Blake Kelly - The Cop Hunter - Breaking The Law

A Troubled Teen Turns His Life Around-With The Help Of A Re-Born Race Team

Ken Kelly was fed up. The police cars parked in the driveway were an unnecessary distraction. Worse yet, Kelly ran the family's construction business from his home just north of Pittsburgh, and it didn't look good to have carloads of angry state troopers as frequent guests. A few minutes after convincing the cops that, no, he did not know anyone who rode a sportbike, the reason for the flashing red and blue lights rolled into the drive- way on a ratty Honda CBR600. It was Ken's son, Blake, a rambunctious 18-year-old with a taste for wheelies and a genuine distaste for authority.

"My dad very seldom loses his cool, but he's a big guy and he grabbed me by the throat and lifted me up off the ground that day," Kelly remembers four years later. The message was simple: Stop pulling stunts that bring the cops to our house or get out. Period.

With a job in the family business on the line and a 260-pound man at the end of his rope around your throat, that would seem an easy bargain to strike. But Kelly had an alter ego and a reputation to protect as the Cop Hunter, one of the craziest, most out-of-control freestyle riders in existence. It was an identity the wiry teen had perfected while riding the roads of western Pennsylvania in 2002, a time when the streetbike stunting movement was still fresh and still yielding six-figure payouts for riders capable of bringing the chaos of the streets to a successfully marketed video. Kelly modeled himself on Sweden's Ghost Rider, a notorious thrill-seeker who has made a healthy living selling videotaped high-speed runs through Stockholm's congested boulevards. An admitted adrenaline addict since riding dirtbikes in his childhood, Kelly was a natural at stunting, eventually happening upon the idea of goading patrol cars into chases, knowing the 90-horsepower Honda could easily outrun a Crown Victoria.

"Me and a buddy were doing two police chases a day for weeks on end, ditching the bike in a corn field or the woods and running back home," Kelly says today, shaking his head in disbelief at his youthful indiscretion. With a pair of lipstick-sized video cameras on-board, Kelly's antics grew increasingly crazed, culminating in him doing a burnout inside a local supermarket. He never figured on being caught because his bike was covered in painter's masking tape before each ride. At the end of a chase, the tape was removed and a different color applied, leaving puzzled police wondering if their area was awash in maniac sportbike riders. But this wasn't Scandinavia, and the authorities weren't eager to grant the Cop Hunter the same carte blanche the Ghost Rider enjoys on his home turf. Word went out that Kelly could end up doing real time if caught, and several of his riding buddies had their motorcycles confiscated just for admitting his acquaintance.

After his sorties, Kelly would meet with his childhood buddy Eric Ierado, who turned wrenches for Bob Hesch at West Hills Honda on Pittsburgh's West End. Hesch, an old head who was known to be wickedly fast in his day, would sometimes listen in on Kelly's exploits and, like most adults, thought the kid was a few grooves short of a rain tire. But fate has a way of protecting fools and madmen, and when Kelly mentioned his father's ultimatum in the presence of Hesch and his old race-team partner Keith Marshall, gears started turning.

"You need to take all that aggression to a racetrack," Hesch schooled the young 'un. That advice would end up rekindling a long-dormant racing gene in Hesch and Marshall and very likely save Blake Kelly's life.

For as long as anyone could remember, Hesch kept an odd piece of memorabilia on his office desk. The heavy, wood-bound lockbox resembled an ancient manuscript from a Benedictine monastery, but once opened, revealed an intricate chronicle of motorcycle roadracing from a quarter-century ago. Modest to a fault, neither Hesch nor Marshall are likely to brag of their youthful exploits behind Team Heschimura, one of endurance racing's best-known shaggy-dog stories. The pair started racing in the early '70s, Marshall through his job at Honda of Niles, Ohio, and Hesch through Road & Trail, a Pittsburgh-area dealership. Back in those days, purpose-built sportbikes were a gleam in Soichiro Honda's eye, so the duo campaigned an odd assortment of unlikely machines, including a '76 Honda CB750A featuring a two-speed automatic transmission.

