Old 91 Rides On
by Tim Leary
At dirt track racing’s peak in the upper Midwest, one man dominated the short track: number 91, Al Burke. From 1949 to 1963, Al won eight consecutive state dirt track championships, two national short track championships, multiple world records and was elected to the Dirt Track Hall of Fame. After nearly 15 years of raspberries and broken bones, most people would retire and relax. But Al, now 63, continues his cycling adventures. Whether breaking the speed barrier at Deals Gap, NC or racing against helicopters in Mexico, Al shows no sign of letting up on the throttle.
How many years did you race?
I started when I was 15 and quit when I was 29. And I rode for Harley for 12 years. At 15-years-old I was racing for the Carlson Brothers in Richfield. I’d just walk over to their place through the fields. There were no houses. I was just hanging around there during WW II. Everyone was gone, and Eskie Carlson said I could hang around. I might learn something. He taught me how to spoke and unspoke wheels and time engines. He put me on a bike when I was ten years old — a sidecar rig after a freezing rain. I went out down the driveway in a full slide, and I’ve never quit sliding.
Right after the war [racing] was doing real well at the White Bear Speedway. Then Don Voge built Twin Cities Speedway, and I raced up there. Myself and Warren Meyers put on a show. The two of us were either first or second, so he paid me $100 a week to race there. That was back in 1950 when I’m a sophomore in high school, and that’s a lot of money. I rode up there every Sunday between stock car races. My rear wheel was in grooves [a foot] deep. I rode through them, around them and over them. They wouldn’t let me in the AMA. You had to be 18, and they were really strict on that at the time.
When I turned 18, I joined the AMA and got my license. I was the top novice in the country. The next year as an amateur, halfway through the year, I had so many points that they had to move me up to expert. I placed in, I think, five nationals, and so the next year they gave me a national number, and I kept number 91 until the day I retired.
Was racing your sole profession?
Yup. I raced for Harley Davidson They hired me when I was 19-years-old to be their short tracker. I raced four nights a week, every week. Tuesday, Milwaukee. Wednesday, Chicago. Thursday, Flint, MI. Friday, Schererville, IN. And I ‘d race wherever they sent me on the weekend then come home Monday to see my wife and son. Did it week after week.
I still hold one record which no one will ever break, because they don’t race that much. I won 37 races in one week. The short track goes seven times a night, and you race ’till you’re the last guy left winning. So I won two on Sunday in Iowa, seven Tuesday, seven Wednesday, seven Thursday, seven Friday and seven again Saturday night.
Was there any kind of a rivalry between you and other racers?
The rivalry was Harley and Indian. Harley hated Indian and visa versa. Bobby Hill, Bill Tuman and Ernie Beckman rode for Indian and were known as the Indian Wrecking Crew. They won so many nationals. Bobby Hill had the number one plate two years in a row, and then Tuman had it a year, Ernie was the last guy to win national on an Indian. I think the neatest part of my Hall Of Fame thing was the Indian crew nominated me for it.
When they hired me, I didn’t like Harley. I was riding BSA, and I did not like Harley, because whatever they needed they paid off the AMA and they got. And basically, I think it’s still the same way.
How did dirt track racing get started in this region?
Well, right after the war, a guy named Bob Hall had a race track at White Bear. It was a “TT” track, and I think it basically ran every Sunday. The Egbergs and all those guys rode up there and that’s where they basically cut their teeth. Then when that shut down, probably in ’48 or ’49, we used to race out at Farmington. A guy named Warren Meyers owned that, and I was his pit man, and I learned by following him around the racetracks.
How many years were Grand Nationals held at the State Fair Grounds?
From ’54 to ’59 except for ’56. Sold out the stands day one of the fair. Then sold standing room in the front. Then they sold standing room in the infield. So there’d be thousands…We were the biggest money maker for the fair. 70,000 was our top crowd. We always out did Springfield, [IL], DuQuoin, [IL], anywhere. We always got more people there than any one place. [The Minnesota State fair track] was the best half mile in the country by far and away.
Were there other areas of the country that you were sent to?
