Racing and enforcing the law are both hazardous. Some men have to chase down the speeders on the track as well as on the road. Lets look at some of those men.
Monday, July 9, 2012
Gene Walker, Birmingham’s Lost Racing Champion – Episode #2
By: David L. Morrill
Updated – November 22, 2018
This is an article I wrote for the Birmingham History Center 1731 Blog earlier this year.
The path that led me to it actually started several years before. I’ve long had a passion for early American racing motorcycles. These early racers evolved from bicycles, and racing them was a deadly serious business. A few years back I purchased and early Harley-Davidson that had been converted for racing. A short time later, my friend Johnny Whitsett sent me some pictures of early Birmingham motorcyclists. Among them was a photo of a motorcycle race at the Alabama State Fairgrounds.
I was surprised to find out that Birmingham, AL. had held championship motorcycle races at the Fairgrounds beginning in 1906. As I started to try and identify the racers in the photograph, I ran across Daniel Statnekov’s article Pioneers of American Motorcycle Racing. Daniel’s work details many of the early racers and is a must read for board track racing fans:
In reading Daniel’s article, I discovered the story of Birmingham native Gene Walker. During his 10year racing career, he became one of the top motorcycle racers in the country. In trying to learn more about Gene, I discovered he was all but unknown in modern Birmingham. I decided to try to find out more about him and share his story. The following article is the result of that research.
Birmingham’s Lost Racing Champion
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 home town. During his career, his exploits made the sports pages of the major newspapers across the country, 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 was born in Plevna, Alabama in November, 1893. On June 10, 1893, a few months before Gene was born, his father John Wood Walker Jr. was murdered by William Campbell in Madison County, Alabama.
Campbell was later found guilty of voluntary manslaughter in the murder of Gene’s father. Gene’s mother, Martha Jane Walker, later relocated her family to Birmingham, Alabama.
Gene Walker got his first motorcycle in 1910, and rode it to deliver mail for the local Post Office. Birmingham had a history of motorcycle racing at the one mile dirt oval located at the Alabama State Fairgrounds. In 1912, Walker entered the amateur class of a motorcycle race at the Birmingham Fairgrounds Raceway. Gene won the five mile race that day. That was the first of many races he would win in his twelve year racing career.
Bob Stubbs, the local Indian Motorcycles dealer, took note of Walker’s talents. He put Walker on a new Indian eight valve racer, and allowed Walker to race out of his Indian dealership in downtown Birmingham dealership.
Early racing motorcycles were little more than large bicycles, with large powerful engines, and no brakes. They could reach speeds of 90 mph on the race tracks of the day, and racing them was a deadly serious business. The races at the Birmingham Fairgrounds drew large crowds, who came to see the top amateur and professional riders lap the dirt track at a blistering pace.
By the fall race of 1913, Gene had established a reputation as the man to beat. His competition were established professional racers. Walker’s sponsor, Bob Stubbs also rode for Indian. Joe Wolters and Charlie Balke represented Excelsior, with Arthur Mitchell ridding a Flying Merkel.
Walker won every race he entered during the week long fall program, beating all the established professional riders, and set a new lap record for the track. In doing so he earned the respect of some of the top riders in the country.
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. Besides his racing, Walker also worked as a Motorcycle Officer for the Birmingham Police Department. He gained quite a reputation chasing speeders on the streets of Birmingham and the story of his police career was featured in a October 1, 1919 New York City Evening World Newspaper article.
Chasing Speeding Autos Helped Develop This Lad Into National Champion
Gene Walker, Holder of Three Championships, was a Cop in Birmingham Four Years go.
By Alex. Sullivan
Chasing speeding automobilists in his capacity as a motorcycle cop had developed Eugene Walker into a potential world’s champion of the speedways. This young Southerner – he is known as the “Southern Streak”- recently won three national championships and is confident he will make a clean sweep of the titular event to be contested in the motorcycle professional race meet Saturday afternoon at the Sheepshead Bay Speedway.
