Roy Burke was a leading racer and national hillclimber from the 1930s through the 1950s. He hailed from the Pacific Northwest and earned a reputation as one the best all-around riders of his era. Burke won the Class A National Hillclimb in Muskegon, Michigan, in 1947. In 1952 he earned the Class C Open Hillclimb national title in Lewiston, Idaho.
Perhaps Burke's biggest accomplishment in racing was winning the prestigious Big Bear Run in Southern California in 1955. Burke was also one of the original founders of the Oregon Motorcycle Oldtimers, a club dedicated to preserving antique motorcycles and the history of the sport in that region of the country.
Burke was born in 1919 and raised in the Portland suburb of Milwaukie. His love of motorcycling began at an early age. When he was 12, Burke bought an old Harley-Davidson for five dollars. The only catch was that a washing machine motor powered the machine.
"When the drive belt wore out I couldn’t afford to replace it, so out went the motorcycle," Burke recalled. That was only the beginning. After he got rid of the washer-powered Harley, he quickly moved on to a string of other bikes that included a Cleveland, in addition to the normal crop of Indians and Harley-Davidsons.
By the late 1930s, Burke was riding an Indian Chief and competing on a regular basis in area field meets and TT races, which were very popular in the Pacific Northwest.
During World War II, Burke served in the Air Corps. After the war, he returned to competition and he and a friend opened a BSA dealership in Portland. It was during this time that Burke fitted an Indian Chief motor into a 101 Scout frame and modified it into a powerful hillclimbing machine. About once a month, Burke would travel down to California to compete in Pacific Coast Hillclimb meets. He did well in the climbs and was encouraged by former factory hillclimber Gene Rhyne to go east and compete for the AMA national championship.
Burke took Rhyne’s advice and in 1947 contested and won the Class A National Hillclimb Championship in Muskegon, Michigan.
"The hill was so rough that day that a lot of the riders were thinking about sitting out the climb and boycotting," Burke remembered. "Eventually they all came around and the national championship was held. Red Bryan and I tied for fast time of the day and beat him in a run-off."
It marked the first national championship for Burke, but not his last.
In 1952, a Portland-area Harley-Davidson dealer called Burke and asked if he would be interested in racing a bike sponsored by the dealership. The regular rider had broken his arm in a crash. Even though he was a BSA dealer, Burke couldn’t resist the offer to race someone else’s motorcycle. That friendship led to the Harley dealer building a bike for Burke to hillclimb.
"The shop’s mechanic told me he could build me a motor that would win and he was right," Burke said. Burke entered and won the 1952 Class C Hillclimb national championship in Lewiston, Idaho, aboard the Harley-Davidson Knucklehead.
Throughout the late 1940s and into the 1950s, Burke raced in the famous Big Bear run each year. The Big Bear was considered one of the toughest races on the calendar and Burke managed to excel there. He twice finished third in the race, and broke through to win the 1955 edition. That year, heavy snow closed many trails at higher elevations. Of the 541 riders who started the grueling event that year, only 176 finished the race, with Burke the winner.
"That was a tough race," Burke said. "The local Southern California riders were always hard to beat down there. The real hotshoe was Bud Ekins. But some of them had trouble and I managed to have a good race and took the trophy. I rode a BSA single."
A famous photo of Burke’s Big Bear win was published in the book "American Racer" showing Burke accepting congratulations with the wheels of his BSA packed full with snow.
During his career, Burke rode in many of the biggest races of the era, including Daytona Beach, Catalina Island and Langhorne, but by the late 1950s he scaled back his competition riding to concentrate on running his dealership. The dealership proved to be very successful. It eventually became one of the first Honda dealerships in the country. "In 1963 we sold 2,000 units," Burke said proudly.
Burke retired from the running the dealership in 1972. In retirement, he took up drag racing and go-kart racing. Later, he began searching out and restoring antique motorcycles. Some of his restorations were considered among the best in the country. For a time, Burke served as president of the Oregon Trail Chapter of the Antique Motorcycle Club of America.
When inducted in 2004, Burke and Martha, his wife of 58 years, continued living in the same area where he was born. Burke will always be remembered as one of the most versatile riders of the 1940s and ‘50s. A rider who could win both the Big Bear Run and national hillclimb championships was a rare combination indeed.