Somewhat quietly – in fact, based on a fan’s inquiry on Twitter – was the other half of the SRT Viper endurance race driver announcement broached. The announcement Ryan Hunter-Reay and Rob Bell would serve as SRT Motorsports’ endurance drivers in 2014 meant that Tommy Kendall, a sports car legend and veteran of the sport, will be retiring from driving. Ryan Dalziel, SRT’s other 2013 endurance driver, will race full time with the Extreme Speed Motorsports outfit in the 2014 TUDOR United SportsCar Championship.
Kendall, 47, attended the production car’s launch in April 2012, and then won in a shootout over some other qualified drivers to be named one of SRT’s race drivers for its return to racing with the new Viper. The car premiered at the Mid-Ohio American Le Mans Series race in August 2012.
“Talk about out of nowhere. When asked before, ‘Would you ever drive again,’ it was always a ‘qualified yes,’” Kendall explained to me in a 2012 interview. “I’d say, ‘Well no, I miss it, and I enjoy it, but I’m not missing it so much I’ll drop everything I’m doing to put it all together.
“Since that call (from Bill Riley), I’ve been working on my fitness, now here we are,” he added. “There’s the chance and it’s funny how things like that work. I pinch myself because here I am driving, arguably, the most beautiful sports car out there right now with a team like Riley, and the backing of SRT.”
Kendall drove the balance of the 2012 season and served as endurance race third driver at Sebring, Petit Le Mans and the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2013. All the while, Kendall continued to attend most events in an ambassadorial role for the SRT brand; that’s a role that is likely to expand going forward.
Kendall explained the decision in a phone call Sunday morning.
“I don’t look at it as bittersweet. You’d love to stay 25 forever and ever,” he said. “Last year I almost stopped. It was difficult to only drive every 3 months. So really it was best for all involved, to get someone super sharp in there, it was a win-win really.”
He also called his last start at Le Mans “kind of a victory lap” but expressed how fortunate he was to have that opportunity.
In his most successful and memorable race season, Kendall swept the first 11 races of the 13-race 1997 Trans-Am season en route to his third straight championship. His No. 11 All Sport Ford Mustang remains one of that series’ most iconic cars, and that 11-win total remains a series record.
Kendall was also a pioneer as one of the “NASCAR road race ringers,” making 14 career Sprint Cup starts from 1987 to 1998. His 1996 Sonoma start came in place of an injured Bill Elliott. An eighth place at Watkins Glen in 1990 marked his career best finish.
He’s also served as a color commentator to various broadcasts, primarily American open-wheel and some sports car races. His wit, insights and sense of humor have made him a fan favorite.
We wish “TK” well in all his new endeavors going forward, and we know we’ll still see him at a track.
— Tommy Kendall (@TommyKendall11) January 5, 2014