Al Burke was a leading Midwestern flat-track racer of the 1950s and early 1960s. Burke rode as a Harley-Davidson factory-supported rider from 1954 to 1963, specializing in short-track racing. He was an eight-time Minnesota state champion and won numerous regional racing titles. After retiring from professional racing, Burke stayed involved in the sport by announcing races and later came back from a spinal injury to compete in vintage racing.
Burke was born in 1933 and raised in Richfield, Minnesota. His home was close to Carlson Brothers BSA & Norton Sales and as a kid he hung out at the shop. During World War II, the dealership was not very busy. The owners let young Burke learn to work on the bikes from an early age. Co-owner Eske Carlson told Burke, "If you're going to hang around every day, you may as well learn something." He started by having the 9-year-old youngster take wheels apart and re-spoke them. He then gradually taught him to work on engines.
Burke’s first actual ride on a motorcycle is one he will never forget.
"When I was 9 years old, on a day when we had a freezing rain, he told me to take a Harley 45, with an outrigger sidecar and go to the store and get some pop," Burke recalls. "I think I killed the engine three times on glare ice. I finally gave it more throttle, dumped the clutch and took off in a full broadslide out of the driveway. I’ve always said that I started out in a full slide and never quit."
As a teenager, Burke wanted to learn to race flat track. He spent hours at an old gravel pit doing countless laps, learning to control a bike in a full broadslide. By the time he started racing local non-sanctioned events at 15, Burke was already one of the fastest riders in his area.
Shortly after winning the Minnesota flat-track racing title in 1954 on a BSA, Burke was invited to the Harley-Davidson factory. Grand National racer Leo Anthony, one of Burke’s childhood racing heroes, gave him the tour of the factory and he met Hank Syvertsen, Harley’s head of racing. Burke was given a factory Harley-Davidson WR and a schedule of races they wanted him to attend. That year, he scored enough national points to be given national No. 91.
Harley-Davidson used Burke as its short-track and regional race specialist. The factory even made a special custom short-track racing frame for him. With his factory machines, Burke dominated the frequent night racing programs of the Upper Midwest during the mid-to-late 1950s.
"I would drive to Milwaukee on a Tuesday, pick up my bike and race the rest of that week and weekend and drop off the bike on my way back to Minnesota," Burke said. "In July of 1956, I set an all-time record of 37 wins in one week. On the short track, we raced what was called the handicap/scratch program, where you go until there was only one winner. We would ride seven times a night, if you kept winning. I won the heat and final on an Iowa half mile on Sunday, seven times at Milwaukee on Tuesday, seven times at Santa Fe on Wednesday, seven times on Thursday at Flint, Michigan, seven times on Friday and again seven times at Schererville, Indiana, taking 37 first places in a single week of racing."
While primarily known as a regional racing specialist, Burke raced AMA Grand Nationals on occasion as well. He scored a number of top-10 national finishes including a career-best fifth in the half-mile in St. Paul, Minnesota, in August of 1957.
Burke became closely associated with the Sturgis Rally in South Dakota. In 1949, he rode to the rally on a Velocette and received an award for the youngest rider attending on his own bike. He later came back as a racer and won the Black Hills Classic.
"In 1979, J.C. 'Pappy' Hoel and I were talking about how we could get a reunion of the old motorcycle racers that rode here at Sturgis, back then, together," Burke remembers. "From that conversation was born the White Plate Flat Tracker's Association. Pappy wrote a book called 'Life's Bits and Pieces.' I wrote a chapter in it about dirt-track racing and growing up at Sturgis."
Burke raced full-time until 1963, when he retired to go to work as a motorcycle policeman. He suffered a spinal injury while working as a detective in 1975 in a freak incident, while trying to subdue a professional football player who had been picked up on the street under the influence of narcotics. At first, he was told by doctors that he might never walk again, but after seven operations in seven months, Burke made a remarkable recovery and actually later came back to race motorcycles in vintage classes.
Burke stayed active in motorcycle racing by helping to sponsor young racers and being the race announcer and color commentator at many events. He also served as secretary of the "Over the Hill Gang," a group of retired motorcycle racers.
When inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1996, Burke still lived in his hometown of Richfield, in the same house he grew up in. He continued to display some of his old racing bikes at shows and races. He rode often on his favorite street bike, a Ducati Monster. He and his ex-wife raised three children.