Still competing at 70, Kenyon joins greats

ON MOTOR SPORTS

Auto Racing

April 06, 2003|By SANDRA McKEE

Mel Kenyon, the veteran Midget Car and Indy Car driver, will be 70 years old April 15, but his passion for his sport hasn't diminished.

"Racing," he said. "What else could I do as well? What else did I like better? A lot of people get tired of working and constantly need more money for what they do. I'm guessing, based on the hours I put in and the expenses I have to pay, I'm working for about $1 an hour."

Yes, present tense. Kenyon, who has more U.S. Auto Club national midget car championships (seven) and USAC national midget car race wins (111) than any other driver, is still racing.

He won his last championship, the Indianapolis Speedrome Midget Car Series, in 1993. That's 31 years after winning his first in the NASCAR Midget Series, in 1962. Along the way, he also competed in the Indianapolis 500 and had four top-five finishes in eight tries. His best 500 finish came in 1968, when he was third.

Kenyon won his last race, his 380th Midget race, in June last year. And when he's talking about last season, you can tell he's still a competitor.

"I should have won two, but I kicked it out of gear while leading," said the resident of Lebanon, Ind., still irritated at himself.

Kenyon has never let life's adversities stand in his way, and over his 55-year career, there have been adversities.

He's crash-tested concrete walls head-first. He's flown out of racetracks into the tops of trees. He said he left his sense of smell "on a fence in New Zealand." He has been knocked unconscious 10 times.

And in 1965, with temperatures at 90 degrees in the shade at a race in Langhorne, Pa., he made the only mistake he regrets.

"In my whole life, the only thing I'd change is that I would have worn a fire suit quicker," he said. "I always wore it during the month of May at Indy, but in Midget races, you could hardly make it to the end of a 50-lapper in the fire suits of those days. They were so hot."

So, he wore a cotton driving suit, and he had an accident that cost him the fingers on his left hand and nearly his life, as he suffered third-degree burns over 40 percent of his body.

"A lot of people thought the bonfire would stop me," he said. "A.J Foyt and Parnelli Jones thought it was the end of me. I was married a year and two months at the time, and my wife, Marieanne, was sitting beside me when it was thought I was about to die, and she said: `Why don't you give your life to the Lord? What do you have to lose?' "

Kenyon smiles a little at the memory of his late wife and the outcome of that conversation.

"I turned the rest of my miserable life over to the Lord," he said. "Two weeks later, I walked out of the hospital. Seven months later, I was back racing. I won 14 championships after that."

He also began speaking about his life. These days, in between races, he speaks at schools, weddings, funerals and even at Billy Graham rallies.

"Life is great," Kenyon said. "But it does have its sudden stops. You never know when, so what you do is prepare as best you can and go on."

Last Thursday night, he was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in Talladega, Ala. Going in with him were Briggs Cunningham, the sports car legend; Emerson Fittipaldi, Formula One and Indy Car champion; Ray Fox, NASCAR master car and engine builder and crew chief; and A.J. Watson, whose cars won six Indianapolis 500s from 1955 to 1964.

They're working on it

It was a casual lunch, but NASCAR vice president Jim Hunter said, "Ask anything you want."

The question was: "How could NASCAR improperly score Jeff Gordon's pass of Matt Kenseth in the race at Texas Motor Speedway last week?"

In that race, a caution flag had come out. Under caution, drivers are traditionally allowed to race back to the flag -- as long as the accident isn't blocking their way. In the incident involving Gordon and Kenseth, Kenseth slowed to allow lapped cars to pass him and get back on the lead lap. Gordon, trying to make sure he didn't get passed by cars behind him, which were already on the lead lap, raced past Kenseth and into the lead.

At the time, NASCAR ruled Gordon could not pass Kenseth, and placed him second. Two days later, it apologized, said the call was wrong and that Gordon should have been placed in the lead.

Now, Hunter is grimacing.

"That's a good question," he said. "But simple things aren't always simple. Yes, drivers are allowed to race back to the line, but there has been a gentleman's agreement that one driver won't pass another for the lead."

Race fans might choke on that. But Hunter insisted, unless it's the last lap, drivers have not passed for the lead. Still, he agreed it's bad policy to trust in a gentleman's agreement and that it isn't NASCAR's place to enforce those kinds of understandings.

"As soon as we can get the Global Positioning System perfected, there will be no racing back to the line under caution," Hunter said. "The minute a caution is called, we'll flip a switch and freeze frame every car on the race track. There will be no more racing back to the line and no more giving laps back."

It can't happen soon enough.

No showers, please

Four of the first six events at Hagerstown Speedway have been rained out, and that has track promoter Frank Plessinger looking for fair skies this month.

Saturday will feature the first enduro race for amateur drivers. They will be joined by the late models, late model sportsman and pure stocks.

The track switches to Friday night racing this week for the first round of the Winchester-Hagerstown Speedway Shootout. The 40-lap feature will pay $3,000 to the winner with $300 to start.

Information: 301-582-0640 or on the Internet at www.hagerstownspeedway.com.

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