Road Racin' with Tommy Kendall, Four-Time SCCA Champion and NASCAR Racer

Rob TiongsonSenior Analyst IMarch 3, 2010

Motorsports fans may remember a familiar sports car champion who dabbled with the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series from the late 1980s-90s, often competing at the challenging road courses as a track specialist for a team to subbing for injured championship regulars at these speedways.

While he only competed in 14 races in the most elite form of stock car racing, most of these events were memorable and with some of the competitive rides of the top division. Did I mention that he's a helluva racer, competing at some of the world's greatest speed arenas?

Regarded as one of the first road course ringers in NASCAR, Tommy Kendall was also a very accomplished SCCA Trans-Am racer, winning four championships with his memorable No. 11 All Sport Ford Mustang. There's also that 1995 24 Hours of Daytona victory when he was teamed with NASCAR Hall of Fame shoo-in Mark Martin and the prolific silver screen icon Paul Newman.

To put it in simple terms, Kendall was the Jeff Gordon of road racing and still knows a thing or two about dropping the hammer when he's at the track these days. On any given day, if "TK" is in a race, be it at Infineon Raceway or Elkhart Lake, chances are you won't be disappointed with his efforts, most likely taking your car to the winner's circle without breaking a sweat.

Kendall also made his presence known with his work as a racing analyst for ABC Sports/ESPN, as well as with SPEED, working Champ Car broadcasts as well as hosting various car programs like Test Drive, where he often worked alongside some of the auto industry's most famous figures. His "California Cool" demeanour was a trademark from his days as a competitive, successful racer to his years as a hit TV personality.

These days may be quiet for Kendall, but he still makes his rounds in the motorsports scene, interacting with today's racing stars and fans as one of the most accessible stars of this sport. There's a sense of confidence and content with this second-generation driver, which made this interview about as laid back and fun as any in my series thus far with B/R Nation. No ego found here!

I got to talk to TK, who fired it up just as he assured me when we struck it up about some racing memories a few weeks ago. As you'll see, give him a nudge, and he'll definitely let you have the inside line, telling you everything with clarity and some anecdotes that'll leave you smiling, laughing, and feeling like you're in the driver's seat with him.

You'll feel the centrifugal forces all around you, as if you're at Road America or trading paint with racing's best in the IROC series. Definitely, you'll be in for a treat with his racing memories to his perspective on a certain racer dominating the NASCAR circuit today. He's raced with the best in motorsports, holding his own and often learning from them en route to his successful career.

So let's hit up the road course, shift into high gear, and meet the man who dominated sports car racing: Originally from La Canada, Calif., let's talk racing with Tommy Kendall!

 

Rob Tiongson : When a racing fan thinks of the name Tommy Kendall, they immediately think of the sports car racer who dominated the SCCA Trans-Am Series during the 1990s. What was it like to be a huge driving force for American sports car racing, especially during those years as the driver of the All-Sport Ford Mustang?

Tommy Kendall : When you are doing it, you don't realize the impact you are having.  You are just digging as hard as you can everyday!  In hindsight though, it is pretty cool.  Towards the end, I was aware at least of my standing within the series, and it was certainly satisfying to see that we had become the team to beat on any given weekend. 

There is only one team or player in any sport that totally controls their own destiny, like when they play their best, they win.  That is what everyone is working towards, but only one can claim it at any given time.

Jimmie J is that guy now in NASCAR.  It is self-perpetuating too, as you get energy, confidence, and motivation from it, which makes you that much harder to beat.

RT
: You've driven in the SCCA, NASCAR, IROC, and IMSA divisions in your racing career. What are some of your favorite memories and moments in those series?

TK : Wow, that is not a short answer, but I will try.  In the SCCA, it would have to be the dream season of 1997.  Everything went our way and we seized the opportunity.  No. 11 has always been my lucky number since my dad (Charles) wore it when he played tailback at UCLA and it was everywhere in 1997.  I ran car No. 11, had 11 poles, and of course, the 11 consecutive wins. 

With NASCAR, it has to be taking the lead in the Cup race at the Glen in 1989, driving the Hendrick R&D car (No. 18).  As I went up through those historic esses, I remember looking in my mirror and smiling at the entire field behind me with plenty of my heroes in it!  The other would be coming so close to winning in 1991 driving the Mello Yello car No. 42 at Sears Point, but more on that later. 

