IRL: Jimmy Kite ready for his fourth run in the 500

IRL: Jimmy Kite ready for his fourth run in the 500

Indianapolis, May 23, 2003 - Jimmy Kite is back in the 500. A rookie in 1998, he made the race in 1998, 1999 and 2000. In 2001 and 2002, he was brought in by teams trying to make the field, but ran out of time each year. He had written off hopes...

Indianapolis, May 23, 2003 - Jimmy Kite is back in the 500. A rookie in 1998, he made the race in 1998, 1999 and 2000. In 2001 and 2002, he was brought in by teams trying to make the field, but ran out of time each year. He had written off hopes of being here this year, when he got the call from PDM Racing.

Jimmy Kite.
Photo by Earl Ma.
PDM is the team that brought him in last year to put their car into the field. They were progressing, but were cut short by rain before qualifying. Relaxing in Gasoline Alley after this year's Carburetion Day final practice, he felt a sense of completion. "We had worked together last year," he said, "and all year long we felt we had some unfinished business. We knew we should have been in the Indy 500 last year together. They felt like we worked so well together that when they were looking at drivers to put in it I was the first one that came to mind, so they called me. I was really ecstatic about that. I hope it keeps building and comes out Sunday as well as it has so far all month long."

Some would think it a little odd that Kite is the man a team would call for help. He's old school - comes from the USAC front engine upright world. Except for a quarter midget, he never drove a rear engine car until he stepped into Indy cars. Straight from Silver Crown into Indy cars. The biggest difference, he found, was the division of work between the car and the driver.

"You can't carry an Indy car like you can a USAC car," he explains. "There were a lot of us that came into the series from USAC got taught that lesson pretty hard.

"I would have loved for them to have had the Infiniti Pro Series around when I was coming up, as a stepping stone from USAC to the IRL. Silver Crown cars are so different from an Indy car. With a Silver Crown car, you get the car 80% right and you can carry it. You try to do that with an Indy car, and the next thing you know you're waking up in a hospital bed. You can't carry these cars like you can a Silver Crown car. It's not just learning the car. It's the mental part of it. USAC you run 100% the whole race long. These things you cruise 80% until you need to run at the end. Then you try to do the 95% to 100%.

"I've learned a lot about these cars and the way they react. Taking the small steps. Not having to work too fast too hard."

Jimmy Kite.
Photo by Kenneth Plotkin.
He gives much of the credit for what he has learned to Brad McCanless, who was his engineer in all but two of his prior Indy car races. "Back in '99, when I was running for McCormack, Brad stepped up from the crew chief to the engineer. He had a lot to learn, and obviously I had a lot to learn. Brad taught me a ton about the car. When we made a change, he'd come back and show me what we were changing, what it's going to do to the car. He really taught me a lot about the setups on the car. I've got to where I now feel comfortable enough in these cars that I can make decisions from the cockpit. They still make a lot of the decisions, but I've gotten to where I make some of the decisions on how much wing to put in or take out, or this or that to do. I owe all that to Brad."

PDM calling Jimmy in for help, and his knowledge at adjusting the car, flies in the face of an urban legend that Kite is a crasher.

That annoys him. Not so much as a personal insult, but as a dumb idea. He did have a rough rookie month back in 1998, and discovered that the Speedway is hard on rookies.

"That was my rookie year. If you're good here, they love you. If you're bad, it can be harsh. They forget about everybody else who's crashed three times in a month. Scott Sharp. Billy Boat. Eliseo Salazar. They don't remember those guys doing it. But they remember the rookies when they do it.

"Unfortunately, Little Foyt is going through the same thing this year. He's taken a lot of heat because of the incidents he's had.

"Bring up Billy Boat and Scott Sharp, and it's like "no big deal." Bring up my name, and it's 'Oh yeah - he's a crasher.' I did the same thing. The only difference is I did it as a rookie. Little Foyt did it as a rookie. You know, this place is harsh on rookies when you have bad luck like that."

If you look at the statistics, you quickly find that he has not crashed in a race since 1997.

Jimmy Kite.
Photo by Michael C. Johnson.
As a veteran, Kite understands the track itself. It's not an easy place. Railbirds hear 63 year old Mario Andretti say that it's not physically demanding, and they think it's easy. Jimmy has run enough tracks to tell the easy ones from the hard ones. And the difference between running hard and just running. And the difference between running by yourself and running among 32 other cars.

"It's easy to drive around this track," he acknowledges. "But it's harder to fast, and it's very hard to go really fast. You've got to have the right team, the right people, and the right feel. You've got to be able to take things slow. Then, just when you think you've got a handle on it, they put you in a pack of cars on Sunday and the car feels totally different because you have half the downforce on the car. It feels weird all day long. Sunday is when the car really gets funky and starts acting really strange."

The further back, the funkier it gets. This year Jimmy starts in the back row.

"You know by the time the air gets back to me there pretty much won't be any air on the front wings for the first couple of laps. I've already prepared myself for that. I've started toward the back before. I've just never started on the last row. Hopefully, everybody behaves the first couple of laps. It is a long race. I won't pass 20 cars in the first five laps.

"Robby McGehee is starting inside me. I've already told him 'Turn one, lap one I'm tucking in behind you.' I have no desire to go racing down into Turn One. We get 200 more tries at Turn One after that first one, so I'm in no rush."

Not that he's just going to hang around the back of the field.

"With the three guys starting on the front row you know they're going to be coming around in a hurry to start lapping cars. After a couple of laps, I really do need to get going and put as many cars between me and the leaders as I can."

Jimmy is ready for Sunday. His car is ready. The final practice went well. In fact, the only problem Carburetion Day was underestimating their speed. "The car was great. Balance on the car felt really great. I ran a couple of laps flat, wide open. Actually, we went faster than we thought we would. We were in the limiter pretty hard in sixth gear. We only ran 220, so we know we have to pick the gears up a little bit to go the faster speeds to hopefully hang up with the leaders."

And after the 500? He'll keep racing whatever he can. Since the season began, he has not had a weekend off. He thinks he'll take next weekend off, but then it's back to full time. He is already slated to run the rest of the pavement Silver Crown series. His next weekend off won't be until the fall. Weekends off aren't a big deal to him. Racing is. "I like driving race cars. I don't care - dirt, pavement, sprint cars, Indy cars, whatever it is. I enjoy it."

Be part of something big

Write a comment
Show comments
About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Robby McGehee , Eliseo Salazar , Scott Sharp , Billy Boat , Jimmy Kite , Mario Andretti