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In Birmingham, Alabama — in the 412-acre Elmwood Cemetery — is buried one of the greatest sports legends to ever come out of Alabama.
At the time of his death, he was the most famous sports hero in Alabama and the red and white jerseys his team wore were recognized around the nation. During his career, he amassed 19 championship wins and was inducted into the “Hall of Fame” in 1998.
On the day of his funeral, Birmingham Police Motorcycle Officers escorted his body to Elmwood Cemetery where his friends and fellow teammates served as pall bearers.
And no, I’m not talkin’ ‘bout Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. Although, he too is buried in Elmwood Cemetery.
The Fastest Man Alive
No. This legend was described by the Santa Cruz News, a California newspaper, as the “Alabama Flash.” And, for a brief time in 1920, this former cop from Birmingham, Alabama was… the – fastest – man – alive.
He raced motorcycles and rode for the Indian Motocycle Racing Team (By the way, I didn’t misspell Motorcycle — that’s how Indian spelled it). While riding for the Wigwams, he set 12 speed records, including a land-speed record of 115.79 miles per hour at Daytona Beach, Florida in April of 1920. During the previous 1919 season, he won 6 of the 13 national championship races that were held that year and was declared Champion of Champions by Motorcycle and Bicycle Illustrated.
His name……….. John Eugene Walker. Everyone called him “Gene.” He was the first Southerner to make a name for himself nationally.
Gene didn’t exactly have an easy childhood. His father was murdered a few months before he was born in Plevna, Alabama, near the Tennessee line. His mother moved the family to Birmingham shortly after his birth, November 7th, 1893.
Gene bought his first second-hand motorcycle, an Excelsior, when he was 17 and used it to deliver mail for the post office, one of the first in Birmingham. It was this everyday affair of hurtling his machine around the post route that helped young Gene hone his skills as a rider.
These skills would prove invaluable just a few months later.
At the 1912 Alabama State Fair, Gene entered a motorcycle race and won the five-mile final race of the day. Watching that day was Indian Motocycle dealer Bob Stubbs, who recognized Gene’s talent and hired him to work in his shop located at 1804 Fourth Avenue in Birmingham.
Stubbs was a renowned racer and racing enthusiast. He immediately took Gene under his wing and put him on a new Indian eight-valve racing machine.
A year later, 1913, Gene once again entered the fall races at the Birmingham Fairgrounds, which consistently drew huge crowds to watch all the top amateur and professional riders scorch the track. In the year leading up to the races, Gene had established himself as the man to beat. Only, no one could. Gene won every race he entered during the weeklong event and set a new lap record for the track.
Indian Motocycle Invitation
A few months later, during the winter of 1914, Gene was invited to Indian Motocycle headquarters in Springfield, Massachusetts, where he worked in their research testing room. It was here that Gene gained invaluable experience and knowledge about the internal workings of the Indian racing machines.
Gene’s first big win came in 1915 at a FAM (Federation of American Motorcyclists) sanctioned event on July 10 in Saratoga, New York. Gene won the five-mile championship over top riders like Bob Perry, and Jim Davis while setting a new record for the distance in the process.
Gene did well over the next year, finishing in the top tier of racers in many races, like the Dodge City 300, where he finished fifth in 1916.
Then World War I intervened. Racing was more or less non-existent as races were suspended and many of the top riders entered the military. In addition, much of the country’s motorcycle production was funneled to the military. As the sole support for his widowed mother, Gene was not subject to the draft. It was during this time that Gene began working for William Specht Jr., a Harley Davidson dealer. He also worked as a motorcycle cop during this period.
When racing resumed in 1919, Gene did the unbelievable by winning six of the thirteen national championship races that year. Despite a dispute with Indian Motocycles that resulted in Gene’s release from the team in 1922, Gene kept winning while riding a Harley Davidson. Gene would later rejoin the Indian Motocycle team for the 1924 season.
Tragically, Gene Walker died at the peak of his career from injuries received from a crash on June 6th, 1924 in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania during a practice session. Walker was only 30 years old.
There is much speculation as to what exactly happened. That speculation includes that he tried to dodge a woman crossing the track, that he hit a tractor that pulled onto the track, or that he just lost control of the machine as he attempted to negotiate the treacherous thrill turn above the grandstand. Unfortunately, we will never know.
What we do know for sure is that Gene’s motorcycle hit a tree throwing him from the motorcycle and landing in a gully sloping down from the track, the impact crushing his side and abdomen. Local physician, Dr. W. E. Andrew of Stroudsburg came to Gene’s aid and applied an abdominal splint. Gene was immediately taken to Rosendrans Hospital in East Stroudsburg in Mr. H. J. Wyckoff’s Packard Touring car.
The tragedy only gets worse. Three days later, Gene’s wife arrives from Alabama. After doctors assure her that his chances of survival were good, albeit he probably would never race again, she heads home to Alabama. Upon arriving in Birmingham, she is met by an Indian Motocycle factory representative who informs her that her husband has died.
Mr. W. E. Freeman, an Indian Motocycle Company representative, stayed behind with Gene in the hospital. He told a local Pennsylvania newspaper that he saw Gene suddenly “gripped with a cough that racked his maimed body which caused a hemorrhage.”
Gene left behind a wife and two children with another on the way.
John Eugene “Gene” Walker was inducted into the American Motorcyclist Association Hall of Fame in 1998.