Tommy Kendall retires from driving, but will still be active in other roles

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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.

Ben Hanley relieved to make Indy 500 debut

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Qualifying for the Indy 500 is never an easy task, especially for a new driver and team, and with 36 cars vying for 33 starting positions last weekend, 34-year-old rookie Ben Hanley knew there was a chance he and his DragonSpeed team would not make the show.

“I wouldn’t say we were very confident, but we wanted to [make the field],” Hanley told NBC Sports. “The biggest thing we were trying to achieve was to not be on track on Sunday in the shootout because it only takes one mistake or one little issue and that’s it, you’re not in the race.”

But Hanley would not have to worry about being bumped from the field. He qualified 27th after making three attempts on Day 1, which was enough to lock the No. 81 team into the show. Not too shabby for a driver and team making only their third NTT IndyCar Series start.

THE 103RD INDIANAPOLIS 500: Click here for how to watch, full daily schedules

“That last run everything just came together,” Hanley said. “We trimmed out a little bit more and found a good balance of trim and grip over four [qualifying] laps and it was enough to get us through.

“It was a huge relief to get through in P27. A massive achievement for everybody involved.”

Indeed it was a massive achievement, as DragonSpeed is one of the smallest teams in the garage, with no corporate sponsors and a tiny team of around 20 personnel. Many of those were picked up by the team just a week before qualifying, when members of the team’s regular crew were denied entry into the United States due to visa issues after leaving a sports car race in Italy.

“It was all down to the team organizing some people who were in and around Indianapolis who weren’t needed for the race weekend,” Hanley said. “Obviously, I don’t think many people are going to refuse the chance to work on a car that’s trying to qualify for the 500.”

Though the team made its first Indy 500 on Day 1 of qualifying, the DragonSpeed team did not spend Saturday night out late celebrating. Instead, Hanley said the extra time was spent preparing for the race.

“We went straight on to race prep then for the car, so Sunday was a good day for the guys to take time to prep the car into the race spec and get everything sorted out in a nice, organized manner.”

Following the Indy 500, DragonSpeed will run two other races this season at Road America and Mid-Ohio. The team is hopeful that a good run at Indy will result in an opportunity to run a bigger schedule next season and attract sponsors.

Hanley stated that though he’s happy to have made the Indy 500 starting grid for the first time in his career, the magnitude of his feat hasn’t hit him yet.

“It hasn’t really soaked in yet,” he said. “I think it will soak in on Sunday when we roll out to the grid.

“It was such a huge relief to not be involved in Bump Day. Even just watching [Bump Day] it was intense, especially with the weather. I couldn’t even imagine what it would be like to be involved in that.”

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