By the time Ed Key hung up his racing helmet in 2013, the Wisconsin racer had been winning road races longer than most of his competitors had been alive. And there’s probably no way to verify this, but Key just may have been the all-time winningest club road racer in history. Ed passed away late Friday night, July 22, 2022.
He was 67.
Ed had surgery to remove part of his colon and never recovered.
He was survived by his wife of 36 years Barb, son, Kevin Key (spouse Michael), brother Conrad (spouse Rhonda) and his mother Joyce Key.
Kevin Schwantz, who had one of his most memorable early races against Key, said of Ed, “If you were going to beat Ed Key you had to have the screws on because he was a good rider. He was a guy who never put a wheel wrong and he also had really fast bikes.”
When he retired, I asked Ed if he’d kept track of his racing record which spanned nearly 40 years.
He wrote back: 25 National Championships, 100 Regional Championships, well over 1000 wins and 5 pro wins. I can document 501 wins on [Suzuki] SVs alone. I’ll probably never be able to fully document my total wins as the ‘70s era WERA and CRA records are sketchy and I’ve given away a couple of seasons worth of trophies.
Key was at the height of his racing career in the mid-1980s when he raced, and sometimes beat, riders like Randy Renfrow, John Kocinski, Rich Oliver and Kevin Schwantz. In fact, Key and Schwantz were involved in one of the all-time most memorable WERA Grand National Finals races at Road Atlanta in 1984. It was Key who came out on top after the epic clash.
You may wonder why a rider who could compete against future national and world champs and sometimes come out ahead, didn’t go on to race consistently at the pro level. Ed had a humorous explanation for that.
“I barely pulled myself up by my fingertips to the top of the talent pool, glanced over the top and what I saw scared me so badly that I rarely went back to visit.”
Key grew up in the small town of Aztalan, Wisconsin, which is famous for Native American pyramidal mounds and for having one of the better-known motocross tracks in the area. Ed came from a mechanically-savvy family. His uncle was a car racer and his father was an airplane pilot and mechanic. When Key was about seven, his father brought home a well-used Harley-Davidson 165cc two-stroke. “That was the first motorcycle project together,” Key said. “We rebuilt the thing and my brother and I shared that bike for years.”
Ed rode the Harley at an abandoned gravel pit that would later become the Aztalan Cycle Park. By the time Ed was in high school he began to race motocross at Aztalan. He lived so close to the track that he would literally ride his motocross bike to the track, race, and then ride it home.
“I was enthusiastic, but I was actually never very good at motocross,” Key admits. “I was never strong enough. I could go really fast for about a quarter of a moto and then I would drop off. I think in five years of motocross I finished third one time.”
After figuring out that a career in motocross was not in his future, Key bought a 1975 Honda CB400F simply to ride on the street. His time off the track didn’t last long. A local shop catered to road racers in the area and Ed bought parts there and modified his little Honda with things like clubman bars, shocks and Dunlop K81s. One of his buddies told him that his bike was all set up to go production racing. Key asked “What’s that?” Before he knew it Key was on his way up to Brainerd, Minn., to participate in his very first road race. “I took to it like a duck to water,” Key recalls.
Key honed his pavement skills on a twisty little freshly paved road in Aztalan State Park after hours when the park was deserted. By the time he hit the track Key was up to speed. In his first race he blew away his novice riding school competition. A year later he won his first amateur national road racing championship with the AMA on a track in Wentzville, Mo., called Mid-America Raceway. By the time Midwest club road racing exploded in the late 1970s, Key was one of the top riders. He raced a variety of bikes, two and four-stroke street bikes like the Honda CB400, 750, 900F’s, Yamaha RD, LC, RZ 350s, Kawasaki GPz550 and later Honda 500, 750, Interceptors, Yamaha FZ750s and Honda 600 Hurricanes before moving into 250 Grand Prix competition. He became known for his old-school, classic Mike Hailwood style of riding the bike without hanging off. Ed also rejected racing leathers, feeling they were too hot, opting instead for more breathable Kevlar/Nylon-blend suits.
Key was a well-established defending WERA national champion in 1984 when he came up against a young up-and-comer from Texas named Kevin Schwantz at the GNF. The showdown between the two became one of the GNF’s all-time great races.