Every place. In the fall of ’56 I was all done racing, I think it was October. In fact, I was already duck hunting, and [Hank] Syverson calls from Harley and says that they put in another short track national in Gastonia, NC. I said I had never heard of it. He said, “Well, your bikes will be ready, pick them up; I want you there.”
I won the national at Gastonia and then went to Asheville-Weaverville the next day. It was a high banked dirt track, just phenomenal. I think it was 30 degrees and a hundred feet high. It was red clay and the south turn was so steep that they watered it from up above. Well, the sun didn’t hit way down low, and it was wet.
I set three world records that day. I just left it full bore and pushed harder every lap. I dove it down [in the corners] until it drove me back up to the fence on the straight-aways. In four laps I was already lapping people. And these were all national experts. Every one of them had a national number. I was just flying by them.
I went way down low past Buff Bergantz, hit the wet stuff, and I was gone. I slid all the way up to the top of the fence, hit the top fence, slid all the way back down to the bottom, and Bergantz hit me [with] his footpeg. We’d just found the full layer helmets; we used to have the half shells. I had a rubber mark from the base of my skull all the way over the top of my helmet from his footpeg. Without a full layer, it would have killed me.
I was just hanging onto the bike. I had my hands underneath the handlebars and the gas cap right between my eyes so that there wouldn’t be two of us bouncing around the track; we had no brakes. So when I finally came down to the bottom I had a strawberry on my butt and cracked a bone in my foot.
But when I said that I set three world records that day, it was for one lap, six laps and for sliding on my butt. I figured I slid on my butt farther than anyone else ever did!
I ripped the whole left side of my butt off. God, was that thing raw hamburger. My wife was scared. She’s driving through the mountains, and I’m kneeling on the front seat to keep my butt up. I had some light green golf pants on, and the whole back was solid blood from being torn open. She was scared, so I said we’d stop and get a motel somewhere in the Carolinas. I went in and told the guy I wanted a motel room and two six-packs of Miller High Life. He said, “You’re in a dry state.” I said, “Well, we’ll keep driving ’till we get to a wet state.” I started to walk out and he says, “Good God, what did you do to yourself?” I said, “I fell on my butt on that motorcycle out there.” By that time my pants had scabbed to my butt, and everything was starting to heal in there. He said, “Well, I’ll give you a room, and there’ll be two six-packs of Miller in there…I think you need them.” I had to sit in the bath tub, drinking beer and getting the scab loose.
When did you last race?
’63 in Livonia, MI. I was second in the corner, and George Roeder was first. Roeder slipped off the fence. I thought to myself, “Should I go in there?” And Verschoor hit me from the back — knocked me down and everyone else except for Roeder. I went down really hard. While we were sitting there on the track, Verschoor asked what happened. He reminded me that Roeder slipped off the fence, and asked why I didn’t go into the gap. I told him that I thought to myself, “Should I go in there?” He cut me off saying, “It’s time for you to quit. You have never ‘thought’ before. You’d instantly jam on somebody that moved.” And I said, “Yeah, you’re right. You’re right, Everette, I’m done.” The pit crew came over, picked up my bike, and I said I’m done. I didn’t race again until I started vintage racing like five years ago.
I took my bikes out to Sturgis to display them, and they said, “Hey, make us a couple laps.” Well, when I get on the track, my brain shuts off, and my arm turns on. I know that. It’s just like a light switch. As soon as I made a couple laps and waved to the people, instinct inside me said, “God, this is really fun.”
So I did vintage racing until I got a call from Bobby Hill, the grand national champion for two years, who begged me not to race anymore. He said, “You’ve got nothing to prove,” and I said, “Hey, I’m having fun.” His wife Nancy got on the phone and said, “Yeah, you’re having fun, until you fall on your ass! Don’t forget, you’re an old guy.” So, I agreed. God has blessed me with a great memory. I can remember everybody’s number, when they rode, what they rode, where they rode, so I just stay with announcing and stay the hell off the race tracks.
