George Pepper – Historical Inductee Class of 2013

George Pepper MotorcycleGeorge Pepper was the pride of Belleville, Ont., and one of Canada’s most naturally talented motorcycle racers of the prewar era. He was an exceptional rider with successes in Canada, the United States and England. With the outbreak of the Second World War he became a pilot in the Royal Air Force and was decorated for bravery before his life was cut short by a plane crash on a test flight in 1942.

George was born in Belleville in 1915 into a family with three brothers and three sisters, and at an early age he burst into motorcycling. Only 16 years old, George was among a mere 14 entrants in the American Motorcycle Association’s first 200 mile road race at Savannah, Georgia in April 1932.

In 1933 he competed in the Ontario Tourist Trophy, a race held on the public roads of Bayview Heights, north of Toronto, and which nowadays is one of the most prestigious residential areas in Canada. He was well placed in the race but his engine seized two miles from the finish. He finished 1933 by being elected president of the Quinte Motorcycle Club in his home town in the month of his 18th birthday.

In 1934 George competed in the quarter-mile Canadian speedway championship at the old Ulster Stadium in the Beach area of Toronto but was unable to prevail against the local master and CMHF honourable member Eric Chitty. The next year George raced at Jacksonville, Florida in an AMA class C event that preceded the first beach race at Daytona by two years. He finished in third place, one and a half seconds behind the winner after 200 miles.

On Labour Day of 1936 George rocketed to fame when his home town hosted its first road race through the streets, the Canadian championship 200 held in Belleville. It drew 35 entries from star riders such as Madison Sale, Bruce Venier and Tony Miller from Toronto, Bob Sparks and Elwood Stillwell from Windsor and Americans Babe Tancrede and Ben Campanale on factory-backed Harley-Davidsons. Nearly all the Canadian entrants rode British makes such as BSA, Norton and Rudge. The starter was Toronto motorcycle dealer Percy McBride and a crowd estimated at 20,000 lined the streets to watch.

George started the race on his single-cylinder Norton International in eighth position and a lap later was in fifth. On lap three he passed the first starter Mad Sale on a BSA and set his sights on the leader, Tancrede. George soon gained the lead and by the end of the 60-lap race he was three laps and nearly 10 minutes ahead of the Harley rider. Tony Miller on another Norton was third, followed by Sale and Jim Ferguson of Toronto on a Rudge. At the age of 20, George Pepper was suddenly a star.

He set his sights ever higher, and in May 1937 George sailed from Montreal to enter the historic Isle of Man Tourist Trophy races. The Norton factory had offered him a new 500 cc race machine with a guarantee that it would reach 120 mph, plus an experienced mechanic. George also lined up a JAP-engined 350 cc Excelsior for the Junior TT and a 250 Cotton-JAP for the Lightweight TT. He posted competitive lap times on the notoriously difficult Mountain Circuit but mechanical problems dogged him on all three bikes and he failed to finish any of his races.

Disillusioned and ready to come home, George received a letter from transplanted Canadian Eric Chitty inviting him to West Ham in London for a tryout with the local first-division speedway team. Chitty and speedway pioneer Johnnie Hoskins eventually persuaded several Canadian racers to compete in the English speedway leagues. Their popularity dwarfed the Belleville crowds, drawing up to 60,000 spectators in an evening. Successful racers earned phenomenal wages for the time and George’s winnings were estimated at $400 a week. In 1938 and 1939 he raced for second-division Newcastle where he was appointed team captain and was the top money winner for the team.

When war was declared in September 1939 George immediately enlisted, working first in a factory building Spitfire aircraft and in September 1941 becoming a commissioned pilot in the Royal Air Force with the highest possible points score in his flight tests. Over the next 12 months he flew Bristol Beaufighters and in night action shot down 18 enemy bombers, including three in one night. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross but only weeks later, on Nov. 17, 1942 he, his crewman Toone and boyhood friend John “Jack” Emery, an RCAF radio technician who was visiting George, were all killed during a daylight test flight when the plane went into a spin from which it could not recover. His ashes were returned to Canada and buried in the Belleville cemetery.