Gene Walker was little known to the racing game four years ago. Prior to 1915 he enjoyed a local reputation as Birmingham’s speediest specimen to straddle a motorcycle. Then he entered the Police Department of his native town as a motorcycle cop. His reputation as a speeder was well known to automobilists who were inoculated with the speed mania, and their delight was to engage Walker in thrilling duels along the highways, But they paid dearly for their byplay, for Walker inevitably overtook the most reckless drivers and hauled them before the magistrate.
The ease with which Walker caught the speediest of them sowed the seed for a racing career in young Gene’s thoughts. Soon he was entered in the dirt track competition and his ascendency has been meteoric. In winning his first five-mile race he turned the journey in 4 minutes 7 seconds, at the rate of more then 70 miles an hour. Thus encouraged Walker devoted more time to his machine and several months later won the five-mile national championship at Saratoga in 4.03.
Walker continued to meet with fair success on the various speedways, but it was not until this year that he really “found” himself. He has competed in nearly two-score races in 1919 and has yet to suffer defeat. At Atlanta on Sept. 13 last he swept the card by winning the one, five and 25-mile national championships, besides hurtling his mount across the finish line first in a five-mile match race for the Southern Speed Crown.
In looking back at the days when he was a motor cop, Walker said today that one of the reasons that prompted him to adopt a racing career – aside from the fact that he simply hated to have to catch the ladies who were exceeding the speed limit. “It just made me weep to have them plead with me after I’d over hauled ’em and stopped ‘em,” he said. “I just had to let them go, mostly.”
Young Walker – he is only twenty-five – certainly has undertaken a tough task for Saturday’s race meet, as he will have to match his daring and skill against the greatest field of riders that ever assembled for a championship carnival. Among his foremost competitors will be no less a personage then Lieut. Arthur Chapple, the world’s speed king. Chapple is returning to the perilous game after a lay-off of two years, due to his being in the service of Uncle Sam, But he still retains his old nerve and riding generalship, as well as stamina, and does not expect to have much difficulty in repulsing the attack of Gene Walker and the other young daredevils who are entered.
In 1915, Walker was hired as a factory rider for the Indian Motorcycle Company, and moved to the company’s headquarters in Springfield, Mass.
Walker’s first National win came in 1915 at the F.A.M. National race in Saratoga, N. Y. He would go on to win several professional races, and set several track records each year for the following two years.
In August 1915, Gene Walker was among the eight Indian factory riders sent to the Chicago, IL. Championship race.
The next few years were quiet ones for Walker, as professional racing was curtailed for the duration of World War 1. As his mother’s sole support, Walker was not subject to the draft. He returned to Birmingham in 1917, working as a motorcycle machinist for William F. Specht Jr. at the Harley Davidson dealership on 3rd Avenue North.
Walker continued to compete in the races run during this period on a Harley-Davidson. On July 4, 1917 Walker traveled to Atlanta for the opening races at the new Lakewood Speedway.
Walker won two July 4th races at the one mile dirt oval south of Atlanta. He returned to Lakewood for the Labor day races, and claimed his first Southern Dirt Tack Championship, and finished second in two other races. The day’s first race was marred by the death of Atlanta Indian rider Ed Wilcox, who crashed into the fence on the outside of the first turn, while jockeying for position on the first lap.
At the end of 1917, Walker returned to work at the Indian factory in Springfield, MA. Walker remained there through 1918, working in the testing room. During the next year, Walker would help develop, and test, Indian’s newest racers
With the end of World War 1, professional racing resumed in the United States. Walker returned to racing for the Indian factory in 1919 in grand style, winning six National Races.
In June 1919, Walker traveled to Atlanta to compete in the Championship Races at Lakewood Speedway. In the pre race Atlanta Constitution publicity, Walker appeared with Atlanta Indian Dealer/Racer Harry Glenn Sr., Glenn’s five year old son Harry Glenn Jr, Atlanta racer Nemo Lancaster, and black racer, Bones the Outlaw. Bones worked for Harry Glenn SR as a mechanic. He was one of Atlanta’s famous Black streak Racers.
Walker donated the Atlanta Races. He won the one mile, Five mile, and Twenty Mile National Championships races at Atlanta’s Lakewood Speedway.
Walker also reclaimed the Southern Dirt Track Championship from Atlanta’s Nemo Lancaster, and set a new Lakewood track record.