Al still rides all the time, despite lingering injuries. Although he’s got seven Harleys, he most enjoys riding his Ducati Monster. The engine was built by Ferracci and the paint is by Bollenbach. It runs at about 13:1 compression creating speeds up to 170 mph. He rides in charity events, throughout Europe and every fall he races from San Diego to Cabos San Lucas, Mexico. While in the neighborhood…
I have a friend down there, Armando, who’s a helicopter pilot for the Mexican DEA. I call him Señor ChopChop, and he calls me Señor Speedy. I went out the first year to race him, and he beat me. The next year was pretty much a dead heat. So last year I’m sitting out there waiting for him on the highway, watching for him in my mirrors, and pretty soon I hear the chopper coming. Here he’s coming, nose down. He could hit a telephone pole, he’s so low. As soon as he got near me I start moving, so we both basically took off at the same time. I knew that at 145 he was done, so when I got up to 170 I just waved to him over my shoulder. Down the road I go, and of course all the Mexican police are out there blocking the highway. Pete Bollenbach says I’m the only guy in the world that can get away with racing a DEA helicopter with police protection!
Then someone told me you couldn’t do a hundred miles an hour through Deals Gap, which is a dumb thing to tell me. I did it four times on one run but I tore up a rear tire doing it.
I am involved with a group called Discover Today’s Motorcycling. I went to a fundraiser in Tennessee for the Rochelle Foundation, which trains handicapped adults and puts them back into the work force. I was one of the guest celebrities with Lyle Lovette and Gary Chapman. We took people out for rides on the Natchez Trace and raised $163,000.
You wouldn’t believe it, but Lovette’s an excellent racer. He has a Ducati Monster with titanium clamps and a lot of carbon fiber, and 9 or ten other bikes. His mom and dad have a motorcycle shop, and they’re great riders, too. He’s gone through Reg Pridmore’s racing school and others. He is a neat guy. If you were sitting here talking motorcycles, you’d have no idea he was an entertainer. He flew me down to Baja to ride with his folks. But I did tell Lyle that he has the ugliest head of hair I have ever seen.
What do you think are the biggest differences between the sport today and the way it was when you were riding?
We put on a better show, because now they’ve got brakes. They go like mad down the straight-away and step on the brakes, and we’d have to slide it into the corner. If you wanted to slow down you just lay it on its cases. Then when you’re done sliding, and you figure you’re going slow enough, and somebody’s going to pass you, you just grab a handful and go again. I got in the habit of, myself and the rest of us, of turning our front wheel in, so it would scrub speed off real quick, and then grab a handful, and you’re gone. But if you did that wrong, you went over the high side. Guys would watch me do it and try it, and some of those guys really got hurt. Now they got so much horsepower. Scotty Parker’s ridden my KR, and he says he can’t imagine we rode those things at that speed with no brakes.
It’s amazing that none of us got killed. We had the old steel armcoat and telephone poles. There was no hay bales, no nothing. You’d just bounce off the armcoat. It’s amazing any of us lived through it.
Al’s good fortune in racing has continued after racing as well.
I found the twelfth KR ever built at a swap meet. The former owner knew it was rare but he didn’t know just how rare. As it turns out, Willie G is willing to trade a VR 1000, a $50,000 racing bike not currently available in the U.S., for that KR. It’s the missing bike that they’ve been looking for years. Right now I’m having it restored professionally.
Another priceless find was a beautiful, handmade, brown leather jacket. I found it outside of Las Vegas in 1974, and it’s got a bloody knife hole in the back where somebody got stabbed in the kidneys. The body was probably laying there. I just didn’t bother to look. I just picked up the jacket, threw it on my bike and kept riding. I wear it everywhere.
Throughout the interview, Al apologized for his gravelly voice saying it was caused by a loose screw. Not quite sure what he meant, I asked.
Did you say that you have a screw stuck in your throat or something?
It’s in the front of the spine. I have a plate on the back and the front. Well the one on the front, the screws are backing out and its against the back of my esophagus. On Tuesday nights we go down to Whiskey Junction and sit around and tell lies and have a good time. Two weeks ago I was riding my Ducati Monster on Cedar Avenue, and I hit a deep pothole. It jarred my neck really bad. It broke the front plate in my neck and forced the screw forward.
Despite the incredible speed at which Al is living his life, he’s always sure to make time for the man that gave him his start, Eskie Carlson.
He’s 87 years old now and he shakes at his age. He said, “You know, kid, we’ve come a long way. You used to watch me build your engines and now I watch you build mine.”