[small red square] Pioneers of American Motorcycle Racing [small red square]

by Daniel K. Statnekov

©1998 - 2006 Daniel K. Statnekov   
Chapter 17

In addition to Franklin's improved race motors, Indian had the added advantage (in 1920) of the very talented Albert "Shrimp" Burns who had deserted H-D to ride for the "Wigwam."

The "Shrimp" was another member of that first generation of boys who had caught the fever to race motorized two-wheelers.  In 1908, when he was 10 years-old, the diminutive Albert Burns was already notorious in his Oakland, California neighborhood for meddling with machines left at the curb of the local Pope agency.  Although he was repeatedly chased away from the customer's bikes, Albert always returned;  until finally (in 1911) he was hired as a helper in the agency's repair shop.

It wasn't long before Albert was riding around Oakland on a single cylinder Pope.  He soon became proficient, and three months before his 15th birthday (in May of 1913) he ran his first race at Sacramento, placing 4th against some of the star riders of the day.  His riding startled the stars who protested that a boy of 14 should not be allowed to compete with professional riders.  Relegated to sit on the fence, Albert made faces at Otto Walker and the other pros who had had him thrown out.  Two weeks later Burns raced at San Jose where he scored a big hit with the fans by getting a first, two seconds, and a third against the same field of riders.

The talented youngster continued to race in California dirt track events, piling up experience and victories on his "home-brew" Indian twin.  On July 4, 1915, Burns won three events (including a 100-miler) at a Pleasanton, California race meet.  It was here that some of the disgruntled older riders began to call Burns "the Shrimp."  The nickname stuck with him, and as good-natured as Albert was, he never complained.

Following the war, the 20 year-old Burns won the first race of the 1919 racing season at the Fresno board track.  On June 22nd of the same year, he signed up with Harley-Davidson and began his career as a top-notch professional.  In his first appearance on the East Coast, the "Shrimp" gave the Baltimore, Maryland crowd the finest exhibition of dirt track riding they had ever seen.  Keeping about 18 inches from the inside rail, the new Harley team rider rode every circuit without as much as slowing up for the turns.  As it turned out Albert "Shrimp" Burns was the sensation of the year, winning the coveted 100-mile National Championship at Sheepshead Bay and the hearts of racing fans wherever he appeared.

Perhaps it was his meteoric rise to success or his carefree youth that caused a personality clash with Otto Walker, the Harley-Davidson team captain.  Whatever the reason for the rift, Albert Burns quit the Harley-Davidson team at the end of 1919 and joined the Wigwam's stable of professional riders.  His first appearance for Indian was the opening event of the 1920 season, a week of racing at Ascot Park (this was the meet in which Bob Perry was killed) that included a 100-mile feature (non-National) race as well as 25 and 50-mile National Championships.

In the opening feature event, Burns, riding a Charles B. Franklin-improved version of Indian's 8-valve, jumped ahead at the start of the 100-miler.  Setting a furious pace, he held the lead for the first seven laps, until his handlebars loosened and he had to go into the pits.  Although he quickly got back on the track, the "Shrimp" was never able to close on the new leaders.  When it was all over Otto Walker had won, leading the H-D team in their five place sweep.  Considering the circumstances, it must have been a sweet victory for the 29 year-old Harley-Davidson team captain.

The following weeks continuation of the race meet was also a continuation of factory and personal rivalries.  An estimated 15,000 spectators returned to Ascot Park to share in the excitement of the first Championship race of the season.  This time the overhead-cam Excelsiors were back in action.  The first event of the day was the 25-mile National Championship.  Once again, the "Shrimp" jumped into the lead, but instead of a Harley-Davidson on his tail, Joe Wolters, riding one of the brute horsepower Excelsiors, pushed Burns and his Indian-8 to a very fast pace.

They were riding so fast that the 3rd place H-D rider, Ray Weishaar, lost control coming out of a turn, and fell breaking his arm.  Wells Bennett, riding another overhead-cam Excelsior, took over the 3rd place position, but on the 10th lap he was forced out with a broken fuel line.  Then things got really wild when Indian's Bill Church lost his rear tire.

Church's machine went down instantly, bursting its gas tank and hurling burning fuel all over the track.  Uninjured, Church was on his feet again, but Otto Walker, unable to avoid the flaming wreckage, slid off the rear of his bike which then ran through the wreckage, and continued down the track for another 200 feet.  Walker slid through the flames and on down the track, trailing a stream of fire behind him.  The H-D team captain got back on his feet and picked up his machine, twisting the handlebars straight, he was on his way again.

Joe Wolters suffered the same fate as Walker.  When he saw the still flaming Indian in the middle of the track, he laid the big Excelsior down and both rider and machine slid almost the entire length of the grandstand.

At the finish, the "Shrimp" had managed to stay upright as well as in the lead, and in doing so claimed the first National Championship of the season.  The "little Californian with the impish grin" had also set a new world record for every distance from 1 through 25-miles.  The new Indian star was carried shoulder-high past the grandstand where the crowd cheered themselves hoarse.

The 50-mile National Championship race that followed excluded both 8-valve and overhead-cam machines.  The event turned into a free-for-all, that (in light of the earlier Indian performance) denied a decisive victory to any of the principle manufacturers.  Joe Wolters, on a now-antiquated "Big-Valve X," jumped into the lead at the start and stayed there for 25 miles before running out of gas.  Then Otto Walker, riding a pocket-valve version of Ottaway's "banjo" two-cam, took over the 1st place position and held it to the finish.  Shrimp Burns, piloting a Powerplus side-valve, placed 3rd behind Walker and Freddy Ludlow, who captured the 2nd spot for Milwaukee.

In order to demonstrate their respective accomplishments to the readers of the trade journals, the Springfield and Milwaukee bike builders scheduled speed trials at Daytona Beach, Florida.  Harley led off in February, sending a technical crew along with Parkhurst and Ludlow to ride 8-valve as well as pocket-valve versions of the new, Ottaway inspired, "banjo 2-cam."  The Springfield company followed up in April, sending Eugene Walker, and an amateur rider named Herb McBride, along with carefully tuned 8-valve and Powerplus side-valve machines.

Considering the variations in track and weather conditions, the results were again ambiguous.  Although Indian's times were "officially" recognized as new world records in every category, there was less than a 5 second difference over a 5-mile measured course between the two manufacturers so called "standard valve" equipment.  The Indian Powerplus recorded faster times for the 1 and 2-mile distance; while the H-D pocket-valve ("banjo" 2-cam) recorded a faster time for the 5-mile run.

Gene Walker piloted an updated 61 cubic inch Indian 8-valve down the beach a little more than 3 seconds faster than Parkhurst could get Ottaway's 61-inch Harley-8 to cover the 1-mile distance; 8 seconds faster over the 2-mile distance;  and a little more than 16 seconds faster for the 5-mile run.  Red Parkhurst rode a 68 cubic inch H-D 8-valve to a top speed of 112.61 mph;  while Walker was able to "push" a 61 cubic inch Indian 8 to a maximum speed of 115.79 mph.

To confuse matters further, the international sanctioning organization refused to recognize the H-D effort, denying them even their 5 second advantage over Indian in the 5-mile "standard valve" contest.  As far as nearly everyone else was concerned, the "real" contest of 1920 would have to take place on the race track.

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Page revised: June 28, 2003