coated I realized that I had a 35 degree frame. I called Paughco about this and gave them the numbers and they told me I had a 30 degree frame, but It was not. (Monday morning frame, I guess)I kept it anyway. I used a 93 sportster fork with disc brakes all around. I used Paughco oil tank, fishtail side pipes and trans plate along with the frame. A stock 45 is about 23 horsepower. The bike I built is about 40 horsepower and is now 55 cu. in. There’s no provision for a photo here but I had the tins powder coated candy teal…gets alotta attention.
    C ya in the street,
    Florida George
    United 2 Wheel
    Fort Pierce, Florida

  16. 16 Lawrence Headrick Sep 29th, 2016 at 12:52 am

    Joe Leonard was a great friend of the family! My Grandfather had tremendous respect for Joe! It would have been very interesting had my Grandfather been able to continue racing and be able to race side by side next to Joe!

  17. 17 Lorin Guy Oct 3rd, 2016 at 1:05 am

    First off Great Job on the bike Fred! It’s beautiful and it was a honor that it debuted at the Quail Motorcycle Gathering in Carmel Ca. I’m sure,NO finer place for that, the #1show in the country. I also want to mention that Joe Leonard is An American Racing Legend and to build a tribute bike to Joe just a fantastic idea. It’s also a huge nod to the great Tom Sifton, innovator, and racing guru, Sifton Cams and his revolutionizing work on flow are legendary. The article mentions some amazing people, of course Leonard and Sifton, Charlie West, Headricks, Rudy and the great Ken Puccio. All legendary figures in the sport. The fact it came together at all is an amazing story. Thanks for the article and wonderful bike Fred.

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Cyril Huze