This Archives edition is reprinted from June 2005. CN has hundreds of past Archives editions in our files, too many destined to be archives themselves. To prevent that from happening, we will be revisiting past Archives articles while still planning to keep fresh ones coming down the road -Editor.
Corky Keener: Uncorked
By Scott Rousseau
Former factory Harley-Davidson team racer Corky Keener hasn’t been in hiding since that day on August 22, 1975, when Kenny Roberts and the unholy Yamaha TZ700 gave Keener and Jay Springsteen the ultimate haircut, buzzing past them to win the Indy Mile. He’s got nothing to be ashamed of.
In fact, Keener wears the historic moment as a badge of honor rather than a badge of shame.
“I think it’s cool that 30 years later that race is still being talked about,” Keener, now 59 years old, says. These days Keener busies himself as an electrician in his native Flint, Michigan, area. That’s exactly what he was doing back in the early ’70s, when he started to make a heavy impact as a local Pro in the flat track hotbed that was the Great Lakes region.
“A lot of racing happened around this area, and I just got on the fringe of it early,” Keener says. “I accidentally ran into a guy who did a lot of it, and I didn’t even know they did that sort of thing. I was only 14 or 15 at the time. It looked like it might be something fun to do.”
Keener turned Expert in 1966, but instead of pursuing the National circuit, he pursued his career as an electrician, preferring to race close to home. His first experience as an AMA Grand National regular came in 1974 after he accepted an offer to ride the equipment of three-time former AMA Grand National Champion Bart Markel.
“I first rode Bart’s bikes at Louisville [Kentucky] in ’72, and at the end of that year, he asked me if I wanted to ride for him full time,” Keener says. “I actually started riding for him in ’73, but even then, we only went to a few Nationals, because I still had a regular job. But then I realized that I could make more money than I was working, so you know where that leads.”
Keener and Markel made plans to contest as many Nationals as they could in 1974.
“It was kind of like a semi-factory ride,” Keener says. “I wasn’t a factory rider, but Harley had given the bikes to Bart, and they were factory bikes. I wasn’t salaried, but I was getting bonus money for winning.”
It wasn’t long before they hit pay dirt, with Keener earning his first career AMA Grand National win at the site where he first swung a leg over Markel’s Harley: Louisville, Kentucky, on June 8, 1974. Keener was fast right off the truck that night, and when it was over, nobody would come close to touching him.
“I’d been running a lot of the local races around Michigan and winning a lot of those, but it wasn’t a given,” Keener says. “I was going up against guys who had won there before and a lot of other races, too. But I guess it was just my turn.”
Keener set a fast time of 26.004 seconds on the cushioned limestone half mile, no real surprise as the surface was just his type.
“We had a car track here or there, but the majority of what we rode were the pea gravel tracks here, Ohio, Indiana and Wisconsin,” Keener says. “Basically, everything was little fairgrounds horsey tracks.”
Keener easily won his heat race over 1969 AMA Grand National Champion Mert Lawwill and factory Triumph rider Mike Kidd, the Texan coming from the penalty line to finish third for the direct transfer to the National. The 20-lap main event would be all Keener, as well. He pulled a huge lead by the third lap and flat left them for dead.
“Everybody rode around the bottom, but I rode up by the fence for half the race,” Keener says. “They had groomed the track before the main event, and every time I went around, the only tracks that I saw up there were mine. I rode about half the race up there, and then I looked back, and I had enough of a lead that I just went down to the bottom and rode the rest of the race down there. Nobody caught me.”
If only they could all be that easy. “No kidding,” Keener says. “Sometimes you work 10 times as hard to get eighth as you do to win.”
Although he got second and not eighth, August 22, 1975, was just such a night. A full-fledged Harley-Davidson factory rider by then, Keener worked his butt off in a battle with Springsteen, the teen who was destined to become a legend. Not unlike Louisville in ’74, Keener appeared to have this one in the bag, only to have it taken away in a single, historic, blinding yellow flash. He can hardly step foot into any motorcycle racing circles without being reminded of that day at Indy, but Keener says that he’s hardly bothered by it.
“Hey, how many guys can say that even in a loss they are talked about that much?” Keener says. “That’s one of the few times where everybody remembers who got second.”
Even so, there’s no harm in remembering the night of June 8, 1974, a night that Keener kicked a little butt of his own. CN