"JR" Kelley is best known for founding the successful motorcycle parts and accessories company, KK Motorcycle Supply, headquartered in Dayton, Ohio. But Kelley was also a top national racer, a motorcycle dealer, sponsor of several nationally ranked racers, race promoter and tireless fundraiser for Dayton-area charities over the years. Kelley was elected president of the AMA in 1971 and helped guide the association out of financial difficulties.
Born in Chicago on June 29, 1926, Kelley’s father, Harry Sr., was a top AMA Class A racer of the 1920s and '30s. Kelley’s father became an Indian dealer in Hammond, Indiana, in 1931, so Kelley grew up around motorcycling. His father retired from full-time racing but stayed heavily involved in the sport by sponsoring racers and races, as his son would do years later. It was at a race near Hammond in the mid 1930s when Kelley got his first taste of riding.
"I must have been about 8 or 9 years old," says Kelley of his fateful first ride. "We were at a dirt track race and dad had a new Indian Junior Scout. He put me on the bike. It had a foot clutch and I remember having trouble with that. I took off and caught a crash bar on a fence post and went down in a heap after riding just a few feet. Dad made me get back on the thing. I was terrified, but I got back on it and made a lap around the track."
Kelley soon got over his fear of motorcycles and during his teen years became an accomplished motorcyclist. When World War II came, Kelley’s father decided the family would contribute to the war effort by raising cattle. The Kelleys moved to family-owned land in Kansas and became cattle ranchers. Just before the war put an end to racing, a 15-year-old Kelley traveled the Midwest as bike owner and mechanic for novice racer Eli Marovich. He certainly would have been one of the youngest race team owners in the country.
Kelley enlisted with the Marine Corps. During his tour of duty, he was wounded at the famous battle of Iwo Jima. After the war, his family took an offer to open an Indian dealership in Dayton, Ohio. Kelley became much more involved in the business and at the same time got his racing career underway. In 1947, Kelley was a top-ranked novice and by 1949 he had earned his expert license.
Early on as an expert, Kelley rode Indians, but that company was in its final days so Kelley began racing Triumphs on a recommendation from Ed Kretz. Racing the British brand proved to be a mixed blessing for Kelley. While he became a top-notch road racer and TT rider, he found the Triumph largely uncompetitive on the dirt tracks he loved so much.
One of Kelley’s best racing performances came towards the end of his career at Laconia, New Hampshire, in 1953. In that race Kelley hooked up with fellow Ohio rider Dick Klamfoth after being run off the track on the third lap and the duo began tearing through the field. In the closing laps, leader Joe Leonard dropped out with bike problems, as did Klamfoth. On the final lap Kelley saw his pit crew going crazy – he was leading the race.
"I was thinking to myself, 'God, I’m finally going to win a national,' " said Kelley. "Chet Dykgraaf nearly crashed in front of me and I almost came to a stop trying to miss him. When I got back underway my bike was sputtering. Roger Soderstrom came by me, and thinking he might have taken the lead away, I panicked. I ran way too hot into the final turn and had the choice of flying into the crowd lining the track to try to make the turn to the finish line or running off an escape road. I took the escape road and by the time I got the bike turned around I’d lost the race."
Besides his near win at Laconia, Kelley also put in a close-to-winning performance at Dodge City in 1952 before hitting a hole in the track and flying into the air, breaking off his foot pegs when he landed. The time he lost in the pits cost him a chance at the win. Kelley wound down his racing career after 1953, only making the occasional big event such as Daytona for the next few seasons.
After retiring from racing, Kelley focused on the family business. For a time, the dealership business also included being a motorcycle distributor for Berliner. Then, in 1959, KK Motorcycle Supply was started. Under Kelley’s guidance, the company grew quickly. A hiccup in the growth came in the mid 1960s when Kelley’s father retired. Poor accounting advice left the company with great tax debt, due to Kelley’s father handing over his stock to Kelley. The business suffered a major financial hit, but Kelley gradually brought KK back to its former strength and beyond. By 1970, Kelley sold the motorcycle dealership to concentrate on the rapidly growing KK.
With the business again on stable footing, Kelley began sponsoring racers. One of his proudest memories as a sponsor was in 1967 when Gary Nixon called and told Kelley that he needed some help to make it to Daytona. Kelley purchased a 250 GP bike for Nixon to race in the lightweight event and gave him enough money to pay for expenses.
"Gary asked me to come down and be part of his pit crew," Kelley recalled. "I told him I had to stay in Ohio and work to pay for his racing bike. When he called and told me that he’d won both the 250 race and the Daytona 200, that was one of my happiest moments as a sponsor."
Through KK, Kelley went on to sponsor many other racers, including Gary Scott and Steve Morehead. Kelley often financed Scott’s sometimes controversial claiming of some of the top Harley-Davidson factory dirt track racers during the mid 1970s.
Kelley faced one of his biggest challenges in 1971 when he was elected as president of the AMA. Kelley found that the association was in deep financial difficulties. He worked tirelessly for three years to put the right people in place to help bring stability to the AMA.
Even after he resigned as president, Kelley saw the need for the AMA to get more involved in the preservation of the history of the sport. In the late 1970s, Kelley donated money to the association to start a study group to see what it would take to get a museum project off the ground.
To fight the bad image that much of the general public had of motorcyclists, Kelley started a charity dirt-track race in the early 1970s that contributed to Dayton-area organizations. The race and its associated activities raised over two-million dollars for area charities and when Kelley was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1999 the event was still going strong.
An outgrowth of the charity race was a local motorcycle television show on the Dayton ABC television affiliate. At first, the show was started simply to promote the charity race, but it was received so well that it expanded to a half-hour program that ran for seven years.
"I think one of Dave Despain’s first television appearances was on that show," said Kelley. "He was the AMA communications director and we just sat down and talked with him about what the AMA was doing to promote the sport."
After a series of heart attacks in the early 1990s, Kelley was forced to retire from his business. He moved to Florida and became an avid golfer.
Harry "JR" Kelley was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1999. He passed away in December 2012 at the age of 86.