by Bill Lovell
It was my good fortune to be on hand, as the IMSA writer for AutoWeek, when Tommy Kendall arrived on the road racing scene when he was all of 18 and concurrently beginning his undergraduate days at UCLA. Though, truth be told, the initial impression was less than overwhelming. He was ninth on the GTU grid at Miami in 1985, and finished eighth, two laps down to Jack Baldwin.
A year later, he drove an old and tired Clayton Cunningham Racing Mazda RX-7 to become the youngest driver ever to win an IMSA championship. The party was just getting started. He repeated the following year in the same car, and the year after that, in a Chevrolet Beretta.
Still, watching him on the track, there was nothing spectacular about him, nothing that made you shake your head. Until you checked the stopwatch. Lap after lap, he was just consistently fast. In short, at a very young age, he drove like a relentless, crafty veteran.
After his first championship season, I put it this way in Auto Racing USA:
"Every once in a while, a kid comes along who drives like he has 100,000 miles on his racing resume."
You knew, even then, that the kid was going to be one of the great ones. And he didn't disappoint.
Moving to the SCCA's Trans-Am series in 1990 – still in a Chevy Beretta – he didn't dominate right way, waiting until the season's sixth race to claim his first win. But he ended the season with six victories in 15 starts, winning the championship in decisive style.
It was a performance Trans-Am fans would grow used to. Unfortunately, that would take a while to happen.
The two most dreaded words in any racer's vocabulary are, "something broke."
In June of 1991, just after graduating from UCLA with a degree in economics, he was battling Geoff Brabham for the lead in an IMSA GTP race at Watkins Glen when a wheel hub snapped on his Chevy Intrepid at the end of the back straight, with horrendous results.
I was there. I remember waiting through a seemingly interminable red-flag period for news about Kendall. The news wasn't good. His right leg was broken in two places, his right ankle crushed and his left ankle broken. He was in surgery for more than nine hours at Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, with the surgery team headed by the renowned Dr. Terry Trammell.
It would take months of rehab before Kendall could compete again. Years later, he referred to the crash as the "crossroads of my racing career."
But amazingly, the second half of Kendall's career would be even better.
Following a limited schedule in 1992, Kendall moved to Roush Racing Ford Mustangs in 1993, winning the IMSA GTS championship and taking a class win at the 24 Hours of Daytona. He then moved with Roush from IMSA to the Trans-Am. He didn't win the title the first year, but the next three seasons saw one of the all-time most dominant performances in American road racing history.
Champion in 1995. Champion in 1996. That was the warm-up.
Kendall won the first 11 races on the way to an overpowering championship run in the 1997 season, breaking Mark Donohue's consecutive win record of 8. He was named RACER magazine's Road Racer of the Year – and Driver of the Year.
He would drive a while longer before turning his talents to broadcasting, but 1997 was the high water mark of an incredible career.