“To this day that is probably the best race I have ever run,” Key says of his battle with Schwantz that November at Road Atlanta, both on Yamaha RZ350s. “We pushed each other so hard. Schwantz at that point was just a madman on two wheels. He was capable of doing things on a motorcycle that I personally witnessed from the best seat in the house and I still can’t believe.
“It was an interesting contest. Kevin was way faster going into the turns. He would stuff that thing in so incredibly deep on the brakes and save it with the bike hopping and chattering. It was the first time I ever saw smoke coming off a bike’s front tire. While he was gathering it all up in the turn, I was getting him on the drive coming out. We were going at it completely different. He would pass me coming into the turns and I would pass him coming out and this went on like that nearly every lap on every turn. I can’t even guess how many lead changes there were.”
Key described how the race was decided.
“The bikes were very close, but I had just a hair of acceleration advantage in one of the lower gears. The race came down to the drive out onto the back straight coming to the checkered flag. I managed to get a better drive and pass him midway down the back straight and just held him off at the finish. I think Kevin won every race he entered at the GNF that year except that one.”
Schwantz was 18 at the time and Key was 28. A few weeks later Schwantz signed with Yoshimura Suzuki.
Key and friend and fellow racer Gary Gibson formed an AMA 250 Grand Prix team in 1986 riding Honda RS250s. It was zenith of Key’s efforts to make it in the pro ranks. He showed flashes of brilliance that season racing against riders like Donnie Greene, Randy Renfrow and Rich Oliver, who would go on to become the all-time wins leader in AMA 250GP.
Key said a major factor in the ’86 championship was tires.
“That was during the transition period from bias-ply tires to radials,” Key said. “Greene was supplied with radials, while the rest had to make do on bias-ply tires. Dunlop basically handed Greene the championship on a silver platter. Those 250s were diabolical on bias-ply tires. They would flick you off so fast. The next year radials were generally available and the bike went from virtually unrideable to being the most friendly, usable motorcycle on earth.”
Key came damn close to winning a couple of AMA 250GP nationals in ‘86, but Lady Luck wasn’t smiling on him. At Pocono, Key qualified tenth then ran the fastest laps of the race, and got into the lead before being horribly balked by a lapper on the final lap costing him three positions. “I simply wasn’t mean enough,” Key said of losing at Pocono.
At Loudon the week before, he came through the field and was in second, closing rapidly on the leader, when his bike’s crank blew. As it was, Key tallied six top-10 finishes that year, with a fourth at Pocono his best result.
Key and Gibson looked poised to breakthrough with a promised $100,000 sponsorship deal from Sunnyside Paint for the 1987 season, but OPEC changed the way it priced crude oil bringing volatility to oil prices and sadly the company decided to back away from the deal. “That pretty much spelled the end of my AMA pro career,” Key said.
Even a serious head injury suffered at Daytona didn’t keep Ed from racing. He recovered and came back to form. He then became known as a Suzuki SV specialist. He owned a 1999 Suzuki SV650 that amassed an amazing 16 national titles. Key proudly says his SV was never crashed.
A big group of fellow riders and friends attended a party for Ed when he finally retired in 2013. He was 58.
He wrote me shortly after his retirement: “Even though I’ve known for a couple of years this was inevitable as my right hand continued to deteriorate, I’ll have to admit I was not prepared for the massive depression I’ve been having for the past couple of days. Interesting phenomenon as I’ve never experienced anything like this before. No worries as I’m sure it will pass.”
Tributes to Ed poured in on social media by the dozens. Fellow racer Paul James wrote a note that perfectly captured how most of Ed’s competitors felt.
“Ed set the bar high for competition in the lightweight classes,” James said. “He was a thinking man’s racer, who along with Guy Bartz and others, engineered some of the lightest and most beautifully prepared LW machines in the paddock. He had a calm and quiet demeanor off track, with a sharp wit and dry sense of humor. On track he was as fierce and relentless as he was smooth and controlled. He made it look easy. He raced hard and fair and I trusted him like no other at the limit.
“Ed famously rode with calculated and measured aggression and expended only as much energy as it took to win. He was brilliant in traffic, using every opportunity to his advantage. I learned so much from racing with Ed. But also, from watching him help and mentor others. By how hard he worked and how well he treated everyone. Thank you Ed. Godspeed. Until we meet again.”
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