The write up on the Southern Championship Race also mentions Walker’s job as a Birmingham Motorcycle Police Officer.
In September, Walker returned to Atlanta’s Lakewood Speedway for the Labor Day races.
Walker won four races, and set a new track record.
In April 1920, Gene Walker, and amateur rider Hebert McBride traveled to Ormond Beach, Florida for a speed record run. McBride was also from Birmingham, AL., and was picked by Walker to be his amateur teammate. Between April 12, and April 15, Walker, and McBride set twenty four new National, and International motorcycle speed records. Walker was credited with the first official
F. I. M. World Motorcycle Speed Record of 104.12 mph. on a “stock” 61ci. side valve Indian Scout racer.
Walker also set a new National Motorcycle Speed Record of 115.79 mph. on a 61ci. eight valve racer.
All of McBride’s amateur class records, where faster than the previous professional class records over those distances.
The speed records set by Walker, and McBride became the center piece of Indian Motorcycle Company’s advertising that year. After the record runs, the Indian Power Plus side valve racers referred to as Daytona Indians.”
The record runs were filmed, and presented at theaters across the country. No surviving copy of the film is known to exist.
In June 1920, Walker won the half mile Championship race at Greeley, Colorado.
On September 12th, Gene Walker won every professional race at the newly opened Logansport, Indiana half mile dirt oval.
At the close of the 1920 season, Motorcycle and Bicycle Illustrated magazine declared Walker a “Champion of Champions”.
The 1921 season started well for Gene Walker, who won all the races at Greeley, Colorado on May 3, 1921.
Controversy soon followed Walker’s wins at Greeley. Indian insisted that Walker again compete in the Dodge City race in July. Despite his success at Dodge City the year before, Walker did not like the dusty conditions of the Dodge City track, feeling it was unsafe. Indian thought Walker had committed to Dodge City, but he notified them at the last minute he would not race at Dodge City.
Instead, Walker entered a race in South Bend, Indiana two weeks later. Walker was involved in an accident in the race, after another ride fell in front of him. This was his first accident in several years, but he was not seriously injured. Rumors began to appear in the press that Walker had been released by Indian for refusing to compete at Dodge City. Indian accused Walker going “Pot Hunting”. They felt Walker sought an easy payday, against lesser competition.
In the June 13, 1921 issue of Motorcycling and Bicycling, an article on Gene’s firing appeared under the Headline:
“Gene Fired From Indian Wigwam”.
The article contained a telegram from the Hendee Manufacturing Company (Indian Motorcycles) to Gene Walker with the following text:
“Your refusal at the last moment to ride Dodge City after agreeing through Butler to do so has seriously embarrassed this company, consequently you deserve no consideration at our hands. Under circumstances, will require your services are no longer and thank you to turn machines over to Indian dealer , Mr. Schaub, to whom we are wiring today.”
(Signed) HENDEE MFG. CO.
The article went on to state:
“Mr Franklin, and in fact the entire Indian organization , dislike very much to lose Gene Walker. They realize that he is beyond a doubt one of the finest dirt-track riders in the world, but this action , coming on top of two very similar cases a year ago, forced drastic action.
Gene Walker was an employee of the Hendee Company and as such was was subject to their orders. Therefore to maintain discipline, the Hendee Company have been forced to sacrifice the services of a very valuable man in their racing Organization.”
The article does not mention details of the previous incidents. Regardless of the bad feelings on both sides, Walker continued to ride Indians through the end of the 1922 season
Jones reclaimed the half mile record later that year, but that did not deter Walker. He finished out the 1922 season by reclaiming the half mile World record for Indian at their home track in Springfield, Massachusetts.
Despite that success, Indian released Walker from their team for the 1923 season. The reason given to the press was Walker’s refusal ride in the 1921 in Dodge City race. Walker returned to Birmingham. He continued to race and win races around the country on his privately entered 4 valve Harley-Davidsons.
Gene Walker continued to dominate the races he competed in during the 1923 season, and his name on a race flyer still drew big crowds of spectators.
The Indian Factory reconsidered their decision to fire Gene Walker, and he rejoined Indian at the end of the 1923 season. When the racing season ended, Walker returned to his job as a Motorcycle Police Officer in Birmingham.
