After several attempts to put into words the significance of this image it has become apparent that there remains too much backstory to sufficiently cover in a short article. However, I have been kicking an idea for a new project around for quite sometime now and this attempt may have given me the last push I need to pursue it. There is more to this story, but you will just have to stay tuned.
An embrace between Albert William “Shrimp” Burns and Harry Otto Walker, respected competitors, former teammates, rivals, and two of the most fearless, passionate, and iconic founding-fathers in American motorcycle racing history. The moment was captured at the championship races held at Los Angeles’ Ascot Park on January 11, 1920. Burns had just abruptly left the Harley-Davidson factory team and made his debut the Sunday prior as the newest member of the Indian factory team. Reportedly, tensions between Burns and acting Harley team captain Otto Walker were a factor in his decision to split from the mighty Milwaukee team, who had given him his first professional racing contract just one year before. Walker, who had only recently returned from a tour of duty in France during WWI had only been back at the races since Labor Day when he made his post-war return as a veteran of the Harley-Davidson’s Wrecking Crew at the road race in Marion, IN.
Burns, who had a rough debut the week before at Ascot with a Wigwam stable plagued with mechanical issues returned on the 11th with the tenacity of a man with something to prove. The slight Californian took first place in the 25 mile race at an average speed of 81 mph, becoming the first M&ATA National Champion of 1920. His former teammate Otto Walker was actually leading that race, but after wearing the tread off of his rear tire he had a terrible slide and tumble on the final turn, allowing his old rival to shoot past him for the win. Undeterred, Walker still managed to remount his pocket valve Harley and come in 3rd place. For the 50 mile Ascot Championship, a pocket-valve only race, Walker regained his wits and claimed the victory while Burns and another former teammate Fred Ludlow scrapped in Walker’s dust for second, Ludlow pulling ahead by only 2/5’s of a second at the line.
It is uncertain after which race this photograph was taken, though I like to think that it was a moment captured after the 25 mile race, just after Walker’s spill which no doubt stirred uneasiness in its similarity to another fellow racer, Excelsior’s Bob Perry’s tragic death during practice at Ascot only days before. To whatever extent the reports of their rivalry are true, the fact remains that both men had the fortitude and drive to risk everything for their sport, qualitiesthese men assuredly admired in one another. This moment seems to capture that mutual respect, the general concern these pioneering gentlemen racers had for one another regardless of criticisms or complaints.