He could hardly believe his luck. At 19, Neil Keen found a job where he was paid two dollars an hour to ride his motorcycle all day. He always thought Southern California was heaven on earth and his newfound employment simply confirmed it. Racing all over the streets of greater Los Angeles in the early 1950s delivering architectural blueprints was the start of a lifelong involvement in motorcycling.
When Neil Keen died Saturday morning, he left behind a rare legacy in motorcycling. Not only was Keen one of the leading AMA Grand National racers of the 1960s (he won an AMA National at the legendary Ascot Park aboard a BSA in 1961), he is perhaps best known for designing some of the best flat track racing frames during the golden era of the sport in the 1960s and ‘70s. Collaborating with Ray Hensley, Keen began to develop and market high-performance racing frames in 1967, first known as Sonicweld then later marketed under the Trackmaster brand. “I sold my trail bike and a .38 pistol to buy our first chrome moly tubing to get started building frames,” he recalled in a 2000 interview.
Perhaps even more importantly to the sport Keen was a fierce advocate for rider safety. Coming up in an era when serious racing injuries and deaths were consider part of the landscape, Keen, as an official representative of professional racers in the AMA Competition Congress, pushed for measures, many of which were adopted by the AMA and helped greatly improve the safety of the sport.
Keen was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2000.
According to his daughter Helen, Keen was set to attend what his friends called his fifth annual 75th birthday party this weekend in St. Louis, when he fell ill and checked into St. Joseph Hospital West in Lake St. Louis, Mo., and died there Saturday morning (Jan. 25, 2014).
Keen was born in Lakeland, Florida on May 14, 1934. When his parents divorced in 1941, he moved with his mother to Valdosta, Georgia, then to Atlanta in 1948. Keen’s first motorized two-wheeler was a Doodlebug, purchased at Western Auto when he was 14.
In 1950, he bought a Harley-Davidson 125 and his competitive career began that same year at a paved local stock car track called Peach Bowl Speedway. “I was 16 – I was supposed to be 18 -- and I won the first race I ever entered, beating older guys on big Harleys and Nortons,” Keen recalls. Modestly, Keen attributes the victory only partially to his riding ability.
“The little two-stroke was more suitable for the track than the bigger machines,” he says. But the experience was enough to convince him that racing was something he wanted to do. In 1953, Keen and a couple of friends lit out for California in a new Ford convertible with a dismantled BSA Gold Star flattracker in the trunk.
“I fell in love with California," he says. "Everything seemed so clean and shiny and new.”
His first race in California was at Willow Springs in 1954. He steadily progresses through the ranks and also became known as one of the best up-and-coming young tuners when he began building motors for West Coast racing legend George Everett.
“I continued to race, but I was just having fun while really focusing on George’s equipment, and my desire to give him the tools to prove he was the best.”
But Everett was killed in 1959, a tragedy which, oddly, turned Keen into a dedicated, fulltime professional racer.
“When George was killed, I looked around and didn’t see anyone I thought was even close to his talent. There was just no one I wanted to build for, so I decided it was time to concentrate on my own equipment and developing my own skills. Jimmy Phillips became my mentor and taught me how to race.”
Keen came into his own quickly on the fast surface of the legendary Ascot Park, winning the last two races of the season in 1960. He continued that success in 1961 by winning more than half the main events of the 29-race season, riding Dennis Mahan’s BSA.
“Except for two races," Keen says, "Albert Gunter and I won every race that year.” Keen won the first two races, Gunter took the next two, then Keen reeled off a stunning string of 11 main events in a row. “I won thirteen of the first fifteen races, then finished the season with a total of sixteen wins,” he says.
Keen was making a good living from the Friday night Ascot Park program.
“I averaged $1,500 a week,” Keen said. “And that was in the days when a new Ford Ranchero was $1,900. We got paid a percentage of the gate then and when I won the AMA national I took home $3,700. I had a nice four bedroom house out in the suburbs.”
He did so well racing in Southern California that Keen didn’t see a big need to chase the Grand Nationals. He made the occasional foray back to the Midwest to race the fair circuit and to take in Peoria and Springfield. He finished a career-high fifth in the AMA Grand National standings in 1961, in spite of not racing a full national schedule. That was also the year he won the AMA National at Ascot.
Keen moved to Illinois in 1964 and became a regular of the weekly program at another legendary track, Santa Fe Speedway in the Chicago suburb of Hinsdale. He was high-point racer at Santa Fe Speedway in both 1969 and 1970.
Keen retired from active professional competition in 1974, but continued as a consultant and supplier with Neil Keen Performance, based out of Wentzville, Mo., where he served as a mentor for subsequent generations of racers.
Innovative, articulate, educated, outspoken, colorful, and brutally honest, Keen contributed on the track, in the shop, and through regulatory processes to the improvement of American dirt track racing.
He is survived by his wife of 28 years, Kim Keen; his daughters Helen Keen and Vyla (Keen) Brooks and son Stephen (Teanna) Maddox; grandchildren Elijah and Jenna Maddox and Wendy (Andreson) Gonzalez; mother and father in-law Carl and Kathy Donelson; and sister-in-law Debbie (Harry) Willey. He was preceded in death by his parents Clifton and Nell Keen. In lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to the Siteman Cancer Center.