Record-breaker Gene Walker: Birmingham’s lost racing champion [updated, with vintage footage, 01/28/12]
[Note: The following was written by David Morrill of Sylacauga. David is a retired career Orlando Police Department officer with five years as a motorcycle cop. A motorcycling and race enthusiast, writer, and past competitor, he is also a survivor of a high-speed racing accident, which made the Gene Walker history an especially poignant one to write. After reading, click here to see the YouTube video of Gene Walker at Daytona. – L.E.]
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 own home town. During his career, his exploits made the sports pages of the major newspapers, 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 got his first motorcycle in 1910 and rode it to deliver mail for the local post office. But in 1912, the Alabama State Fair sponsored a motorcycle race at the Birmingham Fairgrounds Raceway, and it was Walker who won the final race of the day. Bob Stuibbs, a local Indian Motorcycles dealer, took note, soon putting Walker on a new Indian eight-valve racer and racing him out of his downtown Birmingham dealership.
Big bikes with no brakes
Early racing motorcycles were little more than large bicycles with large powerful engines–and no brakes. They could reach speeds of 90 m.p.h. on the tracks of the day, and racing them was a deadly serious business.
The races at Birmingham Fairgrounds’ track drew large crowds who came to see top amateur and professional riders lap the dirt track at a blistering pace. By the fall race of 1913, Walker had established a reputation as the man to beat, winning every race he entered during the week long fall program and setting a new lap record for the track.
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.
Walker’s ride with Indian
By 1915, Walker was hired as a factory rider for Indian Motorcycle Company and moved to Springfield, Mass., the company headquarters. Walker’s first national win came that same year at the F.A.M. National race in Saratoga, N.Y.
The next few years were quiet ones for Walker, as professional racing was virtually curtailed for the duration of World War I. As his mother’s sole source of support, Walker wasn’t subject to the draft. He continued to race in local Birmingham events and worked as a machinist for William Specht Jr., at his Harley Davidson dealership on Third Avenue North. According to one newspaper account, he even performed duties of a motorcycle cop during the winter.
Walker returned to professional racing in 1919, winning six National Races.
In April 1920, Walker, riding his Indian Power Plus race, set the first official motorcycle land speed world record of 115 m.p.h. on the sands of Daytona Beach, Fla. That record became the centerpiece of Indian Motorcycle’s advertising that year and a 1920, Motorcycle and Bicycle Illustrated magazine declared Walker a “Champion of Champions.”
Despite that success, Indian released Walker in 1922 for his refusal to ride in dusty track conditions at the sport’s biggest race of 1921 in Dodge City, Kansas. The company reconsidered that decision when he continued to win races on privately owned Harley-Davidsons, and Walker rejoined Indian for the 1924 season, winning the Championship race on the board track at Los Angeles.
On June 7, 1924, Walker was practicing for a race on the half mile dirt track at Stroudsburg, Penn. While taking practice laps he swerved to avoid a woman crossing the track and crashed. The severely injured Walker was transported to Rosenkrans Hospital, where his condition seemed to improve, but on June 21, 1924, Walker died of his injuries. He was 31-years-old and left behind a widow and two children.
A few days later, Birmingham News sports writer Zipp Newman eulogized the hometown motorcycle celebrity under the headline:
MOTORCYCLE RIDING HAS LOST ITS GREATEST STAR IN DEATH OF WALKER
Bob Horton was also quoted in the Newman’s article: “Walker was always a gentleman. His death marks the passing of the greatest motorcycle rider that ever lived.”
During his 10-year professional career, Walker won 19 championship races and numerous non-championship races on both board and dirt tracks. He set lap records on many of the tracks as well as several motorcycle land speed records. His lap record at the Birmingham Fairgrounds Raceway had not been broken when the track stopped racing in World War I. In 1998, Gene Walker was inducted into the American Motorcyclist Association’s Hall of Fame.