By RON WARE
FORT WAYNE, Ind. – The venerable Mel Kenyon, who raced in the Indianapolis 500 eight times and won a record seven USAC national midget championships, has reluctantly decided to hang up his helmet.
The driver known as “Mr. Midget” will retire from a career that spanned six decades and landed him in a half-dozen halls of fame following this weekend’s “Rumble in Fort Wayne” indoor event. His final races in his yellow No. 61 midget will be Saturday and Sunday at the Memorial Coliseum Expo Center.
“Let’s say I got talked into it,” the 76-year-old Kenyon said from his home in Lebanon, Ind., chuckling. “My wife (Joy) wants me to retire. My brother (Don) wants me to retire. We’re busy working on cars and maintaining them (for other teams). It’s nice to be making some money instead of spending it.
“I guess this’ll be the last two races that we run officially as a driver.”
Kenyon has won 382 midget and modified races, including a record 111 in USAC national midgets, and drove in the Indy 500 every year from 1966-73, notching a third place, two fourths and a fifth. Remarkably, his greatest accomplishments came after he was nearly killed in a fiery accident at Langhorne, Pa., in 1965.
Kenyon suffered burns over 40 percent of his body after he spun in his own oil, hit the wall and was struck by two cars, rupturing his car’s fuel tank. Knocked unconscious, he lost most of each finger on his left hand before fellow driver Joe Leonard pulled him from the inferno. Then, during a lengthy hospitalization in an Army burn unit, he nearly succumbed to a staph infection.
When matters were at their gravest, Kenyon wrote in his autobiography, Burned to Life, he turned his life over to the Lord. Miraculously, he recovered. Eleven months later, he qualified for his first Indianapolis 500.
Not that race officials didn’t need some convincing before clearing a rookie driver with just one good hand.
With the help of younger brother Don, his lifelong chief mechanic, and his late father, Everett, he constructed a special glove with a socket sewn into the palm. The glove fit over a stud in the steering wheel, allowing Kenyon to steer with the fingers of his right hand and the palm of his left.
“They trusted me really well,” Kenyon recalled, tongue in cheek. “You were supposed to take the last two phases of your driving test in traffic. For me, they waved everybody off.”
Driving a car “that Gordon Johncock traded in,” Kenyon qualified 17th, made it through a 16-car crash at the start and finished fifth after running as high as second behind winner Graham Hill. Using the glove the rest of his career, he would go on to place third in 1968 (behind Bobby Unser and Dan Gurney) and fourth in both ’69 and ’73.
He never won an Indy-car race in 65 starts, coming closest in 1972 at Michigan International Speedway when he ran out of fuel while leading on the final lap.
“For the money we had,” Kenyon said, “we did pretty well.”
But Kenyon is perhaps best known for his prowess in a midget. He captured the USAC national championship in 1964, ’67, ’68, ’74. ’77, ’81 and ’85, then tacked on three straight titles in the old NAMARS series from 1995-97. He is a member of the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in Talladega, Ala.; the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in Novi, Mich.; and the National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame in Sun Prairie, Wis., among others.
Deeply religious, his conviction was tested when his first wife, Marieanne, was left virtually comatose in a biking accident in 1991. Refusing to put her in a nursing home, he cared for her night and day until her death 10 years ago this month.
Kenyon continued racing sporadically through this decade, but his appearance this weekend will be his first since two years ago at Fort Wayne. He made the features both nights in 2006 at the Rumble, finishing fifth and 11th.
Rumble Series president Tony Barhorst declared Sunday “Salute to Mel Kenyon Day.”
“I consider Mel and Don two of the finest people I have observed in racing and in everyday life,” Barhorst said.
Kenyon, who will remain active in the 3-K Racing shop with his brother, has mentored drivers in recent years, with NASCAR Sprint Cup star Ryan Newman his most notable protégé. He worked with teen-agers Dillon Welch and Jared Marks this past season, helping Welch to the Kenyon Car midget title.
Career highlights? For a modest man like Kenyon, that requires some thought.
“I guess winning the first Turkey Night Grand Prix at Ascot Park Speedway (in 1963) and the first USAC championship in ’64,” he said. “We won 13 races at Indianapolis Raceway Park. And all the championships and all the races you win, really. Every win is important.
“But the Indy 500, to be part of the greatest gathering of the champions of the world, would be the highlight.”
Clearly, Kenyon has no regrets – other than wishing he could race another 56 years.
“With the Lord’s help,” he said, “we accomplished more with one hand than some people do with two.”
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More information about the Rumble in Fort Wayne, which includes competition in midgets and five other classes, is available at rumbleseries.com. Midget racing will begin at 7 p.m. Saturday and at 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets will be available at the door.