Gene Walker started the 1924 season with a win for Indian at Championship race on the Beverly Hills Speedway oval board track at Los Angeles, California. Then, on April 13th Walker won two races at Ascot Speedway dirt oval in Los Angeles.
During the five lap race Walker, and Harley-Davidson rider Ray Weishaar, were battling for the lead. Walker’s Indian teammate, Johnny Seymour drafted past them. This caused Weishaar’s bike to go into a wobble, and then skid into the fence on the outside of the track. Weishaar was conscious after the accident, and did not appear seriously injured, but died a couple hours later at the hospital.
While taking practice laps he struck the rear wheel of a tractor that had pulled onto the course, and then collided with a tree stump on the track’s infield.
The severely injured Walker was transported to Rosenkrans Hospital. His wife Eunice, who was pregnant with their third child, traveled by train from Birmingham to Pennsylvania, and stayed by his bedside until his condition seemed to improve. Assured by Gene’s doctors, that he would recover, she returned to Birmingham. When she got off the train in Birmingham, she was met by an Indian Motorcycle Company representative, who told her Gene had died of his injuries on June 21, 1924.
A few days after Gene’s death, Birmingham News Sports writer Zipp Newman, eulogized the hometown motorcycle celebrity under the headline:
“MOTORCYCLE RIDING HAS LOST ITS GREATEST STAR IN THE DEATH OF WALKER”
“Throughout his career, Walker always claimed Birmingham as his home and continued to send a portion of his earnings to his mother in Birmingham. He made the name Birmingham a household word. He saved his money and looked after his family.”
In the June 25, 1924 edition of Bicycling World and Motorcycle Review a tribute to Walker. The author is identified only as Eee Bee.
After Gene’s death, the Indian Motorcycle Company released a memorial ad dedicated to their lost racing team member.
YouTube video containing the only known footage of Gene Walker racing:
Atlanta, GA. Constitution
Birmingham, Alabama Public Library Archives
Birmingham History Center
Chicago, IL. Tribune
Don Emde Collection
Elmwood Cemetery – Birmingham, AL.
El Paso, TX. Herald
Ft. Wayne, IN. Journal-Gazette
Furman Family Collection
Greeley, CO. Daily Tribune
Hutchinson, KA. News
Johnny Whitsett Collection
Logansport Pharos Tribune
Motorcycling and Bicycling
New York, NY. Evening World
Paul Braun Collection
R.L. Jones Collection
San Bernardino, CA. County Sun
Santa Cruz, CA. News
Sara Thiem Collection
Scranton, PA. Republican
Stroud Township Bicentennial Collection
The Bicycling World and Motorcycle Review
In the month’s following the posting of this article on the Birmingham History Center Blog, I made contact with three of Gene’s Walker’s Granddaughters, and one great granddaughter. While they had some information on Gene’s racing career, much had been lost after the death of Gene’s wife Eunice Harwood Walker. I was able to share articles and photographs with them. I had the honor of meeting Gene’s granddaughter Sara Thiem and her husband Warren as they passed through Birmingham on their way home to Bozeman, MT. Sara had been searching for her grandfather’s grave for many years, and had all but given up on finding it. I was able to take her to her grandfather’s grave in Elmwood Cemetery. During that visit, she discovered the graves of several other family members. It was a very touching experience to help her reconnect with her long lost grandfather.
Del Kuhn – California Highway Patrol
David Morrill – Orlando, FL Police Department
David Morrill was a Motor Officer for the city of Orlando, Florida and raced professionally on his off time.
Daytona 1986 qualifying for the AMA 100 Mile Light Weight Grand Prix race. A month later I stuck that bike in a ditch at about 90mph during practice @ Gainesville shattering my left leg & ankle. Spent over a year recovering, and learning to walk again. Due to the injuries was removed from the Motor Unit.
Grant Lopez – Escambia County, FL Sheriff’s Office
Grant Lopez raced professionally for Team Valvoline EMGO Suzuki. After his racing career he came a Deputy Sheriff with Escambia County, FL Sheriff’s Office on their Motorcycle Unit.