PERSISTENCE PAYS FOR COURAGEOUS TEAM MANAGER KUNZMAN
FORT WORTH, Texas, Sept. 16, 1998 -- A long time ago, Lee Kunzman discovered two things: One, he loved racing nearly as much as life itself; and two, it sometimes takes great courage to keep the love alive. Today, Kunzman is general manager for Hemelgarn Racing, which campaigns driver Buddy Lazier with the Pep Boys Indy Racing League. Kunzman and Lazier each realized a dream in 1996 when they put their car in victory lane at the Indianapolis 500. They currently ride seventh in IRL points, in the midst of a heated battle with just two races remaining on the schedule. It is a tight points race heading into the Lone Star 500 on Sept. 20 at Texas Motor Speedway, with a handful of points separating a number of drivers. Kunzman knows all about battles. He was once considered to be one of the most talented up-and-coming race drivers in America before two devastating accidents tested his will and desire to win. Kunzman, 52, began racing IMCA sprint cars in 1967, where he finished second in the points chase and earned Rookie of the Year honors. In late 1968 he moved up the ladder to USAC, racing both midgets and sprint cars, where he would eventually win 30 feature events. By late 1969, he had caught the attention of noted Indy-style car owner J.C. Agajanian, who put Kunzman in his backup car at Phoenix. Kunzman qualified seventh with no practice in his first outing in a rear-engine car. "I had no idea what I was doing," he said with a laugh today, "so in that case ignorance was bliss." But in June 1970, at I-70 Raceway in Missouri, the throttle on Kunzman's sprint car stuck wide open, causing his car to hit the concrete wall. Kunzman suffered multiple injuries that kept him out of race car for a year.
"When you're lying there in a hospital bed, you have a lot of time to think," Kunzman said. "You wonder if you can still do it. You're hurting?but after a while you're just thinking about when you can go racing again." One year after his accident, he returned to the cockpit weak and wondering if he still had what it took. It was a USAC midget event in Cincinnati, and when the day was finished Kunzman had capped an unlikely comeback by winning the first race he entered. He resumed his quest to drive Indy-style cars, but tragedy was again right around the corner. In December 1973, Kunzman was testing tires at the now-defunct Ontario Motor Speedway when an apparent mechanical failure caused him to hit the outside wall. Kunzman once again suffered numerous injuries. It would be two years before he would return to the cockpit of a race car. But he did indeed return to racing, eventually enjoying one of his strongest years in 1979 before retiring in 1980. When he ended his driving career, Kunzman realized he knew more about racing than anything else, so he sought to stay involved in the sport. He landed a job with Bobby Hillin's Longhorn Racing in 1981, which was later purchased by Chris Kniefel. Kunzman helped manage the team, and when Ron Hemelgarn acquired the team in late 1984, he and Kunzman clicked. In a sport that sometimes looks like a revolving door, Kunzman and Hemelgarn have become one of the most durable duos in championship racing. "I think the bottom line for Ron and I is honesty with each other, and trying to operate within our means," Kunzman said. "That's the best way to do it, keep it simple as possible with very little bull." Today, he relies on his days as a racer to help the team with setup and strategy. On race day, he still thinks like a race driver. "I was always the rabbit as a driver, I went for it right away," he said with a laugh. "I still feel that way ? sometimes I probably didn't use the best brain power, but I wanted to win. "When we're having problems with the car, I think I can understand some of the difficulties that (Buddy) is having. Plus, sometimes I can help with shortcuts on resolving problems." On a day-to-day basis, Kunzman oversees the Hemelgarn operation, dealing with preparation, scheduling, personnel and the like. It's a far cry from the exciting seat of a race car, but he insists he doesn't mind. "I try to not think about what didn't happen in my driving career," he said. "I'd rather be happy with what I've got. I think I was blessed to be in as good a shape as I am, really." It has been a long, tough road, but Lee Kunzman still has the passion that brought him to racing more than 30 years ago. And the courage to keep him there.