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

by Daniel K. Statnekov

©1998 - 2006 Daniel K. Statnekov   
Chapter 19

Despite faltering sales in the motorcycle industry, both major manufacturers entered the 1921 racing season with renewed efforts.  On February 22nd, Harley-Davidson's Otto Walker became the first man in the world to win a motorcycle race at an average speed of over 100 mph.  The H-D team captain entered the record books on George Washington's birthday at the Fresno, California 1-mile board track.   Riding a machine powered by a banjo 2-cam with 8 valves, Walker exceeded 107 mph in the 1-mile time trial, 103 mph in the 10-mile event, 104 mph in the 15-mile event, and won the 50-mile race at slightly more than 101 mph.  In addition to breaking the hundred-mile-an-hour barrier, the day's string of victories gave the affable Californian the distinction of winning the most races at a single meet.

Harley-Davidson's "other" 1921 milestone event occurred in April, when England's Douglas Davidson became the first man in Britain to officially achieve 100 mph over a timed course.  Davidson, who was not related to the Milwaukee company's founding family, accomplished his record on a pocket-valve example of the banjo 2-cam.  Walker and Davidson's record-setting performance, on William Ottaway's latest evolution of race-bred machinery, was convincing evidence that H-D had maintained its horsepower advantage over its rivals.

By this time, Indian's "Daytona" model was also capable of race-sustaining, 100 mph-plus speeds, but the racing version of the side-valve Powerplus was admittedly a few mph slower than the Harley 2-cam.  Indian also continued to field their 8-valve, and the Springfield company's star riders turned each event into a genuine contest.  Race fans were rarely disappointed by the action between the rival companies who, with a variety of machinery, continued to battle it out on the race track.

The April, 1921 meet at the new Beverly Hills, California 1 and 1/4-mile motordrome was typical.  In the first motorcycle race held on this Jack Prince designed board track, "Shrimp" Burns used the high banked turns to his advantage in the 10-lap opener.  In the last lap, Burns positioned himself high on the wooden banking, and as he came out of the final turn, shot down the 50-foot embankment with terrific speed to pass the leader, H-D's Otto Walker, and win by a single bike length.  The Indian rider's average speed for the 10 miles was almost 104 mph.

In the 25 and 50-mile events that followed, the "Shrimp" and his teammate Curley Fredericks ran out of luck.  In the shorter race, Burn's Indian-8 seized, throwing the Shrimp down on the wooden boards where he picked up a painful mass of splinters in his hands and arms.  In the 50-miler which followed, Fredericks went out of control while coming out of a turn and crashed hard on his side-valve Daytona.  Otto Walker and Jim Davis won the two events for Milwaukee, with Walker averaging 104.4 mph on his Harley 8-valve.

In the 15-mile consolation race, Burns, "swathed in bandages and reeking of arnica and iodine," rode his injured teammate's side-valve Indian.  The event started with the two Harley riders, Freddy Ludlow and Ralph Hepburn, exchanging the lead and Burns seemingly content to stay back in 3rd position.  At the halfway point, Burns pulled out briefly to take the lead, but then dropped back again into the number three slot.  On the final lap, the "Shrimp" repeated the tactic that he had used earlier to win the opening event.

Positioning himself high on the wooden banking, he came out of the last turn as if catapulted down the embankment, passing the leaders just before the flag, to win the last race of the day at an average speed of 102 and 1/2 mph.  Burns' winning speed was the fastest time yet recorded for a side-valve in competition.  Considering that the differences between the production Powerplus motor and the "Daytona" racing version were fairly minimal, the Indian production motorcycle was probably the closest thing to a factory-race powerplant offered to the riding public by any of the manufacturers.

The 1921 Dodge City race was the last of the classic competitions held at the old frontier town.  It was both "rag-tag" as well as thoroughly professional, depending in which direction you happened to be looking.

