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Monday Morning Crew Chief: Recalling The Original Ringer

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, August 10 2009
They broke out the wipers and grooved tires a year ago in Montreal and it was kind of fun, especially for winner Ron Fellows. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images for NASCAR)

They broke out the wipers and grooved tires a year ago in Montreal and it was kind of fun, especially for winner Ron Fellows. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

This week’s edition of Monday Morning Crew Chief:

“Road course ringers” became a hotter-than-usual topic at Watkins Glen this weekend. When Marcos Ambrose put a surprising but incredibly clean move on Kyle Busch to win the Nationwide Series race, the offended driver and other veterans cried foul in unison.

Next thing you know, these good ol’ racers will start referring to the  road racers as scabs and start carrying picket signs at the gates to one of America’s most storied tracks: “Unfair To Local 12 – NASCAR Regulars.”

Not that he’s to blame, but the man who started all this commotion was Tommy Kendall, the Trans-Am driver who drove a Hendrick Motorsports Chevy at the Glen in 1989.

After a deal initiated by Herb Fishel, GM’s racing director, Kendall was a contender at the Glen for two years running. In 1990, Billy Hagan was so angry at Kendall’s successful battle for position with his driver Sterling Marlin that the team owner, despite a bad leg, chased Kendall down afterward and poked him with his cane!

They’ve been raising cane about the road racing “irregulars” at the always difficult, high-speed Watkins Glen ever since. I caught up with TK via Facebook and, naturally, had a few questions. The host of Test Drive on SpeedTV, Kendall had these replies to my on-line queries:

RacinToday: You were the first road racer to prove you could mix it up and lead races at the Glen with the NASCAR regulars. What do you think about the less-than-complimentary term road race ringer?

Kendall: “At the time, I didn’t realize I was blazing the trail for all of the subsequent “road-course ringers” The name doesn’t bother me, but it certainly hasn’t proven to be that accurate, has it?

“Even then, when my experience road racing provided a reasonable edge in terms of what you were trying to do driving-wise, the regulars’ experience with cars that are really unlike anything else in the racing world from an inertia standpoint, kind of offset that.

“The biggest thing working against the “ringers” though is that most of their outings have come in teams whose over the wall guys were either part time or a step behind the best and that is huge on stops under yellow, which is most stops.”

RacinToday: Was it difficult to talk Rick Hendrick into providing a Monte Carlo entry for you at the Glen?

Kendall: “Getting Rick to put me in that car was mostly down to Herb Fishel. That was their R&D car and as such Chevy had a lot of influence on it. The tougher part was probably getting Rick to step aside as Rick had driven the car himself at Riverside earlier in the year and qualified quite well.”

RacinToday: Had the incident with Michael Waltrip in the fight for the lead not cut down your tire, do you think you would have won the ‘89 race?

Kendall: “Michael running me over almost into the pit wall and knocking the fender in on the tire definitely cost us a good finish, but a win was not in the cards. Michael and I had gotten to the front using the now de rigeur strategy of stopping as soon as you could and making it to the end.

“But since so few were doing it, the peleton of cars on new tires was only a few cars back, coming hard and wasn’t going to be held back. I do remember the feeling though coming up through the esses as a total unknown with the entire Cup field behind me!”

RacinToday: What’s your opinion about the pass by Marcos Ambrose for the lead in the Nationwide race versus Kyle Busch?

Kendall: “I liked Marcos’ move on Kyle. Kind of a high-stakes gunfight. If Kyle would have turned in, it would have likely turned out different, but he didn’t have the stomach for it. I don’t blame him as it is kind of like taking a charge against Shaquille O’Neal, but it doesn’t leave him much room to complain since he didn’t draw the contact.”

We should add that TK nearly won at Sears Point in 1991 while substituting for injured driver Kyle Petty in the Pontiac owned by Felix Sabates. A late caution cost him a comfortable lead, then contact with Mark Martin cut a valve stem.

Remembering Tim: Is it just me, or is it odd that very few have commented on the 20th year of racing at Watkins Glen since Tim Richmond died on race day morning? Although the dates don’t match up exactly, Richmond passed away from complications of AIDS on Aug. 13, 1989, news that spread quietly through the garage that day not long before the command to start engines.

The winner at Watkins Glen in 1986, when NASCAR returned to the track under International Speedway Corporation ownership after a hiatus of two decades, Richmond was considered a flake by quite a few of his contemporaries. He certainly knew how to celebrate. There may not have been as much beer sprayed on the victory podium at the Glen – or consumed at the Seneca Lodge – in the decades since his victory during that landmark season.

There was a consistency about Richmond that revealed his character – and his flaws. Like so many successful race car drivers, Richmond’s ego was as big as a blimp and just as vulnerable. And he was beholden only to his own view and those who supported him absolutely.

He would not compromise with sponsors, crew chiefs, sanctioning bodies or other drivers. While he craved the limelight, Richmond was always fighting his own independent battle. At Blue Max Racing he won relatively few races relative to his talent, because his idea of racing was carrying the car to the limit on every lap and in every corner, not very often a winning strategy in NASCAR.

His spectacular season with Hendrick Motorsports in 1986 resulted from a partnership with crew chief Harry Hyde and car owner Rick Hendrick, the first men in racing that had enough genius to figure out Richmond’s own brand.

Perhaps his greatest accomplishment was winning his first two Sprint Cup races in 1987 upon his return from life-threatening pneumonia and a six-month layoff. Richmond likely already knew he was dying. But never one to compromise he drove until his health could no longer sustain competition. The cries and whispers in the garage about his erratic behavior ultimately ushered him off the stage.

