When I was 14 years old my brother and I filmed a rock video in which I lip-synched Metallica’s “Crash Course in Brain Surgery” and set fire to my legs. When Albert “Shrimp” Burns was 14 years old he was racing an Indian motorcycle in national competitions. Some of us develop a little slower than others, I guess.
This year marks 120 years since the birth of the AMA Hall of Famer. The California native had a famous tenacity, which first manifested in his antagonizing other racers who sought to have him barred from competitions. In one famous incident, when he was 15, a group of older racers managed to argue that he shouldn’t be allowed to take part because his small stature and light weight gave him an unfair advantage, he stood at the edge of the track and made faces at the racers until being ejected from the facility.
A board- and dirt-track racer for both Harley-Davidson and Indian during his career he was also tough as hell – as most boardtrackers were. Once, he crashed badly in a race in Marysville, California, then went back to the pits and put his bike back together in time to take part in the next race – a five-miler that he managed to win despite being in intense pain. Only afterward, thanks to friends’ urging him to see a doctor, did he learn that he’d suffered a fractured clavicle and broken shoulder.
At a race in Beverly Hills in April 1921 he crashed at 107 mph and was pretty much ripped to shreds from the wooden track’s splinters. Remember that in those days safety consisted of little more than a nice, thick sweater. His bike totaled, most of us would have called it a day. Not Burns, he borrowed a teammate’s bike and lined up to take part in the day’s final race.
Wrapped in bandages, Burns seemed content to hang back and earn the crowd’s accolades for simply taking part. Then, in the final lap, he rode high on the track’s 50-foot embankment, using it to help him swoop down and beat the other riders by inches.
Unfortunately for Burns, his luck wouldn’t last much longer. At a race in Toledo, Ohio, four months later, he caught the back end of another racer’s bike and was thrown through a fence. He was declared dead before arriving at the hospital. He had been a month away from marrying his fiancee, Genevieve Moritz, and had promised to quit racing after the wedding. He was just 23 years old.
His death inspired tributes that extended beyond the trade press. He was even the subject of a number of poems. The impact of his death was so intensely felt that it forced a certain amount of reflection, with many questioning the value of racing when its human cost was so high.
Some see Burns’ death as the beginning of the end for boardtrack racing. The sport would carry on for a few more years but had so rapidly lost popularity by the end of the 1920s that the financial challenges created by the Great Depression easily killed it off.
Burns was nominated into the AMA Hall of Fame in 1998 – a century after his birth. You can read more about boardtracking’s heyday by checking out the site Pioneers of American Motorcycle Racing.