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« My chat with Bobby Unser | Main | Readers share recollections of racing at Marchbanks, Hanford »

My chat with racing legend Mel Kenyon

Mel Kenyon is best known for his brilliance as a midget driver, winning 111 USAC Midget races, seven USAC national titles and nearly 400 midget feature wins. It's with good reason he's known as the "King of the Midgets."

Mel Kenyon, left, and Thermo King teammate Art Pollard in 1967 promotional photoBut Kenyon also raced Champ Cars in three times at Hanford Motor Speedway in 1967-68, driving for Fred Gerhardt of Fresno. 

"I thought Hanford was a pretty nice racetrack," Kenyon told me in a telephone interview from his home in Lebanon, Ind. "It was smooth and you could see all the way around it. No trees -- not like Indy, where you can only see a straightaway at a time -- you could see all the way across it." 

Kenyon recalls the 1.4-mile Hanford tri-oval being a challenge to drive, like the similarly shaped Pocono.  

"Set-up was a challenge because of the three corners and the different degrees of banking, Kenyon said. "One was always good, one was medium and one was 'hang on!' " 

Kenyon finished in the top 10 in two of his three Hanford starts, with a best finish of 8th in the March 1968 race. Kenyon crashed in the November 1968 race, colliding with Johnny Rutherford on lap 32, but told me he had no recollection of the accident.

Kenyon earned $3,072 total in his three starts, of which he kept 40% as driver. "In those days, you were your own crew. You hired your own crew, paid your own expenses. But a dollar was a dollar back then, too."

He was sponsored by Thermo King the first two races at Hanford, but when they scaled back their race spending, Kenyon tapped some hometown relationships. His ride in the November 1968 race carried "City of Lebanon, Indiana" sponsorship.  Can you imagine that in this age of cash-poor municipalities? 

"I just asked the mayor ... (pause for effect) ... he was on my pit crew," Kenyon said, laughing. "They (Lebanon) got the ball rolling. That donation turned out well. I finished third at Indy later that year."

For those unfamiliar with Kenyon's amazing story, he was severely burned in a horrific Champ Car race at the infamous Langhorne in 1965. 

"The crash knocked me out; they (fellow drivers) bailed me out while I sat there cooking," Kenyon recalled.

Kenyon suffered third-degree burns over half his body.

"I lost the fingers and thumb on my left hand. I just had a palm, half a thumb and minor stubs," Kenyon said.

Using a special glove to help him hold the wheel, Kenyon returned to Champ Cars at Indianapolis 11 months later.

"Gerhardt gave me that Champ Car ride," Kenyon said, a relationship that would cover the next few seasons. "I helped build those cars in Fred's shop. Fred was a friend of the family."

Kenyon is in his mid-70s but remains active in motorsports, running and driving cars out of his shop in Lebanon. Once in your blood, racing is hard to escape.

RELATED STORIES: Read more about Marchbanks Speedway and Hanford Motor Speedway in my Marchbanks section, including the regularly updated "History of Marchbanks Speedway, aka Hanford Motor Speedway."

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