Pioneers of American Motorcycle Racing
by Daniel K. Statnekov
|©1998 - 2006 Daniel K. Statnekov |
With high hopes and little else, the Excelsior team entered both overhead-cam
and Big-valve "X" motors for the premier race of 1921. In practice, Wells Bennett
and Waldo Korn demonstrated the potential of the overhead-cammers, but the 4th
of July race did nothing to advance the Chicago company's fortunes.
Mechanical failures sidelined every one of the Excelsior riders.
Inexplicably, Leslie "Red" Parkhurst, who had retired from the H-D team the previous
year, turned up as a member of the Excelsior team at the 1921 Dodge City event.
Parkhurst's appearance without a Harley-Davidson jersey, and without any explanation as
to why he was now riding for Excelsior, was another "mystery" for the crowd of race
fans who were already speculating on the reason for Gene Walker's dismissal from
the Indian team.
As it turned out, rider changes between teams would become more
commonplace, foreshadowing the dissolution of factory professional
teams comprised of brand-loyal company riders.
By the following year, at the privately promoted 4th of July race in Wichita,
Ralph Hepburn would again appear in the winner's circle, but instead of his
usual H-D logo, the former Los Angeles delivery boy and Harley-Davidson
star rider would be wearing Springfield's traditional Indian insignia.
But 1921 was not yet over and, ever more desperately, the two leading
manufacturers continued their duel on the race tracks.
The domestic market for motorcycles had contracted severely, and each
company hoped that success on the race track would translate into a sale in the
ever-diminishing marketplace. Although the "business" of the motorcycle
manufacturers was the vital issue for the owners and management of the companies,
the fact of the matter was that in every race each rider put his life on the line.
On August 14, 1921, barely six weeks after Dodge City, Albert "Shrimp" Burns
died from injuries sustained during a 5-mile dirt track event at Toledo, Ohio.
Rounding a turn at close quarters with Ray Weishaar, their machines "tangled"
and the "Shrimp" careened through the outside fence. Weishaar spun out and
went down first and knew nothing of Burns' crash until he got up and saw the
Shrimp's machine on fire.
The H-D team rider put out the fire and helped to pick up Burns who was injured
about the head and had broken his neck. The wildly-popular Indian star, at the
pinnacle of his professional career, died before reaching the hospital, just two days
after celebrating his 23rd birthday. The following tribute by C.E.B. Clement
appeared in Motorcycle and Bicycle Illustrated:
It seems but yesterday when I first met him, though it has been several years
ago. That first meeting dates back before he became a national star. He was
mounted on an Excelsior, a built-up specimen which represented some wayside
mechanic's dream of "speed." At the time he was only a boy and looked out of
place on a race track.
I was refereeing the meet and one of the other officials asked me if I thought
it safe to let such a little fellow ride in competition with Leslie "Red" Parkhurst,
then riding an 8-valve Harley-Davidson and Creviston on the Indian-8.
I had never seen Burns in action so I told him to take a couple of laps around
the track so that I could get a line on his ability to handle a machine. I will
never forget that almost impish grin with which he greeted me as he answered,
"Sure, want me to bust'er wide open on the turns?"
I strolled down the track to watch him take the turns. Here he came with that
motor humming a great tune and into the turn he went without hitting the button.
Watching him handle that machine in the long slide, fighting it in to the pole, all
the way around, I saw in fancy, the then great battler of the day, Don Johns.
For Burns was holding the pole and fighting the rear wheel in a manner that very
closely resembled the work of the then known hardest fighter of the racing game.
During that first race meet, Burns brought the crowd to their feet time and again
by his game battling and though mounted on a machine that was never meant
for eight valve competition, he fought the eights to a standstill, and in several
races led one of them over the line.
Shortly after this meet he joined the Harley-Davidson team and that same
year was a holder of a world's record. From then on his career has been a source
of news to the public, and so well was he known for his gaminess and riding ability
that many times the statement has been made that a race wasn't a race unless
the Shrimp was in it.
His superb grit, coupled with the battling instinct, made him the greatest motorcycle
rider of the present age. His record will stand on its own merits, for he was never
known to quit as long as he had a motor left under him.
Times without number he has fought single-handed against the field, sometimes
winning, sometimes bested, but always fighting, fighting until the checkered flag
fell and then always game to come back and try again.
Burns' loss was keenly felt by everyone involved in the sport. The trade press published
an extensive biography of the Hendee Company star, and reported on human interest
details of the accident, such as the fact that Burns had been riding the same motor that
Charles Balke had been riding when he was killed at Chicago's Hawthorne track in 1914.
The "Shrimp's" fiancee, Genevieve Moritz of Cleveland, had driven up to Toledo on
Saturday to celebrate Burns' 23rd birthday, and had been at track-side when the fatal
accident occurred during Sunday's race. Their wedding was to have taken place
the next month, following the championship races at Syracuse, after which the Indian
star had agreed to quit racing.
Shrimp Burns' death inspired poetry as well as editorial questioning of what real
benefit racing brought to the sport or the industry. The article in the August
24, 1921 issue of MotorCycling and Bicycling Magazine began with the headline
"BRAVE LOVABLE BURNS, ADIEU!" and ended with a quote from Lord Byron:
".....and still engage upon the same arena, where they see|
Their fellows fall before, like leaves from the same tree."