larry laurent | August 21, 2022
Cycle news Archives
90 years of the San Jose Dons
Next month, on September 25, the San Jose Dons Motorcycle Club will celebrate its 90th anniversary with a Sunday night party at its clubhouse. At 90 years old, the San Jose Dons M/C is already one of the oldest motorcycle clubs in the country, but the fact is that the club has roots that go back to the early days of motorcycling in Northern California, San Original Joseph. Motorcycle Club, which was founded in 1906 and was an outgrowth of the Garden City Wheelman, a cycling club founded in the 1880s. The roots of racing run deep in the club. The Dons were founded by racing legends Tom Sifton and Sam Arena in 1932, and club membership included nationally known racers such as Arena, Kenny Eggers, Larry Headrick and Joe Leonard, to name a few. -ones. Due in part to the efforts of the Dons, San Jose has become one of the national hotbeds for motorcycle racing and horseback riding activities.
The Dons was founded in 1932 when Tom Sifton took over the San Jose Harley-Davidson dealership from Fred J. Merlow. Sifton was the first sub-dealer started by influential San Francisco Harley dealer Dud Perkins. Sifton had worked faithfully at the Perkins dealership for a decade when Perkins let him run his own dealership. Unfortunately, it was in the depths of the Great Depression and times were lean for the dealership. Sales of police motorcycles to the local San Jose Police Department was one of the things that kept them from sinking.
Sifton, along with a young store clerk and racer named Sam Arena, started the Dons to get more people into motorcycling and to build a strong biker community. Arena brought in the remaining members of the San Jose Motorcycle Club, so the Dons became an outgrowth of the original San Jose Motorcycle Club. The Sifton dealer has become a focal point for the San Jose Dons. Sifton’s wife, Stella, and daughter Jean often worked together to organize field races and other motorcycling events, doing everything from registering riders to preparing sandwiches for attendees.
One of the first big events the Dons held was a hill climb, which became one of Northern California’s biggest motorcycle gatherings in its heyday. And, of course, Arena was usually the runner to beat on the climb. On weekends, when the club was not hosting a competitive event or on-field meet, it often held a club ride. Arena led a group of about 20 riders on one of those weekend outings, and with a national-class rider on point, you can imagine what happened.
“We were riding together north of Oakland towards Martinez,” Arena recalled. “I was up front setting the beat when a cop pulled the whole band over. The cop wanted to write everyone a ticket, but I told him I was setting the beat, and that’s my fault if we were going too fast, so I should be the only one with the ticket.
The officer agreed and let the group go after issuing Arena a speeding ticket.
But that was not the end of the story. A few weeks later, Arena was at home when he heard a sharp knock on his door. When he answered, it was two police officers standing at the door to take him to the Oakland judge for the unpaid speeding ticket. Sam said he just forgot to pay the fine. The judge gave Arena two options: a $15 fine or two days in jail. This was back in the 1930s when $15 was a lot of money.
“I figured $15 was half a month’s pay, so I went for time. I spent most of my time in jail sweeping floors,” Arena said.
After two days in jail, Arena began the long march back to San Jose. But when a passing motorist, who happened to be another club member, saw Arena wearing a club jersey, the man picked him up and drove him home.
It didn’t take long for the membership of the Dons to grow to the point that the compound was no longer large enough to serve as a regular meeting place. So the club found a place they could rent to hold meetings and other club functions. To join the club in the 1930s, there was an entry fee of one dollar and a monthly membership fee of 50 cents. Dues helped pay club expenses but did not quite cover the cost of renting the clubhouse, so at meetings and weekends the club offered quarters of beer and shots. At first, the bar was just an old door resting on two trestles. But one of the club members was a talented carpenter, so he built a bar out of bar stools. An old pool table and a few sofas and chairs were donated, and the club became a veritable meeting place.
One of the club’s traditions was called the “Bone Prize”. At the end of the weekly meetings, stories were told of club members who had done something stupid or embarrassing. Whichever story got the most laughs, that member received the Bone Prize, a cow’s leg bone with clamps that were attached to the front fork of said member’s motorcycle.
One of the club’s most famous competitive events was called the Tin Hat Derby. It was an annual enduro that ran from San Jose up to the Santa Cruz Mountains. The Derby ran 200 miles and at the time it was inaugurated in 1938 as the longest one-day endurance race in the country. One of the club members donated an old First World War helmet. To the helmet they attached a stylized art-deco eagle hood ornament from a 1930s Chevy on top. The trophy was perpetual, passed from winner to winner of the Derby at the end of the event each year.
The Tin Hat Derby became one of the most popular endurance races on the West Coast, and at its height attracted hundreds of runners. Held in the winter, riders occasionally had to deal with snow atop Saratoga along the course. Boulder Creek was the turning point and the riders were given a half hour break in the city. The Derby ran until the mid-1950s, when the development of national parks and private property in the mountains made it increasingly difficult to plot a route.
The Dons have also contributed significantly to the continued success of the San Jose Mile National. Beginning in the 1950s, when the Bay Meadows facility decided to operate its track exclusively for horses, the Dons stepped up tremendously to help promoter Ted Smyth replace Bay Meadows with the San Jose event. The AMA Grand Nationals in San Jose have become a top event on the racing calendar.
Today, the Dons keep the club alive, but club historian Justin Kirsch says it was tricky for a while.
“At the beginning of the 2000s, the club had only a few members,” recalls Kirsch. “We’ve recovered a bit, but we’re facing the same issues that a lot of AMA clubs are at right now, and it’s trying to get younger riders involved and finding people who are willing to volunteer and help. devote time to club events and things like that.
The Dons are now primarily a road cycling club, with fewer members these days involved in competition. Yet despite the club’s ups and downs, the fact remains that they have remained active for 90 years.
“I think the reason we were able to keep going was because the members felt more like family than anything,” Kirsch says. “Entire families have dedicated a large part of their lives to being involved with the club. We’ve given bike-loving people a place to come and meet other bike-loving people, and at the same time we’ve always welcomed members’ families and children. I think that’s the most important thing when I come back and talk to the family of former members. They always talk about it as a positive that their father, grandfather or uncle was involved in the club and that women and children were also involved in the events.
Kirsch concludes that these days he’s just trying to convey to young riders how cool it is to be part of a club with such a rich tradition and history in the Bay Area.
“We want to keep trying to give back to the community, ride together, move forward and hopefully in 10 years we will be stronger than ever when we celebrate our 100th anniversary.”
I would like to acknowledge the help of a beautiful book by Tyler A. Tayrien about the life of San Jose Don co-founder and Motorcycle Hall of Famer Sam Arena in writing this story. You can buy the book here, Arena: the king of flat tracks.NC