Tom Kendall Doesn't Take Things Easy

You hear some things about Tom Kendall, the race driver, and you figure the guy has to be a bundle of frustration. You expect gritting teeth, sighs, shrugs, frowns and maybe a bit of bitterness. It's as though life has dealt him a pair of deuces, and they aren't wild.

To begin with, the guy is too big. Not large, mind you. Just tall. He stands 6-4. People that tall don't fit into the cars that run in the Indianapolis 500, the Louvre of auto racing.

And then there was The Crash, a rather harsh meeting of wall and car at Watkins Glen which turned his legs and ankles into pretzels little more than a year ago and left his ability to walk, much less drive, very much in jeopardy.

I'll tell you all you need to know about Kendall. The accident happened on June 30, 1991. He was back racing on Feb. 23. Everyone was surprised that he was back so fast. Everyone had it backward. With this guy, it was amazing it took him so long.

What we're talking here is a dominant, almost fiery, spirit hidden behind a boyish face and tousled blond hair.

He was sitting on the pit wall at the Del Mar Fairgrounds when I met him one day this week. He was relaxed and friendly, as though looking forward to a casual Sunday drive. He was looking forward to a Sunday drive, but it will be anything but relaxed in his GTP Chevrolet.

Tom Kendall is one of the main guys in the main event at the Grand Prix of San Diego. He's back near the top of IMSA's top class. Forget that walking is still difficult for him. You get him behind the wheel of a car and he is whole again.

You've heard about hockey players who skate before they can walk, or some such, but Kendall was doing just about the same thing, only at the age of 25. That figures, because he was driving race cars before he was old enough to drive to the store to fetch a loaf of bread or quart of milk.

Indeed, this man may look more like a choirboy than a race driver, but he's a veteran beyond his years. He has been driving for 10 years.

He was what might be called a marginal athlete at La Canada High School, partially because he did not get his growth until his senior year and partially because he was already into racing cars. His father Chuck, a former UCLA and National Football League player, had gotten into racing. Young Tom chose to follow his tire tracks rather than his footsteps.

"I liked anything exciting," Kendall said. "Motorcycles. Jet Skis. Anything associated with speed or motion."

During the 6 1/2 years he spent getting an economics degree from UCLA, he turned professional. This didn't get quite the acclaim of, say, Tommy Maddox coming out early, but Kendall met with considerable success. He won six assorted championships in the alphabet soup world of auto racing.

Though resigned to the reality that Indy-car racing was out of the question, Kendall was dead-on headed for stardom in NASCAR Winston Cup racing. He might not fit in an Indy cockpit, but you couldn't keep him out of a stock car.

Then came that fateful day at Watkins Glen, N.Y.

"Mechanical failure in the left rear suspension," he said. "I hit head-on."

Naturally. You wouldn't expect him to do anything halfway, not even crash.

It put both his career and a planned August wedding on hold.

Tom Kendall would not rehabilitate halfway either. He would do that at 200 miles per hour too, so to speak.

What concerned most folks, beyond the physical side of coming back, was the mental side.

"You know, for whatever reason, there hasn't been any bitterness at all," he said. "I've always been adamant about not dwelling on what happens, good or bad. You worry or complain and it doesn't do a lot of good. It was just tough because my career had developed a tremendous amount of momentum, and it came to a grinding halt."

Would he, could he, get back on track?

"I had to confront the questions about whether I'd be the driver I was before," he said. "Would it affect my dedication? My mentality?"

He ran two seconds under the course record and qualified third for his first race back in Miami.

" That ," he said. "should have answered all the questions."

An accident at the start of his next race, in Atlanta, left him in last place, but he battled all the way back for second.

Questions? None from me.

Tom Kendall was, and is, back.

However, the most important steps he has made probably had nothing to do with racing. His wedding to fashion model Caroline Kreefft had been postponed from August to April 4. His crew made him a special cane to help him get down the aisle with his bride.

You know enough by now about Tom Kendall to know what he did with that cane.

He tossed that cane and he walked down that aisle.

No question.

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