Then there's the IROC series! I was walking into the IROC hauler for the first time. Seeing my name on a locker with "Earnhardt, Unser, Kinser, Gordon, etc"  was awesome.  Other than my lone Cup and Busch (NW) starts, my only oval races were my six seasons in IROC.  Coming so close to winning against those names on an oval like at Michigan one year and the opening year at Fontana rank right up there with my best memories. 

In the IMSA ranks, my first wins and championships in the RX-7 (9186-87) were what put me on the map and will always seem like the good ol' days to me.  Obviously, my big crash in 1991 [at Watkins Glen] was not especially pleasant, but had a massive impact on my life.  Being happy where I am, I have to be grateful for even that.  Finally, winning Daytona in 1995 with Paul Newman was such a special moment.

RT : As a racer and observer of auto racing, what's your take on the latest happenings with American motorsports? Do you feel that it's grown into an acceptable sport to the pessimists of the past or does it have a long way to go in being welcomed in the same esteem of say, basketball or football? Some parts of the country dismiss racing as merely entertainment.

TK : Well, there are always going to be pessimists, but the growth of the sport speaks volumes.  I try to not give the negative any energy.  If you step back, race car drivers have arrived in the top echelon of earners and headline-makers, which is a pretty good proxy for where they fit in the entire sports landscape. 

Having been in the arena as a competitor, called the action as a commentator, and been a lifelong fan, I always like to cite Hemingway's quote to the haters:  "Auto racing, bull fighting, and mountain climbing are the only real sports...all others are games."

RT : Growing up in Santa Monica, who were some of your heroes and inspirations as far as racers were concerned? Were there any particular racers that you took after in terms of their attitude and driving style?

TK : My first racing hero was a guy named Dennis Aase, who drove for my dad.  He was super fast, fun, and incredibly humble.  I must have drove him nuts when I was like 13 with the endless questions.  Being able to bounce things off an expert while I was learning about the sport gave me a huge head start once I started driving. 

After that, it was Klaus Ludwig, who I saw win a race at Sears Point with a sticking throttle by driving with the ignition switch and getting out of the car looking like he had just spent the day relaxing on a yacht.  Beyond that, I liked Keke Rosberg, Ayrton Senna da Silva (his whole name that he used when I first started following him in Formula Fords), and Rick Mears. 

Later on, Dale Sr. was a hero, mentor, and friend who went way out of his way to help me, as well as most of the other young drivers in NASCAR.

RT : Having raced at some of the finest facilities around the world, what are some of the tracks that you would have no hesitation to race at in any car, any time?

TK : Elkhart Lake is the best race track in the world as far as I am concerned.  It is the best track I have ever driven on and the best track I have ever spectated at.  From the actual track to the natural beauty to the unique food they serve, it is racing nirvana! 

Bathurst in Australia is about the wildest place I have ever driven.  It is the site of the Bathurst 1000 and it is called Mt. Panorama.  That is not a figure of speech, as it has over 1000 feet of elevation change over the lap.

RT : NASCAR fans remember you as a road ringer during the 1990s, filling in for teams whose drivers weren't road course savvy. I hate to bring this one up, but you were very close to scoring an upset victory in the 1991 Banquet 300 at Sonoma until a late race tangle with Mark Martin.

Does it cross your mind that you nearly won in the Cup Series? Was your duel with Martin as entertaining for you as it was for the fans who watched it at home some 19 years ago?

TK : Even though it didn't end perfectly, that is not a sore subject in my book.  I think we qualified fifth and were a factor all weekend.  With seven laps to go, we had a big lead and nobody was going to catch us.  Then the dreaded caution came out.  It was a legit caution for the King's crash (ironic, given that I was subbing for Kyle), but allowed the field to bunch up. 

On the short runs, Mark was quicker and was all over me.  I took the inside going into turn seven (the first hairpin).  Mark gave me a pretty good slam on the door under braking, but then was able to more or less get around me on the outside.  I got crossed up on the exit trying to fight back and over-corrected just a bit which got me into Mark's right rear. 

He crashed out, but at the same time it tore my valve stem off and I got a flat instantly.  That set up the dramatic Allison-Rudd finish.  Mark was very dignified afterwards, but he hardly spoke to me the first couple years that I was his teammate at Roush.  We eventually got past it though and are now good friends. 

