At first glance this photo seems to capture a moment shared between teammates, members of the eminent Harley-Davidson Wrecking Crew lined up either in anticipation of their victory, or perhaps just after, on a dusty dirt oval in the 1920’s. With a bit more investigation it is discovered that the photo comes from a series of M&ATA National Championship races held at Los Angeles’ old Ascot Park in January 1920, just as professional motorcycle racing in America was rebooting after WWI. The riders then begin to come into focus, from left to right, as Freddie Ludlow, Ralph Hepburn, Albert “Shrimp” Burns, and Otto Walker, but if the caption were to end there far too much of the story would remain untold.
This week’s post is somewhat of a followup on another that I wrote back on January 17th of this year, which detailed an intimate moment captured between Shrimp Burns and Otto Walker, two of America’s most beloved motorcycle racing pioneers. The photograph came from the first M&ATA National Championship race of the 1920 season, held at the old Ascot Speedway in Los Angeles on January 11th, 1920. This photograph comes from the very same event and lets us dig a bit deeper into the palpable camaraderie, brotherhood, and potential tensions between these timeless icons. It also raises an interesting question. Shrimp, dressed in all leather second from the right, was photographed here alongside his old racing teammates, posing onboard one of the factory Harley-Davidson’s no less, but was no longer a member of the Milwaukee team. The youngest star of the Harley-Davidson team had just abruptly left the week before to race for Harley’s most formidable rival, Indian. Yet here he is, onboard what must have been Leslie Parkhurst’s factory Harley despite his freshly severed allegiance to the Milwaukee mothership.
Prior to the suspension of professional racing during America’s involvement in WWI, the Harley-Davidson Motor Company had only officially participated in the sport for a short time, unveiling their factory program at the 1914 Thanksgiving Day American Classic Championship road race in Savannah, GA. Equipped with Harley racing engineer Bill Ottaway’s powerful new 11K pocket-valve racing platform along with their growing stable full of talent which included Leslie Parkhurst, Joe Wolters, Otto Walker, Ray Weishaar, and Maldwyn Jones, Harley-Davidson established a strong presence on the national scene throughout 1915 and 1916. At that time, the dominating force in American motorcycle racing was still the mighty Indian motocycles, though a confident and capable Excelsior factory program had been giving the boys from Springfield an increasing amount of headaches. Smaller companies like Flying Merkel, Thor, Pope, Emblem, and Cyclone retained what hold they could on the sport under the growing power of big factory superiority, yet Harley-Davidson rose to the top of the ranks almost immediately. It was with such a talented team, highly capable machines, and the deep coffers of a successful, well established brand that Harley-Davidson had become one of the top three competitive manufacturers by 1917. However, the American war effort halted the momentum of the Milwaukee crew as well as the other factory teams as all professional racing in the country was suspended for 1917 and 1918. Supplies were heavily rationed and production shifted towards war machines which marked the end of the line for many of America’s smaller motorcycle manufacturers. The vast majority of America’s professional racers too halted their own career for the war, trading in their colorful wool racing jerseys in for the olive drab tunics of the U.S. Army.
The most revered racers of the teens enlisted for service in the United States Army, including 3 of the 4 men here. Fred Ludlow, the dapper truck driver from LA on the far left served in the Signal Corps, while Massachusetts native Ralph Hepburn, who is next to Ludlow was only weeks away from completing fighter pilot training as the war came to and end. Both men were notable up and comers before the war and as such were two of the first selected by Ottaway for the rebirth of the Milwaukee camp. Shrimp Burns, who was only 16 when the war broke out in Europe registered for selective service, but didn’t enlist voluntarily for active duty and was not drafted, rather spending his time fine tuning his ability on the track and supporting himself by turning wrenches. His tenacious reputation made him a natural pick for the Harley team in 1919 and as such Shrimp was one of the first recruited. Ottaway offered the young Shrimp his first professional factory contract and his dedication to improvement throughout the war years resulted in victories in most events that he entered, smashing numerous speed records, and earning title of M&ATA 100 Mile National Champion on October 11 at the massive Sheepshead Bay board track. A veteran of Harley’s factory racing program, Otto Walker (far right) was one of the first racers in the country selected to sport the Milwaukee colors in its earliest days before the war. As such his position on the newly forming team of all stars was nearly assured, but as a mechanic in the US Army’s aviation division stationed near the front, Walker was apart of one of the last waves of soldiers to return. Walker assumed the position of team captain late in the 1919 season after his debut race in Marion, IN, that labor day, which may have irked riders like Shrimp who had already proven their worth. By the end of the 1919 season Harley-Davidson’s racing guru, Bill Ottaway had cherrypicked some of the best and brightest racers for his new powerhouse factory team, a group that would become known as the Wrecking Crew.
