By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
Daytona Beach, Fla. – Leh Keen is on the fast track in sports car racing. That’s not a reference to the infield and oval road course at the Daytona International Speedway, scene of Saturday’s Grand-Am Rolex Series race. Keen’s career is on the fast track.
The driver from Dublin, Ga., began the season as the Rolex Series’ defending co-champion in the GT class. In March, Keen co-drove a Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car to victory at the Sebring 12-hour in the GT Challenge class of the American Le Mans Series.
In May, he was part of a four-man team that finished second aboard a Ferrari 430 GTC in the 24-hour race at the Nurburgring, the world’s most challenging GT race. In June, Keen was on the podiom in second place aboard the same Ferrari at his first Le Mans 24-hour.
This weekend, Keen is co-driving a Mazda RX-8 for Dempsey Racing with James Gue, who qualified fourth in class behind pole winner Sylvain Tremblay’s Mazda. Over-all, the No. 41 Dempsey Racing entry will start 16th behind Daytona Prototype pole winner Ricky Taylor, whose Dallara-Ford leads the field in the 100th race of the prototype class launched in 2003.
Titled the Brumos Porsche 250, the race will be the fourth in six weeks for the Grand-Am series – and the fifth race for Keen in that span.
A GT class specialist, Keen considers Daytona his home track. While accompanying his father, he saw his first race at the famed Florida track at the age of 13. “I had been begging to
go before that,” he said of the relatively easy trip to Daytona from Dublin to watch the Rolex 24 at Daytona, “but my mother made me wait until I was older.”
Most of his friends drove pick-ups, but Keen followed a path laid out by his father, Lehman Keen Jr., a banker with a fondness for powerful Porsches.
Keen’s informal training included track days with the Porsche Club of America in his father’s equipment, which included a Porsche 911 993 GT2 Evo that had raced at Le Mans in 1996. “We showed up with the biggest gun and kicked everybody’s butt,” recalled Keen. A stint at the Panoz racing school at Road Atlanta followed when he was 18.
“I’ve really just always been into driving cars,” said Keen, who taught himself to drive on the dirt roads around Dublin, located in the rolling piney woods region between Macon and Savannah. “I’ve been doing that since I was 16. I always wanted to progress with the car and develop it a little bit better. The first car I drove was a Mercedes E320. It belonged to my grandfather and was four-wheel drive and no traction control. It had very good steering angles. I really had some fun with that car.”
In his first season in the Grand-Am Rolex Series in 2005, Keen co-drove a Porsche to victory at Watkins Glen with Autometrics Motorsport. He scored a victory with Synergy Racing at Mid-Ohio in 2006, then was brought on board at the front-running Farnbacher Loles Motorsports for 2007.
After a heavy crash at Mid-Ohio caused by a car blocking the track curtailed his season, Keen came back to win at the track in 2008 with Farnbacher Loles. A pairing with Dirk Werner in 2009 resulted in a Grand-Am Rolex Series GT championship for Farnbacher Loles, a season that included another win at Mid-Ohio, one of the most technically demanding tracks in North America.
When the Farnbacher Loles team broke up shortly after the end of the 2009 season due to the legal problems of financial consultant Greg Loles, Keen kept in touch with the team’s technical guru, Horst Farnbacher.
Keen credits Farnbacher, whose son Dominik is also a driver at Hankook Team Farnbacher, for sharpening his skills. “I hadn’t really evolved too much at that point (when he joined Farnbacher Loles in 2007),” said Keen. “Then I started to evolve strongly. I always got along well with Horst and I always got along well with Dominik.”
An effort to stay in touch with Horst Farnbacher paid off once his Ferrari team was launched with the backing of Hankook Tires. “It’s just weird how thing work out,” said Keen. “I kind of got to know Horst a little better so I could go to Le Mans. Then we ended up going to the Nurburgring.”
At the Nurburgring, Keen drove in the fastest class over-all aboard his Ferrari in a starting field of 198 GT machines on the famed “Green Hell” circuit measuring over 15 miles. At Le Mans, the GT2 class Ferrari was the slowest of the four classes in the high-speed French race dominated by the prototypes of Peugeot and Audi.
Now he’s back at his home track where the Daytona Prototype category is marking the 100th start for the closed cockpit cars. Keen is open to the prospects of driving a prototype, but it’s not a priority.
“One thing now, I’m getting content with what I’m doing,” he said. “I never had a thing for prototypes. I’m so totally into GT cars.”
– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org