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Record-breaker Gene Walker: Birmingham’s lost racing champion [updated, with vintage footage, 01/28/12]

January 6, 2012

[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.

Birmingham Fairgrounds Raceway 1913/14, O.H. Hunt photograph, Johnny Whitsett Collection

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

Indian Motorcycle Memorial Ad 1924, Don Emde Collection

 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.”

GeneWalker Cycle Photo, Daytona Beach, Fla., 1920, Don Emde Collection

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.”

Walker's marker at Elmwood Cemetery

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.



14 Comments leave one →
  1. May 20, 2013 6:10 pm

    Dear David: When I came upon your web site I was going through the passing of my own mother ,Elizabeth Walker (her maiden name). Because of my circumstance at the time I found it hard to contemplate responding to you inquires. With some passage of time I think I could more easily provide you with any info I might have regarding my grandfather, Gene Walker. Recently, going through my mothers papers I found the marriage certificate for
    “John Eugene Walker and his bride Eunice Harwood”. The picture I previously mentioned of
    my grandfather and grandmother on his motorcycle with her in the side car might be something you would like to see; as well as other items I still have. Although Gene Walker never got to see his third child, Elizabeth Gene Walker, your web site has opened the possibility of a reconection with family members I have only been able to think about with wonder as to where they were. I don’t know if this is an imposition to ask or of any ethical concern but do you think it might be possible for you to pass along my e-mail info to Celeste,
    the youngest cousin, and to Ms Lisa Oatman, the daughter of Sarah, the middle daughter of Jane who was the middle daughter of John and Eunice Walker? With trepidation and anticipation I look forward to your response . Thank You In Advance, Donie

    Like

    • May 21, 2013 2:18 pm

      Donie,

      Thank you for your reply. I would love to see the mementoes you have of Gene’s career and life. I am forwarding your e mail to Lisa and Celeste. You can contact me directly by e mail at:

      dlmracing@gmail.com

      I look forward to hearing from you!

      Sincerely,

      David L. Morrill
      Sylacauga, AL.

      Like

  2. April 16, 2012 8:49 pm

    Gene Walker was also my Grandfather. Thank you Mr Morrill and Ms Ellaby for sharing information that we have been looking for, for a very long time.

    Celeste Navara

    Like

    • Liz Ellaby permalink
      April 16, 2012 9:55 pm

      Thank you, for responding. I think we need a follow-up to this story, now that we’ve found some missing pieces to Gene Walker’s family.

      Like

      • David Morrill permalink
        April 17, 2012 8:02 am

        Will do Liz. I have already filled in some of the missing pieces and heard some new stories from Lisa. Thanks again for posting the article.

        Like

    • David Morrill permalink
      April 17, 2012 8:00 am

      Celeste, you are very welcome. When I started working on Gene’s story, I had no idea we would be able to fill in some of the missing pieces of your family history. That is an unexpected benefit of telling Gene’s story, and one of the things that makes sharing history very important. To those of us that collect, and restore early motorcycles, and honor the daring men who raced them, Gene will always be one of the great Champions!

      If you have any stories, articles, photos, etc of Gene you would like to share, please contact me at the below listed e mail address. If you are on Facebook, I have posted most of my source articles and photos in my gallery for the public to share.

      David L. Morrill
      Sylacauga, AL.
      dlmracing@gmail.com

      Like

  3. Donie Williams permalink
    February 14, 2012 11:11 am

    Gene Walker was my grandfather. In January of 1925 his widow, Eunice Walker gave birth to their third daughter. My grandfather never met his third child. Over the years we have come across pics of him. I have a photograph of him and his wife, my grandmother. He is posed on his motorcycle with my grandmother in the side car, looking quite grand I might add. The film is great. I wish my mother could have lived long enough to see moving footage of her father. Much Thanks, Donie

    Like

    • David Morrill permalink
      February 14, 2012 1:42 pm

      Donnie, I was very much hoping someone from Gene’s family would respond to the story. None of my source materials identified Gene’s mother, wife, or children by name. If you will contact me by email, I will send you copies of my photos and source materials. I have submitted a package to get Gene inducted into Alabama Sports Hall of Fame. I am waiting for a response from them.

      Sincerely,

      David Morrill
      dlmracing@gmail.com

      Like

    • Lisa Oatman permalink
      April 13, 2012 10:52 pm

      Gene Walker is also my great grandfather, we have a few picture but never new the actual Cemetery that he was put to rest my mother Genes granddaughter will be so happpy to hear the new information that has been found.Thank You!

      Like

    • Lisa Oatman permalink
      April 14, 2012 9:39 am

      Donnnie I’am Sara’s daughter, I have been looking into al the information about our famous Grandfather for years both of my boy have written report at school about him. They are now into the 20’s. We were so excited to find the Cemetery if would make me a copy of any picture of Gene I would be so grateful as well as my mother.Than you Lisa!

      Like

      • David Morrill permalink
        April 14, 2012 9:46 am

        Lisa,

        I am the writer, who wrote the article on your grandfather, Gene Walker. Ifg you will contact me at the below listed e mail address, I will share all my photos and source material with Gene’s family.

        Sincerely,

        David L. Morrill
        Sylacauga, AL.

        dlmracing@gmail.com

        Like

  4. courtney permalink
    January 11, 2012 2:07 pm

    Great catch, Ms. E. I’d actually heard of this guy, but had no clue he was from Our Fair City. The pix enhance the tale marvelously.

    Wonder if the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame has room for Gene Walker?

    Like

    • David Morrill permalink
      January 11, 2012 3:30 pm

      Courtney, I am working on a package for the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame as we speak, and should have it in the mail this week. When I first ran across Gene’s story, my original intention was to get him into the ASHF.

      There’s a period video of Gene on Youtube. He’s at the very end of the video. Not sure I can post the link here, but I’ll try. Just search Daytona board track. David Morrill

      Like

  5. David morrill permalink
    January 7, 2012 9:01 am

    Liz,

    Thanks for the chance to tell Gene’s story.
    David L. Morrill
    Syalacauga, AL.

    Like

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