Active for 20 years as a professional dirt track racer, AMA National Number 10 Neil Keen is an innovative and articulate man who never settled for the status quo, either with engine development, chassis design, or the politics of racing. In each of these fields, he contributed to a golden era of American racing by improving machine performance, safety, and the treatment of riders. In the hotbed of Southern California racing, Keen won Ascot 11 times in a row in 1961 while winning more than half the finals of the 29-race season. Later, he helped develop the modern dirt track racing frame, contributed to a two-stroke revolution, and consulted on Yamaha’s dirt track program, where Kenny Roberts would earn points toward his two AMA Grand National Championships. Well educated, outspoken, and articulate, Keen also served as an official representative of the professional racers in the AMA Competition Congress.
Neil 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.
“Next,” he says, “I had about ten Whizzers. They were of pretty fragile construction,” he says, explaining the number of replacements.
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.”
The Gold Star was jointly owned by Keen and one of his buddies, but a couple of nights of flattracking caused its co-owner to decide he had better give up and return to Georgia. Keen kept the motorcycle and hired out for $2 per hour as a courier for the Rapid Blueprint Company.
“My first race in California was in 1954 at Willow Springs," he recalls. "BSA dealer Louie Thomas sold me a used BSA A7 twin factory racing bike, and I ran off the track.”
Keen raced only twice in 1954, but in 1955 he applied for his AMA Novice professional license. Racing regularly at Gardena, Culver City, and Carroll Speedway, he quickly progressed through the ranks, earning Amateur status in 1956 and his Expert license in 1957. Keen’s ambition, however, was not to become a national caliber racer.
“My idols were the great tuners like Tom Sifton and Gene Rhyne," he says. "I was a good mechanic with a good aptitude for chassis setup and building fast engines.”
In 1957, Keen started building for George Everett, whom he still believes was one of the most talented riders of all time.
“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.
Ascot Park was a nightmare for the AMA Grand National regulars. The locals raced there 29 times a season and had the track so dialed in that they usually humbled the Grand National regulars when they ventured there.
“Bart Markel was about the only rider from back East who could win at Ascot and he was a little scary. When a normal half-mile racetrack in those days was 29-31 seconds, the best at Ascot would lap it in 23 seconds,” Keen says. “And it wasn’t because it was a smaller racetrack. It was because the surface was tacky and in good condition and the men ran almost wide open all the way around. It was terrifying if you weren’t up to the task.”
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.
Southern California weekly tracks were producing a high level of injuries and far too many fatalities in the 1960s. Keen thought he knew one of the reasons, which was the fact that all classes – Novices through Experts – competed aboard big 500cc and 750cc machines.
“Fatalities among the Novices were appallingly high, and some of us thought they should not be racing the big equipment," Keen says. "Most brands by then were producing 250s, which we knew would be more manageable.”
Late in 1962, Keen, Gunter, and Dick Mann appeared before the AMA Competition Committee, proposing a package of rules to make racing safer. As a result, the AMA imposed a 250cc limit for Novices, and fatalities declined significantly. This successful foray into the politics of racing would be only the first step in Neil Keen’s long career of working to improve the sport. In 1963, he teamed up with Gary Nixon to petition for better purses and medical insurance for the riders. In 1968, he became a delegate to the newly formed AMA Congress, serving for several years as an official representative of the riders. Keen, a well-read and articulate public speaker, has been sought out throughout his career by professional riders seeking guidance, support, and representation.
After a serious crash in 1963, Keen relocated to Illinois in 1964.
“I started riding out of John Lund’s shop in Decatur," he says. "From one corner of the state to the other, there was a hotbed of short track competition. I had never ridden a short track, but I picked it up very quickly.”
Keen’s knowledge of chassis design and how to set up a good handling racer proved a great asset on the lightning-quick quarter-mile ovals. He was high-point racer at Santa Fe Speedway in both 1969 and 1970, and practically owned the podium at Granite City, just across the river from St. Louis. Collaborating with Ray Hensley, Keen began to develop and market high-performance racing frames in 1967, first known as Sonic Weld 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 recalls.
With his tuning and designing skills in high demand, Keen set up Neil Keen Performance in 1969.
In the mean time, John Lund, who was a Bultaco dealer, believed that the quickly emerging two-stroke engines might have a future in short track racing. Lund assembled two Bultaco-powered short trackers, and Keen hauled them to Daytona in 1967, where Dick Mann won aboard one of the machines and Keen finished second. Back at the Midwestern short tracks that season, Keen began to refine the bikes and techniques – including use of a compression release for rapid deceleration – that would launch a two-stroke revolution.
His performance attracted the attention of Yamaha, which was on the verge of introducing its robust and versatile DT1 two-stroke single. Dennis Mahan, who had helped Keen maintain his motorcycles during his early career in Southern California, was now working for Yamaha, and arranged for Keen to receive pre-production engines for the 1968 season.
“They didn’t even have real serial numbers on them," Keen recalls. "My engines just had #1, #3, and #4 stamped in the cases.”
These Yamahas, in Trackmaster frames, now with swinging arm rear suspensions, would propel Keen to his high-point seasons at Santa Fe in ’69 and ’70. To get optimum power from the engines, Keen reconfigured Yamaha’s motocross expansion chamber to make it suitable for flat track racing.
“Yamaha saw that pipe and loved it and how I had tucked it down under the engine,” he says.
Furthermore, Yamaha was making plans to challenge Harley-Davidson and the British brands at the top tier of American dirt track racing, and Keen would become a key player in this campaign. With its new overhead cam XS650 vertical twin, introduced in 1970, Yamaha began to pour money into a program that would provide equipment for up-and-comers such as Dan Haaby, Keith Mashburn, and finally their world-beater Kenny Roberts. Keen consulted on the development of the motorcycles, both for chassis design and conversion of the engines to full-on 750s. The Yamaha twins did not become permanent fixtures in American dirt track racing, but they worked well enough to provide valuable points toward Roberts’ 1973 and ’74 Grand National Championships.
After a 20-year career, Neil Keen retired from active professional competition in 1974, but has continued as a consultant and supplier with Neil Keen Performance, where he has served as a mentor for subsequent generations of racers. Innovative, articulate, educated, outspoken, colorful, and brutally honest, Keen has contributed on the track, in the shop, and through regulatory processes to the improvement of American dirt track racing. He was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2000.