By: David L. Morrill
Updated - December 29, 2015
Alabama State Fairgrounds Raceway - 1914
Birmingham, AL. Public Library Archives
O. V. Hunt Collection
The other day I was reading the Birmingham News and came across an article about a political battle brewing around the use of the old Alabama State Fairgrounds property. Seems they want to build another big box store on the site. Few folks in Birmingham know it, but the raceway which was located on this site for over one hundred years played a very important role in early history of motorcycle racing. It's time to tell the story, so it's not lost!
If you ride down Bessemer Road in the Five Points West neighborhood of Birmingham, AL., you come across a several acre bare plot of land, that was formally the site of the Alabama State Fairgrounds. This is also the site of the old Fairgrounds Raceway. The original one mile dirt oval was used as a horse racing track until 1907.
|Alabama State Fairgrounds |
|Bicycling World and Motorcycle Review|
April 7, 1906
|Bicycling World an Motorcycle Review - July 13, 1907|
|Robert Stubbs - Ormond Beach, Florida 1909|
Chris Price@Archive Moto
|Alabama State Fairgrounds Raceway - July 4, 1911|
Chris Price@Archive Moto - Motorcycle Illustrated July 13, 1914
Amateur Race Start
Alabama State Fairgrounds Raceway
Birmingham, AL Public Library Archives
They came to see the countries' leading professional racers compete on the one mile dirt oval. The track featured a modern covered grandstand down the front stretch. Birmingham became a popular spot with professional motorcycle racers from across the country. They would spend their winters in Birmingham sharpening their racing skills.
In 1912, Birmingham native Gene Walker entered his first motorcycle race at the Fairgrounds. At the time, Walker delivered mail on his motorcycle for the Birmingham Post Office. He raced at the Fairgrounds Raceway, as an amateur for the next two years.
Gene Walker - 1914
Walker gained a reputation as the man to beat at the Birmingham track. He honed his racing skills against the professionals racers, who relocated to Birmingham for winters. His talent was recognized by the local Indian Motorcycle Company dealer Bob Stubbs, who put him on a new 8 valve Indian racer.In October 1914, Walker entered his first professional race at the Fairgrounds Raceway. He was able to run with the lead pack, led briefly, and set a new track record. The race was won by Harley-Davidson's new factory rider Red Parkhurst, but the results were protested. Parkhurst's win was later upheld, giving Harley-Davidson their first ever win in a National Championship Race. This win was used in their advertising for the 1915 models.
|Harley-Davidson Ad - December 1914|
Walker would go on to be an Indian Factory rider, set the first official motorcycle land speed records, and become one of the top motorcycle racers in the country. He was tragically killed in a racing accident in 1924.
One icon of the early Fairgrounds Raceway survives today. In 1904, Italian sculptor Giuseppe Moretti cast an iron statute of Vulcan, the Roman God of Fire, in Birmingham for exhibition at the upcoming Worlds Fair in St Louis. After the Fair ended, the statute was returned to Birmingham and reassembled at the Alabama State Fairgrounds. The statute remained at the Fairgrounds Raceway until the 1930s, when it was moved to it's current location a top Red Mountain. This iconic symbol of Birmingham's industrial past over looks the city today. It is the largest cast iron statute in the world.
|Vulcan Statute at Alabama state Fairgrounds - Birmingham, AL.|
Birmingham Public Library Archives - O.V. Hunt Collection
Alabama State Fairgrounds
Raceway Site - 2012
Bicycling World and Motorcycle Review
Birmingham, Alabama Public Library Archives - O.V. Hunt Collection
Chris Price@Archive Moto
Johnny Whitsett Collection