Even ardent fans of racing would be hard pressed to name the Indianapolis 500 winner who has a grandstand at Daytona Int’l Speedway named for him. If told this was Ray Keech, many would ask, “Who?”
Memories of Keech have faded quicker than many because his career was so short-lived. He blazed onto the AAA Championship racing scene in 1928 and was gone a mere 15 days after winning the 1929 Indianapolis 500.
Born in Coatesville, Pa., on May 1, 1900, the son of a farmer, Keech determined early on that the farming lifestyle was too boring. He longed for a challenge, excitement and adventure. The automobile provided that.
He found work in a local garage and ripped through the peaceful streets of Coatesville in his souped-up cars until outlaw dirt-track racing caught his attention.
With his best friend, William Guldin, Keech made his first appearance at a dusty bullring in nearby Pottstown. While Guildin soon stepped away from the race tracks to “get on with his life,” Keech was hooked.
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He honed his skilsl on tracks throughout Pennsylvania and up and down the East Coast.
Keech’s reputation grew as he turned in a string of thrilling performances. Late in 1927, Keech got his first chance at AAA National Championship racing. Competing in a non-points race at the New York State Fairgrounds in Syracuse, he missed the cut against the likes of Wilbur Shaw, Frank Lockhart and Ralph DePalma. Throughout the rest of his career, however, he was the man to beat in the AAA.
In the meantime, James W. White, a wealthy Philadelphia businessman, built a monstrous car to chase a Land Speed Record. Powered by three aircraft engines of nearly 5,000 cubic inches and producing 1,500 horsepower, White knew it would take a driver of exceptional bravery and skill. He turned to Keech.
The Land Speed Record was a coveted prize in the early 20th century when the automobile was still a captivating technology. In 1927, the record stood at 203.79 mph and was set by Henry Segrave in Daytona Beach, Fla.
While Keech made initial runs with the “Triplex” in February 1928, Sir Malcolm Campbell upped the record to 206.95 mph. Keech was running near that speed when a radiator hose exploded, scalding his legs. That forced the team to go home and regroup.
When they returned in April, they faced a demanding task in attempting to eclipse Campbell’s record. On April 22, Keech zipped down the beach in what should’ve been a record run. However, the timing device failed. Keech, normally soft-spoken, roared at the officials, “Make damn sure it’s working this time because I’m going right out and do it again.”
The timer worked on the second run and he set the record with a pass at 207.55 mph.
It was also a breakthrough year for Keech on the Championship Trail. Three days after Keech set the World Speed Record, Frank Lockhart, in a car of his own design, died trying to top Keech’s speed.
Two of Lockhart’s innovative Championship Cars were left in his estate. M.A. Yagle, of Philadelphia, purchased one and hired Keech to drive. As it turned out, M.A. Yagle was Maude Yagle, one of racing’s first female car owners.
Keech made his rookie appearance in the Indianapolis 500, driving Yagle’s Simplex Piston Ring Miller and finished fourth. He won four of the 10 Indy car races that followed the Indy 500 and finished second in points.
The following year at Indianapolis, Keech qualified sixth and led 46 laps en route to victory, making Yagle the first — and to this day — only female car owner to win the 500.
Fifteen days later, there was a race on the 1.25-mile, high-banked board track in Altoona, Pa. Keech went to the front and had a two-lap lead on the field when Bob Robinson spun on lap 121.
Keech couldn’t avoid him. He caught the guardrail and his car flipped, pitching him on to the track where he was struck by other cars and died instantly.
Ray Keech’s time at the top was short but dynamic, leaving a legacy that shouldn’t fade away.