Don’t expect to see Hells Angels at Peoria Motorcycle Club. And don’t expect elitism from those there who ride Harley-Davidson motorcycles, the classic American brand.
Do expect to see families and people from all walks of life, according to some of the club’s longtime members. Also expect to see something else, something not easily discernible from the club entrance off Cameron Lane west of Peoria.
“Every time I go over this hill, I sit there and think to myself, ‘This is one of the most beautiful properties that I have ever experienced in my life,’” club member Stann Wiebler said.
“For people around here who have never seen it, they don’t get it. But every time I go over that hill, I just stop … it’s just breathtaking.”
At the base of that hill, away from the main entrance and the modest clubhouse, is what has made the club famous and fabled among motorcycle enthusiasts nationwide and beyond.
It’s the club’s irregular-oval dirt track — five-eighths of a mile in length and full of twists, turns, jumps and memories.
Except for pandemic-affected 2020, the track has played host annually since 1947 to an American Motorcycle Association Grand National Championship TT Race. “TT” stands for “Tourist Trophy,” which signifies a dirt-track race that has left- and right-hand turns and steeplechase-type jumps.
The Peoria track is surrounded by a natural amphitheater that can accommodate tens of thousands. Those fans have witnessed the requisite thrills, chills and spills. Some of those spills have come courtesy of the track’s 12-foot-high jump, which riders might hit at speeds of 70 mph.
“It’s like riding up to a wall,” said Larry Williamson, 85, a club member who has seen every Peoria TT race.
Jerry Holm, a member of the club’s board of directors, put it more profanely, albeit with a laugh: “It’s an ‘Oh, shit’ moment.”
Among professional motorcycle racers who have made significant bones at the club are Chris Carr, the “Prince of Peoria,” who between 1986 and 2001 won a local TT race 13 times. But if Carr is prince, Henry Wiles is king. Through 2018, Wiles won in Peoria 14 times in a row.
Those streaks and appearances on national television, including ABC’s legendary “Wide World of Sports” program, helped expose the club and its city to legions of motorcycle fans.
“If you wanted to go to a motorcycle race, it was Peoria,” said Wayne Wiebler, Stann’s 85-year-old father and one of the club’s elder statesmen. “This was the place to go.”
It again will be the place to go July 30, when the 75th-anniversary edition of the TT race is scheduled. The Wieblers and other club members admit the race isn’t quite what it used to be.
A change from its usual third-Sunday-in-August timing, conflicts with national motorcycle promoters and additional entertainment options have helped diminish the event somewhat. The traditional motorcycle parade through Peoria and concert at the downtown riverfront the day and night before the race are no more.
Still, save for the COVID disruption, the TT race is the oldest consecutive one in the United States, according to club members.
“We’re the only club that (consistently) has their own race,” said Kevin Brashear, a former club president. “We own the property. It’s all volunteers. We put on the race. No other race in the country is like that.”
But the club, which just surpassed its 90th year of existence, is more than just one much-heralded race every summer.
In early 1931, local motorcycle shop owner Chuck Bell and seven other men founded the club. Things were informal at first, until Bruce Walters moved from Galesburg to open a Harley-Davidson dealership in Peoria.
“He sat the club members down and created rules – a board of directors, that sort of thing – so it was run with some degree of organization,” said Wayne Wiebler, a former longtime Walters employee.
Walters and his Walters Brothers dealership, which Wayne Wiebler now owns, were instrumental in the club’s growth. That progress included moving from rented grounds along Knoxville Avenue north of Peoria to the 80-acre Cameron Lane site, which the club purchased in 1940.
“This place has been referred to by a lot of people as ‘The House That Bruce Built,’” said Tom Boyd, a former board chairman.
Although Walters was a Harley dealer, he structured the club so one motorcycle brand wasn’t preferred over others, according to multiple members.
“He didn’t care what kind of motorcycle you’re on. If you rode a motorcycle, you were all right to him,” Holm said.
Not all right were some of the shadowy figures and stereotypes associated with motorcycling. The Wieblers and others said the club has attempted to foster an atmosphere where women and children are not only welcomed but encouraged.
“It’s just a lifetime thing with me,” Williamson said. “We raised kids here, grandkids here. This has never been a so-called outlaw club. It’s family.”
That family has about 100 official members, which is typical. Among the members has been Wiles, who joined last year. All one needs to join is a motorcycle and a referral from a current member.
The TT track isn’t open to members, but they’re free to ride dirt trails on club property. That’s a relatively recent development, introduced to expand appeal to younger riders and those who prefer off-road biking, according to Brashear.
Such diversification helps members remain confident about the club’s future, regardless of what becomes of the TT race. That said, the importance of an event that helped prompt Carr to name one of his children “Cameron Layne” can’t be discounted.
“The day before the race (one year), some guy comes walking over the hill, stops and looks, and I’m like, ‘Can I help you?’” Boyd said. “He says, ‘I’m from Pennsylvania. I’ve been planning to come here for years. I retired last year, and by God, I’m finally here!’ He was standing there, enamored with the whole place.”
Said Wayne Wiebler: “Anybody that you talk to that’s been in motorcycling racing still wants to come to Peoria.”
Nick Vlahos is a longtime Peoria print journalist