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Mike became forever hooked on drag racing as a 16-year-old in June 1963 during the height of the muscle car era by learning to handle a 4-speed behind the wheel of his best friend’s V8 Chevy II. By early ‘66 he had realized that competitive drag racing was something he really wanted to do, and he wanted to do it in a stick car and, most importantly, do it to the very best of his ability.
Following construction of his first real race car, a Butch Elkins-built D/A ‘65 Corvette, his drag racing career officially began at age 20 in July of 1967 at Motor City Dragway in New Baltimore, MI. On Mike’s first outing things got off to a great start when he was pitted next to one of the most influential people he would meet throughout his career--Richard Maskin. Later that fall, he and Maskin were assigned to the same dorm in college and eventually formed a partnership to race Maskin’s ‘55 Canadian Pontiac in C/MP in 1968. That was the learning experience of a lifetime. It became complete with an introduction to Maskin’s longtime friend Dick Arons who was already famous for having won the ‘67 and ‘68 Super Stock Nationals. Also during this time, he met and became good friends with the late Dave Kanners, Mike Fons, Wally Booth and the rest of the guys connected with the renowned Detroit Rat Pack. As a matter of fact Booth, Arons, Maskin and Fons remain Mike’s good friends of to this day. Without a doubt, meeting and racing with these guys helped define his career. Their combined influences helped mold a pastime into a way of life.
In 1969 Maskin was given the chance to race in Super Stock with Arons, so Mike partnered with Dave Kanners and they raced the D/A Corvette with great success. Mike’s career really matured in late ‘69 when Maskin returned from the Arons camp armed with everything they needed to know about building their own Camaro. In March of ‘70 their new blue & white C/MP ‘68 Camaro was completed and became a feature story in Cars Magazine. During the ‘70 season the Keener & Maskin Mouse Pack 1 Camaro was the first C/MP to run in the 10’s, it set the C/MP national record at 10.96 @ 125.96 mph and it won class at the US Nationals at Indy. Just before the middle of the ‘70 season Mike got the nod from Uncle Sam and subsequently sold his interest in the team to Jim Gilbert prior to ‘1971.
By 1972, Maskin, as promised, had supervised preparation of a ‘69 COPO Camaro and had a Lou’s Speed Shop sponsorship offer waiting for Mike when he returned from the Army. Dick Arons and Mike decided Super Stock was a good place for Mike, so he ran the Camaro on his own, first with a 350/255 in SS/L, and in 1973 with a 427/425 in SS/D. The car ran consistently under the national record both years. As it turned out, ‘72 & ‘73 was a critical period for him as a racer. He match-raced Super Stock star Dave Boertman heads-up when Lou’s Speed Shop took on the Rod Shop in late ‘72. He won 2 of 3 and knew in the process he could compete with the best, but probably the most significant thing was the formation of a lasting friendship with fellow Booth-Arons modified racer, Paul Mercure. In late ‘73 Arons suggested a program that would change things forever and they formed Keener & Mercure. They agreed that they would keep the Checkmate name Paul was using, and also agreed to use the blue and white paint scheme that Mike had originally developed while racing with Maskin. Team Checkmate was forming and preparing a full-scale assault on Modified Eliminator for 1974.
1974, ‘75 and ‘76 were magical seasons. “Merc” and Mike came out of the box with their guns blazing and a new Mike Fons-built C/MP ‘67 Camaro. Sporting Pro Stock horsepower, this Booth- Arons killer was the most revolutionary MP car ever built at the time, even labeled an “all-steel Pro Stocker” by many. Following their victory at the 74 Sportsnationals, NHRA declared it illegal for MP determining that the 4-link was not installed per the rules. Paul’s victory reminded Mike how badly he missed driving so they added a ‘68 Camaro to the team and in August 1974 Mike qualified that car second and won Modified Eliminator at the Popular Hot Rod Magazine Race in D/MP. They continued their 2-car successes in 1975 when Mike won his class in C/MP and went to the quarter-finals at the NHRA Gatornationals. In April they became the first 9-pound-per-cubic-inch car to run in the 9’s and they set the national record at Columbus. That summer Mike won E/G at Englishtown and Mercure won C/MP, with both cars running in the 9’s. 1976 was another big year for Team Checkmate and their Mike Fons-built D/G Vega. Keener ran in the semi-finals at Columbus and Montreal before qualifying number 1 and winning Modified Eliminator at the NHRA Fallnationals. Team Checkmate successes continued in modified and competition eliminators from 1974 through ‘89 with numerous NHRA class wins, national records, and division titles. They were featured in Chevy Power, Car Craft, Hot Rod, and Super Stock magazines, and scored a few more national event victories along the way as well. It was a great run.
In 1990 Mike decided he wanted to compete in Stock Eliminator so by ‘93 he had 3 new Camaros built by their crew chief & former Fons protégé, Tom Stiel. They ran A, B & C Stock with 396/375 engines with aluminum heads and were featured in the late Steve Collison’s article for Super Stock Magazine in ‘94. Driven by Keener, Mercure, and the late Mark Yamarino all 3 cars were fast, stood on their bumpers, went rounds, won a divisional, and set new national records in A & B stock on several occasions. At one stretch during ‘98 & ‘99 Mike drove their ‘69 Camaro to seven consecutive class victories in B/S. Following the last race over that stretch of wins, IHRA tech official, Terry Bell, and Mike devised a new idea for A-B-C Stockers, a heads-up eliminator that was called “Top Stock.”
Co-founding Top Stock was probably Mike’s most gratifying accomplishment in drag racing, ranking right up there with winning two major Modified Eliminator titles. It began with a couple guys discussing an idea that appeared to be a real winner if given a platform on which to perform. IHRA President Bill Bader supplied the platform, Mike Baker, Terry Bell, Chuck Norton and Mike wrote the rules, GM sponsored the class, and Top Stock fascinated over 25,000 fans in our first “IHRA Night of Fire” event held at Norwalk in August 2000. Drag Racing Magazine and Competition covered the event, Horsepower TV provided a half hour of TV coverage, and Mike had the honor of doing the interview on behalf of all the racers that supported this great class. Future “Night of Fire” events always began with Top Stock drivers tossing T shirts into packed stands filled with excited fans and then hopping into the cars to open the show. Nothing Mike has done since has produced the same level of euphoria and in 2003; the Top Stock drivers presented Mike with a plaque thanking him for having the insight to start the class. He realized then that Top Stock was his greatest accomplishment, ever.
The story isn’t over yet. With longtime crew chiefs Tom Stiel and Jeff Jones beside their car, Mercure and Keener will begin their 45th season in 2019 with their old standby, the trusty A/S ‘67 Camaro.