NASCAR: Kite Flying in New Direction
17 June 1998
Barely six hours after the checkered flag waved at Indy on May 24, Kite was told he no longer was an open-wheel driver. Andy Evans, owner of Team Scandia, decided to switch his concentration from the Pep Boys Indy Racing League to stock car racing.
Team Scandia then started to prepare both Kite and a car for a debut in the NASCAR Winston Cup Brickyard 400 on Aug. 1 at Indy.
"Big-time change," said Kite, 22. "About a month ago I was running around this track with about 2,000 pounds of downforce, and now I have about 150 pounds of downforce, so a lot has changed in the last couple of weeks. I'm just going to shake it down and see how things go."
Kite is driving a Jack Roush-prepared Ford Taurus with No. 45 painted on the side. He drove the No. 7 Dallara/Aurora/Goodyear in the Pep Boys IRL. Both cars carry a Royal Purple paint job.
The stock car blew an engine on its second lap, and change was made at midday so the team could take advantage of a pleasant day for testing.
Kite, from Stockbridge, Ga., admits the dramatic switch in driving direction caught him by surprise. Kite said that he and Evans talked early in the year after signing a 5-year contract about "dabbling" in stock cars, but the main goal was the Pep Boys IRL series.
"It was a shock," Kite said. "The next two weeks getting ready for Texas I was in shock. It didn't really get me until I turned on the TV and watched Billy Boat and everybody else running around the racetrack down there in Texas, and I wasn't there driving around. That's when it became reality."
The two-day Speedway test is a learning experience for both Kite and the Scandia team. They know they will be pure rookies attempting to qualify for the Brickyard 400.
"These next two days will determine whether we try to make it," he said.
He pointed out that if after two days of testing the car still was four seconds off the last-place time of last year, it wouldn't be wise to make an attempt. The slowest qualifier in 1997 was Terry Labonte at 51.536 seconds and 174.635 mph.
Still, the team is optimistic. Kite feels that qualifying for the Brickyard would help the team find a sponsor.
"It would be neat to run the Indy 500 and the Brickyard 400 the same year," he said. "Especially someone being a rookie in both of them the same year."
Only John Andretti in 1994 and Robby Gordon in 1997 have accomplished that feat.
Kite drove a Ford Thunderbird in the ARCA race at Atlanta in March and then tested his Winston Cup car at Michigan the week after Indy. He returned to Michigan last Saturday and drove in his second ARCA race, again in the Thunderbird.
In the Michigan race, he qualified 18th but with 10 laps remaining was running in the top 10. After a final pit stop he finished 14th, but felt there was a scoring problem that dropped him out of a top-10 finish.
"The team was really happy, I was really happy," he said. "I think we ran there better than anybody expected of us."
Kite expects to drive in a couple more Winston Cup races if he qualifies for the Brickyard. But he doesn't foresee himself as a full-time NASCAR campaigner yet. He said the drivers there now are so skilled that he doesn't feel it's right to consider himself as one of them until he has more laps in a stock car.
"I'm somebody on the outside looking in," he said. "I'd like to do what they're doing, but I still have a lot to learn along with the team."
Kite stands 23rd in the Pep Boys IRL standings with 45 points, still better than a handful of regulars. He made his IRL debut last June at Pikes Peak International Raceway, qualified ninth but finished 20th after a crash. He also hit the wall at Charlotte where he led twice for 11 laps and Loudon, N.H., where he qualified fourth. Finally, at Las Vegas he got his best finish of sixth and was the last driver on the lead lap.
This season he drove from 28th to 16th at Orlando, qualified fourth at Phoenix but dropped out in 18th and overcame practice crashes at Indy to get an 11th from 26th starting position.
Kite hasn't given up on resuming his Pep Boys IRL career. He's talking to other teams in hopes of landing a ride as well as looking for sponsorship money for Scandia. He said he'd like to stay with Scandia because he enjoys the people, but feels there isn't an opportunity there at the moment.
"Maybe by the end of the year I'll be in something," he said.
"I definitely want to go to Charlotte and Atlanta. Atlanta, I have to be there. When I hopped into the IRL, I said I wanted to be in the first race at Atlanta. I really hope I do get to do some more IRL races. I still feel I have a lot to prove to some other people out there and definitely to myself.
"I feel like we've been shortchanged. There've been a couple of races we could have won, and we haven't. And I just don't feel like it would be right to look back 20 years from now and say, 'Man, I can't believe I never won an IRL race.'"