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

by Daniel K. Statnekov

©1998 - 2006 Daniel K. Statnekov   
Chapter 20

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."

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