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SPORTS WEEKEND | MOTOR RACING / SHAV GLICK

Kendall Looking for a Ride Despite Phenomenal Year

January 09, 1998|SHAV GLICK

Tom Kendall will accept a trophy Saturday night in Long Beach for being named to the American Auto Racing Writers & Broadcasters Assn.'s All-American racing team for the sixth time since 1986.

His record of 11 consecutive victories in a Ford Mustang during last year's Trans-Am series is one of the most remarkable feats in motor racing.

But he's unemployed--a champion driver without a ride.

It is the first time Kendall, 31, has not been signed and sealed on Jan. 1 since he was 17 and about to enroll at UCLA.

"All those years I was racing, I was always wishing I had time to do other stuff," Kendall said. "Now I've got the time, I'd rather be racing."

Kendall's phenomenal career came to a halt when:

* Jack Roush, for whom Kendall had won three consecutive Trans-Am championships, decided to quit the fading series.

* Ford also decided to withdraw its support, preventing Kendall from forming his own team.

* Roush changed his mind and gave his team's Craftsman Truck series ride to Greg Biffle, rather than Kendall, who had lobbied long and hard for it.

"I'm not entirely out of the loop," Kendall said with a laugh. "I've still got IROC."

Kendall is one of 12 drivers who will be in the International Race of Champions, which opens a four-race schedule Feb. 13 at Daytona Beach, Fla.

"IROC will give me some good exposure toward a ride before the season is out," Kendall said. "Mark Martin has talked me up after we've raced. He told me that I was better than half the other guys in the series. Unsolicited praise like that has got to help."

But fellow drivers have been saying things like that about Kendall for years.

As far back as 1990, Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt said, "He's got all the opportunity in the world right now, starting out young like he is. He could go Winston Cup, Busch Grand National, Indy car racing. He's a college kid, smart, clean cut. All the doors are pretty much open for him."

After Kendall won 11 consecutive races and his fourth Trans-Am title last year--he won his first in 1990 driving a Chevrolet Beretta for the ICI Olivetti team--he expected to jump into Roush's new truck team.

"We shook hands on the deal, but before the contracts were signed, the people with Roush changed their mind," Kendall said. "They say I turned it down, but that's a lie. I would have loved to drive in the truck series. It would have been a wonderful project for me, and for them as well.

"I don't know what caused them to change their mind. I respect their right to change, but I don't respect them telling people it was my idea."

When the truck ride fell through, Kendall and Jon Gooding, his Trans-Am teammate, talked about starting their own team.

"I would have been happy to stay in Trans-Am with Jon in a pair of Fords, but when the manufacturer opted out of the series, it was time to look around for something else."

Kendall has coveted an Indy car opportunity for years, but his 6-foot-4 frame has worked against him.

"I know my height is a stumbling block in people's eyes, but I'd like a chance to prove I could do it," he said. "I really believe that a cockpit could be fabricated that would fit. Bobby Rahal is the tallest CART driver, he's about 6-1."

John Paul Jr., of the Indy Racing League, is also 6-4, but Kendall turned down several opportunities to test IRL cars after a number of drivers were injured last year.

"I heard about changes they made, but I wanted to be convinced that they are safer," Kendall said. "When you're young, just starting out, you'll take any ride just to prove yourself, but as you get older, and have some success, you become more cautious."

The highlight of 1997, says Kendall, occurred at Watkins Glen, N.Y., when he broke the late Mark Donohue's record of eight consecutive victories.

"There were so many elements to Watkins Glen," Kendall said. "First, you have to know that Mark was my idol growing up. To Trans Am drivers, Donohue is our Michael Jordan--the greatest who ever lived. I read his book before I ever raced, so it was very emotional for me to be in that position, especially knowing that it was at Watkins Glen where his streak was snapped.

"It was also at a track where I'd never won, and where I'd had that horrible wreck in '91. To break the record there was by far the biggest win of my career. Especially when you think of all the great drivers, guys like Peter Gregg, George Follmer, Scott Pruett and Scott Sharp, who all had a shot at Mark's record in the past 30 years."

Kendall will be one of five All-American selectees expected to attend Saturday night's AARWBA banquet at the Long Beach Hyatt Regency Hotel. The others are John Force, Butch Leitzinger, Alex Barron and Derek Hill.

Highlight of the program will be presentation of the Jerry Memorial Trophy to the driver receiving the most votes--an award almost certainly going to Kendall.

The dinner is open to the public. Details: (818) 842-7005.

AMA SUPERCROSS

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