It’s a rare treat in any sport to meet your heroes.
Yet there he was, Leh Keen, on the same infield with NASCAR stars such as Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. The Rolex GT Grand-Am series was racing at Daytona Motor Speedway prior to the Coke Zero 400,
Keen, who lives on James Island and tunes cars at GSC Motorsports in West Ashley when he’s not racing, let it slip last week who he admires most.
Thanks to NASCAR, he said, “Now I’ve met and co-driven with some of my idols, Wolf Henzler and Jorg Bergmeister.”
Oh. Wolf and Jorg. Not Dale and Jeff.
To be honest, the answer makes a lot of sense in light of Keen’s racing class and make of car. He drives a $200,000 450-hp Porsche GT3 Cup car that reaches speeds of 180 miles an hour, racing primarily on road courses but occasionally on oval tracks as at Daytona. Henzler and Bergmeister are hand-picked Porsche test drivers, who routinely put the carmaker’s new models through their paces.
Keen, who turned 26 on Wednesday, is young enough to be slightly in awe of the Porsche driving professionals. He’s no NASCAR-phobe, either. The license plate on his personal car, a BMW M3, is SHK&BKE, referring to the “Shake and Bake” nickname of the Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly characters in the stock-car racing comedy film, “Talladega Nights.”
While youthful in age, Keen is a mature racer. And after a half-dozen mildly impressive years on the top road course circuit, he has hit the big time so far in 2009.
Splitting time behind the wheel with German teammate Dirk Werner, the Dublin, Ga., native has won four races this year and sits atop the point standings even after a fifth place finish on Sunday in Birmingham, Ala.
Keen is nonchalant about the victory string, which includes wins at Millville, N.J.; Watkins Glen, N.Y.; Lexington, Ohio; and on July 4 at Daytona.
“In this kind of racing, it’s so competitive. Everything has to line up just right. When it’s bad, it gets worse. When it goes good, it only gets better,” he said. The engineer has been really good, Keen said. “He makes all the calls, tweaks the suspension the right way. Now we have so much momentum.”
Keen races for Farnbacher Loles, a Georgia based team. Interestingly, he used to compete for the Charleston-based Autometrics team, partnering with driver Cory Friedman. In 2006, the team finished third in the Grand-Am series. This is Keen’s second year with Franlochler Loles.
A typical Gran-Am race has 20 or so cars including such models as Chevy Corvette, Mazda RX8, Pontiac GXP and Ferrari 430. Most races are 200 to 250 miles, or two to three hours in length. The series this year has stops in Atlanta, California and Florida among other places as well as an upcoming race in Montreal. NASCAR owns the Grand-Am series. The Speed Channel broadcasts all the races and typically repeats them throughout the week.
Along with capturing the series title, Keen’s biggest goal is to win the longest race in the series, the grueling Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona held every spring. He finished eighth this year. Besides the race’s prestige, the 24 Hours was the first race he attended, traveling to Florida as an 11-year-old with his father McGrath Keen.
Like many drivers, Keen got the racing bug from his father, who drove sprint cars as a hobby in the Atlanta area.
The driver, whose full name is Lehman McGrath Keen III,
said he likes road course racing and would like to keep competing in the Grand-Am series at least for the foreseeable future.
Keen has lived in the Charleston area for four years. He thought at one time about attending the College of Charleston.
“I’ve always liked Charleston,” he said. It’s never going to get too big. It has a lot of history. “I’m here to stay,” he said.
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