Friday, May 18, 2012

GENE WALKER, BOARD TRACK RACER



[David Morrill of Sylacauga, Alabama, submitted this story of Gene Walker, a legendary board track competitor for Indian in the 'Teens.  Morrill is a retired Orlando police officer, who rode five years as a motorcycle cop, and also raced motorcycles.  For more on Board Track racing, click here for my earlier article.]
Gene Walker on his Indian Powerplus, Daytona Beach Florida, 1920 (Don Emde collection)
Birmingham’s historic Elmwood Cemetery is the final resting place of several Alabama sports legends, from Paul “Bear” Bryant to Dixie Walker. There is another legend buried there who is all but unknown in his own home town. During his career, his exploits made the sports pages of the major newspapers, and his untimely death was mourned by fans nationwide. In the northeast corner of the cemetery is a simple marble headstone that reads: Gene Walker 1893-1924.
John Eugene “Gene” Walker got his first motorcycle in 1910 and rode it to deliver mail for the local post office. But in 1912, the Alabama State Fair sponsored a motorcycle race at the Birmingham Fairgrounds Raceway, and it was Walker who won the final race of the day. Bob Stuibbs, a local Indian Motorcycles dealer, took note, soon putting Walker on a new Indian eight-valve racer and racing him out of his downtown Birmingham dealership.
Birmingham Fairgrounds Raceway 1913/14, O.H. Hunt photograph (Johnny Whitsett Collection)
Big bikes with no brakes
Early racing motorcycles were little more than large bicycles with large powerful engines–and no brakes. They could reach speeds of 90 m.p.h. on the tracks of the day, and racing them was a deadly serious business.
The races at Birmingham Fairgrounds’ track drew large crowds who came to see top amateur and professional riders lap the dirt track at a blistering pace. By the fall race of 1913, Walker had established a reputation as the man to beat, winning every race he entered during the week long fall program and setting a new lap record for the track.
The following October, Walker entered his first professional race, the F.A.M. (Federation of American Motorcyclists) one-hour race at Birmingham. While he didn’t win, he was able to set a new lap record and ran with the lead pack throughout the race.
Walker’s ride with Indian
Indian Motorcycle memorial for Walker, 1924 (Don Emde Collection)
By 1915, Walker was hired as a factory rider for Indian Motorcycle Company and moved to Springfield, Mass., the company headquarters. Walker’s first national win came that same year at the F.A.M. National race in Saratoga, N.Y. The next few years were quiet ones for Walker, as professional racing was virtually curtailed for the duration of World War I.  As his mother’s sole source of support, Walker wasn’t subject to the draft. He continued to race in local Birmingham events and worked as a machinist for William Specht Jr., at his Harley Davidson dealership on Third Avenue North. According to one newspaper account, he even performed duties of a motorcycle cop during the winter. Walker returned to professional racing in 1919, winning six National Races. In April 1920, Walker, riding his Indian Power Plus race, set the first official motorcycle land speed world record of 115 m.p.h. on the sands of Daytona Beach, Fla.  That record became the centerpiece of Indian Motorcycle’s advertising that year and a 1920, Motorcycle and Bicycle Illustrated magazine declared Walker a “Champion of Champions.”
A typical board track race in action...Despite that success, Indian released Walker in 1922 for his refusal to ride in dusty track conditions at the sport’s biggest race of 1921 in Dodge City, Kansas. The company reconsidered that decision when he continued to win races on privately owned Harley-Davidsons, and Walker rejoined Indian for the 1924 season, winning the Championship race on the board track at Los Angeles.
On June 7, 1924, Walker was practicing for a race on the half mile dirt track at Stroudsburg, Penn.  While taking practice laps he swerved to avoid a woman crossing the track and crashed. The severely injured Walker was transported to Rosenkrans Hospital, where his condition seemed to improve, but on June 21, 1924, Walker died of his injuries. He was 31-years-old and left behind a widow and two children.
A few days later, Birmingham News sports writer Zipp Newman eulogized the hometown motorcycle celebrity under the headline:
MOTORCYCLE RIDING HAS LOST ITS GREATEST STAR IN DEATH OF WALKER
Bob Horton was also quoted in the Newman’s article:  “Walker was always a gentleman. His death marks the passing of the greatest motorcycle rider that ever lived.”
Walker's marker at Elmwood Cemetery
During his 10-year professional career, Walker won 19 championship races and numerous non-championship races on both board and dirt tracks. He set lap records on many of the tracks as well as several motorcycle land speed records. His lap record at the Birmingham Fairgrounds Raceway had not been broken when the track stopped racing in World War I. In 1998, Gene Walker was inducted into the American Motorcyclist Association’s Hall of Fame.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thank you Paul.

I don't have a website. You can give out my email address (dlmracing@gmail.com) to anyone seeking more information on the article.

Gene's granddaughters are spread out across the country and much of the family information on Gene was lost to the later generation. They had been looking for his grave for many years, and came across my article on the web. I met one of them at the cemetery here in Birmingham and showed her his grave. They are great folks and it was a pleasure to be able to fill in some missing family history.

Sincerely,

David Morrill

Anonymous said...

One of Gene's competitors during his racing years was Jim Davis, who ultimately lived to be over 100 years old. Around 1980 I did an interview with Jim and asked him who was the best racer that he raced against, and Jim said it was Gene Walker.
-Don Emde

The Vintagent said...

Don, did you publish the interview?

Anonymous said...

No Paul, at the time I was trying to get some oral histories done of guys from the old days and just have it on tape. Some day I do hope to get some of that material in print.
Jim Davis had some of the funniest stories. He told about the time he had been suspended for some reason by the AMA, but he took a train to Los Angeles and went to the Western Union office, and figuring there would be girls working there, he brought a box of chocolates with him and convinced a girl there to make up a telegram that read: "Jim Davis is cleared to race effective immediately. E.C. Smith, AMA" He then took the telegram and got to race, and won.
I had the honor of being Jim's "presenter" when he was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame in Novi,Michigan in the 1990s, and was with him a fair amount in his latter years. He stayed mentally sharp all the way to the end and could tell some great stories. Some,like the Western Union story I heard many times.
- Don Emde

Anonymous said...

What a GREAT story! That's just awesome.
Jim Wear

Anonymous said...

Not sure that would have worked with the modern AMA officials!

David Morrill

Anonymous said...

One of the coolest things i ever did was fly to Ca. to the Del Mar motorcycle meet with Jim Davis and Chet Dykraft.I was busy asking Jim all kinds of questions about the earley racers.We finally got on the subjesct of handlebars .Jim said Harley had a wall with each riders type bars .If they bent up the bars, which they did quite often -the factory could bend up a set and send them out.So Jim said he had the guys at the factory take a set of the wide hillclimber bars and cut them and turn them down like board tracker bars .Jim said you know Jones these were about 3 inches wider over all and when you came up behind a guy -you could just pop him in the kidneys with the end of those bars and make a real clean pass when he wobbled --I loved this story and i loved Jim Davis .To get to hang out with this guy was one of the highlights of my life.

RL Jones

Anonymous said...

Remembering the forgotten. Where do they get this stuff. A wonderful article and follow up comments.

OcchioLungo said...

great stories guys!

American motorcycles said...

Great to read both the article and those comments following.
Don & RL need to make sure they get some of their stories from having actually known a man like Jim Davis down in written text for future generations to learn.

Thanks a lot.
Sverre
AMcN

P. Tone said...

I saw this video on You Tube, ir shows Gene Walker winning a sidecar race in Daytona. I search his name and found your site.
https://youtu.be/qp-9w7f7c60