Ken Maely, the "Shoe Man," is best known for making steel shoes for almost all of the top AMA Grand National and world championship speedway competitors from the 1950s to present. Maely’s steel shoes are famous for fine craftsmanship and durability. Some veteran riders have worn the same Maely-designed shoe for nearly 30 years.
A former racer, Maely was much more than just the best-known steel shoemaker in the country. He also ran a flat-track training facility in Southern California and designed engines that are used in Chinese scooters and motorcycles. On his ranch, he also grew Oriental vegetables used in Oriental restaurants and groceries across the country and raised prized race horses.
Maely was born in Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin to a racing household. His father was a farmer and motorcycle racer during the 1920 and ‘30s. After the crop was planted in the spring, Maely’s dad would head off for the fair circuit, racing all summer at tracks across the Midwest.
As a young boy, Maely often traveled with his dad to the races. He remembers his father donning a canvas helmet before heading out to the track. The racing machines Maely’s father owned naturally attracted boys of the farm community to the Maelys' home. At the age of 10, the temptation became too great for Maely and, in front of an enthusiastic audience of his buddies, he began riding his dad’s race bike around the farm fields on Saturdays when his dad would go into town.
In the late 1930s, Maely, like his father, began racing the fair circuit during the summer months. After World War II, Maely moved to California and took up speedway racing and got the opportunity to compete all over the world in team and individual speedway racing competitions. Maely recalls with great fondness his days of racing with speedway greats such as Wilbur “Lammy” Lamoreaux and the Milne brothers, Jack and Cordy.
It was during this time that Maely began making steel shoes for himself. Like most other dirt track racers of the time, Maely used the end of automobile bumpers purchased from junkyards for 50 cents. The problems with the bumper steel shoes were that they were made out of soft steel and would wear out in only a couple of weeks of racing, not to mention that they weighed a hefty eight pounds. Maely fashioned his steel shoes from band saw blades and the result was a lighter and more durable shoe.
"Other riders would borrow my steel shoe and I practically had to fight them to get it back," Maely recalled. He started making the special shoes for friends and, through word of mouth, Maely’s shoes became highly sought-after items. In 1951, Harley-Davidson approached Maely about making steel shoes for its factory team members and, in a matter of a few short years, Maely’s hobby had become a thriving business. Maely proudly pointed out that every AMA Grand national champion since 1952 had worn his steel shoes, as well as a dozen or so world speedway champs. Three generations of dirt track and speedway riders have worn Maely’s shoes. Over the years Maely, refined his shoe-making process by using rare metals and a special tempering process.
Maely retired from racing after 1950, but for a brief return to speedway racing in the early ‘60s. He turned his attention to modifying speedway racing bikes. This eventually led to building speedway frames and, ultimately, entire bikes. His engine-building skills led to a Chinese manufacturer approaching Maely about building engines for its motorbikes. Maely-designed engines are produced in various displacements for the domestic Chinese market in the hundreds of thousands. Maely frequently traveled to China to oversee the production of these motorcycles and scooters. He met his wife, Rose, in China (she managed one of the manufacturing plants) and the couple settled on a ranch in Corona, California, where they raised a niece from China.
When inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1999, Maely, nearing 80, was still as active as ever making steel shoes every day, overseeing the ranch and running his training facility. Many of the top dirt track, speedway and road racing elite from all over the world trained at Maely’s facility. Maely spoke fluently in five languages and riders from such diverse countries as Japan, England, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden and Spain trained at his ranch. Over the years, he also served a valued advisor to many of the top racers.
Ken Maely died in late 2003.