IROC: Kendall Grateful for IROC while Searching for Ride
25 July 1998INDIANAPOLIS, -- Tom Kendall won 11 Trans Am races in a row last year, but...
"I'm tired of people saying you really run well, but ... I want to get rid of the buts," Kendall says without rancor but - yes, but - with disappointment that no one in major-league racing will hire him as a full-time driver.
There's one exception. Jay Signore, who runs the annual International Race of Champions, recognized his outstanding 1997 season by inviting him to participate in this year's four-race IROC series. This provides Kendall with the one racing opportunity he has cherished most - to drive at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
On July 31, IROC completes its season by racing for the first time at the Speedway. Kendall holds down eighth in the 12-driver standings with 23 points. He is only five points behind Pep Boys Indy Racing League star Tony Stewart and has more points than two-time Indy 500 champion Arie Luyendyk, 1996 Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 winner Dale Jarrett, NASCAR Busch Series champion Randy LaJoie and 1996 CART champion Jimmy Vasser.
Indy has been his racing goal since he began his climb in the racing world. One year he even made a major announcement about his career in a downtown Indianapolis hotel. But there was always that but.
Topping 6-foot-4 in height, he always was considered too tall for an Indy-style car.
"When I was young and nave, I figured I'd be racing there by the 1990s," said Kendall, from Santa Monica, Calif.
"Height has had about everything to do with it. It's something I'm saddled with. I'm in ecstasy even going (to Indy). Being in IROC is my first huge break."
Kendall has sat in an IRL car owned by Fred Treadway and said he fit in it. He is only slightly taller than John Paul Jr., an IRL regular who drives for Jonathan Byrd's team. He has had discussions with several teams, and noted motorsports attorney and promoter Cary Agajanian has been working to find him a steady ride.
Kendall is enjoying his opportunity to drive one of the identically prepared Pontiac Firebirds in the IROC series.
"Probably more than anyone else," he said. "As a road racer, I'm always the stepchild. I got my first invitation, and it is the highlight of my career.
"My way of explaining IROC is that it's the who's who of racing. I'm the who."
Kendall describes his showing in the first two races as decent but the results terrible. He led at Daytona but crashed after tangling with Jeff Gordon. He crashed again at Fontana trying to pass Stewart and said, "That was more of my doing."
At Michigan in the most recent IROC event, he led 45 laps of the 50-lap race.
"But not the one that counted," he said. "I pushed up between Turns 3 and 4, and Jeff Burton jumped right on it. I ended up fifth when I got back in line."
Kendall, who said he did "about 800 million miles of Nissan testing" in the mid-1980s, suffered severe leg injuries in 1991 race at Watkins Glen, N.Y., when a broken hub sent his car spinning into the fence. He was sidelined for eight months and still used a cane to walk 18 months later.
He rebounded and last season was virtually unbeatable for most of the SCCA Trans Am season. He won 11 consecutive races en route to his third consecutive Trans Am season title.
"I guess all the planets were in line," he said with a laugh.
"I needed all of that. I still needed luck."
At Detroit, where's it's very tough to pass, he drew the No. 1 starting position. At St. Petersburg, Fla., he spun in oil, but caution periods helped him get back in contention. Once there, hard driving took care of the rest.
Finally, his luck ran out, and he lost the last two races of the season.
"As the end of the year Ford decided to withdraw from the series," Kendall said. "It left me high and dry. I still had other stuff, but nothing with the ingredients I was looking for. I've always been kind of picky.
"I decided if I couldn't do what I wanted, I'd just sit out."
Owner Felix Sabates invited Kendall to drive in the NASCAR Winston Cup race earlier this year at Sears Point, Calif. He was competitive for a while and finished 16th. He'll drive the same car at Watkins Glen. He also drove a couple sports car races for Jim Matthews of North Carolina and has another coming up. Additionally, he did racing color commentary during television broadcasts at Detroit and Portland, Ore.
"Usually, after your career is over you head for that kind of work," he said. "As the driver you're not the one in charge (of your career). You're the tail of the dog, the caboose. You don't get to call the shots. But I'm sticking to my standards."
IROC AT INDY NOTEBOOK
Event schedule: The inaugural IROC at Indy race is scheduled to start at 1:30 p.m. (CDT) July 31.
Practice sessions will start at 10 a.m. and 5:05 p.m. July 29, and 8:30 a.m., 12:05 p.m. and 4:50 p.m. July 30.
Broadcast schedule: The IROC at Indy will be televised on ABC at 4:30 p.m. (EDT) Aug. 1.
IROC tickets: General admission tickets for the IROC at Indy event July 31 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway are available for $25 from the IMS ticket office. Ticket forms can be obtained by calling (317) 484-6700.