May 24, 2024


Automotive to Us

Daring Portland motorcycle racer earned fame in Europe during Depression but remained little-known back home

Overseas, he wasn’t Ray Tauscher.

The press in Europe shortened the Portland motorcycle racer’s surname to Tauser — “because of the depression,” he explained to a reporter back home.

Tauscher didn’t complain: It was 1931, and he understood the need to save everything possible in such difficult times, even if it was only a line of type.

Besides, in those early days he wasn’t a big enough draw to make a stink.

Ray Tauscher

Ray Tauscher (Courtesy of Ned Thanhouser)

“The youngster on the speedways can’t possibly blossom into a star in one season,” he said of his beginnings on the international circuit. “The veterans know too much for him, have too many tricks at their command. The schnozzleduster is only one of 1,001 tricks they can turn to in a pinch.”

Sorry, the schnozzle — what?

A schnozzleduster, it was explained, is what you experience when a racer roaring along beside you “deliberately flips his front wheel just enough to knock the front wheel of your own motorcycle from under you, sending you on your schnozzle at 70 miles per hour.”

For Tauscher, who died in 1981 at 76, the risk of such a wipeout was worth it.

The first few decades of the 20th century were still early days for the internal-combustion engine; everything about it was new and exciting. And so motorcycle racing was a big deal — especially on the other side of the ocean, where a major race could attract more than 50,000 spectators.

“Motorcycles became part of the culture in Europe right away,” says Ned Thanhouser, a filmmaker and motorcycle enthusiast who’s made a 17-minute movie about Tauscher.

The short film, which screened at the 2021 Oregon Documentary Film Festival, includes some thrilling race footage that Thanhouser unearthed from the British Pathé film archives.

[WATCH: “Ray Tauscher: America’s Forgotten World Champion Motorcycle Racer.”]

Ray Tauscher

Racers Bobby Blakely and Ray Tauscher after a meet. (Courtesy of Ned Thanhouser)

Tauscher raced at London’s original Wembley Stadium, the soccer citadel. The stadium had a capacity of more than 80,000, and it was packed when Tauscher won his first trophy there in December 1930.

He followed up that victory by taking the biggest title in Australia, on Christmas Day.

His dominance was only beginning.

“He won four international racing titles in one year — pretty amazing in that day,” Thanhouser says. “He was the world champion before there was an official world championship.”

Ray Tauscher

Ray Tauscher was a celebrity overseas, where he was known as Ray Tauser. (Courtesy of the film “Ray Tauscher: America’s Forgotten World Champion Motorcycle Racer.”)

This meant he was paid well during the Great Depression: the best of the breed earned up to $7,500 annually — more than $150,000 in today’s dollars.

“Expenses cut heavily into this, but still a fellow can save pretty fair money,” Tauscher said at the time. “Yes, I like it. It’s a great game.”

Racing, it seems, wasn’t the only game he enjoyed as he traveled the world.

In the back of Tauscher’s scrapbook, Thanhouser found a section devoted to girlfriends.

“He was a player, obviously,” Thanhouser says. “He kept all those picture
s for years. Those were fond memories for him.”

Danita Hunter, Tauscher’s step-granddaughter, wouldn’t be surprised if he’d been a ladies man back in those early days.

“He had this great smile, big, wide,” she recalls. “And he had a great sense of humor.”

Maybe Ray Tauscher was a player, but he never bragged about his romances — or even about his race victories, for that matter.

“He was a modest man,” Hunter says.

So modest that news of his achievements never made it into wide circulation in his hometown.

Over the last few years, Thanhouser has been trying to correct that, including by nominating Tauscher for induction in the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame.

“He deserves the recognition,” Thanhouser says.

Ray Tauscher grew up on East Burnside Street and graduated from Washington High School. From a young age he found physical danger thrilling. He started with parachute jumping before he discovered motorcycles.

Ray Tauscher

From the film “Ray Tauscher: America’s Forgotten World Champion Motorcycle Racer.”

The Portlander suddenly quit the international racing circuit in 1935, at 30, and returned to his hometown. He landed a job at the post office.

He kept his hand in the motorbike game, organizing races at Jantzen Beach and mentoring young racers. Oregonian sports columnist L.H. Gregory caught up with him in 1947, informing readers that “a real champ, a daring demon of the handlebars,” existed quietly in their midst.

“Modest Ray hasn’t raced for eight seasons, and perhaps we should tell you why,” Gregory wrote. “He got married. His wife made it clear that she preferred a live husband to a dead ex-motorcycle champion, and quite right, too, and that ended that.”

Not entirely — at least not when a sportswriter showed up and egged him on.

“The old fever hit Ray the other day and he got on a cycle at Jantzen Beach, well, just to see if he could still make the darn snorting thing go,” Gregory wrote. “Before he realized it, he had swung five laps around that track, and they say he had the gas wide open.”

The columnist added, with a wink:

“That’s off the record, and please consider it unsaid, especially as Ray promises not to do it again.”

The wife might have found out anyway. The marriage didn’t survive.

Ray Tauscher

Ray Tauscher on the track. (Courtesy of Ned Thanhouser)

For a while, golf became Ray Tauscher’s foremost love; he played in local tournaments, winning his share.

But then he met Hunter’s grandmother, Esther, at an Elks Lodge dance.

They became inseparable, and soon married. Tauscher was no longer a ladies man, or a motorcycle man. He was Esther’s man.

“He was so kind, so gracious,” Hunter recalls. “They seemed to have so much fun together.”

And Esther became her new husband’s biggest fan. The rest of the family learned about the exploits of Ray Tauser, international racing star, from her, not from Modest Ray Tauscher.

“My Nana definitely talked about it a lot more than he did,” Hunter remembers. “I think he enjoyed that.”

— Douglas Perry

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