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Never mind the curves, sometimes it’s all about the straight stretch

FARMINGTON — Growing up Rachel Keown dreamed of someday making films, taking award-winning photographs, or working in the movie industry in Hollywood. That might have seemed like a lot of adventure for a little Midwestern girl. But while life may throw a person a lot of curves, it was what she did with the straight stretch that put her name in the record books. Keown holds the world land speed record on a 1,000 cc motorcycle.

A Farmington native, Keown set the world record at the BUB Racing Inc. Motorcycle Speed Trials at the Bonneville Salt Flats outside Salt Lake City, Utah, in August of 2010. At the time she had been riding motorcycles for less than a year. She was prompted to go for the record by a coworker, Serge Martin, who had set the record in the same class in 2009.

Keown’s road to Bonneville and motorcycle history took some unlikely twists and turns. Early on she developed an interest in theater and participated in school plays . while she attended Farmington High School. After graduation she eventually headed to the East Coast to study filmmaking at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. In 2008 she headed to the other coast to try to break into the film industry in Los Angeles.

Like so many others, Keown found she wasn’t the only aspiring filmmaker looking for work in and around Holllywood. To help pay the rent she took a job at Harley-Davidson of Glendale. At that point she had never driven a motorcycle, and had only sat on one a couple times. Over the next several months she was repeatedly hounded by her coworkers to complete a training course to learn to ride.

In the fall of 2009 the shop’s competition racing team made their first trip to the BUB Racing Inc. Motorcycle Speed Trials on the famed Bonneville Salt Flats. Bonneville is unique in that it is a 159-square-mile valley of dried salt, also known as a “pan.” It has been the location for countless world speed-record attempts since motorized vehicles were first built. The BUB Racing Inc. Motorcycle Speed Trials is the only “motorcycle only” internationally recognized speed trial event in the world, with results certified by the American Motorcycle Association.

“While some dream of getting a land speed record … others stay awake and do it,” the BUB website explains. “This event offers world and national record breaking opportunities. Top contenders in many classes, including streamliners, biding for the absolute world record.”

That year Martin set the world record for 1,000 cc powered motorcycles riding a Buell Firebolt XB12R owned by shop owner Oliver Shokouh. The machine was tweaked and tuned for the attempt by master technician Don Thut, an employee of Harley-Davidson of Glendale. Martin recorded a documented speed of 135.601 miles per hour. The final “speed” is an average of two back-to-back runs, one going each way on the Bonneville course. For motorcycles running up to 175 to 200 m.p.h. a seven-mile long course is used. For more extremely modified bikes reaching speeds in excess of 200 m.p.h., including those running a mixture containing nitrous oxide, a 12-mile course is used.

The following week the racing team was back at the shop bragging about the record and talking about their big adventure. In the weeks and months to follow the excitement remained throughout the dealership. Setting a speed record is a big bragging right for any manufacturer or dealer. As the 2010 BUB event at Bonneville approached the racing team began to get excited. But Martin wasn’t sure if he was going to even be able to make the trip. Jokingly Keown, still little more than a novice rider, expressed an interest in trying her hand at the speed record attempt. Martin talked to shop owner Shokouh, and with his consent plans were made to add Keown to the racing team.

Even then, Keown didn’t really take what she was doing all that seriously. She had only recently completed the motorcycle riders beginner course, “and I dropped the bike during the course,” she admitted. She had heard about Bonneville but had never been there. “I knew it was a big deal for racers. They Frankenstein their bikes and do all kinds of crazy things with them,” she had been told.

To see if high-speed riding was even for Keown, the shop’s owner, Martin and Thut took her and the 1,000 cc racing bike to nearby El Mirage where some speed trial racing is done. While there she got the bike up to 90 miles per hour. A short time later two factory technicians from the Buell (a subsidiary of Harley-Davidson since 1993) design and manufacturing facility traveled to California to tune the Firebolt XB12R. They put the bike on a dynomometer, a stationary machine used to test speed and horsepower, and it reached a wheel speed of 175 m.p.h. with Keown in the seat. Even sitting on a dyno, she explains, you can still feel the bike’s rear tire “slipping” and moving abnormally at high speeds.

In late August the time had come to go to Bonneville. The racing team packed up their portable canopy, toolboxes, gear and spare parts, and luggage and headed east to Utah. The first day there the bike and riding gear was given the mandatory tech inspection by BUB officials. Riding suits for use on the salt flats must be able to be fastened together as one piece. The suits cannot have pleats or anything that will catch sand or wind and potentially cause harm to the rider.

With the safety inspection complete, Keown was told she could go ahead and make a couple passes the first day. “I lined up and about wet my pants,” she recalls. “They kept saying ‘no pressure,’ ‘don’t freak out,’ and ‘we’re here for five days,’” Despite her anxiety, on that first run she was able to push the bike to 125 m.p.h. By the time she reached the pit area she was riding the adrenilin wave and was ready to go again.

She got back in line for her second run, traveling in the opposite direction on the course. That time she looked down at the speedometer and saw it register 154 m.p.h. But tire slippage is a constant problem on the ice-like hard sand, so the measuring devices, or “traps,” had only recorded a documented speed of 139 .m.p.h. And the wind had picked up to about a 14 m.p.h. cross wind before her second run causing her to have to lean abnormally to the side into the wind to keep the bike going straight. Still, she knew the speed she had just reached was beyond the record set by Martin on the same bike a year before. With the motorcycle running like it was, she was pretty sure she could document a new world record for the engine class by the end of the week.

Each day she made more passes but could never quite get two record-setting runs back to back. Then on the fourth day she went up to the line and took off. She knew the bike was responding well and it was going to be a fast pass. The official speed was 141 m.p.h. But this time her second pass was in line with the first. The official timekeepers showed a two pass average of 139.481 m.p.h., meaning Keown had just set a new world land speed record on a 1,000 cc bike.

“It was one of the most incredible experiences,” she tells. “And while other people can say last year I went on vacation to Florida or Hawaii, I can say I went to Bonneville and set a world record on a motorcycle.” The team spent some time celebrating and then packed up the equipment and headed back to the shop in California. Keown received a certificate for her effort and has her name recorded in the record books. At least until late August or early September of this year she still holds the world record in her racing class, and maybe longer if no one steps up and betters her speed during the BUB speed week at Bonneville.

“Never in my life did I think she would be racing at top speed,” says her mom, Regina Keown, with a nervous chuckle. Regina’s husband and Rachel’s dad, the late Mike Keown, was a longtime police officer in the region and no stranger to danger himself because of his chosen profession. But Rachel’s mom never thought her daughter would test her own adventurous spirit in motorcycle racing. To help keep down any nerves, Rachel didn’t bother to tell her mom what she was attempting until after she had set the record.

In the months following the Bonneville time trials in 2010 Rachel opted to try another new experience. She married Michael Burke and moved to a suburb of San Diego. He works at Sweetwater Harley Davidson, just north of the California and Tijuana border.

The owner of Sweetwater Harley Davidson has talked about creating an all-girl racing team, with Keown being a part. But any racing for her will have to be put on hold at least for a while … because Rachel just learned she’s pregnant. Her mom tells her that now the real adventure begins.

Doug Smith is a reporter for the Daily Journal. You can reach him at 573-756-8927, or at

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