"Shrimp" Burns was one of the top dirt and board track racers of the 1910s and early '20s. The diminutive Burns rode for both the Harley-Davidson and Indian factory teams during his career. He was the youngest champion of his era, winning his first titles at the tender age of 15.
Known for his tenacity, Burns was always a crowd favorite. Fellow competitor Wells Bennett noted that Burns took the turns with his tongue hanging off to the side of his mouth as if to give him extra balance. He was a gritty and determined rider who often rode injured.
At times Burns also wore his emotions on his sleeve. At one of his early races, several competitors protested allowing the speedy 15-year-old Burns to race, because of his age. When he was told his entry was rejected, Burns went out and sat on the outside rail of the race track and taunted his fellow racers by making faces at them as they rode by. Burns was promptly ejected from the facility.
Burns was born in Oakdale, California, on August 12, 1898. His family moved to Oakland when Albert was a toddler and that is where Burns grew up and went to school. As a youngster, Burns' favorite place to hang out was a local Pope motorcycle dealership. At first, the managers of the shop chased Burns away for meddling with the bikes parked in front of the shop, but later they relented and hired the 12-year-old as a shop helper.
One day when the owner was out to lunch, the temptation was too great for Burns and he sneaked out on a Pope lightweight and rode around the block. Before long Burns was allowed to run messages for the shop and occasionally was even allowed to borrow a machine for Sunday afternoon rides.
On May 4, 1913, Burns entered his first professional motorcycle race in Sacramento and finished an impressive fourth. That summer, Burns continued to hone his racing skills on the tracks of Northern California. Later that summer, Burns rode against the stars of the day such as Bob Perry, Ray Creviston, Otto Walker and Carl Goudy in a championship race in Sacramento. Burns took fourth in the 10-mile feature and finished second in another race. The established stars didn't like being upstaged by a 15-year-old kid who looked even younger and rode inferior equipment. Their protests kept Burns out of several big race meets that season. He was allowed to race against the same group of riders late that season in San Jose and he shocked the fans by earning his first victory.
For the next several seasons, Burns continued to race in his home state and steadily earned a following of loyal fans. One reason the fans loved Burns so much was because of his toughness. In a Marysville, California race, Burns suffered a hard tumble. Groggy from the accident, he hobbled to the pits and put his machine back together in time for the next race. Riding in agonizing pain, Burns went on to win the five-mile final to the roar of the crowd. His friends insisted that Burns be checked by a doctor after the race and it was discovered that he had ridden with a fractured collarbone and broken shoulder.
World War I brought a temporary stop to Burns' racing career. Early in 1919, Burns came home to win one of the first major West Coast races after the war in Fresno, California. In June of that year, Harley-Davidson signed the 20-year-old rider to his first factory contract.
With Harley-Davidson, Burns was able to show his talent outside of his native California. On July 4, 1919, Burns made his first appearance on the East Coast, riding a national meet in Baltimore. Burns, who rode in an unusual style by hugging the inside rail around the circuit, won a five-mile solo race as well as a sidecar event. The Baltimore performance set him on the road to gaining a reputation as one of the country's best racers. Burns spent much of the summer of 1919 on a winning streak in Midwest races and even gave the legendary Gene Walker a serious challenge in Atlanta, something no rider had been able to do against the South's almost unbeatable rider.
In the final major race of the 1919 season, Burns earned the 100-mile national championship by edging out Ralph Hepburn by mere inches on the board track at Sheepshead Bay, New York.
Burns shocked the motorcycling community by signing with the Indian factory for the 1920 season. In those days the rivalry between Harley-Davidson and Indian was so intense that it was rare for a rider to make the switch from one factory team to the other. Burns felt he was playing second fiddle to the more established stars of the Harley team and was promised the best available equipment by Indian.
It didn't take long for Burns to prove his worth to Indian. He took home the very first national title of the 1920 season, winning the 25-mile national at Ascot Park in Los Angeles. According to magazine reports of the day many of the estimated 15,000 spectators on hand flooded the track and carried Burns on their shoulders, cheering until they were hoarse. Burns was indeed one of the most popular riders of his day.
Only a series of mechanical failures kept Burns from winning the big national races at Dodge City, Kansas, and Marion, Indiana, in 1920. Burns led major portions of both races before being forced to drop out at Dodge City with stripped cam gear and with a broken oil line at Marion. Burns came back to win the five-mile solo championship race in Denver in September of that year.
Burns opened the 1921 season with a spectacular win on the new 1.25-mile board track in Beverly Hills, California. After having won the first race of the day, Burns crashed heavily in the next event, resulting in his hands and arms being a bloody mass of large splinters. The day's racing proceeded with Burns apparently out with his injuries. Before the final event of the day the large crowd came to its feet when it was announced that Burns would attempt to race. He borrowed a machine and rode with bandages covering him from his fingertips to shoulders. Early in the race it appeared that Burns was content to simply ride mid-pack in the draft of the other riders. On the last lap Burns made his move and went high on the final turn and sped down the steep banking to win the race in one of the sport's most dauntless performances. Later, a cartoon strip in a motorcycle magazine showed a bandaged from head-to-toe Burns racing in front of admiring fans shouting his praises.
On August 14, 1921, Burns tragically lost his life in a racing accident in Toledo, Ohio. Coming out of a turn, Burns ran into the back of Ray Weishaar's bike. The impact sent Burns into the railing and he later died of massive head injuries. Sadly, Burns' fiancée, Genevieve Moritz, had come to Toledo to deliver a birthday gift and stayed to watch the race and witnessed the fatal accident. Motorcycling deeply mourned the loss of Burns. Numerous tributes were written about him for weeks after the accident.
He was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1998.