Mad Hatter: Dudley Perkins

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A man of many hats: Dudley Perkins (left) with Harley-Davidson racer Cal Rayborn at Ontario Motor Speedway in 1971.
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Cal Rayborn in the Ontario 250 at Ontario Motor Speedway, 1971.

It’s been said that a picture is worth a thousand words. Maybe, but when I snapped this photo of Daytona 200 winner Cal Rayborn talking to an elderly gentlemen in between practice sessions for the Ontario 250 road race in 1971, I never thought that I’d be writing any words about the older guy wearing many hats (well, two hats, but you get the picture).

It was Rayborn’s intense expression that caught my eye in the first place; the senior citizen wearing the Goodyear hat on top of another hat only added color to the black-and-white photo’s composition. Or so I thought at the time. Later, I learned that the elderly gent was none other than Dudley Perkins, one of the first Harley-Davidson dealers — ever.

Indeed, Mr. Perkins had been a famous fixture among the Harley crowd for years. As a young man he competed as a board track and flat track racer, but his greatest claim to fame came in hill climbs, where he posted 12 championships before hanging up his pudding bowl helmet at the youthful age of 50, in 1943. He established Dudley Perkins Harley-Davidson in 1914, and today the San Francisco-based shop is among the oldest continuously run Harley dealerships in the nation.

Perkins was on the AMA’s Competition Committee, where he served the longest tenure of anyone in AMA history. Perkins died in 1978, just a few months shy of his 85th birthday. In 1998 he was voted into the AMA’s Hall of Fame, and most recently the AMA established the Dudley Perkins Lifetime Achievement Award, presented annually to members who have made outstanding contributions to the motorcycling community and to the AMA’s mission of promoting and protecting the motorcycle lifestyle. This year’s recipient is Craig Vetter, best known for his cutting-edge Windjammer touring fairings of the 1970s, the Kawasaki-powered Mystery Ship and Triumph’s X75 Hurricane.

Motorcycling includes many personalities who are, simply, larger than life. These are the men — and women — who have taken, and take, inanimate objects such as motorcycles, giving those machines life. Perkins did so for many years as a racer, dealer and AMA member. But sadly, Rayborn’s life was cut short in a tragic racing accident Dec. 29, 1973. That’s why this photograph is so meaningful for me today. A thousand words can never do it justice. — Dain Gingerelli

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