On Friday evening, I got the chance to interview Tommy Kendall, driver of the number 11 Dodge Challenger SRT for Miller Racing. Saturday’s race will be his first Trans Am start since 2004. Kendall has four championships in Trans Am to his name, which were earned in 1990, 1995, 1996, and 1997. He also competed in IMSA in the late 1980s, winning four championships in 1986-’88 and ’93. Kendall made 14 starts in the NASCAR Winston Cup, primarily in road course events, with a highest finish of 8th in 1990 with Phoenix Racing. He also made an appearance in the Busch Series in 1990 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where he finished 15th. Kendall also made two starts in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2000 and 2013, finishing 7th and 9th in his class respectively. He also earned a win in his class in the 24 Hours of Daytona. Kendall qualified in 10th position on Friday for Saturday’s race.
ISABELLE BEECY – It’s been 10 years since you’ve last competed in Trans Am. What brought you back to racing?
TOMMY KENDALL – It kinda was circuitous, because I was out and didn’t think I was gonna do it anymore. I was trying to get Brian Vickers into the Le Mans Vipers and so I introduced him to some people there. So it sort of snuck up on me. Then the Viper people called me and said, “What about you?” This was in 2012. I said, “Well, I’m out of shape and I haven’t driven in a long time.” I signed on with the Vipers and I drove in 2012. I did the long races last year. As much fun as it was, it wasn’t as much fun as I thought it was gonna be. It was hard doing only three races a year. I’d do a race at Daytona or Sebring and then it’d be a big gap to Le Mans. I just wasn’t getting enough laps to be at the level I needed to be at those three races so I said, “You know what? This is a younger man’s sport. I’ll step aside.” I figured that I was retired again. And then they called me and said, “What about Trans Am?” I was like, “It feels like the mafia, they keep pulling me back in.” The difference is it’s not with a gun to my head, it’s just fun stuff, and that’s how it happened. They said, “We’re going to go back to Trans Am with the Challenger” and I said, “What’s wrong with that?” So here we are now.
IB – What’s been some of your most memorable moments you’ve had as a driver at Mid Ohio?
TK – I clinched my first Trans Am championship here in 1990 and I had a pretty decent lead with a couple races to go. Until it’s clinched clinched, it’s just nerve wracking. The guy who I was racing against for the championship, his dad was in the race and I was lapping him and I tangled up with him. I almost got too pissed off and I almost outdid myself but we clinched the championship. That was my first championship in 1990. That was probably the most memorable experience here.
IB – Has part of you thought about competing in something like the Indy 500 or a NASCAR road course event in the near future?
TK – Not in the near future. I’ve done, not Indy, but I’ve done fourteen NASCAR races. I think ’98 was my last one. I was kind of the guy that started the whole road course ringer thing. Way back in the sixties and seventies, Dan Gurney used to do it and then it sort of stopped. I drove for a west coast NASCAR team and ran Riverside a couple times. Then Chevy put me in Hendrick’s R&D car in the Glen in ’89 and I lead that race. I did a few races the next year and I lead two or three of those and then came really close to winning Sonoma in ’91 subbing for Kyle Petty – he broke his leg – so I kinda became known as the road race sub guy when I was racing Trans Am. That lead to the Boris Saids of the world and a lot of the road course guys. I kinda launched the second wave of road course ringers. But I thought I was done before this came along, so never say never but I would say I don’t imagine I would be. But we’ll see.
IB – You’ve been an active fixture with social media with your fellow colleagues and race fans. When you interact with someone new to the sport or may not have caught you race in Trans Am, do you see social media as a way to bridge that gap?
TK – The fact that you can send a message to anyone in the world now, these people that have 20 million chances of them actually seeing it, the fact that someone….like there’s one guy who follows me on Twitter used to come to all the Trans Am races. He and his brother used to come to Lime Rock and I was just going through a whole box of photos and I have pictures of them when they were like fourteen, fifteen years old and now they’re 28, 29, 30. Its crazy that you can just basically send a message to whomever. I’ve never lost sight of the fact….I remember what it was like when I was thirteen and wanted to race in the worst way. If Derek Bell would just smile at you and say “Hey, how’s it going?”, you’d be like, “Oh my god, he talked to me!” I think it’s really cool to be able to actually interact with fans. I’m glad I only have as however many followers I have because I feel an obligation to…..if someone says something to me, I feel like I should say something back or I at least favorite everyone’s thing just so they know I saw it.
IB – I hear you have a pretty unique car dear to your heart. Can you fill us in on the chicken car?
TK – He is one of the loves of my life. I got him during my record-breaking championship Trans Am ’97 season. I saw him and I was like, I gotta have that. So I flagged the girl down driving it, tried to buy it, but it wasn’t hers. It was actually from Ohio and it was out in California for a movie. She was just joyriding it and she said, I’ll tell the owner. Never heard a word from her but I got a picture of it. Autoweek Magazine ran the picture of it with me smiling in front of it, saying I liked it and wanted to buy it. They ran it a couple times. A couple months later, someone called Autoweek and said that car has been impounded. I went to the impound yard in Santa Monica and bought it at the impound auction. That was in ’97 and I’ve had it ever since.
Where most people know it is, I road tripped it to Talladega. I drove it from LA all the way to Talladega in ’09-ish. My brother and I, we lost a bet with Vickers and we had to get mullets, hair extension mullets, glued into our hair. It was Halloween weekend and my brother was like, we gotta take the car. I was like, right. So we originally were gonna ship it there. We went with the lowest-cost shipper, and they no-showed us. He’s like, what do we do? I was like, let’s drive it! So we pointed it east and just drove it all the way across the country. It’s the ultimate attitude adjustment. I don’t care how bad a day you’re having, you get in that car and in about five minutes, people are waving and honking, smiling. It’s like, how bad can it be? It’s a reminder to not take yourself too seriously. He’s my wingman. That’s the story.