Our Street Talker gets the inside track on racetracks, winning and free cars from 4-time Trans Am Champion racer Tommy Kendall.
The first, and only, time I met famed SCCA racer Tommy Kendall, I thought my life was over.
He was the special guest at a new tire introduction for one of the major tire manufacturers and I was working at the event. The day’s activities at the Arizona racetrack were drawing to a close and Tommy was about to take a few hot laps around the track in one of several Ford Mustangs being used for the event. I asked if I might join him.
Having never ridden with a professional driver or on a racetrack, everything was fine – for about the first second as we sped away from the starting line. We quickly approached turn one, Tommy showed no signs of slowing down, and I stared in horror at the wall directly in front of us, growing larger and closer while my remaining lifespan grew shorter.
I was convinced there was no way this Ford Mustang could make the turn and avoid slamming into the wall, even with an SCCA champion at the wheel. Doing so would have defied the law of physics. Instead, we sailed through the turn easily, as though the car was glued to the track, and that’s the only thing I remember about the ride. We probably weren’t even going top speed. Tommy Kendall was just doing what he does—drive well.
I was reminded recently of that ride in the Ford Mustang with Tommy when I saw FOX Sports’ new TV show, Driven: A Race Without Boundaries, starring him along with professional racer and Red Bull Drift Champion Rhys Millen – a familiar name and face to many fans of drifting.
For the show, the two racers compete at several of the world’s most famous racing venues, including Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats, Nevada’s Mint 400 Desert Course just outside Las Vegas, Colorado’s Pikes Peak Hill Climb and the high banks of Daytona International Speedway. They’re driving identically equipped 2014 Range Rover Sports, featuring a 510-horsepower, supercharged V8 and a lightweight aluminum body.
“When you get two competitors together like Rhys and I, it can get pretty intense,” says Kendall, a four-time SCCA Trans-Am Series champion. “There is a reason why these race courses are so iconic. They are tough to conquer in any format or race machine, let alone a factory SUV without any modification. A win at these courses means something.”
Kendall says that the Pikes Peak course was probably his favorite of the four courses. “I’ve always watched races there and thought, ‘I don’t know if I’d do that if they asked me to,’” Kendall explains. Specifically, he points out the steep drop-offs and lack of guardrails in spots, and the fact that he saw a Rally class car with two occupants, both of whom survived, go off a cliff on the same stretch of road on which he and Rhys would be racing. “Then again, my favorite tracks to race on were also the hairiest, and that’s what draws you to the sport,” Kendall explains. “They cause you to execute at the highest level when the stakes are high.”
The filming, Tommy Kendall says, was surprisingly challenging, more so than the racing because the driving took up a very small part of the production. “In the middle of it, the days were pretty tough because there was so much to do. Our first wake-up call in Bonneville was 3:45 a.m. and you go until there is no more light. In the summer, that’s a long time.” The long days were accompanied by challenging weather conditions that delivered triple-digit temperatures in both Bonneville and Las Vegas, and hail in Pike’s Peak. “Tough might not be the right word though, because Reese and I were the lucky ones, spending time in our cars with air-conditioned seats.”
The long days and challenging weather suddenly became worth it, however, when Tommy said he learned that for the last race, he and Rhys would be racing for a 2014 Range Rover Sport. They were tied at two wins each, and it would be winner take all. “When I texted my wife and told her I’d be racing for the car, she texted me back the line from the Toby Keith song.” The words of encouragement she texted were a variation on the lyrics from As Good As I Once Was – ‘You’re not as good as you once were, but you’re as good once as you ever were.’ Her encouragement must have worked because Tommy is now anxiously awaiting delivery of his 2014 Range Rover.
When asked if there’s going to be a sequel, Tommy said that’s one of the questions he asked most frequently. “If they keep giving away cars, I sure hope so!”
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