These 20 years since his death, Richmond leaves behind a sense of incomplete promise. It is the stuff of sports legends. The sad, unfathomable ones.

This Just In: Rain tires for the Sprint Cup? You don’t hear many straight answers on this subject from drivers in the series, because they know it’s a highly political hot potato. Officials at NASCAR still aren’t sure if the drivers would embarrass themselves in the wet by driving off into the weeds at every opportunity on a track like Watkins Glen. …Quote of the week No. 1: “The team gave me a lap time to run and I was under that by two seconds.” Dale Earnhardt on his first opportunity to race in the rain during a double-stint in the wet behind the wheel of a Corvette C5-R in the Daytona 24-hour in 2001.

The thorny issue of how to report career records from the Indy Racing League came alive with Scott Dixon’s 20th victory in the IRL after a fine Sunday drive at Mid-Ohio. That makes Dixon the career leader in the IRL, passing Sam Hornish – who was sitting in the rain at Watkins Glen. Why not compile a record of all original Champ Car, CART, latter-day Champ Car and IRL records and call it Indy-type car wins? In this case, Dixon would stand somewhere between A.J. Foyt and say, Jimmy Murphy. He’d also be ahead of Danny Sullivan, but behind Bobby Rahal.

Pit strategy won the Grand-Am race at Watkins Glen for the Lola of Krohn Racing driven by Nic Jonsson and Ricardo Zonta. Give up driver points and head for the pits according to the best opportunity for track position? What a concept. …Pit strategy also won the LMP2 class for Lowe’s Fernandez Racing at Mid-Ohio in the ALMS race. The team pitted for fuel only then beat the leaders back to the track and received the wave-around. E-Z, but also a new concept. …The Grand-Am’s strategy to get NASCAR fans interested in road racing by running events as preliminaries to Sprint Cup events is not exactly filling the stands. Witness events at Daytona and Watkins Glen this summer. The ALMS strategy of pairing with the IRL, on the other hand, generates a great deal of fan interest from ticket holders, the majority of whom actually stay in viewing areas to watch the race after IRL qualifying. Witness the races at St. Petersburg and Mid-Ohio.

Juan Pablo Montoya twittered the fact he received a phone call from F1 team owner Frank Williams, then denied any interest in returning to F1. Hmmm. …Bernie Ecclestone continues his free form negotiating techniques when it comes to the F1 schedule. Montreal is a lock for 2010, he told a journalist for a Swiss publication. This is news to the folks in Montreal. The United States, but not Indy, is possibly back on the schedule in 2011, says Bernie. …Whatever.

Quote of the week No. 2: “That’s the beauty of auto sports. It’s man and machine on the limit. You never know how you’re going to react.”  So said an emotional Gil de Ferran after his ALMS victory at Mid-Ohio, where prior to the race he announced his retirement as a driver at the season’s end.

See ya! …At the races.

– Monday Morning Crew Chief is a weekly feature of RacinToday.com. Author Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com.

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, August 10 2009
6 Comments

6 Comments »

  • slander says:

    What other drivers were complaining about Ambrose’s pass? Seems to me that the only one whining about it was Kry-le (what a surprise…), then hypocritically suggesting that he would *never* try anything like that. Flipper was right behind them, and he complimented Ambrose on the move.

  • Ron B. says:

    Tommy Kendall, the original NASCAR “road course ringer”. ARE YOU KIDDING ME?? Have you ever heard of some guys named Dan Gurney, Mark Donahue or Parneli Jones? These guys were racing road courses for some very big NASCAR teams in the 60s & 70s. Hey, unlike Tommy Kendall, these guys I believe won a race or two. I think Tommy Kendall was a really good road racer. But those “other 3 guys” were great racers in anything they drove. How’d you forget these drivers??

  • Jonathan Ingram says:

    Neither Dan nor Leonard are on Facebook. Not a surprise, I guess.

    Dan is a history buff, so it would be interesting to hear his perspective. He did a real nice job of quoting Winston Churchill’s perspective on history during a speech at the inaugural International Motorsports Hall of Fame induction.

    Lemme see what I can do.

    On Tim Richmond: He was the reason behind NASCAR’s initial drug policy, raised a ruckus about it and then won an out-of-court settlement. I don’t think too many people want to be reminded of that given the present situation. See Larry Woody’s “As The Urinal Turns.”

    My historical perspective: the term “ringer” is not complimentary and suggests unfairness. I believe that when the NASCAR guys went to Riverside, they accepted that they were playing in somebody else’s backyard and either had to get better or face the consequences. “The King” and the rest of them got better. Those were the good ol’ days.

    Drivers today seem to have a sense of entitlement about “their” series. Fans and some media go along with this sentiment, hence the latter-day use of the term ringer. (Some of these same complaining drivers turn around and invade the Nationwide Series. Hmmmmm.)

    JI

  • But let me clarify Jonathan – good article overall. Nice convo with TK who would not be recognized by many of today’s fans. As a Petty fan, I also appreciate what he did in driving Kyle’s Mello Yello SABCO Pontiac in 93 when KP was sidelined with a broken leg. Finally, thanks for paying trib to Tim Richmond – another great and whose memory and driving exploits have pretty much been scuttled from NASCAR historians.

  • Good call Charlie. Beat me to the punch. And I think Parnelli Jones might have a say in this discussion as well. C’mon Jonathan, I know NASCAR tries its best to forget its history. But that doesn’t mean journalists and fans have to do so.

  • Charlie says:

    Disagree. The first road-course ringer was Dan Gurney at Riverside in the 1960s and maybe next, the late Mark Donohue. Might want to talk to Glenn or Leonard Wood about Gurney. HOw many stright did he win until I think it was Richard Petty who won in 1969 and was driving a Ford.