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Racing in Sturgis on a 1923 Harley-Davidson

20th Century Racing

Brittney Olsen has always had a passion for racing. She remembers when her father took her to Wild Water West in Sioux Falls around the age of five to drive kid's go-carts. "I would do anything possible to get in first place," she says. "I would cut people off and do all these strange maneuvers just to get around them. A lot of my father's friends said, ‘I think you’ve got a racer on your hands.’"

25-year old Brittney Olson of Aberdeen is one of the thousands of bikers who are gathering in the Black Hills this week for the 74th Anniversary of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, but her bike is very likely the oldest. It's a 1923 Harley-Davidson J Model board track racer. She raced against 10 time board track class champion Jim Wall and his 1928 Indian during Tuesday's Pappy Hoel Half Mile Classic.

Olsen’s vintage Harley looks just like a bicycle, but with a motor in the middle between the wheels. The motorcycle may be small, but it can reach speeds in excess of 70 miles per hour. And there’s no brake, clutch or transmission.

“When we get started, they push start us," she says. "The bike just takes off so you have no brakes to slow your motor down. When you let off the throttle the compression of the motor slows you down, so it’s not like you’re coasting 70 miles an hour around a corner. But the second you twist the throttle, it’s like a slingshot shooting you 70 miles an hour again until you come to the next turn."

That probably sounds scary and Olsen admits that it can be the first or second time around the track. But she says once you become comfortable with your machine and with the other racers, you really fine tune how to ride. "It’s kind of a love or dislike relationship," she laughs. "Either you really like to race or you really don’t like to race, especially when there’s no brakes!"

Olsen’s interest in vintage motorcycles started at about age 17 with the motorized bicycles she built with her father in the family living room. Some friends suggested she apply her skills to building motorcycles. Her research led to a picture of a 1920s Excelsior motorcycle which started a passion for old motorbikes. The idea of racing them didn’t cross her mind until she met her future husband, Matt, who’d been restoring Harley-Davidson motorcycles with his father since he was a kid.

Credit 20th Century Racing
20th Century Racing board track class

“He said, ‘did you know they still race those bikes?’ I had no clue. And he said, ‘well, I go to these events and you can come with me this summer.’ Eventually when he asked me to marry him, he asked me not with a ring, like a standard engagement proposal. He asked me to marry him with a 1923 Harley-Davidson motor and we built my race bike around that.”

This is only the second season that Olsen has been racing her 1923 Harley Davidson J Model board track racer. She started training last year with her Sturgis racing opponent Jim Wall. However she didn’t have much time to practice before races this season.

“Usually during the wonderful South Dakota winters that we have, I can practice sliding around and falling and crashing on my dirt bike," she explains. "But I wasn’t really able to do that because I found out I was pregnant after the last race of the season last year. And I had him in May before the first race in July of this year, so it was the perfect timing.”

And it’s a good bet that her three-month old son will continue the family tradition. He’s already attending his mother’s races. She says he loves them and falls asleep to the vibrations and sounds of the motors.

Dakota Midday interview with Brittney Olsen

Karl was born to northeastern South Dakota crouton farmers, but was orphaned as a toddler during the Great Salad War (1966-67). Rescued by a flock of chickadees, he grew up in the woodlands of Sica Hollow. Legends of a bird boy living in the trees attracted the interest of renowned ornithologist and amateur bandoneon repairman Dr. Vogel Gehrke. With a handful of suet, Dr. Gehrke coaxed the timid boy down from the trees. He adopted him, named him Karl and taught him not to molt on the carpet. Dr. Gehrke’s book, The Bird Boy of Sica Hollow, was a best seller and Karl became a minor celebrity and teen idol. He appeared as a guest star on numerous television programs, most notably an awkward role on The Love Boat as the boyfriend of Captain Stubing’s daughter, Vicki. After critics panned his 1980 album, Bird Boy Does Disco, Karl retreated from public life and returned to Sica Hollow. Living in an isolated tree house, Karl achieved a reputation as a mystic. Pilgrims and seekers from around the world came to ask him about the meaning of life and for vinaigrette recipes. Growing tired of answering questions, he climbed down from his tree, shaved his massive white beard and took a job as the host of SDPB Radio’s Dakota Midday where he could ask the questions instead. After three years in that position, he ran out of questions and became host of Jazz Nightly instead. Karl makes his home in Vermillion with his charming wife Kari and three delightful children, Kodey, Kasey and Spatula. His hobbies include reciting the alphabet, combing his hair and doing volunteer work with delinquent songbirds.