By this time the Excelsior contingent was riding as a sort of "quasi" factory team, Schwinn supplying only equipment that the riders themselves could scrounge from the factory.  Forced to hire their own pit organization, the "X" team even had to buy their own fuel and spare parts to compete in the event.  Dispelling the myth that Schwinn had taken a sledge hammer to all of the overhead-cammers, Waldo Korn, riding one of the McNeil-designed machines, broke Don Johns' 1915 Dodge City track record of one minute and 16 seconds;  completing a circuit of the 2-mile track in 1 minute, 15 and 2/5th seconds.

Following Korn's record-setting performance, "Shrimp" Burns, riding an 8-valve Indian, blasted around the track in a minute and 14 seconds flat, or 97 mph, to set a new lap record and win the pole position for the race.  At the start, however, the Shrimp was again disappointed when his aging Indian-8 broke a valve pawl in the very first lap.  Ralph Hepburn, riding the sole 8-valve entered by the Milwaukee company in the 1921 event, went into the lead and held it for the entirety of the race with the exception of laps 52, 53, and 54 when he stopped for fuel and to change his rear tire.

At the end of the 102nd lap, when Hepburn made his 2nd pit stop, he was so far ahead of the field that his position remained unchanged when he re-entered the race.  At the finish, the 25 year-old Harley Davidson rider had set a new record for a 300-mile dirt track event.  His time of 3 hours, 30 minutes and 3 seconds was only 12 seconds slower than Carl Goudy's 1915 board track record for the 300-mile distance.

Hepburn's ride on the Harley 8-valve was 10 minutes faster than Jim Davis' winning time in 1920, 15 minutes faster than Irwin Janke's 1916 win, 25 minutes faster than Otto Walker's 1915 victory, and 55 minutes faster than Glen "Slivers" Boyd's winning time in the 1914 race.  The 2nd place finisher, Johnny Seymour, aboard an Indian-8, was 10 minutes behind the winner, his recorded time 17 seconds faster than Jim Davis' winning time for the previous year's race.  Ludlow, Weishaar, and Otto Walker captured the 3rd through 5th place spots for Milwaukee.

The Springfield company not only suffered the disappointment of the Shrimp being sidelined at the start, but caused dismay to their diehard fans by firing their star rider, Gene Walker, for refusing to participate in the 1921 event.  Gene, who had placed second behind Jim Davis at Dodge City the year before, had always been very particular about the condition of tracks on which he rode.  He was known as a "stickler" for safety and often instructed younger riders on the need to carefully inspect both their machines and the track before each race.  Race fans speculated that there was either something about his machine, or the condition of the track that had caused Gene's refusal to participate.

Eugene Walker was one of the few factory professional riders who came from the South.  Like his contemporaries whose fascination with motorized two-wheelers drew them into their life's calling, Birmingham's nationally-acclaimed rider became fascinated with motorcycles while still in high school.  In 1910, when he was sixteen years-old, Gene obtained his first machine, a worn out Excelsior.  The high-schooler soon traded the "X" for an Indian, and in 1912 he earned a meager living delivering special delivery letters.

The teenage Walker rode his Indian constantly and became so comfortable in the saddle, that when the Alabama State Fair staged a program of motorcycle racing at Birmingham, he became an entry.  His first race was a 5-mile event and resulted in a clean sweep for the 19 year-old letter carrier.  That same year (1913), Gene quit the post office and went to work for the local Indian dealer where he found himself surrounded by like-minded enthusiasts.  "Race-fever" gripped the dealership's newest employee, and the motorcycle dealer, recognizing the youngster's ability, secured a factory machine for him.

In 1914, Walker turned professional and appeared in the pro class at the one-hour national championship in Birmingham.  Although he did not win his first professional race, Gene broke the track record on the very first lap, and finished up front with the leaders.  That winter, he accepted a job with Indian and moved to Massachusetts.  In Springfield, Walker went to work in the factory's testing room where he met his co-worker and teammate, Teddy Carroll.  In 1915, Gene won the 5-mile National Championship at Saratoga just ahead of Carroll and Excelsior's Bob Perry.  The victory established him as a professional of the top rank and from then on he was a contender wherever he raced.

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Page installed: Nov. 15, 1996   
Page revised: June 28, 2003