David Morrill of Deadly Dave’s Blog
They say a pictures worth a thousand words, and this old photo is certainly worth a few. To start with, Daytona 200 winner Don Emde sent me this photo as part of some research I was doing a few years back. It was taken in 1923, and the rider is Gene Walker, of Birmingham, AL.
Now some folks will tell you, Gene Walker was an Indian rider, and that is mostly correct. From the time the Birmingham Indian dealer, Bob Stubbs, put young Walker on an 8 valve Indian racer at the Alabama State Fairgrounds, through many of his race wins, and numerous track records, Gene Walker raced Indians.
So how did one of the most famous Indian riders of his time come to be photographed on a Harley-Davidson racer?
And even more interesting, how did he come to be part of Harley-Davidson’s 1923 advertising?
The story starts with America’s entry into World War I. Professional racing was curtailed, and Indian Factory rider Gene Walker returned to Birmingham. As his widowed mother’s sole support, Walker was exempted from the draft. He found work as a motorcycle machinist at the Harley-Davidson shop run by Bill Specht. During the winters, Walker supplemented his income, working as a Birmingham Motorcycle Police Officer. Walker also kept is hand in racing, winning a few non championship races at Atlanta’s Lakewood Speedway on a privately entered Harley-Davidson.
With his return to the Indian Racing Team in 1919, Gene Walker again won races, set track records, and even set the first officially recognized motorcycle land speed records for Indian.
So how did he come to fall into disfavor with the Management at Indian?
In July 1921, Walker agreed to compete in the biggest race of the year, the 300 Mile Coyote Classic in Dodge City, Kansas. A few days before the race, Walker notified his bosses he would not compete at Dodge City. Walker contended he didn’t like the dusty, dangerous conditions, at Dodge City, but he may have had another reason.
Walker entered a race in South Bend, Indiana just two weeks after the Dodge City race. His bosses at Indian, accused him of “cherry picking” races for easy wins, and purses. The dispute played out in the motorcycle press for the next month. Gene continued to win races on Indians, and it appeared the dispute was settled, until Walker was unexpectedly released by Indian at the end of the 1921 racing season. The reason given by Indian’s Management, was his failure to meet his contractual obligations by not competing at Dodge City.
Walker returned to Birmingham, and appears to have gone back to work at the Harley-Davidson shop. He also resumed his duties as a motorcycle police officer. His story was picked up by newspapers across the country.
Walker returned to racing on the privately entered ex-factory Harley-Davidson 30.5 ci four valve racer shown in the photograph. How Walker secured a ride on an ex-factory Harley-Davidson racer is unknown, as Harley-Davidson had shut down their factory racing effort. They were however, offering bikes to select qualified racers. Walker’s former boss, Bill Specht, also had ties to the Harley-Davidson factory. Harley-Davidson may have also seen it as an opportunity to thumb their nose at their racing rival Indian. However it came about, Walker began to dominate the short track races around the country, and Harley-Davidson took full advantage of the publicity surrounding his wins.
By the end of the 1923 season, Indian rehired Walker. He quickly rewarded Indian with a win on the board track at Los Angeles, and followed that with two wins at the Ascot Speedway. Sadly, Walker died of injuries he sustained in a crash at the half mile dirt track at East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania in June 1924.
So, what became of the factory four valve Harley-Davidson racer in the photo?
I wish I knew. None of the blanked off four valve factory racers, seem to have survived. Like their big brothers, the twin cam eight valve racers, they were very rare. I can only hope it’s hiding undiscovered in some dark corner of a Birmingham warehouse. If it does turn up, I sure hope I get the first call! It will certainly take very deep pockets to own it.