I figured it was only a matter of time before I won a Cup race, but fate intervened.  I had my big crash at the Glen two weeks later and never got as close again.

RT : Four years later, you were teammates with the late Paul Newman and Mark Martin driving the infamous Nobody's Fool Mustang in the Rolex 24 at Daytona. Certainly, that has to be one of your highlights as a racer. Any particular moments that stood out during that race? Have you considered competing in that event again?

TK : Yes, this was most definitely a highlight.  I had known Mr. Newman for years, but getting to spend so much time with him as a teammate in this type of event was a real treat. 

He was one of the most competitive people I have ever met, which goes a long ways towards explaining how a 70-year-old could drive competitively in such a grueling event!  Really remarkable when you think of most 70-year-olds that you know.  He was also the ultimate team player. 

When it came time for the final stint, Jack Roush had to insist that he drive under the checkered flag.  He had no interest in taking the glory, but it was only fitting as the only reason we were all there was because he had decided that was how he wanted to celebrate his 70th birthday. As he said in his self-deprecating style, "Everybody has to be somewhere!"

RT : Which racers, in any series you've competed in from your sports car days to stock car stints, did you say to yourself, "Man, if I could beat this driver, I pretty much had a good day?"

TK : In IROC, it was Al Jr., Mark Martin, and Dale Sr.  In my road racing, overall, I would have to say Ron Fellows.  He was a very complete driver: quick, tenacious, and good on all types of tracks. 

Scott Pruett was a guy you had to beat as he virtually never beat himself: no big mistakes.  A guy that doesn't get a lot of attention, but was as good as anyone I ever raced against on race day, Darin Brassfield.  He was a non-factor usually in qualifying, but once the green flag dropped, he was really good.

RT : I've asked this question to some racers but I am curious. Just how much success would you attribute to a racer's day on the track to the equipment and team? Is it mostly driver or is it testament to everyone doing their job before, during, and after a race?

TK : At the end of the day, it is really 50/50.  The best ones do heroic stuff behind the wheel, but also before they get in the car too.  Equipment plays an enormous role, but the best and the brightest drivers find a way to get into good equipment and make theirs better, especially on the development side of things.

Another way of saying that is the best drivers also make their cars better by driving the development in a certain direction.  The days are over where a driver can carry a poor car to victory lane, but the best ones will occasionally snatch a victory from the jaws of defeat like Jimmie Jams [Johnson] did at Auto Club a few weeks ago.

Over time, they make their cars and teams better by how they lead.  When someone always seems to end up in better cars, you need to start considering that their driving skill is not limited to the cockpit. 

RT : Free Association time, TK! There might be a few twists and turns here than Elkhart Lake. Or not. Anyways, tell me the first thing that comes to your mind with the following:

Endurance races.

TK : A ton of work, but for that reason immensely satisfying.  A real camaraderie develops as you are only as strong as your weakest link, be it driver, crew or equipment.

RT : Crossroads.

TK : A high school in Santa Monica. In my career, at the end of 1992, I was seen as damaged goods after my accident by Chevy and it could have gone either way.  But I got picked up by Roush for their new IMSA GTS program at the urging of Max Jones, who was the team manager at the time.

The winning resumed at the first race, led to four championships in five years, and all of the records in the All Sport Mustang!

RT : Fear.

TK : Largely an illusion based on our beliefs.

RT : Victory.

TK : To the victor go the spoils.  Second place is first loser.

RT : Pure Adrenaline Rush.

TK : Qualifying in the GTP car at Lime Rock.  900 hp, 1800 lbs, 3,000 lbs of downforce.  Pulling almost four lateral Gs, feeling like your head wants to fly out the side window, then going deeper than seems possible, under braking for turn one, and then going deeper still.  When you finally stomp on the carbon brakes, it feels like hitting the drag-line on an aircraft carrier. As good as it gets!

RT : Dreams.

TK : To see everyone cut others and especially themselves some slack.

RT : Family.

TK : My biggest blessing: true friends! 

RT : Challenge.

TK : Balance in life.

RT : Favorite TV Show.

TK : Surreal Life.   At first, like a car wreck that you can't turn your head from, then some great human moments.

RT : Music.

TK : A little bit of everything.

RT : A true athlete is...

TK
: My cat or a dolphin.

RT : Best racer right now...

TK : Jimmie Johnson: good at everything, but the best closer in the business.