However, after such a remarkable debut season with a seemingly invincible Harley-Davidson factory team, it came as quite a shock when the young star Shrimp Burns abruptly left the budding Wrecking Crew for the start of the 1920 season. Speculations as to why Shrimp left the Milwaukee camp so suddenly center around a few points. One was a potential lack of attention paid to Shrimp amidst a team full of new speed kings and established veterans like Otto Walker and Leslie “Red” Parkhurst. Another suggests the promise of a better deal and greater factory support for Shrimp on the Indian team, which boasted their own stable of talent including Roy Artley, bill Church, and Gene Walker. It is worth a mention that though Harley-Davidson had made a strong pre-war debut in competition, they were still overcoming the shadow cast by an almost two-decade long domination of the sport by Indian, potentially a temptation for a young and ambitious racer like Burns. Finally, there are stories of mounting tensions between Shrimp and then acting captain Otto Walker, a duo that shared a history as rivals. Back when a 16 year old Shrimp Burns began buzzing around the dirt tracks of California, looking to weasel his way onto the starting line new professionals like Walker filled protests allowing Shrimp to race on a number of occasions. Whatever the case, despite having won the 1919 100 Mile National Championship for Harley in October, and having just raced at Ascot alongside Walker, Hepburn, and Ludlow the month prior, Shrimp Burns made his 1920 debut that January to the surprise of everyone with the crimson script of Indian written across his chest.
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. Shrimp Burns, with the full support of the mighty Springfield factory would go on to become one of the nation’s most beloved motorcycle racers. For the next two seasons he consistently held his position towards the front of the pack, being beaten more often as a result of mechanical failures than actually having been outmatched. However, on Sunday, August 14, 1921 Shrimp’s fate came to call during a race in Toledo, and while having it out with former Wrecking Crew teammates Ray Weishaar and Fred Ludlow, Shrimp lost control careening thorough the outside fence and died before reaching the hospital.
Harley-Davidson’s Wrecking Crew would soon come to an end as well, as President Arthur Davidson essentially pulled the company out of factory backed racing at the close of the 1921 season. However, the Harley-Davidson brand had become synonymous with top tier competition and many of the racers were allowed to purchase their factory machines and continue competing, and the factory occasionally supported riders like Jim Davis and Joe Petralli throughout the 1920’s. Fred Ludlow went on to work for LA’s Will Risden at his Indian dealership until becoming a LAPD motorcycle patrol officer in 1923. Later, at the age of 40, Ludlow would be tapped once again as the driver for Hap Alzina’s Indian Arrow land speed machine in 1938, one of the earliest applications of streamlined bodywork for motorcycle speed records in America. Ralph Hepburn continued racing into the mid 1920’s, setting a number of records and racking up titles and trophies until venturing into the world of automobile racing. Hepburn would become a top competitor at the prestigious Indianapolis 500 throughout the 1930’s, even coming in 2nd place by only 2 seconds in 1937. Hepburn died in a crash during qualifying at the 1948 Indy 500. Otto Walker walked away from the racing game in 1922 as the team dissolved, settling in along the Sacramento River and retiring to a quieter life running a fly fishing outfit.
This moment, captured that sunny January day in 1920 gives us a glimpse into the complicated and competitive world of professional motorcycle racing in America during one of the sports greatest eras. Those few short years after the Great War mark the crescendo of American motorcycle racing’s first grand age, a time dominated by lionized men, cutting edge machines, and big-money factory rivalry. One question still remains however, and it is perhaps the most peculiar aspect of this photo, the detail which inspired this investigation. Why, after having made his debut with the Indian Wigwam the week before, would Shrimp be posing, or have even been allowed to pose for a photograph with his former teammates on board one of their factory machines? It is a detail that will most likely remain unknown, yet another secret of the ages, but it alludes to a much more interesting story than a simple caption could have conveyed.