August 12, 2022
By Keaton Maisano
With the AMA Hillclimb Grand Championship in Muskegon, Mich., now in the rearview mirror, August’s Hall of Famer Spotlight focuses on one of AMA Pro Hillclimb’s most decorated riders: Willard “Red” Bryan.
Riding during AMA Pro Hillclimb’s golden era in the 1930s, the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Famer tallied eight AMA Hillclimb National Championships in a 13-year span, which was disrupted by World War II, to cement himself as one of the most dominant riders of his time.
Born in 1910, Bryan began hillclimbing on a modified Excelsior-Henderson Super X at age 18. In his debut season, Bryan won a novice event in Haydenville, Ohio, and two years later he earned a regional hillclimb title in Louisville, Ky.
His success in 1930 earned Bryan a spot at the AMA National Championship in Muskegon, where he finished sixth in his class.
In the mid-1930s, Bryan borrowed his brother’s side-valve Indian and redesigned it into an overhead-valve machine. The almost yearlong project modifying the bike yielded disappointing results on the hill initially, but a visit out West to AMA Motorcycle Hall of Famer Tom Sifton changed his fortune.
In 1938, Bryan captured his first two AMA National Hill Championships, edging out AMA Motorcycle Hall of Famer Joe Petrali by a mere 0.08 seconds in the 45-inch (750cc) Class A division.
The upward trajectory earned Bryan a contract with Harley-Davidson in 1939, and he quickly proved the partnership a good one as he added more titles.
By 1950, Bryan was well into his 40s but that didn’t stop him from accumulating additional titles as he won titles in ’50 and ’51 over AMA Motorcycle Hall of Famer Joe Buck.
By the time his career was finished, it spanned nearly 40 years. Until retirement, Bryan ran his dealership, which he started in the 1950s.
Bryan passed away in 1989 and was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame 15 years later in 2004.