"I look at the bikes the kids have today ... we would have fainted seeing something like a CBR1000RR," Marshall said. "Even the factory teams didn't have purpose-built machines back in those days. You bought the same CB400 or CB550 streetbike as the guys who built choppers and touring bikes and tried to make it into a roadracer yourself."

Without the luxury of electronic rev-limiters, these early racebikes were generally hammered until a loud bang! and a shower of hot oil let a rider know he'd overdone it. Hesch insists he became a skilled technician and team manager not from any burning desire to tune racebikes, but because it was a necessity in the low-bucks and even lower-tech world of '70s endurance racing. Even the team's irreverent name was coined when, out of money as usual, Hesch decided to weld up his own performance pipe from discarded exhaust tubing.

"We called it Heschimura because it looked so damn awful compared to the Yoshimura stuff the factory guys ran. But son of a bitch, if that pipe didn't help us win our first WERA National Endurance Championship," Marshall recalled with a laugh.

The grueling 12-, 24- and even 30-hour races forced the contenders to learn strategy; a team that couldn't ration its fuel, tires and human resources seldom made the checkered flag. And Team Heschimura happened upon a winning formula, taking the title in '79, '81 and '82. But as so often happens in motorcycle racing, growing families and diminishing bank balances-plus the loss of team rider Dale Richey in a tragic 1982 racing accident-hastened the team's retirement. Yet even after all these years, the memory of Richey's fatal accident helped play a part in getting the team reorganized behind Kelly, whose quest for fame-if not infamy-as the Cop Hunter could easily have resulted in a similar end.

Not that the abrupt shift from stunt rider to roadracer was easy. When the Heschimura boys convinced Kelly and longtime stunting co-conspirator Ryan Caldwell to enroll in a local Team Pro-Motion track day at BeaveRun Motorsports Complex, the two proved less than impressed with circuit riding-this despite them both coming within 4 seconds of the lap record their first time out.

"I tried to school Blake on what he'd need to ride faster around the track, but after he low-sided in one session, he jumped up laughing and told me he didn't really care about roadracing; he was just there to learn how to get away from the cops faster," recounted local racer Keith Reed.

By day's end, however, Kelly was starting to feel the racing bug's bite.

"My stunting friends were asking me, 'Why would you want to go racing? There's no girls and too many rules,'" Kelly said. "But it was like 100 times the adrenaline rush of stunt riding, and I had Bob and Keith helping me learn about stuff like suspension and gearing. It was actually starting to be fun."

By his next track day a few months later, Kelly was running just a couple of seconds shy of the lap record. And by the end of the '06 season, he'd traded in his old masking-taped CBR600F4i for a CBR600RR, which propelled him to a second-place finish in the WERA Formula 1 Novice class and fifth in A Superstock Novice. His first victory in September ended in disqualification on a numberplate technicality, but the win-over several experienced racers on liter-class machines-convinced Kelly that the Cop Hunter had staged his last chase.

And there's a nice side benefit to roadracing he hadn't counted on: Instead of aching to wring his son's neck, Ken Kelly's name now sits alongside that of Hesch's West Hills Honda on Blake's racebike. This winter, Marshall is back in his role as team technician, fabricating a slew of weight-saving titanium parts for the '06 RR and a new '07 model.

The team plans to compete in no fewer than eight WERA Novice classes in the '07 season, in the hopes of amassing enough points to gain Expert ranking and a coveted AMA Pro license by late in the year. From there? Well, for Hesch the new blood in his team has him thinking again of challenging the factory riders in at least a few AMA Supersport and Superstock rounds in '08.

"People always say the factory guys cheat or have a financial or technological advantage. Well, I know a lot of that is a desire to win, and I think Blake has plenty of that," Hesch said.

Marshall is satisfied that a young rider with more raw talent than self-preservation has reignited a desire to race that he said was solely missing from his life.

"It's funny, but just from being around Blake, I feel the obsession with racing and speed starting to come back," Marshall said. "But as I get older, I know I'd do better coaching him and running a team than trying to be competitive. Ask any racer and he'd rather sit on the sidelines than not be competitive. It just makes me wonder how many of these kids you see flying down the highway on one wheel might actually have what it takes to go racing."

Follow the team's progress at www.heschimura.com and www.westhills-honda.com.