Kenny Coolbeth Jr. officially hung up his steel shoe at the end of the 2018 American Flat Track season following an outstanding 25-year professional career. Coolbeth has a long list of accomplishments, including three AMA Grand National titles, 37 career wins, and 108 podium finishes. He is without question one of the all-time greats.
Coolbeth’s personality reflects the way he exited the professional ranks. He didn’t announce a farewell tour at the start of the year. In fact, his impending retirement only became public when someone pointed out that the back of his leathers read, “It’s been a great ride.” Coolbeth is like the Tim Duncan of motorcycle racing: a dominant champion who doesn’t need any extra glory associated with his success. He simply loves to race motorcycles and that gives him all the satisfaction he needs.
I have been around the sport of flat track since birth, and Kenny Coolbeth Jr. is the most humble champion I have ever met. I didn’t begin racing full-time until 2004, right when Coolbeth was becoming dominant in the sport. In 2006, he secured his first championship at the Scioto Downs season finale. He didn’t have to win the race to claim the title, but in typical Coolbeth fashion, he did. He dominated the series for the next couple of seasons, ultimately earning three consecutive titles riding for the factory Harley-Davidson team.
My dad always took my sister and me to the Middletown indoor races in New York every winter. I always felt really confident on those concrete tracks, but whenever Coolbeth showed up, I knew I was going to have my hands full. We battled almost every weekend in 2007, and I finished second to Kenny many times. He almost made a clean sweep of the series, but I was able to beat him at the final race of the year.
It was an awesome battle. I was a rookie pro racing the number-one guy in the sport. Kenny could have taken me out to win, but he raced me clean. I was so excited to win after weeks of finishing second. After the finish, Cools, the multitime national champ, gave me the biggest high five. He came over to my pit and congratulated me. We joked around and talked about how much fun the race was. That is Kenny Coolbeth Jr.—down to earth and as humble as they come. I will never forget how awesome he was to me that night.
So where does Coolbeth stack up among flat track’s greatest riders?
Coolbeth was known for his consistency. When he wasn’t winning, he was nearly always at the front of the pack. He scored his first career podium finish during his rookie year in 1994 at Williams Grove Speedway and won the Atlanta Short Track in his final season. That is almost 25 years of being on the podium in one of the most competitive forms of motorsport in America. Coolbeth’s 108 career podium finishes put him fifth all-time behind Chris Carr, Scott Parker, Jay Springsteen, and Jared Mees.
Coolbeth didn’t just finish second and third his entire career. He didn’t win his first national until 2002, but he has 37 victories to his credit, which puts him sixth all-time.
Now let’s talk championships: From 2006 through ’08, Coolbeth won the premier Twins championship riding for Harley-Davidson. From ’06 to ’09, the championship was split between Twins and Singles. In 2008, Coolbeth won both classes, the only rider in the history of the sport to accomplish that feat. His trio of GNC titles puts him in the same category as Joe Leonard, Carroll Resweber, Bart Markel, Springsteen, Ricky Graham, Bubba Shobert, Parker, Carr, and Mees as the only riders who have won three or more championships after the multiple-race series format began in 1954.
When it comes to all-time greats, I place Coolbeth fifth on my list behind Parker, Carr, Mees, and Springsteen. Graham, Leonard, or Kenny Roberts might have a slight talent advantage, but not many can match Coolbeth’s longevity. To use another basketball analogy, Coolbeth reminds me of Shaquille O’Neal. Not physically of course but in the sense that when he was at his best, there might not have been a more dominant guy. Some outside the sport may overlook Coolbeth when it comes to understanding his greatness, but those who raced against him know otherwise.
I have seen Kenny Coolbeth Jr. do things on a motorcycle that I don’t believe will ever be replicated. He truly is one of the best to ever strap on a steel shoe. And off the track, he is as approachable and modest at they come. Here’s to you, Mr. Coolbeth. Thanks for a great career.