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Sports Auto Racing

After lengthy absence, Kendall returns for American Le Mans Series

Tommy Kendall's legs and ankles were crushed in a 180-mph racing accident in 1991. But the sports car champion recovered, came back a year later and went on to have his best years on the racetrack.

In fact, in 1997 he had arguably the best year of any driver in racing history, winning 11 straight Trans-Am Series races. Now, at age 45 and after almost 14 years away from the racetrack, Kendall is back, driving the new SRT Viper GTS-R in the American Le Mans Series.

"There's nothing better than driving. It's really pretty damn cool," Kendall said.

Kendall and the new Viper both returned at the ALMS race at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course two weeks ago, and they did it in style.

Kendall, who won several series championships, including three in the International Motor Sports Association GTU class and four in the Trans-Am Series, is back in the newest version of the classic roadster that captured the racing public's attention by dominating the sport in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Street and Racing Technology Brand of Chrysler's motor sports program returned for the first time since 2001, as well, with Kendall and his versatile Belgian co-driver Marc Goossens in the No. 91 car.

Chrysler's SRT brand also made a big splash Wednesday evening when it signed on as the title sponsor for the Grand Prix of Baltimore, the three-day racing festival that runs Aug. 31 through Sept. 2.

Two Vipers will compete in the ALMS race, the Baltimore Sports Car Challenge presented by SRT, on Sept. 1.

Kendall's Viper is competing in the production-based GT class, which means the car is a production-based and moderately modified two-wheel drive racecar. It is nothing like the prototype Chevrolet Intrepid high-production car he was driving when he crashed at Watkins Glen, N.Y., in 1991.

He was 24 and a month away from marrying fashion model Caroline Kreefft -- a wedding that was postponed, because, as he told the late Los Angeles Times motor sports writer Shav Glick a week after the crash, "I want to be able to dance at my own wedding."

After the crash, he was still driven to win, whether it was to beat the odds in his medical recovery or win every race and championship in his sport.

"When I came back, I really hadn't proven everything to myself," he said. "My wife wasn't excited about it [his return to racing] at all at first for a number of reasons. Part of it was the Prototypes; she didn't like those at all."

And Kendall concedes now, he was scared, too.

"My nod to that was to do most of my racing in sedans," he said. "But when I came back after the crash I was still driven by all that stuff. So I came back even though I was scared to death in a lot of ways. All I thought about was winning. I thought about it all the time and I won championships almost every year.

"It might have seemed a little strange, but I had my best season, the best season anyone has ever had, after that accident. To me, it made total sense."

But then his team went away when the manufacturer got out of racing, and rather than take a ride he really didn't like, he decided to sit out in 1998.

A year became two, then three and four and so on.

He became a television commentator and life was good.

And then one day, he was trying to help NASCAR driver Brian Vickers find a ride. Kendall took him to the unveiling of the Viper. A few weeks later, Kendall got a call from Bill Riley, whose company Riley Technologies, was partnering with SRT Motorsports on the design and build of the new car.

"I asked if he was interested," Riley said. "I'd talked to quite a few drivers before I called him. And then he tested and did quite well. He seemed excited about it."

And Riley wasn't worried about Kendall's long absence from the driver's seat.

"When I started knowing Tommy, the amount of talent he had was substantial," Riley said. "He was a mega-talent in the 1990s. If you have the desire, it's there to see and I could see it; and he's great to work with and the feedback he gives about the car is great for our team."

Being in the seat is great for Kendall, too. But he'll tell you straight out he didn't return for the fame, the money or the adulation. He's had all that. What he's after now is more personal.

"Before, I was purely results-oriented and everything else was a necessary evil," Kendall said. "Now, the parts I first loved have separated themselves out. For me, I missed the challenge of developing the car, the camaraderie of the team and there is nothing better than driving.

"It's funny how things happen. I went to New York to help someone else and this basically fell out of the sky. I am a lucky guy."

sandra.mckee@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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