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.
Kenyon prides himself on teaching younger racers the finer nuances of Midget cars and comp
During those tough times in the Army burn unit, Kenyon turned his life over to the Lord, amazingly he recovered to get back to the racetrack and enjoy everyday life once again. Mel's religious roots where put to work in 1991 when his first wife was severely injured in a bicycle accident that left her comatose. The outlook was grim, but Mel refused to put her in a nursing home and cared for her needs himself until she passed away 10 years ago.
Today, the Kenyon brothers own the 3-K Racing shop in which they tutor and mentor race drivers in the Midget division. Mel is quick to note that Ryan Newman was a special protégé. The brothers also worked with young teen Dillon Welch this past season. Welch captured the Kenyon Car Midget title for 2009.
"With the K cars, you can start driving when you are 11 years old and the Focus cars when you are 14 years old," notes Kenyon. "I had to be 21 years old before I could drive officially for money. Most of these kids today have been driving since they were 4 or 5 years old, so they're not beginners."
Mel (L) and Don Kenyon (R)-brothers, racers, and lifelong friends. Don Kenyon owes DK Prom
That's made on-track compeition interesting for the elder statesman. "Sometimes when I am out there, they tell me to get out of the way. It's a learning experience, I have to control my temper. At the same time you're mentoring them and you have to kind of calm them down and keep their temper under control too. But then again you have to go as fast as you can as quick as you can, so it is always interesting."
"He's been a great race car driver winning 111 USAC races," weighed in Open Wheel Champion Dave Darland. "Just to have the chance to race with him-I have been racing 28 years myself; he's been racing longer than that-it has been a pleasure, and if he feels he is ready for retirement then good for him and happy retirement. Mel brings a lot to the sport. He has been an icon to the Midget division for many years. He's a fan-friendly driver who stays and talks to all the people who want to come and say hi to him. Just to get a chance to race with him for all these years has been a great opportunity for me-a great person, and a great race car driver. He's been really good for our sport."
It would take a book to write about Mel Kenyon's accomplishments, but he does point out some of his highlights of a storied race driver career. "In 1963, the first-ever Turkey Night Grand Prix at Ascot Park and then that first USAC Championship in 1964," he notes. "The Indy 500, just to be part of that great Championship event says a lot, that probably would be the highlight. We did win 13 races at Indianapolis Raceway Park. All those races and all those Championships, it is all so very important."
Following all the races and Championship accolades are many prestigious honors. Kenyon is a member of the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in Talladega, Alabama; the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in Novi, Michigan; and the National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, just to name a few. A storied career and example to young racers, Kenyon will still be found in the Open Wheel pit area at various events to help nurture along the upcoming prospects of the next generation. "It doesn't really seem like I have been at this for 57 years, but I have. I am not really wanting to quit, but I guess I have to," concluded the racing legend. At the Ft. Wayne Rumble races, in December 2009, 39 Midgets showed up for the 15 feature starting spots each of two days of action. Mel Kenyon made both features finishing Sixth the first night and Ninth the next day. From there Kenyon rode into retirement as the most decorated Open Wheel Midget racer in USAC history.