Midget icon Mel Kenyon competes in his final race at the 2009 Ft. Wayne Rumble.
The legendary Open Wheel racer known as "Mr. Midget" has decided to retire, bringing an end to a much-storied racing career that spanned six decades of Open Wheel competition. The iconic Midget racer Mel Kenyon hung up the helmet after the Ft. Wayne Rumble races held at the Ft. Wayne (IN) Coliseum in December 2009. The 76-year-old Kenyon has made more history than many drivers could ever even dream of. Kenyon has set a bar that will most likely stand forever in the Midget racing world, or at least a very long time.
"Actually, just getting out of bed is the first thing and most important thing," quipped Kenyon, while prepping for his final run at Ft. Wayne. "The highlight of course is every time you win a race. It is always a challenge to do that and a wonder that you did do that. It's always been fun winning races and when you run as many as 90 times a year that's also great too. It is fun to get dressed up and get back in the car again for this weekend."
Unfortunately for Kenyon, a lack of support weighed into his decision. "Between my brother and my wife, they kind of talked me into doing this (retiring) because I don't have the money to run steady and I haven't had a sponsor for the past nine years. Sure, we can make money taking care of cars and teaching young drivers, which I have also been doing for the last few years."
Behind the wheel Kenyon was and still is the picture of concentration.
Kenyon's career has had its hard knocks through the years. At Langhorne, Pennsylvania, in 1965 Kenyon was caught up in a scary crash when his car spun and was hit by two fellow competitors fracturing the fuel tank which erupted in a fireball. Racer Joe Leonard braved the flames pulling the unconscious Kenyon from his mangled racer. As a result, Kenyon suffered burns over 40 percent of his body with very severe burns to the fingers on his left hand. He was hospitalized in an Army burn unit to endure a recovery that included a tough bout with a staph infection.
Miraculously, Kenyon qualified for his first-ever Indy 500 just 11 months later. With the help of his late father and mechanic brother, Don, the trio developed a special glove for his damaged left hand. It had a sewn-in socket in the palm that fit over a specially made stud on the steering wheel. The invention allowed Kenyon the control he needed to pass his Indy rookie test.
Kenyon never grabbed an IndyCar checkered flag but in that first attempt at the 500 he sailed home Fifth, proving to the world that you can overcome adversity. In 1968 he finished Third and in both 1969 and 1973 he finished Fourth in the Indy 500. A veteran of 65 IndyCar starts his best finish came at Michigan International Speedway where he finished Second in 1972 after running out of fuel while in the lead.
"I was the first one to go to Indy with the modification for no fingers on one hand," says a smiling Kenyon. "As I took my last two phases of the driver's test, supposedly in traffic, they waved everybody off the track so that tells you how much they thought I could do it. But then we had really good finishes with the Lord's help, a Third, two Fourths, and a Fifth in eight tries so that was pretty decent. That was good money compared to the Midget racing money, but today last place at Indy pays as much as Third did back then."
Better known for his Midget ability, Kenyon has been the victor in 382 Midget races, including an amazing 111 USAC Midget checkered flags. With race wins, came race titles as well. USAC National Midget titles were captured in 1964, 1967, 1968, 1974, 1977, 1981, and 1985. Kenyon also owns three straight titles in the now-defunct NAMARS series from 1995-1997.