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Kenyon Is Driven by Love : Auto racing: As he nears 60, driver still competes while caring for comatose wife.

April 13, 1993|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LEBANON, Ind. — Mel Kenyon's wife, Marieanne, has been in a semi-coma for more than a year but Kenyon, the winningest driver in midget car history, fervently believes she will come out of it some day.

"Her motor mechanics are shot," Kenyon said. "They're not hooked up to her body. Her mind is working, but she is locked in her cylinder. She could be right today or she may never be right, but I'll never give up on her."

The paralysis is the result of two bicycling accidents.

Marieanne, now 49, was cycling in Colorado in 1988 when she hit a rut, fell and her head hit a rock. She was unconscious four days before recovering.

Then, on Aug. 22, 1991, again wearing a cycling helmet, as she had been in Colorado, she was riding on the road near their home in rural Indiana--no more than half a mile away. A dog jumped at her bike and knocked her down. She hit her head again, and this time, she didn't fully regain consciousness.

So Kenyon, who will be 60 on Wednesday, lovingly helps in her care, figuring that to be the least he can do.

"Don't forget, I was her first baby," he said.

Kenyon, still an active competitor on the United States Auto Club circuit, was referring to Marieanne's part in nursing him back from near death after a fiery accident in an Indy car race on June 20, 1965, at Langhorne, Pa.

"I was nearly out of my mind from the pain when Marieanne finally got it through this old granite head of mine that I needed help," Kenyon said. "She brought me and the Lord together.

"I had had one setback after another from infections, convulsions and losing body fluids. I can't describe the pain there is in fire burns, but you know, two weeks after Marieanne got through to me, I was up and out of the burn center in San Antonio and in eight months I was racing again."

The accident occurred when the engine blew in Kenyon's car and he was hit from behind by two other cars, rupturing the fuel tank.

"I was the first one to prove that fuel bladders (inside the tank) could burst," he said. "I sat in the fire for three minutes with little or no protection. Fortunately, I was unconscious and never felt the pain--until I woke up.

"I could never have made it without her. . . . I had been raised in a Christian family, but as my racing career progressed, I felt more and more in control of my own destiny. The fire was the Lord's way of getting his message to me.

"That same commitment will keep me beside Marieanne, and her commitment will bring her through. Like I said, I don't know when, but it will happen. I've heard recently of people who came out of comas after five or six years. I hope it doesn't take her that long."

Kenyon was in Winchester, Ind., last week for the start of the 1993 USAC midget season. Marieanne was with him, so were their sons, Vaughn, 22, and Brice, 20.

"We loaded her in the van, the way we did (the children) when the boys were young, and took off. I wish I could say her condition was better, but it really hasn't improved much since last Christmas. But I can tell by her eyes that she wants to be with us.

"She gives us yesses and no's with her eyes, and answers with her left foot. Her left leg and foot are 95% right, but nothing else works much."

Every weekend, when he is not racing, Kenyon picks his wife up Friday evening at the Parkwood Health Care Center in Lebanon and brings her home, then takes her back Monday morning.

"I want her here, among her surroundings, as much as possible," he said.

The rambling farm-style house, set among central Indiana fields of corn and soy beans--with its obligatory basketball hoop above a garage door--is full of Kenyon's trophies and memorabilia from 40 years of racing, and his wife's paintings and sculptures.

For many years, she painted portraits of Indianapolis 500 winners, which were then presented at the annual USAC banquet. Mel's favorite is one she did of him and his yellow No. 61 midget--with a cross painted on the engine cover--running at speed at the Indiana Fairgrounds the year he won the 1985 national midget championship, his seventh.

Kenyon won his other championships in 1964, '67, '68, '74, '77 and '81. He has won 111 USAC main events, 16 more than the late Rich Vogler and 52 more than the next-active driver, Sleepy Tripp.

Although he has not won a major USAC race since 1989, he won two races last year in the Indianapolis Speedrome series and finished third in the standings. He also won a regional race at Mount Lawn Speedway in New Castle, Ind.

"I don't think more than a couple of drivers won a race last year who are older than I am," he said. "The only ones I know are Ralph Liguori (66) and Hershel McGriff (65). Maybe there's another one somewhere."

Kenyon won his first midget race in 1957, driving a Kurtis frame with a Ford tractor engine. That car carried him to the Blue Island, Ill., track championship and the Chicago United Racing Assn. title before he moved up to USAC.

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