Back in the Saddle

Sixteen years ago, after win-ning eleven consecutive Trans-Am races en route to one of the most dominant seasons in the history of professional racing, Tommy Kendall walked away from the sport that had defined his adult life. He was thirty-one.

Smart, affable, and articulate, Kendall later earned a legion of new fans as the host of Test Drive on Speed. “People used to tell me, ‘Hey, love your show,’ ” he says. “And I knew what the next words out of their mouths would be. ‘You’ve got the best job on earth.’ And I’d think to myself, ‘Well, it’s pretty good, but it’s second best.’ The best job on earth is racing other people’s cars for a living.”

So this past summer, the forty-five-year-old Kendall climbed into the cockpit of the brand-new SRT Viper GTS-R in the American Le Mans Series race at Mid-Ohio to begin the most unlikely comeback since the SS Minnow returned from Gilligan’s Island. In its inaugural outing, the Viper was off the pace in the fiercely competitive GT class, and Kendall wasn’t quite as quick as co-driver Mark Goossens. But both car and driver trended in the right direction during the final four races of the ALMS season.

“Where I was as a driver mirrored where the Viper was as a car, in that it was early days. We know we have a lot of work to do,” Kendall says. “I went to Mid-Ohio with only twenty-five laps in the car, and I’m hoping to lose another twenty pounds. But I left encouraged because the race was the first time that I felt remotely comfortable in the car. I’ve been fast in everything I’ve ever driven. So now I think it’s just a matter of time.”

Kendall blazed onto the road-racing scene as a strikingly tall and unusually gifted Southern California teenager, and he was climbing to the top of the motorsports ladder when a hub failure sent his Intrepid GTP car careening nose-first into a guardrail at Watkins Glen in 1991. Gruesome leg and foot injuries derailed his career. Although he went on to win plenty of races headlining Jack Roush’s formidable road-racing program, Kendall still walks with a pronounced limp. “Driving is about the only time my feet don’t bother me,” he says.

After winning his fourth Trans-Am championship in 1997, Kendall turned down a lucrative NASCAR contract and walked away from professional motorsports. Since then, he’s been offered plenty of rides. But he wasn’t interested in committing himself full-time to anything less than a full-blown factory program, and, as he puts it: “Those are few and far between, and the ones that exist hadn’t been beating my door down.” So he reconciled himself to never doing any more hard-core pro racing. And he was fine with that.

Then he got a call from Bill Riley.

Riley — whose father, Bob, was the legendary designer behind the Intrepid — was ram-rodding Chrysler’s Viper ALMS program. He invited Kendall to participate in a shoot-out to select the fourth and final driver in the two-car team. Kendall started with several strikes against him. He’d never raced at Carolina Motorsports Park, and he’d never driven the Viper ACR-X. Also, because he couldn’t heel-and-toe, he had to delay all downshifts until he was through the braking zone, when he could move his right foot back to the gas to blip the throttle.

“At driver shoot-outs,” Kendall says, “they always tell the participants, ‘We’re not just looking for the fastest guy. We want to see how you carry yourself. We want to hear what your feedback is like. We want to see this. We want to see that.’ But my experience is that they always hire the fastest guy. So I was focused on getting around the track as fast as I could. And I was obviously right there, even in a less-than-optimal situation. Despite all the variables, I was the quickest guy.”

Kendall figures that he — and the Vipers — won’t be completely up to speed until Sebring, at the beginning of the 2013 season. After that, he’s got sixteen years of catching up to do.