Sport: Motorcycle Racing
Born: March 20, 1887
Orie Steele was born March 20, 1887 in Paterson. His father, John, opened a motorcycle shop in the city in the early 1900s, and became a dealer of Indian Motorcycles. In 1904, Indian came out with its first racing model, and Orie couldn’t wait to get on it. By his 20s he knew more about how to get every ounce of power and traction out of a two-wheeled vehicle than almost any man alive.
The year 1913 marked a record year for motorcycle sales, and it was also the first year Orie’s name showed up on a major trophy. He won the annual endurance race held in the Bronx by the Crotona Motorcycle Club. Orie also competed in hill-climbing events, which required the rider to lean over the handlebars and often ended with an ugly spill.
During the First World War, Orie brought his encyclopedic knowledge of motorcycles to the military. He outfitted and modified army motorcycles and trained countless thousands of riders. After the war ended, he returned to competition and became one of the Golden Age of Sports celebrities who put the Roar in the Roaring 20s. He initially made his mark on dirt and board tracks in the northeast, but it was in hill climbing events that he became a bona fide superstar.
Motorcycle hill climbs actually eclipsed races in terms of public interest, thanks in part to sensational movie newsreel footage that ran between features. Orie won more than half the events he entered, gaining wide celebrity. Indian Motorcycles signed Orie as a factory rider, capitalizing on this fame with heavy advertising. It also created a custom bike for him, which burned blended fuel and pumped out 70 horsepower at 9,000 rpms. Years working in his father’s shop taught him how to set up a bike differently for each hill—some of which were steeper than 45 degrees. And Orie had a sensational way of riding up hills where his front tire hardly touched the ground. He leaned far forward, gripping the gas tank between his knees for stability. Few competitors were interested in imitating this style.
Orie won the National Hillclimb Championship in 1922 in upstate New York, and successfully defended his title in 1923. In 1926, he won national championships in three different classes and finished first in 33 different events. As the decade wore on, Orie’s main competition came from Smokin’ Joe Petrali, a west coast rider who reached the height of his fame during the early years of the Depression. Though 17 years older than Petrali, Orie held his own when they went head-to-head on the slopes. He was nearly 50 when he retired from racing.
During the 1940s, Orie joined the war effort once again, applying his knowledge to aircraft production in a Pennsylvania factory. He lived to age 77, passing away in 1960. In 2007, he was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame. His son, Orie Jr. fought in World War II and later owned a motorcycle shop in Philadelphia.