The first time I heard the name Mel Kenyon was in 1965 when I was watching a USAC Champ Car race from Langhorne, Pa.
(Yes, there was racing on the tube in the "olden days." And a lot more than I think we realized at the time.)
In any event, a car had crashed and was on fire. Several other drivers, who either had been involved in the accident or had just stopped to help (including several spectators who’d jumped a fence in the infield), went over to the wrecked race car to help the driver, who was unconscious. I can vividly remember the following scene.
One driver (since identified as Joe Leonard) went to stick his hand into the cockpit. He yanked it back suddenly as he felt the flame. Then he stuck his hand down in again. I thought he had to have been the bravest man alive. (Braver than Dick Tracy, as they used to say.) Then, some other people arrived with fire extinguishers and they put out the fire and pulled out the driver, who the announcer (I think it was Chris Economaki) identified as Mel Kenyon.
I read somewhere months later (auto racing news was hard to find in those days) that Kenyon had returned to racing but had lost most of his left hand in that accident. He was able to drive because of a "socket" glove created by his brother, Don, that he could jam onto a ball that was attached to the steering wheel.
I adored all the midget and sprint car drivers of that generation who managed to stay alive, and mostly whole, to make it to the mecca of motorsport, the Indianapolis 500. So I followed Kenyon’s career in the big race, which started for him in 1966 and went through 1974. He didn’t win, but he was frequently well-placed.
He had another close call in 1971. He lost control early in the 500 that year and hit the wall, coming to rest high in turn three. Thinking he was safe, he’d unbuckled his harness and was starting to exit the car when Gordon Johncock and Mario Andretti collided and Johncock’s car sailed right over Kenyon’s, leaving a mark on his helmet as he’d ducked back down into the cockpit.
It was Kenyon’s brush with death at Langhorne that got him thinking about his spirituality; his second brush in 1971 at Indy convinced him that God was indeed riding with him and Kenyon has been a devout Christian ever since.
Other than at Indy (and that includes Night Before the 500 midget races at Indianapolis Raceway Park that he drove in), I had the pleasure of watching Kenyon race midgets (and he was The Master of that class) at Flamoboro Speedway, near Hamilton, in 1971 (Bob Tattersall won the feature, just edging out Jimmy Carruthers with Kenyon third) and indoors at the Skydome in 1993 (Kenny Irwin was the winner; Kenyon wasn’t really in it).
I had a nice chat with him that time in ‘93. His wife, Marianne, had been grievously injured in a bicycle accident. I'd sent him a donation to help with medical expenses and he’d replied with a signed copy of Open Wheel magazine that contained a feature on him. That night at the Skydome, I asked him for an address for hard-luck Indy driver Jigger Sirois and he asked for my business card, saying he’d send it to me – which he did.
You know, there are so many race drivers who won’t give you the time of day. The class acts are the guys who look after the little things, like sending an address for another driver to a reporter.
The reason I’m rambling on like this today is because Mel Kenyon, 76, after driving racing cars for more than 50 years, officially retired at the Fort Wayne indoor races a week ago, on the Sunday of Christmas weekend.
He’d finished sixth in the Boxing Day feature but had missed qualifying on the Sunday. He was added to the field as a promoter’s option and eventually finished ninth.
"It’s over," Kenyon told a stringer for the newspaper, National Speed Sport News. "I’m glad we got in the feature. I’d have rather have gotten in lawfully but we were in it – and the car’s still in one piece.
"Any time you do something last, it’s one more miracle," he said. "It’s emotional."
Although he raced in other series, Kenyon’s reputation was cemented in the U.S. Auto Club midget series, which was – and probably remains – the benchmark for that class of racing.
He won seven USAC championships and was runner-up eight more times. In all, he won 111 USAC midget features, had 131 second-place finishes and was third 107 times.
In Fort Wayne, Kenyon simply said it was time for him to leave.
He goes out a satisfied man. He said this to racing journalist Robin Miller:
"I went to my 50th high school reunion and they asked how many of us were happy with our jobs. Out of 550, only six of us raised our hands."
-- It turns out that NASCAR'S Tony Stewart went racing sprint cars in Australia instead of midgets indoors at Fort Wayne. A racer's racer, Stewart likes to be anywhere wheels are turning and he's usually at the Fort Wayne indoor races, where Kenyon bid us all farewell. Stewart gets around but even he can't be two places at once.