Tom Kendall convinced himself and the motor racing world this year that he is completely back from a near career-ending accident two years ago. The La Canada Flintridge driver, once considered the country's hottest young driving prospect, won the International Motor Sports Assn.'s GTS driver's championship.
Driving a Ford Mustang for Jack Roush Racing, he finished in the top three in all but two races after opening the season with a victory in the sedan class of the 24 Hours of Daytona endurance classic.
Next season, with Roush's team switching from IMSA to the Sports Car Club of America's Trans-Am series, Kendall will move with them.
"With IMSA dead, or at least on life support, it seemed much more practical for the road racing team to make the switch to Trans-Am," Kendall said.
On June 30, 1991, Kendall crashed head-on into a barrier at Watkins Glen, N.Y., breaking his right leg in two places, his left ankle and pulverizing his right ankle. He still walks with a halting limp and has trouble working the clutch, but it hasn't hurt his racing.
Also as a result of his accident, Kendall's right leg is shorter, and his left ankle is still hurting.
"If I didn't think of the right ankle as the bad one, the left would be the one that hurts," Kendall said, "but it's nowhere near as uncomfortable as the right. It's kind of a continuous irritation, but you get used to it and just move on."
Kendall has raced three times at Watkins Glen since the accident, but he says the course has been changed--the result of Kendall's crash and one a month later in the same place where stock car driver J.D. McDuffie was killed.
"Both accidents came at the end of a fast sweeper when both cars broke," Kendall said. "They put a chicane in at the end of the straightway leading to the sweeper to slow the cars down. Now the cars have to downshift before going through the sweeper.
"Obviously, the first time I drove by the spot, I took a long look at it. I was in a rental car, but, before I drove a race car on it, they had changed the course. It's like a different track now."
Before the accident, Kendall had won six series championships in five years, including the 1990 Trans-Am series in a Chevrolet Beretta.
Kendall, who turned 27 last week, left Chevrolet at the end of the 1992 season when the manufacturer decided to scale back and offered him only a limited schedule in an outdated car.
"I wanted back in a competitive ride," he said. "Chevy couldn't guarantee more than a few races. I went to Detroit and found out Ford was going GTS racing. I had been with Chevy for five years, so I worried about how they might look on my move to Ford. So I went to several Chevrolet executives and explained my position. They all wished me the best. I didn't want to leave with any hard feelings."
When Kendall left, his team went with him, including crew chief Dan Binks of San Diego, who has been with him for eight years.
Kendall will be driving for Max Jones, his former teammate and best man at his wedding. With Roush concentrating on Mark Martin's effort in Winston Cup racing, he turned over the road racing team to Jones. The team is based in Livonia, Mich., site of Roush's manufacturing business.
Kendall hopes a Winston Cup ride is in his future, but for 1994 the concentration will be on Trans-Am.
"When I first came to Roush, Winston Cup was never mentioned," he said. "All I was concerned with was getting back on a competitive team and showing that I was completely recovered from my crash. I didn't get into racing to be famous, or rich. I found out what I enjoyed most was winning. I know I couldn't expect to walk in (to Winston Cup) and win immediately. I know I've got to spend some time preparing myself, but I'm only 27. I have plenty of time ahead. I would like to close the gap in experience by doing as much oval racing as possible during that time."
Kendall's oval experience has been limited to six or seven races, a couple in IROC, plus Busch and Winston Cup rides at Rockingham, N.C., in 1990.
"I tried to qualify at North Wilkesboro and missed the field, even though I was only three-tenths off the pole," he said. "At Rockingham, I started 30th in a 40-car field, but during one stretch, when I began to feel comfortable with the car, I had a chance to pass Mark Martin, Rusty Wallace, Harry Gant and Dale Earnhardt. That gave me a shot of confidence. It was a great learning experience."
Next season, Kendall hopes to drive on the two Winston Cup road courses at Sears Point and Watkins Glen, N.Y., and perhaps the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in August. Without banking, even though Indy is an oval, it drives like a road course with all left-hand turns.
In case he has any doubts about his past successes, Kendall has four of his championship cars in a mini-museum as part of his father's racing garage in Glendale. One of them is the Mazda RX-7 in which he won the 1986 and 1987 IMSA GTU championships. It was a present from his father on graduation from UCLA.