C. Raymond Keech: Breaking the Land-Speed Record

Raymond Keech, race car driver, Coatesville

It was raining. At the moment, it was more than a shower as buckets of water fell from the sky. My journey had me passing in and out of showers and the radio forecast had promised the heavier rains were past, but one last downpour had found me.

I sat in the vehicle to wait out the storm and could only hope a break in the rain would soon occur – otherwise I was going to be getting wet. While sitting in the warmth, I studied the sacred grounds of Hephzibah Baptist Church Cemetery. Located south of Coatesville, Chester County, the grounds which are the resting place of more than 3,000 residents who once called the region their home, are watched over by the grand Hephzibah Baptist Church.

While not the largest cemetery I’ve visited, finding a grave without help was nearly impossible. I was thankful I had been sent directions to the grave I had come to visit. The rain tapered to a light drizzle and I got out of the vehicle and carefully made my way to a nearby stone engraved with the family name: “Keech.”

Arriving at the memorial marker, I walked around it, searching for any information that might have been engraved on it. Seeing nothing, I stepped over to the smaller, individual stone that had brought me to Coatesville. “C. Raymond Keech / May 1, 1900 / June 15, 1929.” Although he had only lived to the age of twenty-nine, the gentleman who rests here made his mark on history.

Born Charles Raymond Keech on May 1, 1900 to Robert and Edna Keech, Raymond lost his father when he was just ten months old. Raymond was raised by his father’s brother and his wife.

Keech began his racing career on local dirt tracks around 1921. While he raced on local tracks, by the end of the decade Keech would make his appearance on the world stage in an attempt to break the land-speed record.

In 1927, Keech was contacted by J. M. White, a Philadelphia businessman who wanted to reclaim the land-speed from the British. To break the record, White had a car known as the “White Triplex” built. The car, which was also known as “The Spirit of Elkdom,” was built with three 27-litre Liberty aero engines with an amazing thirty-six cylinders. Note: Newspapers refer to the car owner as “J. M. White” but almost every racing reference states the car owner was “J. H. White.”

In the early months of 1928 Ray Keech and Frank Lockhart – who was driving the “Black Hawk,” arrived at Daytona to break the land-speed record. On February 20, 1928, disaster struck “The Spirit of Elkdom.” Keech had just crossed the starting line and was going roughly 240 mph when a hose broke due to the vehicle’s vibration. The pressure sent scalding hot water onto Keech’s lap, burning him. He was taken to a nearby hospital, treated for his burns but returned the following day to continue his attempt at breaking the land-speed record.

The only problem with his first attempts of setting a new record was “The Spirit of Elkdom” did not have a reversing mechanism. The AAA – the American Automotive Association – refused to acknowledge any records “The Spirit of Elkdom” set until a reverse mechanism was installed. To satisfy these requirements, the initial thought was to put a separate motor on the rear axle so “The Spirit of Elkdom” could be put into reverse – unfortunately, the small reverse engine could not compete with the massive drive engine and failed. The vehicle was fitted with another driveshaft that was held in the air until the driver engaged the lever to drop the additional driveshaft. Once engaged, the main engine would then be used to put the car into reverse.

By April 6, the complicated reversing mechanism had been installed and was approved by the AAA – from this point forward, any of Keech’s attempts would be considered official.

On April 22, 1928, Keech would make history. His first two attempts of the day were failures. On his first attempt, the timing device failed to work and on the second, he was unable to break the record. His third attempt of the day was successful as Keech drove “The Spirit of Elkdom” at a speed of 207.55 mph on the Daytona Beach Road Course. By the time Keech had crossed the finish line, there were flames shooting out of the vehicle’s exhaust pipes causing a burn on his arm.

Keech’s record was broken the following year when Henry Seagrave set a new land-speed record on March 11. Shortly after Seagrave set the new record, Keech was approached by J. M. White – the owner of Triplex – to break the new land-speed record. Keech declined and White hired Lee Bible, who died March 13, 1929, when the car rolled during his second attempt to break Seagrave’s record.

Keech raced in the 1928 Indianapolis 500, where he started tenth and finished fourth. In June of that year, Keech would win his first race at the Michigan State Fairgrounds Speedway and went on to finish the year second in points in the AAA National Championship.

The 1929 season saw Keech again qualifying for the Indianapolis 500. The May 30, 1929 race saw Louis Meyer leading the race, until lap 157. On that lap, Meyer lost oil pressure and Keech took the lead and would go on to win the race.

Keech’s promising future would be cut short just sixteen days after winning the Indianapolis 500. On June 15, 1929, Keech found himself racing in the Altoona 200. The racetrack was a steep, wooden-board racetrack that existed in Tipton, about a half-hour to the northeast of Altoona. The problem with board tracks, was the lumber would rot over the year and deadly cracks would form.

Note: There are a number of differing versions of what happened on the day of the deadly accident. The source I am using to describe the deadly wreck comes from the Altoona Mirror‘s June 17, 1929 edition.

The two-hundred-mile race at the Altoona Speedway made it to the halfway point when disaster happened. Robert “Wild Bob” Robinson, who was leading the race, went into a skid. Robinson dropped onto the safety zone, drove through the dirt and the car shot straight up the bowl, or the steep end of the oval track. Exactly what caused Robinson’s car to skid out of control was a source of debate even when the wreck was first reported. Most believe he lost control when he struck a hole caused by rotted wood.

Deacon Litz and Fred Winnai passed the Robinson’s skidding car with no problem. Keech hit the brakes and pulled his car to the right in an attempt to avoid Robinson. Keech’s car flew up the track and hit the railing, knocking it loose.

Cliff Bergere, who was following Keech, managed to pass Keech’s vehicle and the falling railing. Keech’s car began to come back down the track, where it collided with the vehicle driven by Cliff Woodbury. The collision threw Keech from the car as it went somersaulting down the speedway. Woodbury’s car shot through the railing and landed outside the track. Woodbury survived, but was pinned under his car and unconscious when rescuers arrived.

On the track, the loose railing was struck by Ernie Triplett and then by Louie Meyer. Triplett’s car had both front tires torn off and slid to the center of the track. Meyer also hit the railing and his car slid onto the dirt infield of the track.

Keech, who had been thrown from his car, was struck by the vehicle driven by Dale Evans and killed instantly. Keech’s body and the badly injured Woodbury were transported to the hospital in Altoona. Woodbury would recover from his wounds and Keech’s body was prepared to be sent to his parent’s home in Coatesville. He was only twenty-eight when he was placed to rest within the grounds of the Hephzibah Baptist Church Cemetery.

As I stood remembering the young man whose racing career was cut short by a tragic accident, I could hear the rain approaching. I left him resting in the hills south of Coatesville as the rain once again began to fall.

Note: While modern sources and the newspapers at the time of the tragedy do not exactly line up, the major difference is which vehicle struck and killed Keech. The newspapers of the time all state that Keech was struck and killed by Evans’ car, which is the version of events I use in this article. However, many modern sources report that after Keech had been thrown from his car, it struck and killed him as it continued to spin out of control.

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